Two Tough Cookies Compete in Illinois
MORRIS, Ill. With more than a month still to go until local voters pick retiring Rep. Jerry Wellers (R) successor, Jan Bartel already is sick of it all. Tired of the mudslinging, the name-calling and, most of all, the political ads, robocalls and direct mail.
They are nasty, Bartel says as she stands along the parade route during Sundays Grundy County Corn Festival in central Illinois. I dont watch [television] because of it I dont like either one going after the other.
But the 70-year-old Joliet resident aint seen nothing yet.
The 11th district has been pegged by Democrats and Republicans alike as the backdrop for a gruesome House showdown this cycle. Money continues to pour into the highly competitive race, and there is little indication of it letting up.
Amping up the races intensity are the candidates themselves, whose distinctive stump styles stem from years spent outside of button-downed Washington, D.C., and who look and play their parts: Debbie Halvorson, the fast-talking former Mary Kay cosmetics saleswoman whos a top state Senate Democrat in Springfield, and Republican Martin Ozinga, the stout, subdued concrete mixer who has built an empire working the Chicago political machine.
Both candidates showed up last Sunday for the early afternoon festivities in this central Illinois town about an hours drive southwest of Chicago. Amid the firetrucks, beer tents and vendors hawking funnel cakes, pork chops on a stick and other flyover-state delicacies, the candidates spoke candidly about the strong stomach it will take to make it until Nov. 4 and where their moxie comes from.
From now until Election Day its going to be a slugfest, Ozinga declares.
The Ties That Bind
Ozinga, who was drafted by local Republican Party leaders to replace a primary winner whod gotten cold feet, says a big part of his strategy is driving up Halvorsons negatives by associating her with Rod Blagojevich (D), the Land of Lincolns unpopular governor who continues to battle corruption allegations.
We have obviously been trying to point out my opponents relationship with the governor, Ozinga says. Because of our opponents relationship with the governor, in terms of her leadership position, were highlighting that as much as we can.
A political newcomer, Ozinga and his team also are attempting to paint Halvorson as the incumbent in a year most political insiders expect will be bad for the status quo. And with so much trouble for the political establishment, Ozinga says voters are looking for business leaders to replace career politicians like Halvorson, who are out of touch with Main Street.
Theres a lot of sentiment for someone whos not a politician, who came out of the community, who came out of business, he says. Thats the contrast here. … It is a referendum on the dissatisfaction with the government as it is and the idea that we can bring people from the community with a lot of experience.
To perhaps prove his point, the concrete baron is not reaching out to the incumbent Weller for support. The retiring lawmaker stepped aside earlier in the cycle after news accounts exposed his questionable Central American land deals. Since declaring his candidacy, Ozinga says his campaign has not made a conscious decision one way or another to stay away from Weller.
Jerrys been around every once in a while, but hes not been very active, Ozinga says. Jerrys been positive and friendly, but hes not active.
The burning question in the minds of many Republicans is whether Ozinga will subsidize his candidacy, which may bring some parity to the lopsided spending war. As of July 1, Ozinga had raised $881,000, while Halvorson brought in $1.27 million. Even more, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has already shoveled more than $600,000 into the race, mailing ad pieces and airing ads hammering Ozinga.
Even more, EMILYs List has spent almost $100,000 already softening up Ozinga, while Freedoms Watch has bankrolled anti-Halvorson robocalls and is expected to get more involved in the closing weeks of the election.
Last Sunday, Ozinga renewed early promises not to significantly finance his campaign out-of-pocket, suggesting that his total sum would be around $300,000.
I think its a wrong-headed idea for Republicans or Democrats to be looking for candidates that come in as self-funders, Ozinga says. We might step up with a little bit here or there.
But Halvorson says Ozinga wont spend the money because hes scared of her.
Every day, as things get better for me and worse for him, he may not want to put his own money in, the state Senate Majority Leader said while standing in Sundays parade line.
Im Selling a Product: Me
Amid the long string of adjectives that are used to describe Halvorson, the word subtle is listed nowhere. While many politicians are linguistically opaque answering a question with another question or rambling through rehearsed bland catch phrases Halvorson is startlingly direct.
Halvorsons fondness for cutting to the chase is no less apparent than when she discusses Blagojevich, himself a walking stereotype of the catchphrase politician. When asked about whether Blagojevichs ongoing woes could trickle down into her race, she immediately brushes aside any suggestion that she is even part of the equation.
Its his unpopularity and his lack of wanting to work with the Legislature, Halvorson fires back. Whenever you see dysfunction at the top, people like to think that theres dysfunction everywhere, but thats not the case.
And that was that.
Halvorson says that her many years of selling cosmetics in suburban living rooms and alongside soccer fields helped fashion her direct political style. Cosmetics salespeople for home-based businesses such as Mary Kay and Avon practice a cutthroat form of capitalism, where every neighbor is a potential customer, every competitor is an enemy, and no sale means no paycheck.
I did very well, Halvorson says.
Although she never got the keys to a coveted pink Mary Kay Cadillac the reward for top salespeople along the way she did appear to control a small suburban cosmetics fiefdom, collecting a portion of her underlings sales and learning a number of skills that now undoubtedly serve her well.
Thats what helped me be a better public speaker, Halvorson says. You promote yourself. A lot of the skills that I learned along the way were very much transferable.
Im [now] selling a product: me, she adds. And Im talking about my proven record instead of a proven product, having that tenacity, that excitement wherever I go is very transferable.
But Ozinga, owner of a large concrete company with hundreds of employees, brings his own atypical boardroom experience to the table in this years matchup. His mixing trucks are ubiquitous along the seemingly endless stretch of Chicagoland-area highways, no doubt the prize after years of arm-twisting and tough negotiating for lucrative construction deals.
In a state with almost zero campaign finance regulation, a heavy union presence and one-party control of both Chicago and Springfield, its not a line of work for the fainthearted. And yes, along the way there likely was plenty of political hand greasing. In fact, Ozinga now has to defend to skeptical Republicans why hes given more than $35,000 to Democratic candidates and causes in recent years.
Being in the concrete business is tough, and having to be strong is not unusual, Ozinga says.
But a brash, no-holds-barred style that works selling cosmetics or concrete is not necessarily a winning recipe in politics, even in Illinois. On hand for last Sundays parade festivities was state Sen. Gary Dahl, a Republican whose district overlaps with the 11th Congressional district. Dahl has warned the candidates against clogging up airwaves, mailboxes and phone lines with too many ad hominem attacks in the coming weeks.
Theres ugly, as far as, I think I can do a better job, and then theres ugly and it gets personal, Dahl says. If it gets to that, it could turn people off.
Local dairy czar Jim Oberweis (R) lackluster performance earlier this year appears to prove Dahls point. A self- financing candidate in a solidly Republican House district abutting Wellers to the north, Oberweis spent months ruthlessly trashing his primary opponent, a tactic that likely cost him the special election to a political unknown, now-Rep. Bill Foster (D-Ill.).
The one thing that Ozinga and Halvorson agree on is that presidential nominee Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) will win this Republican-leaning district, which takes up southwestern suburban blue-collar areas in LaSalle and Will counties, but also many outlying small towns like Morris, population 13,000.
Both candidates claim they will compete for votes among union members in the suburban areas closest to Chicago, home to perhaps one of the highest concentrations of union households in the country and a likely battleground for the candidates. President Bush won the two counties in 2004, but Will County is Halvorsons home base and she has won districtwide as the local Democratic committeewoman.
Halvorson has historically enjoyed support from labor groups like the Chicago Teamsters, which endorsed her in the primary earlier this year. But union members dont always vote in lock step with union bosses and, once in the polling booth, Ozinga predicts they will pick the candidate who butters their bread.
Theyll vote for me, he says. Im their best friend because of all the jobs Ive created.