Will Fourth Time Be the Charm?

Posted January 4, 2008 at 6:26pm

BATAVIA, Ill. — Wealthy Chicagoland milkman Jim Oberweis (R) is accustomed to being the affordable choice.

Just out of college in the late 1960s, Oberweis was delivering a milk bid for his father’s eponymous dairy business to a Chicago-area junior high school. He joked that he was a teacher looking for a job. The principal cornered him on the spot.

“At the time, there was a shortage of teachers,” Oberweis said in an interview at his campaign headquarters here just before Christmas. “Prior to that I’d never thought about teaching.”

“There were two reasons I got the job: One, I was much bigger — this was a school that was not in the best neighborhood,” he speculated. “And I was also much cheaper” than a more qualified candidate for the job.

More than four decades after his short-lived teaching lark, Oberweis’ affordable price tag continues to be one of his biggest selling points nowadays in Land of Lincoln Republican circles. Oberweis, who’s running in a close Republican primary with Illinois state Sen. Chris Lauzen (R) to represent former Speaker Dennis Hastert’s (R-Ill.) primarily exurban Chicago district, late last year received a perhaps less-than-enthusiastic endorsement from the one-time wrestling coach.

But armed with Hastert’s coronation, a pledge to “spend whatever it takes to win,” and Lauzen’s gaffes piling up almost weekly, for Oberweis, the fourth time may be a charm.

He already has run three unsuccessful self-funded campaigns for statewide office in recent years. Now he may be on the threshold of being elected to Congress.

A ballot test released by Oberweis’ campaign last week suggested 46 percent of Republican voters would pick the former math and science teacher over Lauzen, who was supported by 34 percent of the 300 likely primary voters surveyed.

The poll, conducted by McLaughlin and Associates for Oberweis in mid-December, had a 5.7-point margin of error.

Two months earlier, 41 percent of likely voters surveyed picked Oberweis, while 37 percent chose Lauzen.

A local Republican official, who declined to be named, disputed the poll’s reported double-digit Oberweis lead. The source argued that the race is still competitive but conceded that Lauzen’s recent bellyaching to the Chicago press and other recent stumbles may sour GOP primary voters who go to the polls next month. On Feb. 5, local voters will pick a Democrat and a Republican to square off in a special election for the remainder of Hastert’s current term, as well as the full two-year term beginning in January 2009.

The Chicago Tribune first reported last month that Lauzen and his family were planning to attend the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, Calif., on New Year’s Day. Lauzen, who confirmed that he did contact the University of Illinois to ask if his name could be added to a list of state lawmakers receiving free tickets, appeared to melt down to the Tribune reporter.

“… Where else am I going to call?” Lauzen asked the reporter. He later said “politics is a ‘crappy business’ that has cost [my] family millions of dollars.”

“This is really a horrible, horrible business,” he continued to the reporter. “Although my name is on the list, I am taking it off the list because I want no perception of using a privilege that my constituents don’t have. I don’t even use the Senate license plates on my 10-year-old Buick with 211,000 miles on it. Before I got into this, I used to drive different cars.”

The local Republican official said that although the electorate is willing to forgive some gaffes, Lauzen, whose temper is well-known, needs to tighten the reins — particularly this close to the primary. If not, he suggested Lauzen may undo his otherwise well-run political operation and a double-digit Oberweis primary victory could become a reality.

“[Lauzen] just learned the basic lesson that when you’re mad, you don’t return press calls,” the source said. “He’s just an idiot that way.”

In addition to a potential political unraveling by Lauzen, the source also suggested that Oberweis’ long-held, hard-line positions on illegal immigration likely will ingratiate the dairy magnate in white, working- and middle-class neighborhoods in the eastern parts of the district, where once-quiet corn fields have quickly turned into a suburban caricature of sport utility vehicles, strip malls and big-box stores.

Many immigrants have flocked there to take service jobs, critics claim, filling schools and stressing social services.

“People wish [immigrants] weren’t here,” the source said. “Now, they wouldn’t say that in public — these are still the kind of people that want to hire somebody to have their $500,000 home’s lawn manicured.”

Both candidates appear game for trying to tap into this angst. But Oberweis, in particular, may have the edge. He has run in recent years almost exclusively on what to do with the 10 million-plus undocumented workers in the United States — not always to great success.

In 2004, while running to replace retiring Sen. Peter Fitzgerald (R-Ill.), Oberweis aired a controversial television ad in which he flew a helicopter above Soldier Field to show how many immigrants without the right documentation enter the country through legal channels every week — roughly 65,000.

He now admits it probably wasn’t the best idea.

“The commercial did not communicate our position well enough,” Oberweis said. “The tone was harsh and the American public was not ready for the message four years ago. “

But timing, again, appears to be in Oberweis’ favor. With parochial anger in the GOP base running red-hot, his identification with the issue may tilt the race in his favor.

“I have no problem with legal immigration, it’s those that break the law. I expected the No. 1 question would be about Iraq. It wasn’t. The No. 1 question I had was about immigration … more than all of the other issues combined,” Oberweis said. “We as taxpayers are paying for it, through subsidized education costs, through paying medical care costs and other social services.”

A Republican source close to Hastert said Oberweis was “ahead of his time” on the immigration issue but failed to understand that few voters cared in the immediate aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

Oberweis’ shortsightedness, the source suggested, has been a liability for the sometimes undisciplined candidate.

“[Oberweis] has a tin ear and doesn’t know how to use issues appropriately,” the source said.

The Hastert confidant also suggested that the former Speaker was less than pleased with having to make a choice between either Oberweis or Lauzen, a longtime political rival. But ultimately “Denny does care about what happens after he’s gone.”

The source said the former Speaker picked the more even-handed Oberweis, who “has better temperament, better judgment and a better ability to work and get things done for the district.”

“Unfortunately the field is one of these two idiots,” the source said. “If you just look at these two, Oberweis is the more practical choice in that he certainly has a good chance in winning and he’s someone that’ll try to work to get some things done and bring people together, than be a lightning rod all the time.”

Oberweis, who was by then a wealthy dairy magnate and investment banker, first ran for public office in 2002. He was enlisted by Land of Lincoln Republicans to run against first-term Democratic Sen. Dick Durbin, who ultimately spent nearly $5 million to keep his seat. Oberweis threw in more than $1 million out of his own pocket, according to CQ MoneyLine, coming in second to state Rep. Jim Durkin (R) in the GOP primary.

He lost again in the 2004 primary to replace Fitzgerald, a race ultimately won by now-Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.). He also lost a 2006 gubernatorial bid in the primary. All told, Oberweis coughed up more than $6 million for these races.

A Republican source said party officials took his deep pockets into consideration.

“In Illinois, we have three open [House] seats plus potentially two targeted incumbents,” the source said. “Obviously for the [National Republican Congressional Committee], if you have a self-funder out there, that’s helpful.”

So far, Oberweis his written his 2008 campaign a check for $1 million. But unlike other races, he is not limiting his personal financial involvement in the race.

“I’ll be there for whatever it takes to win,” he said. “End of discussion.”