Teacher, broker, milkman, governor? GOP hopeful Oberweis visits the Burg

 

by Mike Kroll

 

Can a wealthy, very conservative political outsider defeat four opponents to face off Governor Rod Blagojevich in November and prevail? Republican primary voters will make that determination March  21st but according to the candidate himself this race has already narrowed down to merely a choice between current Illinois State Treasurer Judy Baar Topinka and himself. “While there are five Republican candidates in reality this is a two-way race between Judy Topinka and myself, nobody else has even gotten out of single digits. And there couldn't be greater differences on the issues that there are between Judy and myself. 

At 59 Jim Oberweis is now millionaire businessman from the western-Chicago suburb of Sugar Grove (near Aurora). A father of five and grandfather of eleven he grew up in a well-to-do family in the dairy business immediately west of Aurora. His grandfather operated and successful dairy farm and began home delivery of his surplus milk in 1927; thus was born Oberweis Dairy. Jim attended a Catholic military high school, Marmion Military Academy and  earned a B.S. In political science from the University of Illinois. He proudly notes spending a year teaching junior high math and science before beginning his financial career. He did well for himself and his investors operating three no-load mutual funds and eventually earned his MBA from the University of Chicago.

Oberweis has proven himself an able businessman, not only managing investment funds but also after he assumed leadership of the family Dairy Business. “I bought Oberweis Dairy twelve years ago and have grown the business from about 50 employees to over 1,000 employees today. Not only did we survive in the home delivery business when few of our competitors did but the company thrived!” His business success doing business commentary and analysis on television and radio and two failed attempts to win election to the US Senate. His last senate race found him coming in second to Jack Ryan in the 2004 primary but when Ryan was forced to withdraw the Republicans turned instead to Alan Keyes who subsequently lost in the biggest Illinois landslide ever to Barack Obama. Last April Oberweis was among the first Republicans to announce his campaign for governor.

The candidate was in Galesburg Monday for a town hall meeting held at the VFW Hall before a crowd of nearly 50 enthusiastic supporters. While nary a one of Knox County’s traditional Republican faces could be found in the crowd this was an Oberweis crowd. They cheered loudly for his pro-life, pro-gun, anti-gay, anti-immigration, protector of marriage  message and they were heartened by his no new taxes pledge and promise to role back many of Blagojevich's fee increases. This was a crowd of social conservatives, not fiscal conservatives and plying everyone with ice cream didn't hurt either. Oberweis clearly understands that while these conservative social issues may have been the keystone to his senate battles the governor's race has a different focus. I sat down with the candidate before the town hall meeting to discuss his top campaign points in the governor's race and they are very different from those of his senate campaigns.

“The number one issue for voters in this race is ending the prevalent culture of corruption that has characterized Illinois politics for way too long. During my lifetime we have had four former governors who have either served [prison] time or been indicted, two Republicans and two Democrats and Gov Blagojevich may have the opportunity to break that tie before we are done with this race. I believe we need someone from outside of state politics to help clean up the corruption that is so rampant in Springfield today. For example, Judy is a lifelong politician who has been in Springfield for over 25 years. I pledge that as governor of Illinois I will not accept political contributions from companies doing business with the State of Illinois. I have no problem with individuals or groups spending money to promoting political ideas, that's free speech, but when those contributions are aimed instead toward expanding their financial net worth that is where I must draw the line.”

Capitalizing on his outsider status and access to large personal wealth allows Oberweis to claim the moral high ground. Like both of his earlier campaigns this one has largely been self-funded. Oberweis doesn't have the same thirst for campaign contributions that plague most other candidates nor does he have a political record to run away from. He positions himself as a successful businessman who life and politics are guided by Christian moral principles and a business rather than political management style. However, no candidate for governor; be they Democrat or Republican; can escape the need to demonstrate to voters that he or she has a plan to heal the state's huge financial mess.

“If we clean up the culture of corruption we will go a long way toward fixing the state economy by eliminated the corruption tax that I conservatively estimate to be two-three percent of the state budget-- that's over a billion dollars right there.” By taking the no-new-taxes pledge Oberweis has leveraged himself out of nearly all traditional opportunities to raise state revenues and he chastises Blagojevich for his end runs around that same pledge by imposing fee increases Oberweis would reverse. That leaves elimination of waste, increased efficiency and natural revenue growth through economic expansion as the few tools available to mend the state budget. “It would be my number one job as governor to insure that the taxpayers of Illinois get the best return on their tax dollar.”

Carrying his outsider strategy further he vows to ask other outsiders to assist him in fixing the Illinois budget. “I propose putting together a blue ribbon panel of academic, community and business leaders from across the state to scour the overall budget for savings and more specifically explore how Illinois can maximize the return on our investment in education. I would also want this panel to look at how we could apply a business best practices model toward cost efficiency in state government.”

And he mentioned a few of his own cost-saving ideas. “I will eliminate by executive order Gov. Blagojevich's requirement that construction bidders abide by project labor agreements. These agreements make it difficult for small local firms or minority firms or female firms to competitively bid for state work. This act alone will increase competition for state contracts and reduce these costs by anywhere from 12-20 percent. I am very confident that this alone would save the state hundreds of millions of dollars each year. ...I am pledged to not rob the motor fuel fund or other such funds that have dollars dedicated to specific uses. Gov Blagojevich has take over $500 million out of the motor fuel tax fund alone as part of his fund sweeps. ...I am on record as being opposed to any further expansion of gambling in Illinois, it is NOT the solution to our funding needs, and I will not accept any contributions from gaming interests.”

Given the state budget crisis and his own financial background this top priority should surprise no one. His secondary focus on education just might surprise some. “My number one goal will be to get the state on a sound financial footing. My second goal will be to reexamine our priorities and let me assure you that education, including higher education will be high on that list. My family places a high value on education and every one of my five children has a college degree, four have post-graduate degrees. At Oberweis Dairy we support higher education through a $500 per year scholarship available to our ice cream scoopers. They can use that money at any college or university they choose and it is available regardless of need; we just want to encourage them to go to school. We also make the same offer to the kids of our 37 family farmers that provide our milk.”

“We need a free-market concept in our schools that allows parents to send their children to the school of their choice, either public or private, and take their share of funding with them. No matter what we do we will never end up with total equality in school funding. Wealthier districts are going to provide extra funds for supplemental or extra programs like music and art or clubs and sports but the state's job is to see that essential education needs are adequately funded everywhere in the state. And extra dollars aren't always the key factor either, we need to get the incentives right and consolidation of the small districts must occur so we can operate the education system more efficiently and effectively.”

Financial answers may not address all demons but Oberweis sees money as a prime motivator. He illustrates his idea of applying incentives to Illinois schools with the story of how he turned around the family dairy business.

“One of the first things I did after taking over the dairy business was to look at the income statement and realize that the company wasn't making any money in the home delivery business. Our delivery employees were represented by the Teamsters Union under a contract that allowed only two percent of salary to be based on commission. We didn't have the incentives right and we needed to change if we were to survive. All the other home delivery dairies were going out of business and I proposed that we take a chance on something new that would allow both the company and our employees to make more money. The first time it was brought to a vote we lost but after some minor changes and discussions with the union to take the chance or risk closing. After allowing a second vote this passed by a single vote. The result, in the last 12 we have seen the average number of deliveries per man per route per day go from 83 to 162 today. Then we had 3,500 home delivery customers while today we have over 35,000 and our average employee income rose from about $25,000 to over $60,000 today. This has clearly been a win for the employees and the company, both have survived and prospered; and it was a win for the union who gained member. But most importantly it was a win for my customers because now the delivery guy was motivated to serve the customer well.”

“I believe we need to give parents the ability to choose the best school for their children. We need to spend more of our education tax dollars in the classroom, on teachers and books and I want to reduce administrative and bureaucratic expenses. We also need to move toward merit pay for teachers so we reward the best teachers on performance rather than longevity. We need merit pay to keep the best teachers in the system and teachers who fail to deliver should be financially penalized. Tenure should not serve as a shield for laziness or incompetence and principals need to be able to shed non-performers, even those with many years of experience.”

Oberweis abhors career politicians. He sees government service as a brief sabbatical from our regular lives and pledges to limit his own term in office. “Just as I believe it is the right and duty of all citizens to provide some form of public service I also thing that holding elective office should be for a limited time. If elected I pledge to serve no more that two terms as Governor and I have no intention of making politics my new vocation.