Pappas' Senate strategy: Enter late, run as underdog

August 21, 2003

BY LYNN SWEET SUN-TIMES COLUMNIST

I flew to Chicago from Washington and then drove three hours to Springfield last week to check out the Democratic Senate candidates during Dem Day at the State Fair.

And after taking a look at the gang of seven on the stage, a sweaty but earnest bunch, I decided that I would skip the speeches and head to the strawberry crepe booth. The crepe, topped with brown sugar and a custard blend inside, was fantastic. I made the right choice.

Just think of me as a one-woman focus group who usually has an unlimited appetite for political spiels.

That I would rather eat than listen to the Illinois Dem Senate field is why the stealth candidacy of Cook County Treasurer Maria Pappas is intriguing.

The major candidates--Dan Hynes, Blair Hull, Joyce Washington, Gery Chico and Barack Obama--are bland. Pappas is not. She is a self-admitted character, what with her toy poodle Koukla, her baton twirling and her biking-running-swimming routine. Next month, Pappas, 54, will bike the 280 miles from Ground Zero in New York to the Pentagon on a charity ride.

The other campaigns agree: Pappas is the wild card in the March Democratic senate primary.

"Don't even think that I am not getting in this,'' Pappas said after I explained to her I was checking in and wanted to hear from the "horse's mouth'' just when she intended to actually start a Senate campaign.

"I'm the 'Seabiscuit' in this race! I'm the underdog. Don't think for a minute I am not going to win,'' Pappas told me.

Pappas has no political organization, no federal campaign fund and spent a month this summer in Europe while the others were traveling around the state. And she was not at Dem Day at the fair.

Her latest thinking about timing is to wait some more.

Pappas told me she would do nothing, not even set up an exploratory campaign, until the property tax bills are due in October. That's the earliest.

She thinks she can pull off a primary win with a grass-roots campaign.

Pappas figures she will be able to stand out in a pack of politically similar Democrats.

Said Pappas, "This race is going to be about personality.''

She may be on to something.

Hastert: Fish and fly

Later this week, House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) hooks up with some of his best donors at a camp in Alaska for a few days of fishing, with the price for the fund-raising event $5,000 a person. The fishing comes near the end of a fund-raising swing launched Aug. 10 that will have Hastert touching down in 21 cities in 13 states by the time it wraps up next week. Hastert hauled in about $3 million for 13 GOP House candidates, the national GOP congressional committee and his own fund, the Keep Our Majority PAC.

Hastert tended to some other business, including trying to solidify support for a controversial $16 billion tentative deal calling for the Air Force to lease 100 KC-767 refueling planes from the Chicago-based Boeing Co. Hastert has been using his considerable political muscle to quash lease opponents, led by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who says the deal is a boondoggle for Boeing. While in Wichita for a fund-raiser, Hastert stopped by a Boeing 767 plant to strap on goggles to fly a simulator. Today, Hastert tours the Boeing building in Everett, Wash., which makes wide-bodied jets.

The speaker escaped California without being dragged into the wild recall election to dump Democratic Gov. Gray Davis. Hastert deputy chief of staff Mike Stokke said they declined an invitation to talk about the recall with California GOP honchos who wanted Hastert to weigh in. Stokke said Hastert is taking his cues from the White House and "the president does not want to get into it.''

Bean on the rebound

Democrat Melissa Bean ran against Rep. Phil Crane (R-Ill.) in 2002, and though she lost in her first run for office she pulled a respectable 43 percent. Now Bean is getting ready to try again in 2004. She was in Washington recently to meet with senior staff at the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.

The Barrington high-tech business consultant is optimistic for a few reasons, including, she told me, being a more seasoned candidate. Bean also said she will have a better chance in 2004 to get her message out because she won't have to fight a slew of big-time statewide candidates for attention.

Also, Bean gauges that in a presidential year, Democratic performance in the Republican northwest suburban district will be higher.

Sara Perkins, Crane's spokeswoman, said "to state that Congressman Crane is vulnerable is simply wrong.'' Besides, said Perkins, "last year Congressman Crane brought home $89 million in local projects.''

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