Illinois Senate Candidates Eyeing State’s Jewish Voters

By E.J. Kessler

Published May 09, 2003, issue of May 09, 2003.
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Illinois State Comptroller Dan Hynes is considered the early favorite for the Democratic nomination in the race to succeed his state’s Republican senator, Peter Fitzgerald, who decided last month not to run for re-election. The son of another popular politician, Hynes, 34, can count on the support of Cook County’s Democratic machine and his own statewide organization, locals say.

Even so, the Irish-American Hynes, who won his last election by more than a million votes, is not taking any chances. Last Sunday, despite being bogged down by state budget business, Hynes traveled to Chicago to participate in the Walk for Israel in honor of the 55th anniversary of Israel’s independence, according to his campaign.

Months before the March primary, the top contenders among the seven Democrats in the field are hungrily eyeing Illinois’s Jewish voters. Some 300,000 Jews reside in the state, mostly in Chicago and its suburbs. Jews provide a disproportionate share of campaign contributions, and the Jewish vote, while small, has taken on an outsized importance in a crowded race that threatens to become a war over turnout.

“It gets into a numbers game, just like the presidential — 25% to 30% can win this race,” said Chicago political consultant Kevin Lampe, who is not working for any of the contenders. Right now, Lampe said, Hynes has the advantage because he “already has a statewide organization.”

Former Illinois senator Paul Simon told the Forward that the race “is very much up in the air.”

“Dan Hynes is ahead, [State Senator] Barack Obama is No. 2, but [businessman] Blair Hull is talking about spending $40 million, so you can’t count him out,” Simon said, adding that Obama seems to have the most Jewish support, at least among Simon’s friends.

The stakes are high. With the Senate closely divided, the race is expected to attract out-of-state money and already has attracted much national attention. Because Illinois has been leaning Democratic — Al Gore won it in 2000 — Republicans are trying to lure their biggest local gun, moderate former governor Jim Edgar, out of political retirement. Edgar, who reportedly is being urged to run by the White House, was still mulling his decision as the Forward went to press.

The Democratic contenders, who start petitioning in September to qualify for the ballot by December, are not wasting any time before trolling for Jewish votes and money. The four top campaigns contacted for this article all had their arguments for Jewish support at the ready, even as observers said that rank-and-file Jewish voters have not yet focused on the race.

Hynes’s campaign, touting its big statewide vote-getter, is pressing an argument of inevitability and leveraging the power of incumbency. The comptroller met last week in Springfield with a delegation from the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago to discuss social services and reportedly came away with the support of one its young leaders, Michael Zollar.

Hynes also has a prominent Jewish name on his side in finance co-chairman Tom Klutznick, son of the late national B’nai B’rith president Phillip Klutznick. Hynes did not want to be seen as politicking to a reporter while helping Governor Rod Blagojevich plug a huge budget deficit, but spokeswoman Chris Mather said her principal has “the money, the message and the masses,” as well as the endorsements of the electrical workers, carpenters and iron workers.

Obama, who was the first black to head Harvard’s Law Review, represents Hyde Park, the district surrounding the University of Chicago. He is seeking to expand his base among the Lakefront liberals by reconstituting the black-Jewish civil rights coalition. “Blacks and Jews… share a set of core values about the need for government to address injustice,” Obama told the Forward. “It’s a natural coalition that reflects the best of the Democratic Party, particularly now when the Republican Party is unconcerned with social justice issues and seems less interested in promoting the value of tolerance.”

Obama, who has been courting the pro-Israel constituency — last year he co-sponsored a bill authorizing the state to invest in Israel Bonds — is being advised in his bid by consultant David Axelrod, a New York-raised Jew who has had success positioning minority candidates to appeal to Jewish voters. The candidate, who ran unsuccessfully for Congress in 2000, counts among his Jewish supporters former federal judge Abner Mikva, business leader Penny Pritzker, former FCC chairman Newton Minnow and lawyer Alan Solow, a longtime communal leader who told the Forward that Obama “has an excellent chance of capturing the plurality of Jewish voters.”

The campaign of former Chicago school board president Gery Chico, a former chief of staff to Chicago Mayor Richard Daley, cites Chico’s history of helping Illinois Jews on the educational front, and the fact that the Hispanic candidate was once married to a Jew, raised his three daughters Jewish and is the managing partner of an old-line Jewish law firm, Altheimer & Gray. Campaign manager Michael Golden hastens to add that he is Jewish and once worked for the Anti-Defamation League. Chico’s supporters include real estate mogul Neil Bluhm and Chicago Alderman Bernie Stone, who represents the 50th Ward, the city’s most heavily Jewish district.

Meanwhile, Hull, a novice politician who made more than $300 million when he sold his commodity-trading business, has pledged to spend more than $20 million to gain the nomination and has already outspent anyone running for Senate in 2004, according to the Chicago Sun-Times. Hull’s chief Jewish supporter, Jake Morowitz, chairman of the ADL’s Chicago/Upper Midwest region, compared Hull to New Jersey Senator Jon Corzine and New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, and said that Hull has been “an active supporter of the Jewish community a long time before he had any political motivation for doing so.”

Others who have said they are running include Chicago health administrator Joyce Washington, Cook County Treasurer Maria Pappas and Metamora Mayor Matthew O’Shea.

Hull has put almost $2 million into the race so far, but Chico has raised the most money of the contenders, almost $1.8 million since he joined the race last year. Hynes, a recent entrant, collected $897,065 in the last quarter, while Obama raised $231,885 last quarter for a total of $522,395 since November.

Lampe, the Chicago political consultant, said Obama “needs to increase his fundraising to be competitive” but showed strength in the suburbs in his prior congressional run.

“I don’t have the name of a Kennedy, Daley or Hynes, and it means I don’t get any free votes,” Obama acknowledged. “People don’t walk in and say, ‘I have to vote for Obama today.’ But I’m confident I’ll have enough money to develop a message and motivate core voters…. If I already had $5 million in the bank, this race would be over.”

Former state senator Howard Carroll, another longtime Jewish officeholder, predicted that Hynes would prevail because last election he was the top vote-getter and gathered thousands of young people to his campaign. Hynes’s father, former State Senate president Thomas Hynes, was the state’s go-to guy in the Clinton years, Carroll noted.

Some Democratic hands in Illinois, however, are looking for a deus ex machina if former governor Edgar enters the race.

“The wild card is somebody by the name of Daley — not Richard, but William,” Alderman Stone said, referring to the mayor’s brother, a Texas executive who ran Gore’s presidential campaign. “Don’t be surprised if the former secretary of commerce wants to get back into public life. If he decides to go for Senate, it would chase everybody out.”

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