December 3, 2008


Victory, it is said, has a thousand fathers. Defeat, however, is akin to an immaculate conception: The architects promptly scatter with the wind, intent on avoiding any DNA testing.

Now that Aurora Austriaco, the much-hyped Filipina Democratic candidate for state representative in the northwest suburban 65th Illinois House District, has been thumped by incumbent Republican Rosemary Mulligan, blame takers and strategy makers are nowhere to be found. In a race that Austriaco -- arguably this election's poster child for "change" -- was favored to win and in which the Democrats spent $500,000, Mulligan triumphed with 54.6 percent of the vote.

But finger pointers, second guessers, critics and smug Republicans are legion and loquacious. Austriaco, they sneer, was "clueless," "superficial," "a lightweight" and "just another pretty face."

The district encompasses Maine Township (Park Ridge and Des Plaines), all of Rosemont, slices of Elk Grove, Mount Prospect and Norridge, and six precincts in the 41st Ward. In Maine Township, where Barack Obama won by 31,638-21,228, with 58.9 percent of the vote, Austriaco lost the township by a decisive 14,755-10,766, getting 42.2 percent of the vote and losing by a margin of 3,989 votes. Mulligan won Norridge by 218 votes and Rosemont by 187 votes, while Austriaco won Chicago by 407 votes and Elk Grove by 378 votes.

"I did well, and (my vote) indicates that she is not serving the district well," protested Austriaco, who lost districtwide by 21,307-17,698, a margin of 3,609 votes. Say what? Austriaco, who tied herself closely to Obama, did worse than the 2000 Democratic candidate, Mary Beth Tighe, who tied herself closely to Al Gore. Tighe lost to Mulligan by 17,448-16,119, a margin of 1,329 votes and with 48 percent of the vote. Despite a toxic anti-Republican environment for this year's election, Mulligan increased her vote by 3,859 over 2000 while the Democratic House vote dipped by 1,579. Message to Austriaco: You're clueless.

"She just wasn't a good candidate," complained an irritated Mulligan. "She was on an ego trip. She ran a nasty, negative campaign. She had no record of community service."

Mulligan, age 67, is in the twilight of her career, having first been elected in 1992. She disdains the energetic tactics of state Senator Dan Kotowski (D-33), who says he spends 4 hours a day knocking on doors and talking to residents of the district. She is not especially popular with the district's dwindling contingent of conservative Republicans, who consider her a RINO -- Republican In Name Only. But she keeps winning. Here's why:

First, she never equivocates on the issue that launched and has sustained her career: support for abortion rights. Mulligan defeated the General Assembly's most vitriolic abortion foe, Penny Pullen, in a vicious 1992 primary, clearly demonstrating that opposition to abortion was receding, even in a conservative area such as Park Ridge.

Mulligan consistently votes against any bill that imposes any restriction on choice, and Personal PAC, the powerful Illinois pro-abortion rights political action committee, with a policy of backing trusted incumbents over untested challengers, exerts itself mightily for Mulligan. The group has a vast mailing list of pro-choice voters, donors and workers. They send out regular e-mails, newsletters and fund-raising solicitations, and they don't hesitate to crank out attack pieces to protect their incumbents, regardless of party, even if the challenger, like Austriaco, also is pro-choice. Their attitude is like that of witness protection: They don't want to lose anybody, any time, anywhere.

The veterans of the long ago Pullen-Mulligan "abortion wars" are mostly retired, and abortion is not now a salient issue, but for about a third of the district's voters, abortion rights are an important issue. Personal PAC makes sure they don't forget, and Mulligan remains an icon. "That's her base," said Republican Committeeman Mark Thompson of pro-choice voters. "As long as they're with her, she can't be beat."

According to Austriaco, Personal PAC paid for four districtwide mailings, two endorsing Mulligan and Kotowski and two highlighting the joint sponsorship of bills by Mulligan and Obama and their similar voting records in Springfield.

Second, Mulligan is popular and respected by community activists and social workers. She is the ranking Republican spokeswoman on the House Appropriations-Human Services Committee, which provides funding for state and local social service agencies. Mulligan regularly interacts with municipal officials, school administrators, community organizations, park boards, seniors' groups and social agencies. The members of that entire socioeconomic stratum, composed of individuals who rely on government funding for their livelihood, are generally disinclined to vote for a Republican, but they worship Mulligan.

Third, Mulligan, of Des Plaines, has her own organization, consisting of people who work only for her. She said she made 5,000 phone calls the last weekend before the election. While Mulligan's geographic base is Des Plaines, her most fervent support comes from Park Ridge, which is why the Democrats ran Park Ridge women against her in 2000, 2002 and 2008. Thus far, all have been lightweights, and all faltered in Park Ridge.

And fourth, Mulligan defined Austriaco negatively before Austriaco defined herself positively -- a fatal mistake for the challenger. Mulligan was a top priority of Illinois House Republican leader Tom Cross, and the party poured nearly $300,000 into direct mail.

A torrent of negative mailings tied Austriaco to beleaguered Governor Rod Blagojevich, alleging that her law firm received $1.46 million in state contracts after donating more than $109,496 since 2002 to Blagojevich. Austriaco denied any involvement in "pay-to-play" reciprocity and said that other attorneys in the firm handled the state contracts, which involved guardianships and mental health issues, but the charges severely damaged her "change" argument.

Austriaco retaliated with mailers attacking Mulligan's voting record and ripping her for opposing Internet filters on public access computers, funding to test water for toxic contaminants and the Democrats' "middle class tax cut." Austriaco also claimed that Mulligan "took money from special interests" and that she has an "anti-environmental voting record."

It mattered not. Any contest featuring an incumbent is a referendum on that incumbent. Mulligan's base of support has become so wide and so deep over the years and consists of so many non-Republicans that Austriaco had an impossible task. She had to both unsell Mulligan, who had no personal scandals and who had a reputation as a thoughtful, socially liberal and fiscally conservative legislator, and sell herself.

A couple of dubious votes did not do it. Nor did being a Republican in a horrendous Republican year. But Mulligan caught a break when Democratic tracking polls in mid-October confirmed that Austriaco was making no headway and would lose. Instead of flooding the district with workers, Illinois House Speaker Mike Madigan shifted his focus to the open 66th District seat (Elk Grove, Mount Prospect, Arlington Heights), and Austriaco's patchy organization had to cover the district's 100 precincts.

In the 33rd Illinois Senate District race, Kotowski, who won in 2006 by just 1,434 votes, swamped Republican Mike Sweeney by 48,058-32,136, getting 59.9 percent of the vote. The district includes the 65th and 66th House districts. Kotowski trounced Sweeney in Maine Township by 17,035-10,716, with 61.4 percent of the vote, which means that something like 6,000 Kotowski voters didn't punch for Austriaco and that about 4,000 Kotowski voters did punch for Mulligan.

There are two lessons to be drawn:

First, a "Kotowski Plan" campaign is viable only in a vacuum. Kotowski began walking precincts in April of 2005, continued through the election, and beat an appointed Republican incumbent, Cheryl Axley, who had no base and no name recognition. Kotowski won votes simply by showing up, following up, and saying little. If Kotowski had a foe of Mulligan's caliber, he would have lost. Austriaco tried the "Kotowski Plan," but her mere presence and her "pretty face" were a woefully insufficient incentive to persuade voters to oust their iconic incumbent.

Second, the Republican base is slowly collapsing in Maine Township. Al Gore beat George Bush in 2000 by 24,729-23,196, with 51.5 percent of the vote, and John Kerry beat George Bush in 2004 by 28,746-24,926, with 53.5 percent of the vote. Obama beat John McCain by 31,638-21,338, getting 58.9 percent of the vote. Compared to 2000, the Democratic vote is up by 6,909 and the Republican vote is down by 1,858.

Plus, there is no Republican bench. If Mulligan retires, there is no obvious successor. Years of squabbling between moderates, led by Thompson, and conservatives, behind township road commissioner Bob Provenzano, has decimated the party. There is no longer any precinct operation.

"I don't know if I'll run for re-election," Mulligan said. She added that with Republicans now in a 70-48 House minority, she has to assess "how effective I can be" in Springfield. Mulligan is not sanguine about her future or the Republicans' if they don't win the Illinois governorship in 2010 and beef up their legislative minorities.

Mulligan predicted that if Democrats control the 2011 redistricting, they will "protect Kotowski" and "put the 41st Ward" into his Senate district -- and into her House district. "That would be tough to win," she acknowledged.