The Hill

The Newspaper for and about the U.S. Congress

MAY 7, 2003


Democrats see big opportunity in the open Illinois Senate race

Before Sen. Peter Fitzgerald (R-Ill.) announced last month that he won’t seek a second term next year, Democratic hopes of winning the seat were muted by political reality.

True, Fitzgerald was regarded as a budget hawk and an iconoclast on the outs with state Republicans. Also, national Democrats were saying they were determined to win Illinois, along with Alaska, in 2004.

But the undeniable fact was that Fitzgerald was an incumbent and the White House and the National Republican Senatorial Committee were determined to do everything possible to keep Fitzgerald’s seat and hold on to their slim margin in the Senate.

Sen. Peter Fitzgerald (R-Ill.): Who will replace him in Washington?

Now the March Democratic primary has assumed greater urgency than ever, with as many as a half-dozen Senate hopefuls crisscrossing Illinois looking for money, votes and volunteers. They include Chicago businessman Blair Hull, state Comptroller Dan Hynes, former Chicago Board of Education chief Gery Chico, Chicago-based state Sen. Barack Obama and, possibly, Cook County Treasurer Maria Pappas and businesswoman Joyce Washington.

In addition, Republican Matt O’Shea, the mayor of the central Illinois town of Metamora, also says he will run in the Democratic primary.

“The Democrats, as a natural evolution in the campaign, are getting more focused on what their story is,” said Chico, a partner in a Chicago law firm.

But at this stage, Chico said, he’s focused on raising money. In the first quarter of 2003, he reeled in $763,000, bringing his total to nearly $1.8 million. However, Hynes raised nearly $900,000 in the same period.

Since early April, Chico estimated, he’s raised an additional $80,000 to $90,000 by hosting events at homes, law firms, construction firms and restaurants in Chicago and downstate.

“Restaurants, I visit all of them,” Chico said. “It doesn’t matter. Sometimes it’ll be Mexican, Chinese, Italian — whatever.”

One big hurdle facing Chico and other candidates in the primary is Hull’s wealth. Hull, a political novice who earlier sold his financial firm, Blair Hull Trading Co., to Goldman Sachs, has pledged to spend $20 million of his own money on the primary.

As a result, other candidates may raise more money than federal regulations permit, as stipulated by the “millionaire’s amendment” to the McCain-Feingold law.

The amendment was ruled constitutional by a federal district court last week in a decision that will be reviewed by the U.S. Supreme Court.

Hull’s money edge has led other candidates to portray themselves as experienced politicians who are closer to ordinary voters. Almost all the candidates say they’re running “grassroots campaigns.”

Hynes frequently points out that he’s the only candidate in the Democratic field who’s won statewide office. Obama and Washington are fighting for the huge cache of black votes in Chicago’s Southside, and Chico talks school reform.

Hull spokeswoman Susan Lagana said her candidate may not have government experience but he does have a colorful background, which includes college and business school in California, the Army and the Teamsters. “He even lived on food stamps for a while,” Lagana said.

Brad Woodhouse, spokesman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC), said Democrats had been fired up about the Senate race before Fitzgerald announced he wouldn’t run.

The DSCC has spent the past few weeks attacking ex-Gov. Jim Edgar, considered the GOP’s best hope for keeping the seat. A recent DSCC press release, for example, sought to link him with former GOP Gov. George Ryan’s scandals.

“I think Fitzgerald’s announcement, you know, has put a lot of pressure on the Republicans to get a candidate like Jim Edgar in, so I think you see more activity on their side,” Woodhouse said. “Our candidates have been going about their business for a while now. I don’t think anything has changed.”