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Governor's Challenge: A rough primary season could draw national attention to Illinois' top race

In the wake of Illinois' 2002 election, pundits leaped headlong onto Rod Blagojevich's bandwagon. The three-term congressman from Chicago had just become the state's first Democrat to be elected governor in a quarter century.

Let's listen in on MSNBC commentator Chris Matthews:

"Rod was raised in a small apartment on Chicago's Northwest Side. He started shining shoes at age 9," Matthews said in a November 2002 post-election analysis. "He loved Teddy Roosevelt. He went to Northwestern and then law school. I met him a few years ago. He's a real go-getter who could be president some day, just like Teddy Roosevelt."

Three years later, enthusiasm for Blagojevich is more tempered. True, he won legislative approval to create a health insurance program for all Illinois children, he raised the minimum wage and he kept his pledge not to raise general state taxes. 

But to keep the state afloat and expand social programs, he has raised taxes and fees on businesses and tapped millions of dollars earmarked for public employee pensions. 

And while he has an overflowing campaign war chest, revelations about federal investigations of his administration's hiring practices have raised questions about the value of his political stock.

Analysts say that national Republican and Democratic leaders have, for now, largely turned their attentions to open-seat governor's races in other states, such as Ohio, which was a key swing state in the 2004 presidential election. Both parties are ready to step in behind candidates seeking to replace Republican Bob Taft, who is stepping down because of term limits.

There are three reasons the Land of Lincoln is not yet in play, analysts say: 

Illinois, with its vote for Democrat John Kerry in 2004 and its two Democratic U.S. senators, has become widely perceived as a so-called Blue State; Blagojevich has a large campaign account; and the GOP was unable to unite behind one candidate.

"The Republicans are playing defense in other states, defending those governorships. They would regard Illinois as a long shot. I just can't see them making a priority of it, even with Blagojevich looking kind of weak," says political scientist Brian Gaines of the Institute of Government and Public Affairs at the University of Illinois. "If [former Gov. Jim] Edgar had come in, it might be a different story."

Still, Washington Post columnist David Broder suggested in a January column that those who ignore Illinois' gubernatorial race might be missing something.

Broder, who cut his journalistic teeth as a reporter at the Bloomington Pantagraph, wrote that governors — not U.S. senators or representatives — are often closer to their constituents and exert more influence on presidential politics than their federal counterparts.

"The campaigns in Illinois, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio and Wisconsin will tell us more about the direction of the country and the shape of the 2008 presidential battleground than any of the battles for Capitol Hill," he wrote.

Jennifer Duffy, managing editor of the Washington D.C.-based Cook Political Report, allows that both parties may be watching Illinois from the sidelines for now, but they could become more active once the primary is over. 

What Republicans and Democrats will watch is how Blagojevich fares against Democratic challenger Edwin Eisendrath, a former Chicago alderman who didn't formally launch his bid until December. Eisendrath, a 47-year-old administrator at Kendall College in Chicago, is making Blagojevich's credibility an issue, saying he promised reform but is dogged by allegations that campaign contributors have received jobs and state contracts during his tenure.

"People are seeing a more vulnerable Rod Blagojevich than I anticipated," says Duffy. "The primary may serve to demonstrate some of those vulnerabilities."

In other words, if the governor emerges from the primary bloodied, Illinois could become a focal point on the national stage, drawing interest from Republicans hungry to pick up a seat and Democrats looking to hang on to what they have. 

Against the backdrop of a closely watched primary challenge between Blagojevich and Eisendrath, four Republicans are vying to gain the attention of Illinois voters as they hurtle toward the March 21 primary.

In December, after trying to woo Edgar into a reprise of his two terms as governor, state Treasurer Judy Baar Topinka waded into the crowded Republican field, seeking to send Blagojevich into early retirement. She entered the race on the assumption she is the front-runner. A GOP-sponsored poll in December showed her holding a 39- to 12-percent advantage over conservative Sugar Grove dairy magnate Jim Oberweis, loser of two previous statewide primaries for a seat in the U.S. Senate.

In addition to Topinka, there is Ron Gidwitz, the wealthy former chairman of the State Board of Education. And there is state Sen. Bill Brady, a Bloomington real estate developer and veteran of the General Assembly, who is emphasizing his conservative, downstate roots.

All four GOP contenders have spent more time shining a spotlight on Blagojevich's troubles than on their differences. 

They have grounds for doing so. An October 2005 poll by the Chicago Tribune, for example, showed that support for Blagojevich among registered voters was hovering below 40 percent, and only about one in three voters wanted to see the Democratic governor re-elected. A St. Louis Post-Dispatch/KMOV-TV poll in mid-January showed the governor with an undesirable 47 percent "favorable" rating among likely voters.

In her closing remarks at a Republican debate on January 25, Topinka told a crowd in Naperville, "Anybody here on this stage is better than Rod Blagojevich." She got no argument from Oberweis, Gidwitz or Brady.

Like Eisendrath, Republicans are targeting Blagojevich's ongoing troubles with federal investigators, who are probing the administration's hiring practices. But they also are trying to address their own, often fractious, internecine battles over abortion, taxes and gay marriage.

Hoping to bring the disparate elements together, Topinka and Gidwitz have linked up with lieutenant governor candidates who have strong ties to the party's conservative anti-abortion bloc. Gidwitz asked state Sen. Steve Rauschenberger of Elgin to be his informal running mate, while Topinka quickly convinced DuPage County State's Attorney Joe Birkett to run as a lieutenant governor candidate and campaign with her. Both Birkett and Rauschenberger had been considered potential gubernatorial candidates after running credible statewide races for attorney general and U.S. Senate, respectively.

In addition to answering to the factions within their own party, the Republican quartet must battle a perception of a party in disarray in the aftermath of the 2004 U.S. Senate race in which Republicans invited ultra-conservative commentator Alan Keyes into Illinois to lose badly to U.S. Sen. Barack Obama. And they must do so while former Republican Gov. George Ryan sits in a federal courtroom facing charges that he and his relatives accepted tens of thousands of dollars in gifts, cash and other bribes in exchange for state business contracts during his tenure as secretary of state and governor.

Each of the Republicans is trying to build a case that she or he is the best candidate to run against Blagojevich, whose tenure has been marked with high-profile legislative wins and questions about his ethics, thanks to the ongoing federal probe.

There are other talking points. Outside of Cook County, the message is that Blagojevich has moved state government to Chicago. Throughout the state, the message is that Blagojevich is more interested in burnishing his image and his poll numbers than in running state government.

Republicans point to failed Blagojevich initiatives on such issues as barring minors from buying violent video games, abolishing the state board of 

education and selling the state's main office building in Chicago. All of these ideas were either rebuffed by lawmakers or dumped for being unconstitutional, leaving the governor vulnerable to criticism that he's short on substance.

"You can't just go for a headline and walk away," says Topinka.

Despite what her opponents say about her connections to George Ryan and the GOP's old guard, Topinka has a resumé that appears to give her front-runner status in the Republican field.

The 62-year-old is the only candidate to win statewide office, and she served as chairwoman of the Illinois Republican Party. She also has the backing of Edgar, who remains among the party's most popular figures, as well as U.S. Rep. Ray LaHood, a Peoria Republican who is a pragmatic voice in the party's hierarchy.

Edgar foreshadowed Topinka's message in early November, saying he believes Illinoisans are unhappy with Blagojevich's tenure. "People from all walks of life throughout the state have expressed to me their frustration and unhappiness with the current direction of the state." 

After months of trying to lure Edgar into the race — a move she believed essentially would clear the field for a head-to-head matchup against Blagojevich — Topinka announced her own plans to run for the top spot.

In comments immediately after she launched her campaign, she addressed the Republican hot-button issue of abortion, saying she supports a woman's right to choose, with "some commonsense restrictions." For example, she would sign off on a plan requiring parental consent for minors seeking abortions and would ban so-called partial-birth abortions.

If that wasn't enough to anger conservatives, she refused to make a pledge not to raise taxes and reiterated her support for anti-discrimination laws for gays.

Her response: "I'm not the candidate from central casting."

Topinka's role overseeing the state's investments has given her a front-row view of the fiscal policies of three governors. Of those, she has saved her most vocal criticism for Democrat Blagojevich, who she says has generated too much long-term debt in his first three years in office.

She says she would try to spur investment in Illinois through targeted tax breaks and investment incentives and attempt to rein in the state's spending practices to free up more money for schools.

"We waste money in this state like crazy," she says.

At the same time, Topinka also has faced scrutiny over her handling of a long-running state-backed loan dispute with the politically connected owners of two hotels, one in Collinsville, the other in Springfield.

In 1995, Topinka said she wanted to cut the state's losses, and offered the owners — including Republican fundraiser William Cellini of Springfield — a chance to clear $40 million in debt for $10 million. Topinka scrapped the plan after it was blocked by then-Attorney General Jim Ryan's office. 

The issue remains the subject of legal challenges.

By bringing Birkett on board, Topinka is hoping to blunt charges she is too moderate. She also is looking to his law-and-order credentials.

On the issue of the hotel deal, for instance, Birkett, a prosecutor, says Topinka has run an "honest administration."

"Judy has a record of integrity across the state," says Birkett. 

Among Topinka's most vocal critics is Oberweis, chairman of the family-owned Oberweis Dairy in North Aurora and the president of a mutual fund and money management firm who lost primary bids for the U.S. Senate in 2002 and 2004. Backed by such conservative activists as Jack Roeser and his Family Taxpayers Network, Oberweis has pledged not to raise taxes and to roll back tax and fee hikes imposed by Blagojevich during his first year in office.

Oberweis, 59, is carrying the conservative mantle after initially coming out in favor of abortion rights during his failed 2002 campaign for the U.S. Senate. At that time, he was supportive of abortion rights, saying government should not impose religious beliefs on its people. He switched his position for his 2004 Senate run and is now sticking with it. He also is strongly against gay marriage.

On budget issues, he says he would lift the tax and fee hikes imposed on businesses during Blagojevich's first term. He also promotes the theory that less government intrusion will trigger investment by businesses, which will generate more revenue for schools. 

He supports school vouchers, home-schooling initiatives and changing teacher tenure laws.

During his 2004 campaign, his television ads — paid partly through nearly $2 million of his own money — drew the scorn of immigration experts when he warned that 10,000 illegal immigrants were crossing into the United States on a daily basis.

In 2004, he picked up 23 percent of the vote, coming in second to Jack Ryan. Party leaders passed him over for Alan Keyes when Ryan exited the race after it was disclosed he took his former wife to sex clubs during their marriage.

Roeser's backing of Oberweis with $200,000 in contributions from two PACs has brought some scrutiny. The two committees have been fined a total of $61,000 by state election regulators for missing filing dates — a situation that has raised questions among campaign watchdogs about Oberweis' efforts to cast himself as a reform candidate.

Gidwitz, 60, has pledged to spend whatever it takes to win. But, despite buying more than $2 million in television advertisements beginning last summer, early poll numbers have not shown him gaining traction.

Like Topinka, Gidwitz has faced the challenge of distancing himself from George Ryan, who appointed him chairman of the State Board of Education in the late 1990s.

Gidwitz describes himself as "pro-choice" and once gave money to an abortion rights group. But he says he also favors requiring parental consent in the case of teen pregnancies.

Although he's a major contributor to Republican politicians — he's contributed more than $1 million to candidates since 1998 — Gidwitz also has given money to Democrats, including Chicago Mayor Richard Daley.

In December, hoping to downplay claims that his stance on abortion makes him too moderate to win the primary, he convinced the more conservative Rauschenberger to run for lieutenant governor as a team.

Gidwitz has played the reform card, too, accusing Blagojevich of fostering a "pay-to-play" atmosphere in Springfield by allegedly awarding lucrative state contracts to campaign contributors.

"Gov. Blagojevich ran on a platform of ending business as usual. But by all accounts, it's business worse than usual," Gidwitz says, pointing to a series of federal subpoenas and Blagojevich's acknowledgment that he has spoken with federal investigators.

He won't pledge not to raise taxes, but he says he can avoid it, if elected, by restructuring corporate taxes, which he says would result in job growth.

Like his colleagues, he says eliminating government waste and increasing revenue through business growth could provide solutions to spending inequities between poor and rich school districts. He also has expressed support for school vouchers in cases where parents want to send their children to less-crowded schools. Hoping to strike a middle-of-the-road stance on gun control, Gidwitz wants to extend the federal ban on assault weapons while lifting Chicago's ban on handguns. He opposes gay marriages but is not opposed to civil unions. He also favors the death penalty but is undecided about whether to lift a moratorium on executions.

Brady, 44, is at the midpoint of his first full term in the Senate. That means he can run and lose and still remain in the seat he has held since 2002, following the departure of his political mentor, former state Sen. John Maitland of Bloomington. Brady, who also served in the House from 1993 through 2000, had been out of politics for two years after he lost a congressional primary race to represent central Illinois' 15th District.

As a lawmaker, Brady has a conservative voting record on social and financial issues, including opposition to abortion and taxes. In a nod to the gun lobby, he says he would do away with the state's Firearm Owner's Identification card.

If elected, Brady says he would phase out Blagojevich's All Kids health insurance program, an initiative that was approved with scant Republican support. The plan, which has won Blagojevich kudos among Democrats on a national level, will go into effect July 1 — despite Republican concerns during debate last fall that there is no way to tell how much the program will cost. 

Like his campaign colleagues, Brady says he would eliminate $300 million in tax and fee hikes imposed on businesses during Blagojevich's first year in office.

Brady and Blagojevich shared the stage earlier in the governor's term, voicing their shared plan to ax the State Board of Education. The governor's effort failed, but Brady says he would resurrect the idea on the theory that gutting the bureaucracy would free up millions of dollars for local school districts.

Vying with Gidwitz as the major Republican candidate least known to most voters (Andy Martin, a GOP activist, also is running), Brady was counseled by party leaders to run for an office lower on the ticket, but he says he believes he has the momentum needed to overcome his more well-known and well-heeled opponents.

"We will have a well-financed campaign," says Brady.

He also says the pairings of Topinka with Birkett and Gidwitz with Rauschenberger are a case of the candidates trying to be "everything to everybody."

"There is no mixed message here," says Brady.

He says he caught a break in Rauschenberger's exit from the race, which left him as the lone candidate with experience in the state Senate. He also is hoping to tap into voter discontent in areas outside of Chicago, saying he is the only downstate candidate.

All four have expressed support for lifting a moratorium on executions in Illinois.

Against the backdrop of the four-way Republican battle, Blagojevich will have his own primary race to contend with as he ends his first term in office. 

Yet, while other candidates began outlining their positions in the fall, Blagojevich, 49, refused to formally announce his candidacy for re-election, saying he was too busy governing the state to trifle with a campaign.

In speeches throughout the state, the governor has emphasized his All Kids health insurance plan and his ability to keep the state operating during down fiscal times without raising taxes as examples of his success as a chief executive.

His message, however, continues to be clouded by a federal probe into allegations that campaign contributors have received jobs or contracts. That problem was brought into focus again in January after he proposed adding keno to the state lottery. Within days of unveiling the plan, newspapers reported that two members of his kitchen Cabinet were employed as lobbyists for companies that run keno games in other states. Blagojevich has nearly abandoned the reformer message of his successful 2002 campaign.

Eisendrath, vice president of academic affairs at Kendall College in Chicago, has tried to capitalize on Blagojevich's woes. He has raised questions about the governor's fundraising practices and a scandal at the state Teachers Retirement System, which resulted in federal indictments of Blagojevich contributors.

Blagojevich has returned campaign contributions from three men involvedin the scheme to leverage money from investment firms doing business with the state-run pension system, but Eisendrath says he hasn't done enough.

"The governor's fundraising scandals continue to undermine trust in the pension system and erode confidence in government," says Eisendrath.

In addition to serving as a Chicago alderman from 1987 to 1993, Eisendrath unsuccessfully ran for Congress in 1990 against Sidney Yates and served as a regional director in the Department of Housing and Urban Development during President Bill Clinton's administration. Among his tasks was overseeing the demolition of troubled housing projects in Chicago.

Eisendrath appeared on the scene in December with no known campaign organization, but a belief that Blagojevich is weak on the issue of ethics.

He argues that Blagojevich has transformed many state workers into his own personal public relations machines by requiring, for example, parole agents to distribute leaflets promoting the governor. "They've built a wall around the truth." 

Eisendrath favors strict controls on gun ownership and won't take a pledge not to raise taxes.

Despite Eisendrath's presence in the race, behavior on the Democratic side of the primary appears to be relatively civil compared to the Republican infighting. Early on, Blagojevich sealed the support of House Speaker Michael Madigan, who is head of the Democratic Party of Illinois, and Senate President Emil Jones Jr., the governor's most reliable ally in the legislature. The two General Assembly leaders, who have wide influence over Democratic politics in Illinois, are co-chairing the governor's re-election campaign.

Eisendrath acknowledges that he faces long odds. "I've told everyone this will be a rough ride." 

Gaines, the U of I political scientist, says the trip will be rocky for whoever wins the Republican primary. "The national party would regard it as an uphill race," Gaines says. "It would just be a pure bonus if one of these candidates put together a perfect storm and knocked Blagojevich out." 

Kurt Erickson covers state government and politics for Lee News Service, which has newspapers in the Quad Cities, DeKalb, Bloomington, Decatur, Mattoon, Charleston and Carbondale.

 

Rod Blagojevich 
Democrat 
Elected governor in 2002 after three terms in Congress and two terms in the Illinois House
Age: 49
Web site: RodforIllinois.com

Edwin Eisendrath
Democrat 

Administrator at Kendall College in Chicago. Alderman from Chicago's 43rd Ward from 1987 to 1993. Unsuccessful bid for Congress in 1990. Served in Clinton Administration
Age: 47
Web site: Eisendrath2006.com

Bill Brady
Republican 

State senator since 2002. Member of Illinois House from 1993 to 2000. Unsuccessful bid for Congress in 2000. 
Real estate developer
Age: 44
Web site: Citizensforbillbrady.com

Ron Gidwitz
Republican 

Chicago businessman. Former CEO of Helene Curtis and former chairman of the Illinois State Board of Education 
Age: 59 
Web site: Ron2006.com

Jim Oberweis
Republican 

Owner of North Aurora-based Oberweis Dairy. Ran unsuccessful races for U.S. Senate in 2002 and 2004 
Age: 59 
Web site: OberweisforIllinois.com

Judy Baar Topinka
Republican 

Three-term state treasurer. 
Former state senator. Former chairwoman of the Illinois Republican Party 
Age: 62 
Web site: Judyforgov.com


 

llinois Issues, March 2006

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