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Steve Neal

Oberweis comeback leaves a sour aftertaste

July 23, 2003


How can we miss him when he won't go away? The Milk Dud is back.

Dairy millionaire James Oberweis, 57, runner-up in the 2002 Republican primary for the U.S. Senate, is trying again in 2004.

He isn't exactly the people's choice. In his previous run, the jovial Oberweis got less than 32 percent of the vote and carried only four of the state's 102 counties.

Among his problems with the voting public is that he doesn't seem to stand for anything. Like Richard J. Durbin, senior senator from the state of indecision, Oberweis is a flip-flopper and human weather vane.

Just as Durbin has been a right-to-lifer and abortion rights advocate, Oberweis has been on both sides of this controversial issue. In his previous Senate run, he likened GOP social conservatives to the Taliban and said that the government shouldn't get in the way of a woman's right to choose. Now he's supporting a constitutional amendment to make abortions illegal.

Like Durbin, Oberweis somehow manages to keep a straight face while bowing to expediency and shedding his convictions. "I think it's a clarification," Oberweis said the other day with Durbinlike sincerity. "I don't think I explained my position very well two years ago."

As a kickoff for his new senatorial bid, Oberweis is appearing in the first-ever television advertising campaign in the 76-year history of his family's North Aurora-based dairy.

In one of the commercials, the senatorial hopeful is shown outside a suburban residence asking one of his deliverymen if he has butter. Oberweis then goes into the home and is shown preparing breakfast for his customers. The tagline is "It's your morning, but it's our business."

It is unseemly for this wealthy businessman to play fast and loose with federal election law by airing these commercials as he is launching a U.S. Senate bid.

"If you see the ads," Oberweis said, "you'll see they are clearly aimed at selling milk and ice cream. They are very clearly within all legal and ethical standards. I'm very proud of the ads."

Oberweis is the fifth millionaire seeking the Republican nomination for the seat of the retiring GOP incumbent Peter G. Fitzgerald. The other four are investment banker Jack Ryan, North Shore businessman Andrew McKenna Jr., perennial candidate John Cox, and Dr. Chirinjeev Kathuria. McKenna and Ryan are regarded as the leading contenders.

The GOP's leadership isn't enthused about the Milk Dud's comeback. House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Yorkville), who endorsed Oberweis last year, is neutral in the race and thinks that he's had his shot. State GOP chairman Judy Baar Topinka, who has done much to energize her party, would prefer a fresher face or proven vote-getter. The Milk Dud is neither.

In addition to the dairy commercials, Oberweis intends to spend "somewhere between 1 and 10 million dollars" of his personal fortune in this campaign. Oberweis said that his personal contribution will be closer to the smaller figure.

When you consider that Oberweis was the biggest spender in last year's GOP primary and two-thirds of the voters supported other candidates, his chances would appear to be slim to none.

Oberweis has an engaging personality but is clueless in dealing with controversial issues.

"I think that right now we're getting a very strong symbol in the Taliban of what can happen if we try to impose our religious views on others," he told Steve Dahl in a 2001 radio interview when asked about abortion. "So I really think that issue is a choice that government should stay out of, and let people make that the way they see fit."

During that campaign, he flipped several times on the abortion issue. But he has outdone himself in his comeback. The Milk Dud now says that it should be illegal for women to have abortions unless their life is at risk.

"There are circumstances under which America as a country can pull together and agree on certain issues," he said. "If the right opportunity were there, phrased in the right way, I could support a constitutional amendment."

Before launching this campaign, Oberweis discussed his abortion stance with GOP strategists. He wanted their advice on how to win statewide. When advised that at least 30 percent of Republican primary voters are supportive of abortion rights, he seemed ready to do another somersault.

Does Illinois need another Sen. Flipper?


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