September 20, 2006


Chicago's suburbs, in recent years, have been invaded by a plethora of pesky critters, including emerald ash borers, Asian long-horned beetles, deer, coyotes and assorted other wildlife.

Now, according to state Senator Cheryl Axley (R-33), her Democratic opponent, Dan Kotowski, should be added to that list. "He's a liberal Chicago Democrat," sniffed Axley. There goes the neighborhood.

A decade or more ago, that epithet would have been politically poisonous, and fatal. Suburbanites used to view Chicago with disdain, distaste and derogation. Now, with many suburbanites being former Chicagoans or working in Chicago, a tie to the Second City is not viewed as somehow obnoxious and unacceptable.

But there's still that nasty "liberal" tag. "I'm a progressive," said Kotowski, who has resided in Park Ridge for 6 years, after having been born and raised in Chicago's 50th Ward and having lived in the West Rogers Park area for 33 of his 39 years. "I prefer to speak of results rather than labels. I prefer to address community needs rather than political needs." That's just gibberish. Kotowski is a liberal.

Unfortunately for Axley, there has been a major infestation of Democratic liberals into the 33rd District, which encompasses Park Ridge, Des Plaines, Mount Prospect, Elk Grove Village and Rolling Meadows. Not all are expatriate Chicagoans. Many were born and raised in the suburbs but just don't vote Republican like their parents. George Bush got 51.9 percent of the vote in the district in the 2000 presidential election and 50.5 percent in 2004. Clearly, the area is trending Democratic.

The district never has had a Democratic state senator. Over the past 40 years it has been represented by Republicans John Carroll (1966 to 1972), John Nimrod (1972 to 1982), Bob Kustra (1982 to 1990), Marty Butler (1990 to 1998) and Dave Sullivan (1998 to 2005). Butler, the former Park Ridge mayor, died in 1998, and Sullivan was appointed to succeed him. Sullivan was elected with 60.5 percent of the vote in 2000, and he was unopposed in 2002. He resigned in September of 2005.

Axley, age 47, the Elk Grove Township Republican committeeman since 2002 and the township clerk since 1993, got Sullivan's job the easy way: She engineered her own appointment. Butler did likewise in 1990, after Kustra was elected lieutenant governor. About 42 percent of the district's 2004 Republican primary vote was in Axley's Elk Grove Township, 35 percent was in Maine Township, 15 percent was in Wheeling Township, and the rest was scattered. The district's Republican committeemen picked the replacement. Axley simply got the backing of Wheeling's Republican committeeman, and got the job. The key question is: Has she since gotten any name recognition? The early answer: No.

Democrats hold a 32-27 majority in the Illinois Senate, and 39 of the 59 Senate seats are up for election, of which 21 are held by Democrats and 18 by Republicans. Four incumbent Republicans are retiring, three in the Cook County suburbs and one in the Champaign area. No Democrat is vulnerable, and the Democratic majority likely will grow to at least 34-25, and maybe to 36-23. Axley, of Mount Prospect, is deemed exceedingly vulnerable, and it will take at least $500,000 from Springfield Republican sources to save her. That money will be forthcoming.

"Voters think that our state government is horrible, and they're ashamed," said Axley, claiming that Democratic Governor Rod Blagojevich will be a "drag on the Democratic ticket." Kotowski has a contrary view: "Voters are fed up with the Bush Administration," he said. "They're fed up with Iraq. They have no trust or confidence in the president." Predictably, Axley has no comment on the president, and Kotowski dances around the governor. Blagojevich got only 38.3 percent of the vote in the district in 2002. If Kotowski ties Axley to Bush, she loses. If Axley ties Kotowski to Blagojevich, he loses.

Kotowski rejects Blagojevich's plans to sell state assets like the lottery or the tollway, but he won't embrace raising taxes. He wants to spend more money on education. "We have $4.5 billion in uncollected taxes and fees," he said. Sounding like a Republican, Kotowski insists that there be "more transparency" in state government. He wants to end no-bid state contracts, require online, on-time reporting of all contributions to state candidates and officials, and provide "better management" of state resources.

Axley, a Mount Prospect attorney for 20 years, said that she is "adamantly opposed to any sales or income tax increase," that she seeks "more efficient" state government, and that she rejects the "credit card mentality" of the Blagojevich Administration. "We have $2 billion in unpaid state debt, unpaid Medicaid bills, and unfunded state and teachers' pensions," she said. "My opponent would join the Democratic majority in supporting these policies."

Kotowski is a professional do-gooder, having spent his adult life working for groups that advocate gun control, crime victims' rights or scholarships, with stints on the payroll of the Cook County State's Attorney's Office and the City Council Transportation Committee. "He's an ultra-liberal," Axley said.

But he's also ultra-energetic, as he says that he has spent up to 6 hours a day walking precincts since June of 2005. "I've had contact with almost 10,000 people," Kotowski said. "I will win."

The 33rd District contains 205 precincts, of which 77 are in Elk Grove Township, 75 are in Maine Township and 23 are in Wheeling Township, with a few in Chicago, Leyden Township and Norwood Park Township. Neither party has much of a ground game. Kotowski can't rely on local Democratic organizations because they're virtually nonexistent. "I had over 200 people working for me" in the primary, Kotowski said. "I will have many more in the election."

Maine Township Republicans are split between the faction allied with Committeeman Mark Thompson and those with township Supervisor Bob Dudycz. Both are strongly backing Axley, but that doesn't mean that she will carry the township. There are few precinct workers.

My prediction: Axley claims her polling gives her 40 percent name identification. Kotowski claims his polling gives him the lead. Discount both. But don't discount Kotowski's door-to-door efforts. Axley is unknown and undefined. Kotowski is that nice guy who knocked on your door. Springfield Republicans will pay for a torrent of mailers ripping Kotowski as a "liberal Chicago Democrat" and a Blagojevich supporter. Springfield Democrats will astutely eschew attacks on Axley and will counter with pieces hyping Kotowski as a "community" candidate. In a tight finish, Kotowski will win by fewer than 500 votes.

The adjoining Illinois Senate vote chart includes the votes, in addition to Axley, of other area senators, all Democrats: Chicagoans John Cullerton (D-6), Ira Silverstein (D-8), Jim DeLeo (D-10) and Iris Martinez (D-20), Jeff Schoenberg (D-9) of Evanston and Don Harmon (D-39) of Oak Park.

Martinez and Silverstein are not up for re-election until 2008. Cullerton and Schoenberg are unopposed in November. DeLeo is opposed by Fred Rupley, a former appointed state senator, but he will win easily. Harmon is opposed by Jim Rowe, a 28-year-old Franklin Park School District 84 member whom Harmon dismisses as an "arch-conservative Republican." Harmon was unopposed in 2002. My prediction: Harmon will win with 70 percent of the vote.