Everybody hates the phone company


By Rick Miller

Illinois Bell, Ameritech, SBC. Whatever you call it, the phone company's name appears to be mud with at least some Illinois voters.

Last year, you may remember, Texas-based mega-corporation SBC muscled a bill through both the Illinois House and Senate that opponents claimed would double some local phone bills. The legislation forced the Illinois Commerce Commission to increase the wholesale rates SBC could charge its competitors. The bill passed in less than a week and Governor Blagojevich signed the measure immediately after it hit his desk. A public uproar ensued, but a federal court later blocked the bill.

Anyway, a poll was taken a few days ago in a northern Lake County House district. The survey found that 83 percent of voters would be less likely to vote for state Rep. Bob Churchill (R-Lake Villa) because he voted for the SBC bill.

An 83 percent "less likely" response is almost unheard of these days. It's an exceedingly rare result. Most campaign strategists go all slobbery at the thought of even a 65 percent "less likely to vote for a candidate" result. But 85 percent? You'd have thought Churchill was busted burning an American flag while robbing an orphanage.

Any issue that polls over 45 percent "less likely to vote" can be used to generate some traction. Over 70 percent can be deadly. But 80 percent is often fatal, if the issue is spun properly with voters and the targeted candidate is not otherwise super-strong.

The Churchill results quickly rippled throughout the state. After all, the logic goes, if voters in a relatively pro-business suburban district like Churchill's are this upset, imagine how the rest of the state is reacting.

The SBC bill has also been an issue in several legislative primaries this spring. Rep. Charles Morrow's opponent, Milt Patterson, has slammed Morrow (D-Chicago) for voting "Present" on the bill.

Rep. Lou Lang's opponent, Mike Moses, criticized Lang (D-Skokie) in one mailer for his "Yes" vote. Moses' mailer, however, was disjointed and a bit confusing. If he had focused more on this issue, and sent out several more anti-SBC/Lang mailers, he might have had a better shot at unseating the incumbent.

Rep. Suzie Bassi has repeatedly patted herself on the back during her campaign for voting against the SBC bill, and her opponents have been forced to agree that this was the right thing to do (although Bassi actually voted "Present").

Appointed state Rep. Pat Verschoore (D-Milan) voted for the bill, which may leave him open to a last minute blitz by his opponent, Clarence Darrow. David Young has also not used the "Yes" vote against his Dem primary opponent, Rep. Annazette Collins (D-Chicago).

Looking ahead to the fall elections, a large handful of incumbents could suffer varying degrees of vulnerability because of their votes on the SBC legislation if the Churchill results can be repeated elsewhere.

Rep. Beth Coulson (R-Glenview), a Tier One target, voted "Present," as did Tier One target Kathy Ryg (D-Vernon Hills) and Tier One target Sen. Gary Forby (Benton).

Rep. Bob Flider (D-Decatur), a Tier Two target, voted "Yes," as did Tier Two target Rep. Jack Franks (Woodstock). Franks held a press conference attacking the bill and then switched his vote at the last minute, making him even more vulnerable. Rep. Michael McAuliffe (R-Chicago) voted "Yes," while his Dem opponent, Rep. Ralph Capparelli (D-Chicago), voted "No." Sen. Larry Walsh (D-Elwood) voted "Yes." Walsh is running for Will County Executive this fall.

On the other side, US Senate candidate Barack Obama, Tier One target Sen. John Sullivan (D-Rushville), Tier One target Sen. Pat Welch (D-Peru) and Tier Two target Sen. Susan Garrett (D-Lake Forest) all voted against the SBC bill. Rep. Mike Boland (D-East Moline), who is in a relatively hot primary and may face tough opposition this fall, voted "No." Tier One target Rep. Naomi Jakobsson (D-Urbana) also voted "No," as did Tier Three targets Rep. Frank Aguilar (R-Cicero) and Rep. Karen May (D-Highland Park).

If the SBC vote becomes a major issue this fall, the phone company could have some bigtime trouble next year. The state's massive Telecommunications Act, which governs almost every aspect of SBC's existence in Illinois, is scheduled for a rewrite in 2005 and SBC is hoping for a big win. But if the bill spooks legislators during the fall campaign, and especially if someone loses because of this issue, SBC could be in for a very rough ride next spring.


Rich Miller also publishes Capitol Fax, a daily political newsletter. He can be reached at www.capitolfax.com.