December 31, 2003


The 91-page, 22-count federal indictment of former Illinois governor George Ryan on Dec. 18 has, surprisingly, not been greeted by Illinois Democrats with glee, or by Illinois Republicans with despair.

The consensus is that the specter of Ryan, who pleaded not guilty at his arraignment on Dec. 23 and who will go to trial in early 2005, will not negatively affect state Republicans in 2004, but it could negatively affect state Democrats in 2006. Already, anti-Ryan Republicans are positioning themselves to field a "reform" candidate for governor in 2006 and block the presumptive candidacy of state Treasurer Judy Baar Topinka.

Even though Ryan's trial is over a year away, the former governor may make some headlines in 2004: He was one of three finalists for the Nobel Peace Prize for human rights in 2003, but was not chosen. He will be nominated again in 2004. As governor -- to the chagrin and fury of pro-death penalty conservatives -- Ryan pardoned four Death Row inmates and commuted the death sentences of 167 others to life imprisonment. Ryan favored the death penalty when he entered office, and when he left office, Death Row was empty. Ryan also traveled to Cuba, where he fraternized with Fidel Castro and supported lifting the U.S. trade embargo.

To conservatives, Ryan's clemency and Cuba initiatives were unforgivable, and a Nobel Prize would be utterly intolerable. To Republicans, Ryan's alleged involvement in the licenses-for-bribes scandal while secretary of state from 1990 to 1998 is equally unforgivable. More than 66 indictments were issued in the U.S. attorney's 5-year investigation. Republicans paid the political price in 2002, when their entire statewide ticket except Topinka lost in a landslide.

But Ryan's travails may, ironically, help the Republicans, since it will bring to the fore as potential 2006 gubernatorial candidates two renowned Ryan critics -- the "Fitzgerald Boys" -- both of whom could run as conservative reformers against incumbent Democrat Rod Blagojevich. The 2005 trial will highlight U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald, who will be prosecuting Ryan, and a conviction would catapult him into major media fame. And U.S. Senator Peter Fitzgerald, who will retire at the end of 2004, has long publicly disdained Ryan and his liberal policies and has the name recognition and money to be a viable contender.

Topinka is the 2006 Republican governor frontrunner, but she has several problems:

First, she is the state Republican chairwoman, having assumed the post in March after the disastrous 2002 Republican showing. She needs some party-building credentials, and the yardstick by which she will be judged is President George Bush's 2004 performance. Bush lost Illinois by 569,605 votes in 2000. In 1992 his father, running for re-election, lost Illinois by 719,254 votes, after winning the state by 94,999 votes in 1988.

A lot of Republicans are hoping that 2004 will be a replication of 1984, when President Ronald Reagan, buoyed by a spurt of economic growth, demolished Democrat Walter Mondale and won Illinois by 620,604 votes. Will Howard Dean be 2004's Mondale? And Bush 2004's Reagan?

If so, then Topinka needs to win Illinois for Bush, or at least come mighty close. If Bush wins an overwhelming re-election nationally but loses Illinois, it won't reflect well on Topinka.

Second, Topinka has been in politics for a long time, having been elected as a state representative from Berwyn in 1980, to the state Senate in 1984 and as state treasurer in 1994. In 2006 she will be 62 years old and will have been in office for 26 years. Ryan, it will be remembered, had been in state office for 26 years prior to his 1998 election as governor.

If the issue in 2006 is experience, and if Blagojevich is perceived as inept in solving the state's fiscal plight, then Topinka is well positioned. If, however, the issue is "change" or "reform" and Blagojevich is perceived as just another all-talk/no-action political hack, then a Republican "outsider" -- like one of the "Fitzgerald Boys" -- would be the ticket to victory.

Third, in a little-noticed act, the U.S. attorney subpoenaed Topinka's office payroll records last February in response to charges that she used state employees to perform political work. Federal investigations can take years to develop. For example, it took them 5 years to indict Ryan. This is a small, dim but still dark cloud hanging over Topinka, and it will be none other than Patrick Fitzgerald who will determine if the cloud should burst.

And fourth, Topinka is an issue in numerous Chicago races for Republican ward committeeman in the March 16, 2004, primary. While Topinka has statewide prominence and credibility, her public criticisms of Blagojevich are suspect by the media and perceived as self-serving, since she's poised to run against him.

Topinka is the Berwyn Township Republican committeeman, and she has a lot of allies among the suburban committeemen. Her chief cheerleader in Chicago is Clark Pellett, a major fund raiser and a 2004 candidate for committeeman in the 2nd Ward. Pellett was the committeeman of the 42nd Ward from 1992 until his 2000 defeat by Rich Gordon.

Pellett has wrapped himself in Topinka's mantle, and he wants to be Chicago Republican chairman. As such, he has coordinated the filing of pro-Pellett (and, presumably, pro-Topinka) candidates in more than 20 city wards. His argument is politically appetizing: I'm with Judy. If Judy is governor and I'm city chairman, and if you're with me, then you'll get state patronage in your ward or a state job for yourself.

But other Republicans view Pellett as a lightweight or a liberal. In the Northwest Side 41st Ward, former state senator Walter Dudycz is running for committeeman against incumbent Mike McAuliffe because he wants to be the city chairman and use the post to attack Blagojevich. Dudycz is a close friend of Topinka, having served in the state Senate with her for a decade. However, he wants some Republican, somewhere, to start lambasting the governor.

In several Northwest Side wards, candidates sponsored by Chicago police officer Chester Hornowski are running, and they would back Hornowski for chairman. In the 1st Ward, Jon Blessing, an employee of the state Republican Party (run by Topinka), is running for committeeman, and he could emerge as a compromise choice if he wins.

Hornowski is unopposed for Republican committeeman in the 38th Ward, where incumbent Fred Rupley, an ally of McAuliffe, retired.

In the 45th Ward, Hornowski's group is supporting Roman Wiewiora against David Haynes; incumbent Roman Tapkowski is retiring. The group also is backing Steve Villarreal in the 33rd Ward, Jackie Arendt in the 30th, Bob Klich in the 39th, Tom Morris in the 50th, Wayne Dembowski in the 31st and Joe Hornowski in the 35th. All or most of these aspirants could win, giving Hornowski a huge block of votes. A weighted-vote procedure is used, with each committeeman voting the number of Republican votes cast in his ward in 2004. That number was 27,701 in 2000.

Rich Gordon, the 42nd Ward committeeman, also is a factor. He wants to run for alderman in 2007, and he does not harbor ambitions to be city chairman. But John Curry, the neighboring 32nd Ward committeeman, does, so he filed a candidate, Craig Simmons, against Gordon, which prompted Gordon to do likewise against Curry. It is possible that Curry will be knocked off the ballot, leaving Rich Daniels (Gordon's candidate) unopposed, and it is likely that Gordon will keep his ward, which gives him two large chunks of weighted votes.

The current Republican county chairman is Maureen Murphy, a Board of Review commissioner and the only Republican holding county office. Murphy's candidate recruitment for 2004 was spectacularly underwhelming: The two nobodies she filed are Phil Spiwak for state's attorney and Judy Kleiderman for Circuit Court clerk, and the somebody is John Cox, a defeated U.S. Senate candidate in 2002 and a defeated U.S. House candidate in 2000, for recorder.

"Dump Murphy" is the rallying cry of many Chicago candidates. An election for both city and county chairman will occur in April 2004, after the primary. Topinka backs Murphy, so she is secure. But, for many conservatives, "Stop Pellett" is the underlying theme. And Dudycz (if he wins), Gordon, Hornowski and his allies, and the committeemen from the outlying predominantly white wards, definitely are not supporting Pellett for chairman.

For Topinka, this whole mess is a lose-lose situation. She "loses" if Murphy gets dumped. She "loses" if Pellett isn't elected city chairman. And she "loses" if the next city chairman is a more creatively outspoken critic of Blagojevich than she is.