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Pappas tosses her baton into Senate ring

November 10, 2003

BY SCOTT FORNEK Staff Reporter

She still does a mean baton-twirling act, prides herself on her piano and clarinet skills and once regularly carted her toy poodle around in her purse.

But make no mistake. Democrat Maria Pappas warns all she is deadly serious about her bid for the U.S. Senate.

"I'm going to go out and do what I do best: win," Pappas says. "I'm a very, very, very hard campaigner."


Favorite childhood TV show: "Ozzie & Harriet."
Last movie seen: "Seabiscuit."
What's in her CD player? "258 CDs from all over the world. . . . I have everything ranging from Gregorian chants to the Messiah to American pops to Gloria Estefan to 'Soft Piano Portraits' to . . . Chicago Symphony Orchestra to the original soundtrack of 'My Fair Lady,' 'Funny Girl,' 'Madonna's Greatest Hits,' Tony Bennett's duets."
Childhood nickname: "Papoose on the loose."
Favorite pig-out food: "Anything that will sit still long enough for me to eat it. . . . Allen Brothers filet mignon."
First car: "An orange Camaro, 1972 or '73."
Political heroes: "Margaret Thatcher, because she was able to maintain reasoned thinking in an unreasonable situation."

After months as the potential wild card, the Cook County treasurer made it official Sunday and dealt herself into the U.S. Senate race, declaring she is the best candidate because "I get it, and I can get it done."

Pappas kept repeating that mantra as she announced her candidacy in the West Huron Street warehouse where Marilyn Miglin turns out her cosmetics.

"I've been waiting all my life to make this speech,'' Pappas said, portraying herself as a West Virginia child of humble origins who came to Chicago in 1972 and made good through education and hard work.

Pappas, 54, a lawyer and former psychologist, immediately rises to the top tier of Democrats seeking to replace outgoing Republican Sen. Peter Fitzgerald.

Most public opinion polls on the crowded Democratic side of the race show Pappas in second place behind state Comptroller Dan Hynes, although anywhere from a third to half of voters are generally undecided.

A Greek American, Pappas could pull white ethnic voters from Hynes, lakefront liberals from state Sen. Barack Obama and women from all the candidates. The diverse crowd of about 250 supporters who cheered her announcement Sunday looked and sounded like members of a mini-United Nations, with snippets of Greek heard here and there.

But political experts caution that much of her early strength is based on name recognition from her 13 years in county government.

"And it's the kind of name recognition phenomenon that can just as suddenly break down," said Don Rose, an independent political consultant. "I'm not predicting it will, but you have to give the actual candidacy a chance to set in."

Over the years, Pappas has proved herself an energetic campaigner with a mixed track record. She burst onto the political scene in 1990, winning a spot on the Cook County Board, where she quickly became a fiscal watchdog and critic of patronage and no-bid contracts.

She lost a 1994 race for the board presidency, coming in a distant third in the primary, but then won a 1998 bid for treasurer and was the county's top vote-getter last year. She takes credit for cleaning up and revamping the office.

But she also has earned a reputation for unconventional behavior. She regularly revives her high school baton-twirling shtick for parades and often hugs reporters at the end of news events. She says she usually leaves the poodle home now ("She's older now," she says).

If elected, she pledges to fight for more federal funds for programs that prevent social problems. She would like more money for early childhood education and better programs to teach pregnant mothers about proper prenatal care, and she vows to work on job development, pension protection and affordable prescription drugs.

Pappas says she cut staff by 27 percent, made it possible for people to pay their property taxes at 126 banks, brought state-of-the-art technology to the office and returned hundreds of millions of overpaid dollars to taxpayers.

She said the race is about personality, not issues, because most Democrats agree on the issues.

Other announced or potential Democratic candidates include millionaire investor M. Blair Hull, former Chicago School Board President Gery Chico, health care executive Joyce Washington, radio personality Nancy Skinner, Metamora Mayor Matt O'Shea and retired coal miner Vic Roberts.

Contributing: Maureen O'Donnell


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