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JULY 16, 2003

Illinois Senate Democratic primary heats up

For months, the Democratic primary race to succeed retiring Illinois Republican Sen. Peter Fitzgerald has been strictly ballroom — candidates methodically raising cash, piling up endorsements and mingling with union leaders, trial lawyers and CEOs from Carbondale to Chicago’s Navy Pier.

But in recent weeks, that’s all changed, as the tempo of the race — one of only two open Senate contests in 2004 — has accelerated and the waltz has started looking more like a rave.

First, Altheimer & Gray, the Chicago law firm run by candidate Gery Chico, shut down, prompting rivals to question Chico’s business acumen.

Then John Simmons, the only downstate Democrat in the race, dropped out — less than two months after jumping in — and endorsed state Comptroller Dan Hynes.

Then came the second-quarter Federal Election Commission (FEC) fundraising reports, widely considered crucial barometers of candidates’ viability.

“We have hit all our marks, and we’re on track to reach our goals,” state Sen. Barack Obama said in a statement, more or less echoing all the other Democratic candidates. Senate candidates’ financial reports will trickle in to the FEC in the next several days.

Taking a swipe at multimillionaire businessman Blair Hull, among others, Obama added: “We can’t write a million-dollar check like a lot of the candidates in this race. But they can’t buy a record on the issues that matter to people across our state, like expanded health care, more job opportunities and tax relief for those who need it most.”

Curiously, Obama’s statement didn’t say how much he raised from April 1 to June 30. Instead, it said he had just under $1 million in the bank and had raised more than $1.4 million since entering the race, months earlier.

Hull, who has a limited fundraising operation consisting of $100 contributions, countered that his money will buy him independence. He has said he may spend as much as $40 million to get to Washington.

“The wealth gives me an advantage to … challenge the status quo,” Hull said. “I’m not beholden to anybody.”

Democrats and Republicans scoff at that contention, noting that Hull had sought the 5th Congressional District seat last year but was dissuaded from doing so by Chicago Mayor Richard Daley. Daley backed former Clinton aide Rahm Emanuel, who went on to win.

Hull, 60, added that Hynes, who turns 35 next week, lacks “wisdom” and “lifetime experience.” And he took aim at Hynes’ “family connections,” suggesting the candidate is not his own man.

Hynes’ father, Thomas Hynes, is the 19th Ward Democratic committeeman and a member of the Democratic National Committee. The candidate’s brother, Matthew Hynes, was Al Gore’s Illinois campaign manager in 2000.

Dismissing suggestions that he is the “establishment candidate,” Hynes pointed out that as state comptroller he had fought for a rainy day fund and taken on pork-barrel spending.

Last spring, to avert fiscal disaster, the comptroller refused to pay for $100 million in state lawmakers’ pet projects. The move outraged politicians in both parties. Hynes easily won reelection in November.

“I don’t think there’s anyone who would question my honesty,” said Hynes, whom many Democrats consider the frontrunner in the primary.

Hynes, who is strongly backed by trial lawyers across the state, was vague when it came to tort reform, which Republicans in Washington have indicated they plan to make a campaign issue next year.

“I believe that we have to find a way to eliminate frivolous lawsuits … but caps don’t eliminate frivolous lawsuits,” Hynes said. “I have an open mind. I want to make sure I hear all sides of an issue.”

Hynes spokeswoman Chris Mather said Tuesday that her candidate had reeled in $930,000 in the second quarter, bringing his total cash on hand to $1.54 million.

Fitzgerald, a freshman Republican who alienated many in his party, said he’d support the eventual Republican nominee. Fitzgerald left open the possibility he might endorse a Republican before primary voters go to the polls in March.

The senator called Republican businessman-turned-teacher Jack Ryan and businessman Jim Oberweis strong candidates. He did not mention the third major GOP contender, paper company head Andy McKenna, who planned to challenge Fitzgerald in a primary before Fitzgerald bowed out in April.


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