Hot Senate Race: The Basketball Buddy, the Reformer and the Scarlet Letter
The race for President Obama’s former senate seat suddenly got interesting.
Chris, the low-profile Kennedy, decided not to enter the Democratic primary. That made it look like a cinch for State Treasurer Alexi Giannoulias, whose only serious opposition would then be Cheryle Jackson, head of the Chicago Urban League, who—as former spokesperson for former governor Rod Blagojevich—wears the Scarlet B on her forehead.
All of a sudden, in jumps David Hoffman, Chicago’s inspector general, who spent the past four years shining lights on rats’ nests of corruption in city government—much to the chagrin of Richard M. Daley, who appointed him to the job but did not expect him to actually do it.
Hoffman, a former federal prosecutor, had the further audacity to condemn Daley’s privatization of city parking meters, which causes endless headaches for drivers, the private company and the mayor himself. It’s one of the rare scandals to hit Daley hard and personally. Hoffman twisted the knife by pointing out that the mayor did not get the best possible price.
In one of those strange years when political reform will dominate Illinois electoral issues, Hoffman must be considered a powerful contender.
Before looking closer at the three contestants, please note there will be a game-changer if Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart gets in the race. He’s gone back and forth on the decision and currently is leaning away from running. But he’s the hottest political prospect in the state and would bounce to the top of the heap if he takes the leap.
For the moment, however, Giannoulias appears to be the frontrunner. He holds statewide office, acquitted himself well in his fundamentally obscure post and he’s rich enough to be a self-financer—with boundless fund-raising potential. He has lined up key endorsements, but has an important enemy lurking in the weeds.
He is also a basketball buddy and financial benefactor of Obama, which is what got him elected treasurer in the first place. The scion of a wealthy banking family—suspected of shady connections—Giannoulias used his financial resources to endlessly play a commercial of Obama endorsing him in the 2006 Democratic primary. That wiped out a conservative Downstate Democrat supported by House Speaker Mike Madigan—who does not forget.
It would be unseemly for a president to endorse someone in a primary, so Obama’s help will be somewhat limited, but word will certainly get around. That word however will be limited even more by the fact that Jackson is African American, so Obama must handle things even more gingerly. In any case, Jackson will get a substantial black vote, depriving Giannoulias of what would be a tremendous advantage.
But Jackson is likely to spend time explaining her brief tenure as a Blagojevich flack at every meeting and interview in the months to come. When you are explaining you are losing. Further, she has not shown herself to be a sparkling campaigner, coming up with clichéd responses on other issues, though she may improve a bit with time.
I doubt, however, that she can consolidate the African American vote and generate the massive turnout it takes to squeeze out a plurality against two strong white guys. Roland Burris’s runs for senator and governor failed in similar circumstances—and Jackson is unlikely to gain many white votes wearing that Scarlet B.
Hoffman, meanwhile, has nowhere to go but up. In addition to his detective work in Chicago, he was part of a statewide reform commission whose report may yet force the diddling legislature to enact serious campaign-funding limits and other political deodorizers. He also has legislative experience working as a staffer for former Oklahoma Senator David Boren, backing up his reformer credentials.
He won’t get Giannoulias-style dollars, but there is some reform money out there this year, which will be utilized well by the savvy AKPD Media firm, formerly run by Obama’s guru David Axelrod before going to the White House.
Any of the Democrats are certain to cast progressive votes in the senate. To get there, however, one must overcome a strong Republican challenge from Congressman Mark Kirk, the personable “moderate” from the suburban North Shore.
The way it looks now, Hoffman would have the best chance against Kirk, Giannoulias would have a harder time but likely get by. Jackson, should she manage a primary upset, could easily lose the general election.
Where’s Daley in all this? He might back Hoffman just to get him the hell out of Chicago.
Don Rose is a regular columnist for the Chicago Daily Observer
image Basketball court at the East Bank Club, meeting place for Illinois Politicians and occasionally athletes