Some of the last radio ads aired by Gov. Rod Blagojevich's campaign were just about a perfect microcosm of the entire governor's race.
"Listen as Judy Baar Topinka runs down those who honor our veterans," began one ad. "I'm a veteran. Served in Vietnam. Proud of my service. I was shocked by what Judy Baar Topinka said. Running down people who honor our soldiers," started the other.
Both ads referred to a remark Topinka made about Lt. Governor Pat Quinn's commitment to veterans. Quinn has attended just about every wake or funeral of Illinois service members killed in Iraq and Afghanistan and has been a tireless fighter for veterans rights. After Topinka praised Quinn, she chastised him for not speaking out against Gov. Blagojevich's skirting or even breaking state government hiring laws that give military veterans an advantage over non-veteran political hacks.
Story after story has documented how one politically connected player after another got around the veterans hiring rules by starting off as an "intern" (one such "intern" was over 60 years old). Some Chicago hacks were also hired for undesirable, low-pay part time jobs out in rural areas and then later the positions were moved to Chicago and made full-time. That's apparently how Beverly Ascaridis was put into her state job, after her husband had written a $1500 check to the Blagojevich's and after she had reportedly failed the state hiring test.
"I don't want this to sound, you know, bad, but you have to do more than just go to funerals," Topinka said at a campaign event.
Like so many other things that routinely emerge from Topinka's mouth, she meant it, but it was over the top and probably not the most politically bright thing to say. Here's a hint for all future candidates: If you find yourself starting a sentence with "I don't want this to sound bad," stop right there. You are heading for big trouble.
That ill-considered sentence was used to "prove" that Topinka is somehow anti-veteran, even though her own son is an officer in the military who served in Afghanistan and she has long been a military cheerleader - and even though the governor has clearly shafted untold numbers of veterans out of well-paid state employment so he could give jobs to his cronies.
The governor has repeatedly touted his "Veterans Care" healthcare plan, and used Topinka's supposed opposition (she actually supported it) as further proof that she's anti veteran. But what he doesn't say is even after all the outreach only 500 veterans have inquired about the program and, word is, only three veterans have actually been signed up. The Illinois commander of the Veterans of Foreign Wars called the program's financing "suspect at best" back in September.
Polls show voters never believed much that Rod Blagojevich ever said. But they do believe what they see and hear, and the Blagojevich campaign masterfully used Topinka's own words against her. "I love you dearly," she said to George Ryan at an emotional State Fair event in 2002. The now infamous video clip of her speech, along with the reportedly electronically altered sight of her bobbing her head up and down as Ryan spoke at the podium was replayed about a billion times on TV. The Blagojevich people have built almost their entire campaign around that clip, which makes the case for them that she was "George Ryan's treasurer."
The people who know Judy Baar Topinka know that almost all of the charges made by the Blagojevich campaign against her were baseless or just plain lies.
I've known Topinka for 16 years and I don't believe she has a corrupt bone in her body. She's too cheap to be corrupt. And I know for a fact that she does whatever she can for military veterans.
But the voters could see and hear Topinka talking about her "love" for George Ryan or saying something off the wall about unnamed people who care about veterans. And, understandably, they didn't like it.
For way too long we've been an electorate that focuses on out of context quotes or laps up gotcha games that deliberately distort meaning just because we can see or hear the so-called "evidence" for ourselves. If voters don't start seeing through this blatantly dishonest, cynical manipulation by the professional hucksters (both in politics and in the media), we're heading for serious trouble.
Rich Miller also publishes Capitol Fax, a daily political newsletter, and thecapitolfaxblog.com