December 6, 2006


State Representative Mike McAuliffe (R-20), the Northwest Side's near-legendary "Incredible Campaigning Machine," has met his match.

Long renowned for the innumerable hours he's spent walking precincts over many years, McAuliffe has a competitor who, amazingly, works even longer and harder: Democrat Dan Kotowski. Luckily for McAuliffe, Kotowski ran not against McAuliffe, but instead for state senator in an adjacent suburban district.

Kotowski scored a humongous upset in the 33rd Illinois Senate District, which encompasses Rosemont, Park Ridge, Des Plaines, Mount Prospect, Elk Grove and parts of Wheeling, Palatine and Rolling Meadows. Kotowski beat appointed Republican incumbent Cheryl Axley by 1,394 votes, making him the first Democrat elected as a senator from that area since before 1860.

Kotowski, age 39, is a "Perpetual Campaigning Machine." His campaign strategy is simple: door-to-door retail politics. It's more effective than money or mailings. Kotowski said that, beginning in February of 2005, he scheduled himself for 5 hours of precinct work, from 3:30 to 8:30 p.m., during the week, and from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. on weekends. That was more that 40 hours per week, with between 50 to 75 contacts per day, or at least 500 per week. Kotowski was a full-time candidate, and precinct work was his full-time job. He said he began walking Park Ridge from Canfield westward and that by the end of 2005 had finished Des Plaines and Mount Prospect.

Each "contact" was followed-up by a letter, a phone call and then regular e-mails, and, later in 2005 or early 2006, by a repeat visit. Then there were follow-ups by volunteers. Kotowski, a Chicagoan by birth who moved to Park Ridge just 6 years ago, recognized that constant communication was critical.

Kotowski's first task was to engender a sense of interest. He said he knocked on voters' doors and reeled off a couple of "feel good" liberal issues, like gun control to ensure neighborhood safety and universal health care coverage. He criticized Democratic Governor Rod Blagojevich's "pay-to-play" fund-raising policies, called for fiscal restraint and ethics reform, and refused to endorse Blagojevich for re-election. That made him a unique and "independent" candidate.

After the first contact, Kotowski moved to the next stage, which is voter commitment. Get the vote in the bag. And, months later, after more communication, the voter develops a personal stake in the campaign and donates time and money to ensure a victory.

The March 2006 primary was a dry run for November. Wealthy trial lawyer Jim Morici spent more than $250,000 in a late-starting primary bid but lost to Kotowski by 4,436-2,632. Morici never really defined himself, and he never gave voters a reason to vote against Kotowski. In that race Kotowski had several notable mailings, one claiming that the National Rifle Association had "put a target on his back" since he was once the executive director of the Illinois Council Against Handgun Violence and another with a photo of a young girl playing with a revolver near a box of bullets. It took him a year, but Kotowski had locked in almost 5,000 votes, or about 100 a week.

Interestingly, the Democratic turnout in the Kotowski-Morici race was 7,068, which exceeded Axley's 5,818 in the Republican primary, where she was unopposed. The Kotowski win, coupled with the fact that he had obviously succeeded in laying a base, should have hoisted multiple warning flags for Axley and the Republican leadership in the Illinois Senate. But it didn't.

A Park Ridge Republican has held the Senate seat for 29 of the past 40 years: Bill Carroll (1966 to 1972), Bob Kustra (1982 to 1990), who was elected lieutenant governor in 1990, longtime Park Ridge Mayor Marty Butler (1990 to 1998) and Dave Sullivan, who resigned in 2005. Butler was re-elected in 1998 with 60 percent of the vote. Sullivan, an aide to George Ryan when he was secretary of state, won with 60.5 percent of the vote in 2000 and was unopposed in 2002.

The 33rd District includes the House seats of Republicans Carolyn Krause (R-66), first elected in 1992 and Mount Prospect's mayor from 1977 to 1989, and Rosemary Mulligan of Des Plaines, also first elected in 1992 and a target of anti-abortion conservatives. Both refused appointment to Sullivan's seat. Axley, an attorney, the Elk Grove Township Republican committeeman and the township clerk from 1993 to 2005, allied with the Wheeling Township committeeman and appointed herself in October of 2005.

Going into 2006, Axley had four serious problems:

First, she was only barely known in Elk Grove Township and unknown in Wheeling and Maine Townships.

Second, the Maine Township Republicans were prostrate, with the anti-abortion conservatives led by township Supervisor Bob Dudycz battling the pro-choicers associated with Mulligan and township Committeeman Mark Thompson. After nasty confrontations in 2001, 2002, 2005 and 2006, the Republican precinct presence evaporated. The workers were gone. Dudycz, Thompson and Mulligan all vocally backed Axley, but there were no ground troops to support her. Therefore, in Maine Township, Kotowski and his volunteers were virtually unopposed.

 Third, the district's demographics are trending Democratic. In 2000 George Bush got 51.9 percent of the vote for president, and he got 50.5 percent in 2004. Clearly, this is a marginal district.

And fourth, Axley was a woefully inept candidate. Unlike the intrepid Kotowski, Axley eschewed precinct work and relied wholly on money and mailings to secure her victory. Axley's campaign was run by operatives of Senate Republican leader Frank Watson, who figured that a deluge of late-campaign mailings, attacking Kotowski as a "Chicago liberal," would resonate with the voters. They were sorely mistaken.

By working precincts early and by regularly communicating with voters, Kotowski successfully inoculated himself against Axley's late attacks. "I had contact with over 10,000 people," Kotowski said. "They knew me, they liked my issue stances, and they rejected the negative attacks."

Kotowski won Maine Township (Park Ridge, Des Plaines, Mount Prospect) by 10,823-9,627, getting 52.9 percent of the vote and carrying Park Ridge with 58 percent of the vote. In Elk Grove Township, Axley's base, she won by just 11,270-10,869 (50.9 percent), and she won Wheeling Township by 4,095-3,700. Perhaps due to both the Democratic trend and Axley's weakness, Kotowski won Rosemont 681-571, Norwood Park Township 1,228-954, Schaumburg 404-358 and Palatine 540-532.

In the 190 suburban precincts, Kotowski won 28,244-27,467, a margin of 777 votes and a share of 50.7 percent. In the seven far Northwest Side Chicago precincts, Kotowski won 1,069-452, a margin of 617 votes and a share of 69.9 percent. Kotowski's overall winning margin was 1,394 votes.

Kotowski won a 2-year term and must run again in 2008. Having more than $300,000 and having lost, Axley must make a serious lifestyle decision: If she is going to try again in 2008, does she want to commit herself to 40 hours a week of grueling precinct work? If not, she shouldn't run. And she won't have Watson funding her again.

Having mastered the technique, Kotowski will replicate his precinct-walking feat, except on the days when he is in Springfield or the hours when he is in the office. But even if he spends just 20 hours a week knocking on doors, consider the impact: How many voters have a state senator coming to their house, asking their opinion and inquiring if they have any needs?

 Expect Axley to take a pass, and expect Thompson to emerge as a 2008 candidate. But the Dudycz faction will do nothing to help him, since they are already planning to oust Thompson as committeeman in 2010 and Thompson is planning to oust Dudycz as township supervisor in 2009. Could Kotowski ask for more?

The early outlook: Kotowski must be commended for his industry and his insight. He worked ferociously hard, and he won a race that was deemed unwinnable. As such, he is a poster boy for outsiders everywhere: Within reason, any local office can be won by anybody who works hard enough and long enough. Expect Kotowski to win again in 2008 and to be thoroughly entrenched by 2012, when his next term expires.

39th District: Unlike Axley, Democrat Don Harmon is an anointed state senator who happens to be in the right district in the right year. An obscure Oak Park attorney, Harmon was picked in 2002 by Phil Rock to be his successor as township Democratic committeeman and state senator. Harmon was unopposed for both posts.

This year, Republican Jim Rowe made a game effort and was squashed. The district takes in most of Republican-leaning west suburban Leyden Township, plus heavily Democratic Oak Park and parts of the black 29th and 37th wards. John Kerry won the district in 2004 with 67.6 percent of the vote, and the 2006 Senate contest was an absolute blowout. Harmon won the Chicago precincts with 94.5 percent of the vote, carried his Oak Park base with 85.2 percent, got 61.3 percent in Leyden Township and won the suburbs with 71.3 percent.

Harmon is utterly unbeatable for the foreseeable future.