Suburban congressional candidate Keith Pekau is taking heat for accepting an award from a group that called sex education standards “perverse” and has made transphobic social media posts.
Pekau, the mayor of Orland Park and the Republican nominee in Illinois’ 6th Congressional District, received an Advancing Freedom Award from Awake Illinois in March for what the Naperville-based group called “his leadership during the COVID-19 pandemic.” Pekau and the village board refused to enforce any mask or vaccination mandates from Gov. J.B. Pritzker.
Awake Illinois also added Pekau to its list of “Warriors” -- people it says are “effecting positive change in their communities and throughout the state” -- and it promoted his congressional candidacy.
Pekau went on to win the GOP nomination in June. He’ll face incumbent Democrat Sean Casten of Downers Grove in the Nov. 8 general election.
Pekau’s acceptance of the award and his opposition to Pritzker’s mandates drew barbs Wednesday from Casten’s campaign.
“Not only did Keith Pekau jeopardize the lives of his constituents throughout the pandemic, but he accepted an award from far-right extremists thanking him for ignoring public health officials,” deputy campaign manager Jacob Vurpillat said.
Pekau’s association with Awake Illinois also was criticized by Equality Illinois, a group that advocates for LGBTQ rights.
“No candidate or public official should ever engage with and encourage hate groups that target marginalized communities and people,” Communications Director Myles Brady Davis said. “Those are not Illinois values.”
Pekau’s campaign declined to comment.
On its website, Awake Illinois says it aims to empower people “to elevate their voices on topics of education, equality, legislation, civic involvement and social welfare causes.”
In recent weeks, Awake Illinois targeted the UpRising Bakery and Cafe in Lake in the Hills for planning a family-friendly drag show. “They’re coming for your kids, McHenry County,” the group tweeted July 13.
In a later tweet, the group labeled the show a “perverted event” and encouraged people to “respectfully share their opinions/disgust.”
The event was canceled after the bakery was vandalized. An Alsip man since has been charged with committing a hate crime and criminal damage to property.
Additionally, in June, the group called Gov. J.B. Pritzker “a groomer” for signing a law calling for comprehensive sexual health education standards for sixth- through 12th-graders and personal health and safety education standards for younger students.
The group criticized sex education in a Facebook post on Wednesday, too. “We need to work together to save the children from ideological and perverse predation,” it wrote.
Group members also have opposed anti-racist and anti-bias training for teachers.
When asked about those comments and positions, Vurpillat said, “Hate has no home in Illinois.”
“If Keith Pekau agrees with that sentiment, he’ll disavow Awake Illinois and their history of homophobia and racism,” Vurpillat said.
Chicago mayoral candidate Paul Vallas also criticized Awake Illinois this week, more than a month after participating in a discussion about education issues the group sponsored. Vallas said he wasn’t aware of its “hateful rhetoric” when he accepted the invitation.
Awake Illinois leaders didn’t respond to interview requests.
The 6th District includes parts of Cook and DuPage counties.