Two Tough Cookies Compete in Illinois

Posted October 1, 2008 at 6:50pm

MORRIS, Ill. — With more than a month still to go until local voters pick retiring Rep. Jerry Weller’s (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 Sunday’s Grundy County Corn Festival in central Illinois. “I don’t watch [television] because of it — I don’t like either one going after the other.”

But the 70-year-old Joliet resident ain’t 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 race’s 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 who’s 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 hour’s 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 it’s 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 who’d gotten cold feet, says a big part of his strategy is driving up Halvorson’s negatives by associating her with Rod Blagojevich (D), the Land of Lincoln’s unpopular governor who continues to battle corruption allegations.

“We have obviously been trying to point out my opponent’s relationship with the governor,” Ozinga says. “Because of our opponent’s relationship with the governor, in terms of her leadership position, we’re 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.

“There’s a lot of sentiment for someone who’s not a politician, who came out of the community, who came out of business,” he says. “That’s 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.

“Jerry’s been around every once in a while, but he’s not been very active,” Ozinga says. “Jerry’s been positive and friendly, but he’s 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, EMILY’s List has spent almost $100,000 already softening up Ozinga, while Freedom’s 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 it’s 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 won’t spend the money because he’s 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 Sunday’s parade line.

‘I’m 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.

Halvorson’s 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 Blagojevich’s ongoing woes could trickle down into her race, she immediately brushes aside any suggestion that she is even part of the equation.

“It’s 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 there’s dysfunction everywhere, but that’s 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.

“That’s 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.”

“I’m [now] selling a product: me,” she adds. “And I’m talking about my proven record instead of a proven product, having that tenacity, that excitement wherever I go is very transferable.”

Winning Ugly?

But Ozinga, owner of a large concrete company with hundreds of employees, brings his own atypical boardroom experience to the table in this year’s 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, it’s 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 he’s 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 Sunday’s 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.

“There’s ‘ugly,’ as far as, ‘I think I can do a better job,’ and then there’s ‘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 Dahl’s point. A self- financing candidate in a solidly Republican House district abutting Weller’s 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 Halvorson’s 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 don’t 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.

“They’ll vote for me,” he says. “I’m their best friend because of all the jobs I’ve created.”