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Illinois Issues
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Politics: Old-fashioned politicking can still trump media-based campaigns

Charles N. Wheeler III
WUIS/Illinois Issues

In the traditional Christian calendar, March 19 is the feast day of St. Joseph, the patron saint of workers. Thus, perhaps one should have expected that organized labor and party machinery would play key roles in last month’s primary election.

Indeed, the results of the March 19 voting demonstrated that old- fashioned politicking can still trump media-based campaigns, even in the 21st century.

Consider, for example, the high- profile races for party nominations for governor.

Attorney General Jim Ryan, the choice of establishment Republicans, withstood a blistering barrage of negative campaign spots from state Sen. Patrick O’Malley on the right and Lt. Gov. Corinne Wood on the left to emerge with the GOP nomination. Unofficial results had Ryan pulling 45 percent of the statewide vote, to O’Malley’s 28 percent and Wood’s 27 percent. The list of Ryan’s prominent backers included former Govs. Jim Edgar and Jim Thompson, U.S. House Speaker Dennis Hastert and state Senate President James “Pate” Philip; perhaps more important were the more than 5,000 foot soldiers deployed on election day to make sure Ryan supporters got to the polls.

O’Malley carried his southwest suburban Senate district against Ryan, but got hammered by almost 30,000 votes overall in suburban Cook County. Ryan also took Wood’s home county of Lake by about 1,000 votes over the lieutenant governor.

The three-way gubernatorial primary was unusual for Republicans, who prefer the genteel passing of the baton from the incumbent to a designated successor, and the intensity of the attacks O’Malley and Wood leveled at Ryan was ferocious even by Demo-crats’ standards. Indeed, Democrats might wish to purchase the rights to some of the ads Ryan’s foes aired. How about O’Malley accusing Ryan of looking the other way while the bribes-for-licenses scandal unfolded at the secretary of state’s office? Or a Wood spot contending the attorney general is too extreme in his opposition to abortion, or another suggesting Ryan takes kickbacks from outside lawyers he hires to do state work?

Attorney General Jim Ryan, the choice of establishment Republicans, withstood a blistering barrage of negative campaign spots to emerge with the GOP nomination.

On the Democratic side, U.S. Rep. Rod Blagojevich relied on solid union support and strong backing from downstate party organizations to win the nomination. The third-term congressman snagged 37 percent of the statewide vote to edge former Chicago public schools CEO Paul Vallas, at 34 percent, and former state attorney general and comptroller Roland Burris, at 29 percent. Blagojevich finished third in Chicago, some 65,000 votes behind Burris and 5,000 behind Vallas. The congressman lost suburban Cook and the collar counties to Vallas by about 80,000 votes. But Blagojevich buried Vallas by 111,000 votes in the other 96 counties, winning 56 percent of the downstate vote.

Blagojevich’s huge margin downstate seemed to answer several questions pundits chewed over for months. One was whether someone with such an ethnic-sounding surname could fare well outside Chicago. Blagojevich put his roots to good use in TV spots that linked his immigrant, blue-collar background to his commitment to working families, and Democrats responded. 

Another was how much Vallas would benefit downstate from the endorsement of 1998 Democratic nominee Glenn Poshard, who four years ago captured an amazing 91 percent of the primary vote in southern Illinois. Icon status apparently can’t be bequeathed, however; Vallas pulled only 25 percent of the southern Illinois vote, to Blagojevich’s 55 percent, losing even Poshard’s home county to the congressman.

Also critical to Blagojevich’s success downstate was an overflowing campaign warchest that allowed him to be on the airwaves for months before Vallas could slip in a few days’ worth of spots.

But neither dollars alone, nor the TV time they can buy, will guarantee a win, as two well-heeled political newcomers discovered in their bids for the GOP nomination for the U.S. Senate. The Republican victor, state Rep. Jim Durkin, took 46 percent of the vote, despite being outspent nearly three- to-one by dairy owner James Oberweis, who finished with 31 percent, and attorney John Cox, who polled 23 percent. Durkin had the backing of Edgar, Thompson and most of the rest of the party hierarchy in his bid to take on Democratic U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin.

Similarly, establishment favorite Joe Birkett, the DuPage County state’s attorney, easily won the GOP nomin-ation for attorney general by a 64-36 margin over attorney Bob Coleman, whose TV spots parodying politicians were a welcome relief from the usual diet of attack ads, but failed to translate into votes.

On the Democratic side, an impressive display of political might and union muscle propelled state Sen. Lisa Madigan, daughter of House Speaker Michael Madigan, to a 195,000-vote victory over John Schmidt, a former U.S. Justice Department official, for the Democratic nomination for attorney general.

On the Democratic side, U.S. Rep. Rod Blagojevich relied on strong union support and strong backing from downstate party organizations to win the nomination.

The November matchup between Birkett and Madigan is likely to feature radically different views of what the office is all about. Birkett seems to envision a state’s attorney’s office on steroids, a pumped-up law enforcement agency; Madigan seems to imagine a people’s ombudsman, helping everyday citizens set upon by special interests. Fortunately, the constitution is vague enough to cover whichever job description voters prefer.

For lieutenant governor, Republicans nominated Ryan’s pick, state Sen. Carl Hawkinson, while Democrats chose former state Treasurer Pat Quinn in a rare setback for party and union leaders, most of whom backed educator F. Michael Kellehe Jr., who finished a distant third.

Quinn aside, every other nominee for statewide office was the choice of party leaders, and, in the case of Democrats, organized labor as well. Precinct-level workers, campaign field organizations and union phone banks delivered the vote for the favored candidates. No doubt St. Joseph was pleased by their industry.


Charles N. Wheeler III is director of the Public Affairs Reporting program at the University of Illinois at Springfield.

Illinois Issues,April, 2002

The former director of the Public Affairs Reporting (PAR) graduate program is Professor Charles N. Wheeler III, a veteran newsman who came to the University of Illinois at Springfield following a 24-year career at the Chicago Sun-Times.
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