October 2, 2002


By this point, in every election season, contested political races can be characterized in two ways: either they’re on the political radar screen, as a highly-competitive race which could be won by either contender, or they’re off the radar screen, with one candidate overwhelmingly favored.

Those major races on the 2002 Illinois radar screen include several statewide contests (governor, attorney general, and treasurer), as well as the Northwest Side contests for Cook County Commissioner in the 9th District (incumbent Republican Pete Silvestri versus Democrat Rob Martwick) and for state representative in the 20th District (incumbent Republican Mike McAuliffe versus incumbent Democrat Bob Bugielski).

Those off the radar screen are deemed to be non-competitive, but their outcomes may impact on other future contests, or upon the winners’ future ambitions. Here’s a look at two off-screen races:

U.S. Senator: Incumbent Democrat Dick Durbin won his first term in 1996 by a hefty 655,204-vote margin (56.1 percent), more because of the electoral unacceptability of his foe, Republican Al Salvi, than because of his own appeal. Durbin, age 57, if re-elected in November over Republican  Jim Durkin, is on track to become part of the U.S. Senate’s Democratic leadership.

Durbin, before his election, had been a Springfield-area congressman for 14 years, and was on record as an opponent of the balanced-budget amendment, tobacco subsidies, the flag desecration amendment, the use of military force in the 1990-91 Gulf War, the ban on partial-birth abortions, and of smoking on airline flights; he was an advocate of gun control. After his election, Durbin remained a predicable liberal, opposing welfare reform and the balanced-budget amendment, and opposing Bill Clinton’s impeachment in 1999. Durbin also opposed the 2001 Bush tax cut.

Durbin has generated headlines as a supporter of O’Hare Airport expansion, in opposition to Republican colleague Peter Fitzgerald’s efforts to block new runways. Fitzgerald has promised to filibuster any Senate effort to expand the runways, and Durbin has promised to secure 60 votes to squelch a Fitzgerald filibuster, and to get runway funding. But neither has occurred, and no O’Hare expansion funding has been forthcoming. Durbin is, at best, a minor Senate power.

Despite six years’ incumbency, Durbin is not a household name in Illinois. In the March primary, when 1.3 million votes were cast in the Democratic primary, Durbin, who was unopposed, got less than 900,000 votes; exactly 402,346 Democratic voters did not cast a vote in the Senate race. An April 24, 2002 column by the Chicago Sun-Times’ Steve Neal called Durbin “bland, dull and (with a) mind unburdened by original thought…(who is) more guided by polls…than by political philosophy.”

That could be a description of Bill Clinton, except that Clinton wasn’t bland or dull.  Durbin sought to be Al Gore’s 2002 runningmate for vice-president, but was deemed to be too boring, and was passed over for Joe Lieberman. That’s also a description of former Illinois Senator Alan Dixon, a Downstater (like Durbin) who won easily in 1980 and 1986 by winning Cook County by better than 2-1, breaking almost even in the suburbs, and winning a majority of the rural, Downstate vote. Dixon was a master straddler in the Senate, casting as many conservative as liberal votes, but his support of Clarence Thomas for Supreme Court justice proved his undoing, and he narrowly lost the 1992 Democratic primary to Carol Moseley-Braun.

Durbin, unlike Dixon, is no ideological straddler; he is a forthright liberal. But Illinois voters have only the vaguest perception of his record. Durbin is currently a deputy Senate majority whip. If the Republicans regain control of the Senate in 2002, it is likely that the current Democratic majority leader, South Dakota’s Tom Daschle, will either retire or run for president in 2004. That means the current majority whip, Nevada’s Harry Reid, will try to move up to Daschle’s job. But Reid, who was re-elected in 1998 by just 428 votes out of 435,790 cast, could lose his seat in 2004. That would give Durbin an opportunity to become the Senate’s Democratic leader.

The outlook: Durkin, a state representative from Westchester, was a John McCain backer in 2000, and McCain has campaigned for him. But Durkin raised a paltry $195,310 through June 30, and had less than $6,000 on-hand, compared to Durbin’s $4.2 million. Durkin obviously lacks the money to make a case against the incumbent. Durbin will win overwhelmingly, beating Durkin with 63 percent, and it is quite likely that Durbin will move into the Senate’s Democratic leadership during his next term.

But, like Dixon, Durbin’s support is a mile wide and an inch deep. Durbin is not that well-known, and is not that well-liked. He will win his second term in 2002, but is no lock to win a third term in 2008 – unless he manages to become the Democratic leader. Then his visibility will make him a major player in both Washington and in Illinois.

U.S. Representative (5th District): “He thinks he’s won already,” complained Mark Augusti, the Republican candidate for the Northwest Side Chicago seat being vacated by Rod Blagojevich, the Democratic candidate for governor, “but it’s not over yet.” Augusti is grumbling about Rahm Emmanuel, who spent $1.9 million to win the March Democratic primary over Nancy Kaszak. Backed by all the local ward committeemen, and by Mayor Rich Daley, Emmanuel beat Kaszak by 11,058 votes, amassing 46,683 votes (50.1 percent) – a total higher than that garnered by former incumbent Dan Rostenkowski in the 1994 primary.

The 5th District was altered slightly by redistricting, absorbing precincts from the 41st and 45th wards that were previously in the 9th District. Of the district’s 578 precincts, 471 are in Chicago, and 107 in the west suburbs (Norwood Park, Leyden and Proviso townships). Of those in Chicago, which include all or parts of 15 wards, 297 precincts are west of Kedzie, in the 30th, 36th, 38th, 39th, 40th, 41st and 45th wards; the remaining 174 precincts stretch to Lake Michigan, in the 47th, 44th, 43rd, 33rd and 32nd wards, with eight precincts in the 26th, 29th and 31st wards.

Unlike the primary, local Democratic committeemen are pushing Blagojevich for governor, and Lisa Madigan for state attorney general (as well as Bugielski and Martwick in the west end) in November. They are ignoring Emmanuel, a former aide in the Bill Clinton White House, thinking that he’s a cinch to win.

In fact, Emmanuel is already on track to be a huge power in the U.S. House. The national contacts he acquired in Washington, especially in the Jewish community, helped fund his congressional bid. Democrats expect that he will take over as chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee in his second term (after 2004), and raise truckloads of money. Emmanuel has already been promised a slot on the key House Ways and Means Committee, the tax-writing body that Rostenkowski chaired for 14 years (1981-94). With that perch, Emmanuel can raise prodigious sums for himself and for the Democrats from corporate special interests. At present, no Illinois Democrat serves on that committee, and U.S. Representative Luis Gutierrez (D-4), who has sought appointment to the committee for ten years, has agreed to defer to Emmanuel, reportedly because of pressure from Daley. “Hispanics should be enraged that he (Emmanuel) has bumped Gutierrez,” said Augusti.

Augusti, who calls himself a moderate, is trying to make the race a referendum on school choice. ‘There are 50 public schools in the (5th) district, and 12 are considered by the Chicago Board to be failing,” he said. “Parents should have a choice: to send their children to public or private schools, and to get a tax credit if they opt for the latter. The teachers’ unions oppose choice. Rahm (Emmanuel) has taken over $20,000 in teachers’ union contributions, and opposes choice.”

Augusti said that he opposes universal drug prescription payments under Medicare, which is supported by Emmanuel; Augusti wants payments indexed for income. And Augusti wants tax-deductible Medical Savings Accounts, so that patients can negotiate prices. The current Iraq situation cuts two ways: It takes voters’ minds off economic concerns, which should help the Republicans; but, in the 5th District, it doesn’t necessarily make them rally around President Bush. Emmanuel, a staunch supporter of Israel, is skeptical of the need to invade Iraq, as is Augusti.

The outlook: Al Gore beat Bush by a 60-40 margin in the 5th District in 2000, so Augusti is a definite underdog. Both Augusti and Emmanuel are investment bankers, but Augusti doesn’t have the personal wealth to dump $500,000 of his own money into a massive anti-Emmanuel effort. That being the case, Augusti will lose 60-40 in the west end and suburbs, and lose 70-30 in the east end. That means Emmanuel, age 42, will be off to Washington, to commence a long and powerful congressional reign. But Augusti, bright and articulate, will be heard from again in a future race.