The Hill

The Newspaper for and about the U.S. Congress

JUNE 18, 2003


GOP political newcomers enter Illinois Senate race

Illinois Democrats looking to recapture retiring Republican Sen. Peter Fitzgerald’s seat have been mobilizing for months — raising moneiy, rounding up endorsements, recruiting volunteers.

Republicans, meanwhile, have had trouble even finding candidates. First Fitzgerald said he wouldn’t seek a second term. Then political veterans Jim Edgar, Judy Baar Topinka and Jim Ryan bowed out. In the past month, a handful of newcomers have stepped in.

Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) has not said whom he will support in the primary.

With 17 months to go before Election Day, Republicans, already tainted by former GOP Gov. George Ryan’s scandals, must now fight a costly, uphill battle to hold the seat.

“They kind of had that head start because they were getting ready even when Fitzgerald was in the race,” Illinois Republican Party spokesman Jason Gerwig said of the Democrats.

“But the Republican side is coming together. Jack Ryan has announced. Andrew McKenna is in the race. It looks like Jim Oberweis is in the race.”

Ryan, 43, is a former investment banker. McKenna, 46, runs Schwarz Paper Co. And Oberweis, 57, heads Oberweis Dairy, Oberweis Asset Management and the Oberweis Funds.

None has ever held office. By contrast, the Illinois Democrats running for Senate include state Comptroller Dan Hynes and state Sen. Barack Obama.

Not that all the Republicans are without political experience. Oberweis ran unsuccessfully for the GOP nomination last year to take on Democratic Sen. Richard Durbin. The Republican has said he’ll make up his mind by the end of the month.

Oberweis added that he would “commit a minimum of seven figures” to the contest. But before he jumps into the race, one of only two open seats in the country in 2004, he said that he needs to gauge how much money and how many shock troops he can muster.

One other factor that may be weighing on Oberweis’s mind is whether Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) will back him in the primary, as he did when Oberweis ran for the Senate nomination last year.

He declined to say if Hastert is supporting him this time. John Feehery, Hastert’s spokesman, said the Speaker has yet to get behind a candidates.

Republicans Steve Rauschenberger, a state senator; James Durkin, a former state senator and the winner of last year’s GOP Senate primary; and Corinne Wood, a former lieutenant governor, also have been mentioned by state Republicans as possible contenders. None has made an announcement about running.

McKenna had indicated his interest in running in the primary before Fitzgerald said he’d be stepping down and voiced optimism about Republican efforts to keep the seat.

“What interested me in the race then [before Fitzgerald’s announcement] and interests me in the race now is the Republican Party in Illinois needs to be a leader in how you build prosperity, and I just felt, as a party, we weren’t focusing on those ideas,” he said.

Tax incentives for companies to invest in technology, for example, would help give rise to more small and midsize businesses such as Schwarz Paper, which employs 400 people, he said.

McKenna also called for lifting the limits on 401(k) accounts to help workers better prepare for retirement.

Oberweis offered no substantive criticism of the Republicans who have announced their candidacies, but he said he is the only one who can win the general election, calling McKenna an “unknown” and saying former Gov. George Ryan’s name would prove fatal to Jack Ryan’s candidacy, as it did to Jim Ryan’s gubernatorial bid last year.

“Through no fault of his own, he has the wrong name to run in Illinois in 2004,” Oberweis said of Jack Ryan, who is unrelated to the former governor.

Jack Ryan dismissed concerns about voters’ mistaking him for George Ryan, asserting that more often than not people associate him with the hero of Tom Clancy’s novels, including The Hunt for Red October and Patriot Games, than with Illinois politicians.

The former Goldman Sachs partner and current inner-city high school teacher also said he’d be aggressively courting poor, urban voters who had been let down by Democrats.

“They’ve had their chance for 35 years,” he said. “Now give us our chance.” Ryan said a viable candidate would need $3 million to $4 million for the primary.

His proposals include eliminating the capital-gains tax — “a tax on capital is the ultimate oxymoron in a capitalist economy” — and offering scholarships to low-income students.

Ryan, who holds law and business degrees from Harvard, added that the filibuster should be jettisoned to make sure all judicial nominees get an up-or-down vote on the Senate floor.

All three leading GOP contenders said they respected Fitzgerald but would work better with the Illinois congressional delegation. Some members have said they felt alienated by his opposition to pet projects in their districts — for example, an upgrade of Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport.

Although Democrats say the Senate race is theirs to lose, Republicans contend that by galvanizing their base downstate, reaching out to minorities in Chicago and campaigning tirelessly in the collar counties surrounding the city, they can hold the seat.

The Republicans also say businessmen who have spent years creating wealth and jobs can do more to revivify the economy than lifelong politicians who have never managed a payroll or hired or fired employees.

Not all the Democrats in the race have spent the bulk of their careers in government. Blair Hull ran a financial trading company in Chicago; attorney Gery Chico is chairman of the Chicago law firm Altheimer and Gray; and John Simmons is a personal-injury lawyer in the Illinois suburbs of St. Louis.