Subject: RICH MILLER'S WEEKLY NEWSPAPER COLUMN
"It's been anticlimactic," sighed a top House Democratic operative last week when asked about some of the Chicago-area primary races.
For months, House Speaker Michael Madigan's operation was expecting an onslaught from Gov. Rod Blagojevich and his allies against a handful of their Chicago incumbents. Madigan advised his incumbents to take leaves of absence from their day jobs, walk precincts like never before and raise and spend money like their lives depended on it. The speaker placed staff all over the city and parts of the suburbs, and ran the full program for his people.
At least two Democratic challengers have told others in recent days that they felt abandoned by the governor. They were recruited into the race with grandiose promises of money and staff, and ended up holding an empty bag.
* Sharon Latiker, of the city's South Side, works for the administration and ran against House Majority Leader Barbara Flynn Currie two years ago. She was mostly on her own last time around, but was reportedly promised bigtime help by the administration if she ran again, but that help never came. Latiker, as a result, has been a no-show on the campaign trail. She's done almost nothing and hasn't reported raising a dime.
* Toni Ashmore had been considered a potentially dangerous opponent for appointed freshman Rep. Al Riley (D-Olympia Fields). An attractive candidate who holds office in the region and is married to a high-level administration official, she had all the signs of trouble for Madigan's operation. Ashmore put up a billboard on the Dan Ryan Expressway early in the campaign, which some predicted would be the first of many campaign expenditures.
Ashmore did do a little campaigning and the House Democrats were forced to spend money to make sure she didn't move up in the polling. But a bit over a week before the primary she told a political consultant that she was still trying to learn about fundraising and direct mail. After raising just $4,600 last year, she reported no fundraising at all in January. Riley, meanwhile, got a steady stream of cash and services from Madigan and various interest groups and lobbyists.
* Perhaps the most vigorous campaign from the list of expected Blagojevich-backed challengers was Stanley Moore's race against Rep. Monique Davis (D-Chicago). But Moore, a former member of Senate Democratic staff, deserves much of the credit. He was also helped by Sen. Donne Trotter (D-Chicago), his old boss on staff. Some other races that were once considered seriously in play - like Rep. Art Turner's primary on Chicago's West Side - only showed signs of life because of help from Senators like Rickey Hendon.
So, what happened? Why didn't Blagojevich pull the trigger on Madigan's members?
Perhaps the governor realized that launching an all-out assault on well-prepared incumbents was doomed to fail and would further damage any efforts to split Madigan's caucus in his favor. The decision by the Service Employees International Union to stay out of almost all of the primaries was obviously a huge blow to the governor, who has counted on the union's giant bank account over the years. Without that union's money and ground troops, the governor would not have any deniability when the media came calling and wouldn't be able to field a credible street-level fight.
A whole lot of House Democrats, however, point to the governor's fundraising report for evidence of why he stayed out of the race.
Blagojevich spent over a million dollars on legal bills last year alone (and that's just what we know about), so quite a few Democrats believe the governor is hoarding his campaign fund resources for himself. If the US Attorney successfully prosecutes Tony Rezko, the investigation will almost assuredly move up the ladder. Even the relatively staid Charlie Wheeler at Illinois Issues magazine wrote this month that the governor's indictment "seems a certainty." Spending or diverting several hundred thousand dollars to House primaries of doubtful winnability would be foolish in that environment.
Then there's his poll numbers, which are awful. Madigan would surely attach any of those candidates directly to the unpopular Blagojevich, so challenging the incumbents probably would've been money down the drain.
And maybe, just maybe, the governor realized that a full-blown war with Madigan would destroy any chance he had left of accomplishing anything this year. We can only hope.
Rich Miller also publishes Capitol Fax, a daily political newsletter, and thecapitolfaxblog.com.
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