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Radio host sees Senate bid with a citizen's eye

Eric Zorn

July 22, 2003

Radio talk-show host Nancy Skinner has no legislative experience, no political organization, almost no campaign money and, as of Monday, no gig in Chicago.

But on the plus side of the ledger, the North Side resident has a national following, passionate self-confidence and a closet full of pink clothing that she says will be her trademark as she bids for the Democratic nomination in next year's U.S. Senate race in Illinois.

Though listeners couldn't see it, Skinner wore one of her hot pink blouses to WLS-AM's downtown studios Sunday afternoon where she surprised the audience, her engineer and her bosses by announcing that, on the way to the station, she had mailed a formal declaration of candidacy to the Federal Election Commission.

Her run started as shtick. Shortly after incumbent Republican Sen. Peter Fitzgerald's April 15 announcement that he would not seek re-election in 2004, a caller to the weekly program Skinner co-hosted with Ski Anderson suggested that Skinner, a liberal firebrand who frequently represents the left on national cable TV debate shows, enter the race.

The hosts had fun with the notion. It wasn't realistic, given that, at the time, Skinner was living in Boston, close to her full-time job co-hosting a nationally syndicated morning show, and appearing in Chicago through a broadcast-quality phone hook up.

"But hundreds of e-mails came pouring in, suggesting that I really do it, offering to volunteer and to donate," she said. "I was floored."

The seed grew. In a country where a studio wrestler can become governor of Minnesota, a body-builder turned movie actor can be taken seriously as a potential governor of California and any rich person with an active fantasy life can instantly make himself a genuine contender for the U.S. Senate, why shouldn't a talk-show host be a plausible candidate?

So Skinner, 38 and recently divorced, packed up, moved back to Chicago and began making the rounds of potential supporters while creating a small volunteer network.

"What do you say to people who wonder if this is just another wacky deejay stunt?" I asked her during a commercial break Sunday.

"I'm not a radio host who's going into politics," she said. "I was a citizen who went into radio. I've been studying the key issues--foreign policy, national security, Social Security, defense, education, taxes, the environment--for many years."

She does have a good bio. She studied business and finance at the University of Michigan and in 1997 was working in Chicago as an environmental consultant when an acquaintance urged her to get into talk radio.

WLS gave her a tryout, and she showed the knack. Early on she mounted an on-air crusade demanding answers from U.S. Rep. Henry Hyde (R.-Ill.) about his still-unexplained role in a failed suburban savings and loan, an effort that made news here and in Washington.

But WLS officials have always offered tepid support at best to lefty hosts, and Anderson and Skinner were no exception. Management did not promote their show, ordered them off the Hyde story and cut them back to one time slot a week from two, even though their ratings were respectable. In the ultimate exhibition of craven stewardship of the public airways, WLS pre-empted "Ski and Skinner" the weekend after the bombing started in Iraq in order to replace them, temporarily, with yet another cheerleader for the war.

It was inevitable--and understandable--that management at ABC-owned WLS reacted Monday to Skinner's announcement by suspending her, "for the duration of her campaign." Given operations director Michael Packer's obvious displeasure at Skinner's use of the station to launch her campaign, it's likely the suspension is permanent.

Skinner choked up Monday when discussing her ouster from the $150-a-week radio job, but her relationship with WLS was dead-end and abusive anyway. Her long-shot political effort won't have to go very far to look like a change for the better.

It's a crowded field; I now count 10 declared or likely candidates in the Democratic primary alone. Skinner says she plans to run as the Democrat with the best communication skills. And, of course, the most memorable wardrobe.


Read extended interviews with Nancy Skinner and several other Senate candidates at

Copyright © 2003, Chicago Tribune

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