Democrats Make a Play for Hastert Seat

Posted June 27, 2007 at 6:43pm

It would be difficult to find a Republican, or Democrat, in Washington, D.C., or Illinois who thinks former Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) will seek a 12th term next year.

Even with the tantalizing prospect of an open seat dangling in front of both parties, Democrats seem to be the only ones mobilizing.

“I think it speaks to the real appetite for change in the district and the frustration on the part of voters that not much is being done in Washington,” said Thomas Bowen, campaign manager for physicist Bill Foster (D).

Foster already has a team in place, dropped his first mailing and declared this week that he intends to spend $1 million of his own money to secure the 14th district Democratic nomination and another $1 million if he makes it to the general election. But he will not have the Democratic field to himself.

St. Charles attorney Jotham Stein began his campaign in January. John Laesch, the little-known candidate who took 40 percent of the vote against Hastert last year, intends to try again. And state Rep. Linda Chapa LaVia (D) has formed an exploratory committee.

Interested Republicans are hamstrung until Hastert announces his departure from Congress, which is expected no later than mid-August. Hastert aides have said the man who holds the longevity record for Republican Speakers will make his plans known before Congress adjourns for the August recess.

Geneva Mayor Kevin Burns established an exploratory committee. He is expected to be joined in the GOP race by state Sen. Chris Lauzen and Jim Oberweis, the wealthy dairy owner who has run unsuccessfully for Senate and governor.

According to knowledgeable Republicans, state Rep. Tim Schmitz, a favorite of many Hastert allies, now seems unlikely to run.

Officials at the National Republican Congressional Committee say the suburban Chicago district will stay in GOP hands regardless of who their nominee is. The 14th, with its Kane County population base, gave President Bush 55 percent of the 2004 presidential vote, 11 points better than he did statewide.

But Democrats say the district slowly has become more Democratic. Given the Prairie State’s preference for Democratic presidential candidates and the possibility that Illinois’ own Sen. Barack Obama could be the Democratic nominee, Democrats like their chances.

“Whether Dennis Hastert retires or not, there is a strong appetite for change in Illinois and the environment is only going to get worse for the GOP in 2008,” said Ryan Rudominer, a Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee spokesman.

As for Foster’s resources and early push, NRCC spokesman Ken Spain retorted: “He will need every red cent he can get his hands on because this is a safe Republican district.”

Foster, who has spent the last six months working as a fellow for freshman Rep. Patrick Murphy (D-Pa.), made his money early.

At just 19, Foster and his brother started making lights for use in theatres, rock concerts, school plays and the like. His 24 percent stake in what is now known as Electronic Theatre Controls Inc. is worth between $5 million and $25 million, according to his personal financial disclosure report.

From there he went on to earn numerous degrees, including his doctorate in physics from Harvard University. Foster spent 22 years with the prestigious Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory, culminating in being part of the discovery of the heaviest known form of matter, the top quark.

Foster left Fermilab last year and got political. He worked on Murphy’s winning campaign and followed him to Washington.

Although Foster still is a political novice, Bowen said that will not be a hindrance.

“I think what voters are going to be looking for is someone who can address their real problems, like global warming, bringing home the troops from Iraq, achieving energy independence and getting more stem-cell research,” Bowen said.

Foster has surrounded himself with seasoned consultants.

Squier Knapp Dunn is handling his media, Global Strategy Group is overseeing polling and Peter Giangreco of the Chicago-based Strategy Group is in charge of mail.

Giangreco worked on Obama’s 2004 Senate campaign and is now the Iowa point man for his presidential campaign.

Chapa LaVia is the only Democratic contender who has held public office. She won a third term last year with 73 percent of the vote, and visited Washington in February and met with DCCC Chairman Chris Van Hollen (Md.), House Democratic Caucus Chairman Rahm Emanuel (Ill.) and a number of unions.

Her spokesman, Ron Cook, said she enjoys good relationships with both Obama and Sen. Dick Durbin (Ill.) not to mention state House Speaker Michael Madigan, who also serves as chairman of the state Democratic Party.

“Democrats in this district to succeed need someone who has already succeeded in electoral politics in this district,” Cook said.

Yet, Chapa LaVia has said she will only pull the trigger if Hastert bows out.

Illinois moved up its traditional March primary to Feb. 5, 2008. Candidates can begin collecting signatures to get on the ballot in mid-August.

That change both shortens the campaign and basically requires Hastert to step aside once petitions begin circulating.

As for Hastert, “he remains an active and engaged Member of Congress,” according to John McGovern, Hastert’s top political aide. “If he has an announcement, he’ll make it at the appropriate time.”