Final Days for Fightin’ Illini

Posted March 8, 2004 at 7:00pm

CHICAGO — As five Democratic Senate candidates sat on stage in front of a packed television studio last week, one question was foremost on the minds of the politicos, campaign aides and consultants who had gathered here: How would millionaire securities trader Blair Hull respond to the barrage of attacks on his character stemming from the recent release of previously sealed divorce documents?

Hull and his messy 1998 divorce from Brenda Sexton took center stage at the debate Thursday night, sponsored by the City Club of Chicago and WTTW Channel 11, the city’s public television station.

In the previous 24 hours, Hull had altered his Chicago media buy twice — shrinking it at first, then expanding it again — finally dumping another $5 million of his personal fortune into his campaign coffers, bringing his total investment to $29 million. Although just the day before there had been widespread speculation that he was preparing to exit the race, it was now apparent that a bloodied Hull was digging in for the last round of the fight.

Hull spent the first four minutes of the debate giving his version of a confrontation that occurred as the couple’s marriage deteriorated.

Hull stressed that charges stemming from the incident were later dropped by a “female prosecutor and female judge,” and he went on to insinuate that Sexton followed up by filing an order of protection against him, which “does occur in many cases, especially when it involves money.”

Hull said he does not remember threatening Sexton’s life but he did admit to calling her names.

“I did use some foul language, I’m sure,” Hull said.

But he then pointed to his first ex-wife, to whom he was married for 29 years, seated with the couple’s four children in the audience, and asked voters to look at his relationships with women and women’s issues throughout his life.

“If you look at the pattern of my life, throughout the 61 years, and you look at this, which was a messy, contentious, financially motivated divorce, I think you can see what happened,” he said.

If Hull’s ex-wife has now forgiven him, the question is whether enough Democratic primary voters are willing to follow suit. Until recently, Hull was leading in some polls. Now, he appears to be trailing state Sen. Barack Obama and state Comptroller Dan Hynes with less than a week before the primary.

After the debate, entrepreneur Daina Jaras said she thought all of the candidates performed well overall in the debate, including Hull. Jaras is still undecided about whom she will vote for on March 16. While she admitted what she’d read about Hull’s divorce didn’t sound good, she appeared to be satisfied after seeing him respond to the accusations in person.

“I wanted to see his eyes and see him respond to that,” said Jaras, who also said she too has been through a divorce, although hers was not as contentious.

“I really didn’t think of him as a wife beater after that,” she added.

Jaras said the debate made her want to take a closer look at the issues each candidate is promoting, before she makes a final decision. And, she again stressed that Hull is still in the mix as far as she’s concerned.

“Blair Hull, I didn’t write him off after this. I thought, well you know, this guy he’s got a lot of money I mean what does he want? Is this going to be an ego thing? I mean does he really want to do something?”

Republican Rose Garden

The media frenzy at the Thursday night Democratic debate was a stark contrast to the GOP Senate debate that had taken place in the same studio the night before.

Audience attendance was sparse, especially considering that college students and campaign staff accounted for almost half of those gathered to watch the event.

Television cameras were also largely absent when the Republican candidates made their way to a podium to take questions after the debate. At the Democratic debate Thursday, more than a half dozen were present, although Hull skipped the opportunity to face reporters afterward.

But the most glaring absence Wednesday was on the WTTW-TV studio’s stage: GOP frontrunner Jack Ryan, who declined the invitation to appear because he had a fundraiser scheduled for that night.

In his absence, the four other Republican candidates had a congenial debate but at times their frustration with Ryan’s absence was clear.

Ryan’s own divorce also became an issue, as retired Air Force Gen. John Borling (R) called on the frontrunner to release sealed portions of his divorce documents. Ryan’s campaign earlier in the day had released files from the Goldman Sachs executive-turned-teacher’s 1999 divorce from actress Jeri Ryan. However, documents pertaining to the couple’s custody fight over their now 9-year-old son were ordered removed from the file earlier.

This was the second GOP forum Ryan had missed in a week.

“What I would just like to call people’s attention to is if you’re not ready to stand in a debate in a Republican primary, how are you going to stand in a debate from March until November?” state Sen. Steve Rausenberger said after the debate. “It’s the larger issue whether the candidate’s ready. He’s the frontrunner in the race because he’s bought commercials on TV. He’s a 30 second messiah. It’s not about my frustration. It’s about the responsibility to the party.”

Businessman Andy McKenna, one of the seven millionaires in the race between the two fields, admitted that Ryan’s absence was not only frustrating but also bad for the process.

“First of all I think it’s bad for the frontrunner, but I think it’s bad for the process,” he said.

A straw poll conducted outside of the Cook County Republican Central Committee debate earlier in the week found Ryan in second place going in and in last place as voters left the forum.

Whatever the sentiment of the party insiders, Ryan’s own internal polls show him with a substantial lead.

Negative Attacks

Meanwhile, the exchanges at the Democratic debate, were much more heated. After trying to take the divorce issue off the table, Hull went on the attack. He accused both Hynes and Obama of being beholden to special interests.

Hull does not take PAC money nor does he take donations from individuals over $100. That method of financing, he argues, makes him the only truly independent candidate in the race.

He charged that both Obama and Hynes had taken more than $100,000 in contributions from the pharmaceutical industry, a figure that both men disputed.

“Neither of us are beholden to special interests,” a clearly offended Hynes said. “We make the right decisions for the right reasons. … I have a record, not just rhetoric but record, of standing up to special interests.”

Former Chicago Board of Education President Gery Chico also stood up on behalf of Obama and Hynes.

“The issue really for me, it’s not just a one-sided issue, Blair you know you’ve been pretty free with your checkbook and you’ve gone out and you’ve done an awful lot of things with that checkbook, and that puts you just as much in the crosshairs as any of us. So I think we have to be careful about this.”

Hull replied, “I’m not implying that they’re doing anything conscious,” he said, as the audience erupted in laughter. “It’s unconscious…”

Hull said his huge investment in the race is “an issue of communicating with all the voters, to try to let them know who Blair Hull is and what I stand for… I think we need some changes. I think the only way we’re going to get change is through electing people that are independent.”

Hynes was angry after the debate.

“I just don’t like the suggestion that because we have to raise money from people that we are somehow beholden to anyone,” he said.

For his part, Obama said that he respects both Hynes and Hull, and he doesn’t begrudge self-financed candidates.

“I do think it’s offensive to imply that unless you’re a self-financed millionaire that you can’t function with integrity in the United States Senate,” Obama said.

At the debate, Hynes and Obama argued that both had given up opportunities to make money in order to pursue a career in public service.

Both Hynes and Obama signaled on Friday that each is prepared for an attack from Hull, both embracing the scrutiny and the opportunity to defend their track records.

“Oh yeah, I’m ready,” Hynes said before leaving the Jefferson Park “El” stop to embark on a downstate fly around tour. “The truth shall set you free. My record will speak for itself and I do believe that any attacks will be so transparent that they won’t be effective.”

The Harsh Glare of the Media

Hull’s efforts to rehabilitate his image following the divorce revelations were further complicated Friday when his ex-wife released a statement complaining about her portrayal in the media.

“I will not be victimized again,” Sexton said.

Nevertheless, the four Hull children appeared at a news conference to defend their father.

In Chicago, the Hull story led the 5 o’clock Friday afternoon local television newscasts, the same medium that beat the drums loudest for Hull to unseal his divorce records.

Expressing some frustration at Hull’s disappearance from the public eye and unavailability to the press, local CBS affiliate political reporter Mike Flantery reports that apparently Hull and his campaign have found “dealing with reporters is more trouble than it’s worth.”

On the local ABC channel, reporter Hank Shaw opened his Hull piece with the query: “Money buys you a lot, but can it buy you regained character?”

The next day, retired television ad salesman Richard Stricker is sitting at the bar at Pizzeria Uno’s, reading about Sexton’s latest statement and Hull’s news conference in the Saturday edition of the Chicago Sun-Times.

Stricker is a Hull supporter who said that the divorce issue is personal and not something that has changed they way that he plans to vote in the race. He notes that he’s voted for Hynes twice for comptroller but this race is different. He likes Hull’s message that he’s the only one in the race who can be truly independent of special interests because he isn’t taking contributions over $100.

“He’s not beholden to anyone,” Stricker said.

Still, he’s not sure Hull will be able to weather the storm enough to make the election night activities his campaign has planned in the Moulin Rouge room at Chicago’s Fairmont Hotel a victory celebration.

“Who knows, he might pull a rabbit out of a hat,” Stricker said. “But I know one thing, he’s going to have one hell of a party election night and I’m going to be there.”

The Organization as Trump Card

A product of Chicago’s vaunted Democratic machine, Hynes has maintained that he is the only candidate in the race who has the statewide turnout organization capable of producing a victory.

For Michael Bauer, an enthusiastic Hynes supporter, the comptroller has the two things any politician needs — substance and viability.

“Dan is the strongest chance for a Democrat to actually reclaim this seat in November, first and foremost,” said Bauer, who attended the debate with the man he calls his husband of 20 years.

“Dan has run twice statewide. He has a very strong base of support and Dan winning the nomination, will win in November,” he said. “I don’t believe that any of the other candidates, that they’re a sure thing. And we need a sure thing in Illinois. Because the most important issue for me is electing a Senator from here who’s going to vote for Tom Daschle, not Bill Frist.”

At Fresh Choice, a local soup, sub and smoothie shop just across the street from Hynes’ campaign headquarters in the Old Town section of Chicago, Michael Novak has just finished lunch with his wife and 5-year-old daughter Tatiana.

When he asks his daughter who she’s going to vote for in November (if she were old enough), she responds quickly with a resounding “Bush!”

But Novak remains undecided about the Senate race and he lists the five candidates in the crowded field he’ll likely choose between: Hull, Hynes, Obama, Ryan and McKenna.

He said although he votes Republican on the national level, he has voted for Democrats on the local and state levels before.

Novack says he hasn’t paid too much attention to the race at this point, he’s read some about it in the newspaper but hasn’t watched any of the debates. He also says that the controversy over Hull’s divorce doesn’t bother him that much, but he wonders whether it might have an impact in the general election.

“If Hull gets the nomination will he be electable in the fall with the divorce thing?” he wonders aloud. His brother-in-law has donated $10,000 to Hynes, whom he says he knows from his father, Tom Hynes, a former Cook County assessor, state Senate president and current ward leaders.

“They’ve been there a long time,” Novak said.

At the debate Thursday night, Hynes admitted that his organization is his campaign’s trump card.

“We had a thousand people last night making phone calls on my behalf” in 12 offices all across the state, he said.

“That’s going to make the difference. The winner of a race should not be who spends the most money. It should be who inspired the most people and we’re going to win that.”

“Take care of the little guy,” implores a woman who hurries by Hynes as he works the ‘El’ station entrance on Friday morning.

“I will, that’s why I’m running,” Hynes responds.

Just before Hynes wraps up the campaign stop, Mark Fredrickson stops to congratulate the comptroller on his debate performance the night before.

Fredrickson, who is running as an Independent against freshman Rep. Rahm Emanuel (D-Ill.) in the 5th district, said the reason Hynes will win is very clear.

“In Chicago, elections, they’re not a matter of addition,” he said, lumping together the Hynes, the Daleys and the Madigans as the first families of Chicago politics. “They’re a matter of subtraction.”

“Illinois political power lies within 20 miles on the northwest side of Chicago,” he said. “It’s a marvelous thing to behold.”

Float Like a Butterfly

As Obama makes his way to the desk in his cluttered campaign office Friday afternoon, he jokingly chides the staff within earshot for the mess, including an open gift box containing a half-eaten brownie someone has left behind.

He’s just returned to his downtown headquarters overlooking Lake Michigan and as an aide comes to remove the brownie box, he sits down to call into an interview with a local sports radio station.

While Obama chats with the host about former Chicago Bulls legend Michael Jordan — who recently cut his campaign a $10,000 check — the athlete pictured on the wall behind him provides perhaps an even more powerful image in the waning days of the hard-fought primary race.

There hangs a framed poster of a raging Muhammad Ali standing over a flattened Sonny Liston during their heavyweight championship fight on May 25, 1965.

“First minute, first round,” the poster reads, referring to the 54 seconds it took Ali to knock out Liston to retain the heavyweight title he had wrested from Liston in February 1964.

Although the Illinois Senate primary race is by now well into its final round, Obama is still cautiously hopeful that victory will be as decisive as the phantom punch was for Ali when voters go to the polls one week from today.

“I think this is going to be a tight, tough final week and a half,” he says after concluding the radio interview. “Every candidate I think has some advantages going into it. We’re just pleased to be in the hunt. And if we continue to execute effectively then I think we can do very well on election day.”

But with a poll published that day showing him taking a slight lead, Obama carefully distances himself from a term that only two weeks before had been attached to Hull’s name.

“I don’t think you’re ever comfortable being a frontrunner when one of your opponents has $500 million,” he tells the radio audience.

Race Matters

Obama is sensitive to media attention that shines a spotlight solely on the issue of his race in the race.

At the Thursday night debate, he bats down the notion that his campaign is solely focused on black voters and shoring up that support base. He has maintained all along that he expects to win with a coalition of voters, and he also has a strong following among white liberals along Chicago’s lakefront.

“I certainly don’t think that I would want to restrict my support to the African Americans any more than Dan would want to restrict his support to whites,” Obama said.

But on the stump it is hard not to detect the current of historical significance that pumps up black audiences as he rallies the base.

If elected, Obama would be the only black member of the Senate and the first to serve in the chamber since then-Sen. Carol Moseley Braun’s 1998 defeat.

At a Saturday rally for Obama at the Community Fellowship MB Church in a largely dilapidated area on Chicago’s West Side, it’s hard to ignore the energy among the young and old voters that fills the fellowship hall.

“I haven’t seen this kind of enthusiasm in the ‘hood in a long time,” Rep. Danny Davis (D-Ill.), who is a co-chairman of Obama’s campaign, said before the rally.

Davis said he has been at events and rallies all day across the city, where he says the energy and excitement for Obama’s candidacy has been equalled.

“The community is beginning to seriously believe and feel that victory is in the air,” Davis said. “Notwithstanding the fact that Blair Hull has spent an enormous amount of money. And notwithstanding the fact that Dan Hynes has the support of the Democratic organization. We used to call it the machine, now we call it the establishment. … I think they’re going to be able to turn something out but they ain’t going to be able to turn out contrary to what we’re going to be able to turn out.”

Introducing her husband at the rally, Michelle Obama gives an impassioned explanation of why the Senate race is symbolic for many reasons. She implores the audience to elect her husband, to not only send a message to Mayor Richard Daley (D) and Gov. Rod Blagojevich (D), but also to black children across the city.

“I am tired of just giving the political process over to the privileged. To the wealthy. To people with the right daddy,” she said, alluding to Hull’s money and Hynes’ political family.

Obama, who is named after his Kenyan father, recalls that the primary question when he entered the race was not about his credibility, it was instead about his viability.

“The question was could a skinny guy, from the South Side, named Barack Obama, actually win a statewide race?” Obama tells the cheering crowd at Saturday’s rally.

He implores the crowd that in order to win the nomination there is still hard work to be done and no room for complacency when he’s facing Hull’s millions and Hynes’ organization.

Floyd Dismuke, a 27-year-old bartender at the Knickerbocker Hotel on the north end of Michigan Avenue’s Magnificent Mile, didn’t attend the Obama rally and he said that until recently he had been leaning toward voting for Hull.

But after the divorce revelations, Dismuke said he’s taken a new look at Obama and clearly he likes what he sees.

“Barack, he sticks up for the little people,” Dismuke said. “Blair Hull, he’s already rich.”

Dismuke, who is black, said he was also impressed with Obama after hearing him speak at his niece’s 8th grade graduation. Then he pauses before adding what is perhaps the most important factor in making his decision about who to vote for next week.

“It’d be nice to have a brother in the Senate,” he said.