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A few thoughts after witnessing Chicago-style democracy in action:
SEIZING VICTORY FROM THE JAWS OF VICTORY: Lisa Madigan wins!!! And so does Jesse White!!! Having no opponents helps.
THE RIGHT SHOWS ITS MIGHT: Or at least its impact on GOP primaries. For awhile last night it looked like so-called moderates might be making a comeback in the form of gubernatorial candidate Kirk Dillard and Senate candidate Mark Kirk. But then conservative Bill Brady slipped past Dillard by a few hundred votes (they’re still being counted) and Mark Kirk delivered a victory speech comparing his campaign with the American fight for democracy in WW I. It sounded like 2004 all over again.
THE JOBS CANDIDATE: Alexi Giannoulias won the Democratic Senate nomination by ignoring questions about his family’s bank and the scholarship fund he oversees as treasurer. Instead, he talked about nothing but creating jobs—even last night when he declared victory his podium had a sign on it that said "JOBS: The Big Issue." But everyone seems to think he’s going to get pasted by Kirk between now and November. Don’t be so sure. Democrats from here to Washington are lining up behind him—within minutes of his victory declaration last evening, Robert Menendez, the New Jersey senator who heads the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, released a statement borrowed directly from the Giannoulias playbook: “Voters in Illinois will face a stark choice in this election: moving forward with a candidate who has a record of saving Illinois jobs, or moving backwards with a Washington insider who wants to return to the failed policies that created the economic mess we now face.” Giannoulias himself wasted no time getting started with the next phase of his senatorial quest. This morning he visited a shuttered GE plant in Cicero and blamed Kirk for supporting policies that drove those jobs overseas. Say what you will about the guy, but he’s shown remarkable discipline in sticking to his script. Even if it’s absurd for a rich banking scion with barely any work experience to be campaigning as somebody who can stand up to banks and create jobs, he’s done it well, and it would be a mistake to assume he can’t do it again. Besides, who says Giannoulias doesn’t know anything about good jobs? The two that he’s held both paid pretty well.
WINNING IN LOSING: The worst you can say about David Hoffman as a candidate is that at certain times he came across as overly righteous and at others as restrained to the point of boring. Running as a political unknown, though, he and his campaign gave Alexi Giannoulias a much tougher fight than many of us expected, losing by just five percentage points. I had the opportunity of spending time with him on the campaign trail, and I’m here to tell you that while he can be a bit uptight—barking out directions to his driver because he didn’t trust the car’s GPS—he’s also a friendly guy with the ability to laugh at himself, such as when he recounted being mocked by a gas station attendant downstate when he sought to buy a map. “He told me, ‘Don’t you know you can just use a GPS for that?’” Hoffman said. Here’s hoping he runs for office again and shows more of himself when he does.
LOSING IN LOSING: Todd Stroger didn’t just lose. He was demolished. He finished a distant fourth out of four candidates. The conventional wisdom in politics is that any election involving an incumbent is a referendum on his performance. I’d say Stroger got a thumbs-down for his. Life is long but it’s hard for me to imagine that his political career isn’t over. That is, after he runs the county for another year. Yes, this primary was really freaking early.
WERE ANY WOULD-BE MAYORS WATCHING?: Obviously Mayor Daley doesn’t have anywhere close to the political problems that Stroger had. For starters, the mayor is smart enough to blame underlings and throw them to the wolves when he gets in trouble. He always appears decisive even when the decisions are poor. Still, if anyone of substance has thought about challenging the mayor, now’s the time. Voters are angry about things real and imagined that they blame on politicians. There are daily headlines about suspect management at City Hall, and the combination of reduced city services and unyielding crime rates has people hot. I’m no David Axelrod or anything, but I’d humbly suggest that mayoral challengers might want to start introducing themselves to people filing in and out of city auto pounds. They’ll be eagerly received.
COULDA BEEN A CONTENDER: Before Jack Ryan’s 2004 Senate candidacy dissolved amid revelations that he’d tried to get his wife to have sex with him in public, he presented himself as a new kind of Republican, a investment banker who’d quit the big-money world to teach in the inner city, a fiscal conservative passionate about civil rights and equal opportunity. But when he resurfaced as a commentator last night on WGN and CLTV he sounded like a curmudgeonly old rich guy bitching that he had to pay too much in taxes while the country was going to hell. In other words, he could have put in a strong showing for the Republican nomination again this year.
SHOULDA BEEN A CONTENDER: Jim Ascot didn’t have much of a chance to beat incumbent Congressman Danny Davis, but I was rooting for him anyway. He gets my award for nicest guy in the 2010 primaries. Ascot has a successful commercial real estate business that’s now mostly run by his son, and he says he’d like to spend his time addressing problems like the decay of our public transit system and the lack of affordable housing on the west side. “I’m available for public service,” he said. Unlike a lot of hacks in this election, he meant it.
SHOULDA BEEN ANOTHER CONTENDER: Based on pure effort, Jim Madigan should have won more than 35 percent of the votes in his run against Heather Steans for the Seventh District seat in the state senate. I live in the district and received at least three phone calls from Madigan’s campaign—and they weren’t robocalls but real live people who wanted to make sure I knew about the guy. The last one was from Madigan himself.
IT’S HARD TO WIN A RACE FOR A JOB NO ONE KNOWS ANYTHING ABOUT: As challengers for the water reclamation district board found out. One of them, Todd Connor, ran one of the most organized, aggressive, informed, and sharp campaigns for any office in this primary season—and he finished fifth out of nine candidates. Just as they did in 2008, the incumbents won. This time there was one open seat, and public affairs consultant Michael Alvarez won it, thanks in part to a surname that translated into lots of votes in Latino wards.
A FAMILY AFFAIR: One of the incumbents who held onto her water rec board seat was Mariyana Spyropoulos, who received 172,667 votes. It cost her a pile of money. Between July and the end of 2009 she spent $160,394.85 in campaign funds, which translates to about 93 cents a vote—not in the realm of Michael Bloomberg, but a fair amount to get a job overseeing wastewater treatment. And expect the figure to rise in a couple months when she discloses how much more she spent during the heart of the campaign in January—perhaps to $2 a vote or more. Between July and Election Day, she’d collected $359,199.46 in campaign contributions. All of it came from family members.
DON’T CALL IT A COMEBACK: As we’ve noted before, Jesse Jackson Jr. has been pretty quiet since he was mentioned as Senate Candidate 5 in court filings against Rod Blagojevich. But he’s hardly off the political scene. Two of Junior’s political disciples appear to have won the Democratic primaries for statewide offices: Robin Kelly, formerly a lawmaker from the south suburbs, won the nomination for state treasurer, and state rep David Miller has a slim lead in the race for comptroller, though the votes are still being tallied. Meanwhile, Jackson did all right too. He not only breezed his way to another nomination for Congress—hardly shocking, since he was unopposed—but also toppled former state senate president Emil Jones Jr. to become the state central committeeman for the Second Congressional District. Sure, it’s a party post that doesn’t mean much to the outside world, but it never hurts to beat an old rival who’s on his way into full retirement.