At least some guests who arrived last week to a $100-per-person fundraiser for GOP congressional candidate RODNEY DAVIS at Saputo’s restaurant in downtown Springfield had to make their way past sign-carrying picketers.

At least some guests who arrived last week to a $100-per-person fundraiser for GOP congressional candidate RODNEY DAVIS at Saputo’s restaurant in downtown Springfield had to make their way past sign-carrying picketers.

It turns out that the picketers were from an organization called Action Now Illinois, which recently opened an office at 3 W. Old Capitol Plaza. A news release says members of the group wanted to ask Davis “where he stands on a number of issues, such as cuts to social services, tax breaks for the 1 percent, and raising the minimum wage.”

CHRIS BLANKENHORN, 27, who was born in Springfield, graduated from Petersburg PORTA High School and recently got his political science degree from the University of Illinois Springfield, was hired as Action Now’s Springfield organizer. He said the office opened in April. The group has hired about 10 canvassers at $12 per hour to go door to door to identify concerns and build the organization’s base, Blankenhorn said. He said that activity has been in east-side neighborhoods, which has economic challenges.

MADELINE TALBOTT, 62, of Chicago is lead organizer of the 4-year-old, Chicago-based Action Now. She said its recent expansion into Springfield, as well as Peoria and Moline, is a way to see “whether it’s possible to develop the resources to support expansion of the organization downstate.”

While she agreed with the characterization that those outposts are in a “trial period,” she also said, “We’d like to stay forever. So it’s really a question of what the response is in the community and whether or not we can find the resources to do that.”

Issues being pushed by the group include a higher minimum wage, more school funding and rehabilitation of vacant property. She also said the group aims to get more “regular people” to ask candidates questions.

One of those people, Springfield resident SONYA TRADER, 35, a private caregiver for two Alzheimer’s patients, held a sign outside Saputo’s that said “Support Local Communities.” She asked Davis if he supported the budget plan put forth by U.S. Rep. PAUL RYAN, R-Wis. Democrats criticize Ryan’s budget, which has been passed by the GOP-dominated House, for cutting social services, but Ryan promotes it as a way to get government spending under control.

Davis “flat out ignored me,” Trader said. She ended up following him into the restaurant and saying the Ryan budget is “like a death sentence to senior citizens.” A video taken by someone with the organization was posted on YouTube.

“We are not the ‘gotcha’ people,” Talbott said later, saying the camera was turned on only when it became clear Davis wouldn’t answer the question. While there are other videos on YouTube of people approaching Davis with questions, Talbott said her organization has done only the Saputo’s tape.

Davis took time from his fundraiser guests to answer my questions. He said he “had a good conversation” with the group outside the restaurant. I asked about the Ryan budget.

“I like a lot of things that have been proposed in Washington, the Ryan budget included,” he said. “But the fact is, until I get to Washington, I’m not going to know exactly what piece of legislation we’re going to discuss. So I’m not going to pin myself into a corner and say I’m for something that may never even be debated when I get to Congress.” He said he does like “good things about the Ryan budget,” including “making sure that we keep taxes low and control the national debt.” He said he would like to extend the so-called Bush tax cuts “forever.”

“Let’s give small businesses certainty,” he said,  so they can “hire new people.”

Asked if millionaires need tax cuts, Davis said, “I’m for lower taxes for everyone. I’m for actually creating a tax code that’s simpler and fairer.”

But he also said he wouldn’t take the no-tax pledge put forward by anti-tax activist GROVER NORQUIST.

“I’m not going to sign any pledges,” Davis said. “When people sign pledges, it gives control to Washington power brokers. … They lord a piece of paper over you on legislation.”

Davis faces Democrat DAVID GILL, an emergency room doctor from Bloomington, in the new 13th Congressional District. Talbott and Blankenhorn both said Democratic candidates as well as Republicans will face questions from Action Now members.

Talbott didn’t immediately reveal funding sources for Action Now, saying disclosure of donors is dependent on “how much they want to share,” because Action Now is “fighting for the 99 percent” and “our work can be controversial.” Membership lists are also kept confidential, she said.

But annual reports that labor organizations have to file with the federal government show that Service Employees Healthcare Illinois, a local of the Service Employees International Union, gave Action Now $150,000 in 2011. The Service Employees Leadership Council gave $70,000 and Service Employees National Headquarters gave $35,976.

Talbott did say that her organization shares downtown Chicago office space with the health-care group. She also said, after checking, that another $22,500 came to the Action Now Institute, a tax-exempt arm of her organization, from the National Employment Law Project. That money, to be used to promote the minimum-wage issue, was a subgrant. The money originally went to the law project group from the Ford Foundation, she said.

Talbott earlier was head organizer for Illinois ACORN, the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now. That national network of organizations working to help the poor disbanded after a bunch of negative publicity kicked off in 2009 by release of videos that allegedly showed conservative activists disguised as a pimp and prostitute getting ACORN help to avoid taxes. Later investigations found those videos were heavily edited, but ACORN ended up disbanding anyway.

Talbott said she and others in Illinois left ACORN in 2008 because they didn’t like its move toward  “increased centralization and a national organization.”

“It was really not related to anything that you later saw on Fox or the right-wing media,” she said.

Springfield Ward 3 Ald. DORIS TURNER, who also chairs Sangamon County Democrats, said she has spoken with several Action Now members, some of whom also are involved with Occupy Springfield.

“I like their approach,” Turner said. “Instead of coming into a neighborhood and making assumptions about the residents, they took the time to walk various neighborhoods and actually speak one on one with residents.”

Turner is participating with Action Now in a community activity — a neighborhood cleanup and free store that starts at 9 a.m. Saturday at Jaycee Park, Monroe Street and White City Boulevard. The cleanup will be followed by a barbecue and giveaway of household items or nonperishable food that people are invited to bring to the event.

Bernard Schoenburg is political columnist for The State Journal-Register. He can be reached at 788-1540 or follow him via twitter.com/bschoenburg. His email address is
bernard.schoenburg@sj-r.com.