The 14th Congressional District of Illinois stretches west from the fast-spreading sprawl of Kane and Kendall counties past Northern Illinois University in De Kalb and the Ronald Reagan home in Dixon to the eastern suburbs of the Quad Cities on the Mississippi. Like congressional districts everywhere, its boundaries were drawn for one purpose only: to help the incumbent win.
Speaker of the House J. Dennis Hastert, who has represented the 14th in its various permutations since 1986, may not need the help. In 2004 he raised $5 million while his opponent, Ruben Zamora, made do with $18,000. Since he first won the seat, Hastert has never been seriously challenged, doubling or tripling his opponents' vote totals and running ahead of the ticket.
Nevertheless, 32-year-old Democrat Jonathan "John" Laesch is playing David to Hastert's Goliath this election year. He's a Jeep-driving navy veteran, the son of Lutheran missionaries and brother of a GI currently on duty in Iraq, and an aggressive, confident campaigner with a door-to-door strategy. He may be a long shot, but a Democratic victory here would be an upset of biblical proportions. After Laesch won the Democratic nomination over Zamora in the March primary, Hastert's campaign office wasn't concerned--even in Aurora, the most Democratic part of the district, Hastert drew more votes in his uncontested primary than were cast for Laesch and Zamora combined in theirs.
Still, Hastert has spent the last five years carrying water for a president and a set of policies that are now pretty unpopular. And unlike John Kerry in 2004, Laesch isn't going to put anyone to sleep. "My life philosophy is, do unto others as you would have done unto you," he told Air America radio host Sam Seder in February. "This is drastically different from the current Republican Party, which I think views things as 'Let's do it to them before they do it to us.'"
Laesch favors national health insurance over expensive and complicated partial fixes like the Republicans' Medicare prescription-drug plan (which Hastert got through the House in November 2003 by holding the 15-minute roll call vote open for an unprecedented three hours until enough arms were twisted). A position paper says next year's Democratic Congress--that's Laesch's prediction--should take the lead in turning the nation's energy policy around by sponsoring a "$5 million contest for scientists, students, inventors and engineers to design an alternative fuel energy efficient engine." Locally, he opposes the proposed Prairie Parkway, which would run north-south through farmland in western Kane and Kendall counties for about 30 miles and link I-88 and I-80. Usually local pork is a winner, but Laesch believes this issue will be Hastert's Achilles' heel.
It wasn't local issues that drew Laesch into politics. A veteran of U.S. naval intelligence, he was puzzled when he heard that we might invade Iraq. The claims about its weapons of mass destruction didn't square with what he'd learned about the region during his tour of duty there from 1996 to '99, and it appeared to him that the administration's case relied on dubious informants. His first thought was to reenlist and help straighten out the intelligence. Then he heard Secretary of State Colin Powell's UN speech in February 2003 and realized that the flawed evidence came from the top. In his mind the Bush administration was spouting "UFO intelligence": "There's a light in the sky, therefore they must be little green men, and therefore they must be coming to get us."
Laesch would have Congress investigate the Bush case for war. "If that investigation shows that they misled the country or lied, then 'impeachment' should be the first word in everyone's mouth."
As for the current mess, he thinks we should recognize that the only thing Iraqis agree on is that they want our soldiers out, and we should negotiate a flexible timetable with their government for leaving. The U.S. should be promoting regional disarmament instead of rattling nuclear sabers at Iran, he says, with the caveat that we do need to have a force nearby in case real trouble breaks out. In his experience, the military was a brotherhood and a chance to learn, "but the guy driving the machine needs a new job." Laesch is backing Wisconsin's senator Russell Feingold for president in 2008.
No surprises here--a me-too Democrat in the Joe Lieberman mold wouldn't be spending time and money on a long-shot race like this. But Laesch aims to blend his unabashedly liberal positions with personal crossover appeal. Having hoisted more than a few bales of hay during high school in Kendall County, he enjoys campaigning in the most rural and most Republican parts of the district. "Out there it's who you are that matters."
His strategy's been pieced together from a stint as a labor organizer for the Service Employees International Union, from reading the blogs of political activists across the country, and from the Republicans' technologically sophisticated get-out-the-vote efforts in 2004 battlegrounds like Ohio. Earlier this year he helped overthrow what he calls a "stagnant" Democratic Party leadership in Kendall County. The new party machinery now claims to have precinct committeemen in 47 of the county's 64 precincts, though bad feelings linger from the changeover and from Laesch's primary battle with Zamora. Markos Moulitsas Zuniga, an NIU alum and the uber-blogger of dailykos.com, has described Laesch as a "living example" of the recommendations he and Jerome Armstrong made in their book Crashing the Gate: Netroots, Grassroots, and the Rise of People-Powered Politics. Zuniga summarized them on his blog: "Organize locally, take over moribund Democratic Party organizations, and leave no district behind. Challenge everyone, everywhere."
According to Laesch's version of this strategy, a 21st-century precinct committeeman's job is not to mass-mail canned propaganda or inflict robo-calls on local residents. It's to organize a door-to-door campaign, talking to voters one at a time and noting the results of every conversation. The information feeds into the campaign database, allowing workers to contact sympathetic voters as needed and remind them on election day why it's important that they vote. Laesch's laptop displays a precinct-by-precinct breakdown of the district. ("Here in Aurora is a precinct that's 65 percent Democratic, but it had only a 45 percent turnout.") Person-to-person politics with high-tech backup is the way to improve turnout, he believes. John Kerry got 125,000 votes in the district (44 percent) in 2004. "We need to find those people," he said--and the thousands of new voters moving out to Kane and Kendall counties.
What are his chances of winning? "It depends on how much money I can raise." He figures he needs half a million to make the race; so far he's raised less than a tenth of that, and most of it has been spent.
Laesch is one of several dozen recent veterans running for Congress as Democrats. For most of these "fighting Dems" it's their first foray into politics, and most face uphill battles. Laesch has met them at gatherings in D.C., where he also met Max Cleland, a Vietnam veteran, triple amputee, and former Georgia Democratic senator who in 2002 lost to a Republican challenger who ran TV ads linking him with Saddam and Osama--so he knows what he could face if the race gets close. He's also aware that he can help his fellow candidates win or lose: a serious challenge might limit Hastert's ability to help Republicans elsewhere.
For those outside the Beltway who think the country needs a 180-degree turn, "challenge everywhere" sounds like common sense. (After all, Karl Rove made a career of attacking the opposition at its strongest point.) But will Illinois and national Democratic power brokers back this long shot? Does Mayor Daley even want them to? Does Daley want to cross a speaker of the House who has supported his O'Hare expansion plan?
Illinois has two popular Democratic senators who aren't facing reelection campaigns in 2006. Dick Durbin and Barack Obama have campaigned with Laesch's fellow "fighting Dem," L. Tammy Duckworth, who's running for an open seat in the adjacent Sixth District. Their political action committees each gave her campaign $10,000 in December, before she'd even won the primary. That doesn't mean they'll help Laesch.
He doesn't seem daunted by the possibility that he may be left to his own devices: "All it means for me is I have to think creatively and differently."
A Brother in the Gulf
Candidate John Laesch served in the Persian Gulf from 1996 to 1999, and his younger brother Pete is now in Baghdad. In a letter forwarded by his brother, Pete explained that in 2004 "the economy stank, my fiancee was getting testy, my LSAT scores were not exactly brilliant, and neither was my GPA. I decided to go back in the Army."
Doing his job but no fan of this particular war, he began snapping pictures wherever he happened to be in Iraq. He sent John an image of a disarmed bomb in an Iraqi junkyard that might once have been attached to a MIG aircraft. On it someone had spray painted, "WEAPON OF DESTRUCTION."
John suggested that he take more pictures of GI messages, and now Pete has hundreds. Most are graffiti on tanks and walls. Some are political: "MAKE POLITICIANS DEPLOYABLE." The vast majority, Pete says, are personal: words to sweethearts or family members, commemorations of missed birthdays and anniversaries, and "at least two wedding proposals."
Home on leave, Pete showed a few dozen slides at his brother's May 11 fund-raiser at the Fisherman's Inn in Elburn. John posted some at dailykos.com, where he regularly blogs as a diarist and "trusted user." He thinks the photos could become a book or an art show. Pete would prefer to follow up someday by looking for the soldiers who wrote them. "My fascination with this place," he says, "is the intersection of so many lives in such an odd, alienlike place in the world."
His brother adds, "Pete looks to take care of the individual, and I am out to stop the war."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Flynn, Peter Laesch.