In August, Jill Bernal said she met with state Democratic Party officials in a Peoria union hall.
The La Salle County Board member, who is running for state representative, said party leaders asked whether she supports Chicago's Michael Madigan, the longtime House speaker and chairman of the state Democratic Party.
She said she couldn't make that promise.
"I had never met him and don't know him, but I certainly would not promise to agree on everything he wanted. They asked me the question three times, and I gave them the same answer," said Bernal, a registered nurse. "They said they would look for someone to face me in the primary. I feel they wanted me to support the speaker on everything."
In late November, Ottawa union official Lance Yednock entered the race for the 76th House District, which includes most of La Salle County.
In an interview this week, Bernal, a Peru resident, gave a timeline for the state Democratic Party's effort to convince her to leave the race. She is facing Yednock in Tuesday's Democratic primary; the winner will run against Rep. Jerry Long, R-Streator, who was elected in 2016.
Not leaving race
Bernal, who announced she was running last spring, said she got her first phone call from a Democratic official urging her to leave the race on Nov. 21. It was a few days before she filed her nominating papers.
She said the leader asked whether she was prepared to run against a billionaire. That was an apparent reference to wealthy Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner, who heavily funds the state GOP, which largely bankrolled Long's 2016 campaign.
"I continued to say I wasn't getting out of the race," Bernal said.
On Dec. 1, she said a Democratic state representative asked her to leave the race. After the holidays, she received a series of calls with the same request. Her answer stayed the same.
On Jan. 15, Bernal said she met with Yednock and a high-ranking state official at a Spring Valley attorney's office. The official did most of the talking, while Yednock was "very quiet," Bernal said. She again was asked to end her campaign.
"They said they would pay for my campaign expenses that I incurred up to that point in the race," Bernal said.
She stayed in the race.
Once the deadline passed for candidates to withdraw, the calls and meetings stopped.
Madigan's spokesman, Steve Brown, said he had not heard of either Yednock or Bernal.
"I'm not aware anyone has been endorsed," he said.
Yednock released a statement about Bernal's allegations
"I don't know anything about Ms. Bernal's negotiations with Speaker Madigan. I don’t know Speaker Madigan," Yednock said. "Ms. Bernal and I did sit down together with a representative from the Democratic State Central Committee to discuss efforts to elect a Democrat to this seat. Electing a representative who will stand up for our middle-class families has been my one and only goal since declaring my candidacy."
He said he respects Bernal's right to make her case to voters, "just as I've been doing throughout the campaign."
'Let people decide'
So far, Yednock has claimed endorsements from Democrat-allied unions and received nearly $200,000 in donations, mostly from organized labor.
Bernal said the state party shouldn't take sides in a local primary.
"The people of the 76th District should decide this," she said. "I told them to let me run my race and let the people decide."
She said she would vote against Madigan as speaker. It's been years since any Democratic representative has voted against Madigan; one abstained in 2017.
"Going door to door, I don't even have to ask people about the speaker. They overwhelmingly tell me that we need new leadership in Springfield. I don't hear about the governor. I hear about the speaker," she said. "I'm not afraid to vote no on the speaker. That's based on what I'm hearing from the people."
The political system would produce more genuine candidates, Bernal said, if there were term limits and limits on campaign expenditures.
"People deserve to know what's going on behind the scenes," she said.
A 'political machine'?
For nearly a quarter century, the 76th seat was held by Frank Mautino, D-Spring Valley, one of Madigan's top lieutenants.
When Mautino resigned to become state auditor general — a job he endorsed by Madigan — local Democrats replaced him with La Salle County Circuit Clerk Andy Skoog. That was after the state party vetted a number of interested candidates, including Bernal.
In the 2016 campaign, both Long and Skoog fought off accusations they were at the mercy of their state party organizations.
In early November 2015, Long and two state GOP officials met with Long's primary opponent, Jacob Bramel, at an Ottawa bar. They asked Bramel to leave the race in return for the possibility of job opportunities.
Bramel refused and went to The Times to go public about the meeting, accusing Long of bowing to the "political machine."
Skoog received most of his campaign money from the state Democratic Party and allied union organizations. During his campaign, Skoog tried to avoid discussing Madigan, whom critics see as the symbol of Chicago machine politics.
Running on the slogan "Defeat the Madigan Machine," Long won with 51 percent of the vote.