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Pollak: 9th Congressional District Is Winnable

Terry Przybylski 20 October 2010 2 Comments

Illinois’ 9th Congressional District, like most congressional districts across the country, has not exactly been hotly contested in recent years. Like most other districts, it was drawn with the incumbent in mind—so that its current representative, Democrat Jan Schakowsky, has always had a safe seat despite her far-left political orientation, never facing more than token Republican opposition.

But it is contested now. In what looks like a strong Republican year, a GOP political novice is hoping to pull off what would certainly be one of the most stunning congressional upsets in the nation.

Joel Pollak, a 33-year-old recent graduate of Harvard Law School—who considered himself a Democrat for most of his life and was once an intern for Senator Carol Moseley Braun—is now giving six-term incumbent Schakowsky by far her toughest race yet.

For shock value, a Pollak defeat of Schakowsky would rank up there with the 1994 toppling of Dan Rostenkowski, the Democratic House veteran and Ways and Means Committee chairman, in the next-door 5th Congressional District by a Republican unknown, Michael Flanagan.

“We have done some internal polling which has been very positive,” Pollak said this week. “Schakowsky is polling far below her historical average, roughly 20 points below—and we are gaining momentum.” The national Republican Party, which in the past has ignored the 9th District, “has helped our campaign in various ways—with a call center, for example,” Pollak said. “There will also be a major visit to our campaign offices next week by a leading national Republican figure.

“They believe the race is winnable,” he added.

Pollak—who has the endorsement of “Tea Party” activists as well as state and national Republicans—admits that he won’t be able to match Schakowsky dollar-for-dollar. “She is loaded with special interest money,” he said. “But we have raised enough to be competitive at the ballot box.” And he is using much of that money to buy radio, TV and Internet ads—something unheard of in previous 9th District races.

Pollak’s campaign is based on economic and foreign policy issues, which he thinks a wide range of Republicans, independents, and even many disaffected Democrats in the 9th District can agree on. “Schakowsky has been bankrupting the country, and she’s failing to stand up for our national security,” he charged. “People realize now that the economy itself is becoming a possible danger to our security—they wonder if we’ll be able to stand up to the Chinese in the future, to dictators in other countries.”

If elected, Pollak said, he would vote to repeal President Obama’s “health care reform” legislation (of which Schakowsky was a major backer); reduce and then freeze discretionary federal spending; and investigate and punish congressional corruption. He also opposes union-backed “card-check” legislation which would threaten secret ballots in union elections, and “cap-and-trade” legislation designed to reduce carbon emissions—both of which he called “job-killers.” He said he would also introduce legislation to end the White House “czar” system, through which Obama has made many appointments to top policy positions without congressional approval.

He also advocates lowering taxes on business and investment to encourage more hiring, and said he would promote the creation of a new high-tech sector in the 9th District to spur job growth. “With all the skilled people and the other built-in advantages we have here, there’s no reason why we shouldn’t be able to do it,” he said.

Pollak’s background is far from typical. Born in South Africa in 1977, his family came to America when he was an infant. (His father, Dr. Raymond Pollak, is a surgeon who exposed corruption in Chicago’s organ transplant allocation system.) Raised in Skokie, he became a U.S. citizen at age 10 in 1987. After graduating as valedictorian at Niles North High School in 1995, he graduated from Harvard in 1999 with a joint degree in social studies and environmental studies. He also worked there as a research assistant for celebrity law professor Alan Dershowitz—a lifelong liberal Democrat who has increasingly feuded in recent years with left-wing critics of Israel, and who endorsed Pollak on a visit to Chicago earlier this year.

It was at a forum at Harvard a year ago that Pollak first came to national attention, as he challenged Congressman Barney Frank (D-Mass.), one of the key players in federal housing legislation, “How much responsibility, if any, do you have for the financial crisis?” His persistent questioning, contrasted with Frank’s angry response, became a hit over the Internet on “YouTube.”

There is obviously a prominent “Jewish factor” in the 9th District race. Pollak is an Orthodox Jew who attended the private Solomon Schechter elementary school in Skokie and wears a yarmulke on his head at all times. Schakowsky is also of Jewish heritage, but not openly religious. Though the 9th is not majority-Jewish, as many assume, there is an important Jewish presence in much of the district—especially in Skokie, Morton Grove, Evanston, and in Chicago’s northeastern corner, in and around Rogers Park and Lakeview. In those areas, Pollak has gotten mileage not only from his background, but also from highlighting the Obama administration’s strained relations with Israel and what he sees as Schakowsky’s indulgence of Israel’s leftist critics—including a former president of the Central American nation of Honduras, whom she visited last year.

Pollak says he would oppose any U.S. aid to the Palestinian Authority “until it gives up terror and recognizes Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state.” In his campaign brochures, he also scores Schakowsky for inviting veteran White House correspondent Helen Thomas to her local fundraiser last spring. Thomas later declared in Washington that Jews “should get the hell out of Palestine” and “go back to Poland, Germany, America, wherever.”

But Pollak has not restricted his criticisms of Obama’s foreign policy to matters affecting Israel. He has also criticized Obama for alienating other traditional allies of America, such as Great Britain and Poland. For instance, he denounced Obama’s sudden cancellation a year ago of a missile-defense shield which the Bush administration had planned to install in Poland and the Czech Republic.

This year, at least, it seems certain that Pollak will be able to peel off many Jewish voters in the district who have voted for Schakowsky in the past strictly out of religious/ethnic identification and historic loyalty to the Democratic Party.

However, Pollak is also reaching out to voters whom Schakowsky would never think of trying to cultivate—such as traditionally Republican social conservatives, who are most numerous in Park Ridge and Des Plaines, in the western end of the district, where few Jewish voters live. For instance, Pollak came to Park Ridge recently to address a “town hall” meeting attended by more than 100 people and hosted by Fox News contributor Sandy Rios, a former talk show host on a local evangelical Christian radio station and a high-profile social conservative.

Though Pollak is of a more socially conservative bent than Schakowsky—as almost everyone is—he isn’t a “religious right” social conservative, either. Indeed, on social issues, he seems to be trying to split the difference. On abortion, he states on his campaign website that he “believes in allowing a woman to choose (abortion), though I do not personally favor abortion.” He says it is “not the federal government’s role to decide when life begins,” but adds that the government “should support alternatives to abortion.” He opposes both a federal ban on abortion, and federal funding for it. He also says that he “personally believes that marriage is between one man and one woman,” but that he also would support “civil unions,” and that “same-sex marriage” should be allowed if voters approve it in state referendums.

At the Park Ridge meeting, Pollak said his supporters “represent a diversity of views on social issues,” and that he and Rios privately discussed their differences on those issues prior to the event. Yet in a district like the 9th, and in a state like Illinois, where most media people and political “experts” in both parties have long held that socially conservative views are a kiss of death, it is notable that Pollak is willing to reach out to such voters—and that doing so could be crucial in giving him a chance to win.

That’s because Park Ridge and Des Plaines are also the only parts of the 9th District with a recent history of voting Republican. Prior to the 2002 election, in fact, they were represented in the House by the conservative Republican pro-life icon Henry Hyde. But when Illinois’ representation in the House was reduced after the 2000 census and district lines were redrawn, the 9th was expanded westward to take in both cities. There are still thousands of voters in that area who were not exactly thrilled to suddenly acquire Jan Schakowsky as their representative in Congress—but who will likely be energized now by the thought that their votes could play a major role in ousting her. “Park Ridge and Des Plaines are definitely a key in our campaign strategy,” Pollak acknowledged.

It would be high irony indeed if the voters of historically Republican Park Ridge and Des Plaines, the most conservative part of the district—socially and otherwise—joined by disaffected, traditionally liberal Democratic Jewish voters elsewhere in the 9th, and independents across the district, end up pushing Pollak over the finish line and knocking Schakowsky out of office.


Terry Przybylski is a freelance writer in Chicago and its suburbs.


  • Frank said:

    This is a brilliant candidate…and the 9th Congressional District is in need of his leadership.

  • Bill Baar said:

    He’s a very impressive guy.

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