Populist Pappas

Her Impact on Senate Race Unclear

Posted September 9, 2003 at 6:04pm

With a total of eight Democrats already vying to replace retiring Sen. Peter Fitzgerald (R-Ill.), the fact that the field is likely to grow by one more this fall might seem insignificant.

However, when that ninth contender is Cook County Treasurer Maria Pappas (D), the name alone is enough to get the attention of her would-be primary rivals and Democratic Party leaders.

Pappas, who has no political organization, no campaign committee and spent most of the summer out of the country, insists that she is running in the March 16, 2004, primary. She has said she will not move to formally activate her campaign until October, after county property tax bills are due.

Still, she is described by observers as a colorful wild card in the race — someone who could have a significant impact on determining the party’s eventual nominee.

“Whatever the professional politicians think about her, she’s a formidable votegetter and people like her,” said David Axelrod, media consultant to state Sen. Barack Obama, one of the leading Democrats in the primary. “I’m sure that she will be a factor in this race.”

Early polling — generally a reflection of name identification above all else — has perpetuated her status among the top contenders.

In a Harstad Strategic Research Inc. poll conducted for Obama in July, Pappas and Obama both drew 14 percent of the vote. The survey also revealed that Pappas was known by 66 percent of Democratic primary voters, a name ID percentage equal to that of state Comptroller Dan Hynes, another leading contender for the party’s nomination. Hynes, who is officially kicking off his bid this weekend, led in the overall matchup, with 21 percent of the vote.

“Maria has already won countywide and people know her,” said Chicago-based Democratic strategist Kitty Kurth. She added that Pappas, who does not have to give up her current job, would be “stupid not to” run.

“She’s got money and she can raise money,” Kurth said, adding she believes Pappas’ campaign coffers will be bolstered by Chicago’s Greek community, which she said may not traditionally vote Democratic but could be an important fundraising bloc.

Kurth’s firm is currently working on former Sen. Carol Moseley Braun’s (D-Ill.) presidential campaign, and until recently she was a paid consultant to millionaire investment banker Blair Hull, who is also seeking the Democratic Senate nomination.

“I think Maria has a great shot. She’s feisty,” Kurth said. “If she has someone running her campaign who helps her maintain campaign discipline, she’ll be fine.”

Feisty is just one of many adjectives used in Illinois political circles to describe Pappas, who did not return phone calls seeking comment for this story. Outspoken, frank and colorful are a few others or, as Axelrod put it, “she’s wild and she’s a card.”

Pappas’ official biography notes that she plays the piano and is known for twirling a baton in area parades and competing in triathlons. She also carries a toy poodle, Koukla, in her purse.

Still, her ability to draw votes in the Senate race is not to be taken lightly, especially when, Axelrod noted, 65 percent of the vote in a Democratic primary comes from Cook County. Furthermore, approximately 75 percent of the primary electorate lives in the Chicago media market.

“She doesn’t necessarily comport with the sort of political orthodoxy about how to campaign,” he noted. “She twirls her baton and tours with her dog. But people like her. I don’t think people should underestimate her.”

Pappas has said she plans to run an unconventional grassroots campaign, one where it doesn’t appear likely she will rely on traditional fundraising and organization. She was the only Senate hopeful who did not appear at the Illinois State fair’s Democratic Day last month, an all but required stop for ambitious statewide candidates.

But not all Democrats appear to be willing to welcome her into the race with open arms.

One party strategist, who requested anonymity, charged Pappas with running a glamour campaign and said some Democrats “are shaking their heads that this cartoonish character may be on the ballot.” The strategist argued that much of Pappas’ base is already aligned with other candidates and predicted that she would not have the ability to connect with voters outside of Chicago.

“Democrats here are questioning her placement in the polls,” said the strategist. “We think that these numbers are inflated because of the sampling and an oversample in Cook County, instead of spreading it out throughout the state.”

The strategist also suggested that Pappas may have trouble pulling together a campaign team, with so many other candidates draining the state’s political talent pool.

Kurth, however, said she didn’t think Pappas would have any trouble organizing, even if she is months behind other candidates in getting in the race.

“If she builds [the campaign] they will come, both the voters and the talent,” Kurth said.

It remains to be seen which, if any, of the other candidates Pappas’ candidacy might hurt the most. Both Kurth and Axelrod said Pappas is likely to run well on the Lakefront and in the Chicago suburbs.

She is also expected to appeal strongly to women, which could hurt all of the other candidates in the long run. Former health care executive Joyce Washington and talk show host Nancy Skinner are the only other women in the race, but neither is considered a top-tier candidate.

“She pulls a little bit from everywhere, but I think she really pulls the most from the people who haven’t even thought about the race yet,” Kurth said. “It’s a crowded field. There are a lot of guys. Women do well statewide in Illinois.”

A spokeswoman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee welcomed the likely addition of Pappas to the race.

“The weakness of the Republican field continues to haunt the GOP party and yet again we have a tested elected official who believes this race is winnable,” said DSCC spokeswoman Stacey Zolt, who is based in Illinois.