Gunning for Lane Evans

by Mike Kroll

The March primary is one month away and despite every congressional seat being up for grabs there has been little attention paid to a quiet battle between two relatively unknown Republicans vying for the long-shot chance to unseat Democrat Lane Evans next fall. Pete Calderone is a 57-year-old sporting goods manufacturer’s representative from Galesburg. Tony Rees, 53, is an accountant from Aledo. Both men face a daunting task in trying to unseat the popular ten-term incumbent in a newly redrawn district that greatly favors Evans.

Calderone sat down with me for almost two hours to explain why he was running and to outline some of his key issues. I commented to him that many people took his announced candidacy as a surprise.

"I have thought about running for political office for a long time but I guess I made my final decision to run for this congressional seat last September 1st. In the past when people suggested I run, I declined but I told local Republican leaders during the last election that if Mark [Baker, three-time unsuccessful challenger to Evans] loses again, come see me and I will reconsider. Ironically enough, I sent out my initial press release on September 10th, and by the next day absolutely no one was much concerned about this Congressional race."

Calderone has been married for 38 years and proudly boasts four grown children, two grandchildren and a black Lab. I asked if he considered himself a mainstream Republican and after a moment of thought Calderone agreed. "As a young adult I thought of myself as a ‘conservative liberal’ but I became much more conservative as I aged. I believed in and supported Ronald Reagan as president and there is no question that my views are considerably at odds with Lane’s."

Both of these men are running low-budget, low-key campaigns for the primary. Calderone has a simple tri-fold flyer and a three-page handout summarizing his political goals and personal background. Not surprisingly the economy is a principal focus of both Calderone and Rees. "I’m very worried about the continuing lose of jobs across this district. We need not only new industry with high-paying jobs but, just as importantly, we need to keep the good jobs that are already here," stated Calderone.

Calderone continued: "Just look at what Wal-Mart has done to the small retail businesses that once reigned across rural and small-town America. Wal-Mart has done more than anything else to render small retailers an endangered species. In this part of the state, agriculture is one of the most important industries but small family farmers are suffering much the same fate as retailers at the hands of the Wal-Marts of agriculture. As a Congressman I want to strengthen the lot of small farmers."

"I’d like to see a sales tax reduction on ethanol-blended gasoline that makes ethanol more price-competitive. I’m a real believer in the idea that higher quantity production reduces the costs of production and that in turn should drive down the consumer cost of using ethanol. Handled properly, eventually we may be able to eliminate the existing Federal subsidy for ethanol while continuing to build this as a market for our corn growers. We have to help our area farmers turn their productivity into an economic advantage rather than the disadvantage it is today."

Proudly pointing to his first real endorsement of the campaign, Calderone handed me a copy of a press release from the Illinois Federation for Right to Life that supports his candidacy. Fighting to eliminate abortion, most specifically partial birth abortion, is Calderone’s first political priority. "I believe partial birth abortion is infanticide. The fact that we now permit such atrocities is a modern American moral tragedy. I believe in the sanctity of life and will fight tirelessly for it."

Another political goal close to Calderone’s heart is defense of the rights of America’s outdoorsmen and a moderating influence on what he sees as overzealous environmentalism. "While protection of our environment is important to me I see myself as a conservationist rather than an environmentalist. The difference is that a conservationist appreciates our natural wonders while tempering regulations with common sense. Hunting and fishing are part of our national heritage and are today under increasing attack by environmentalists and others. I will stand as a watchdog for the privilege all Americans to enjoy the outdoors much as our ancestors did."

A former railroad employee, Calderone appreciates and supports the value of passenger rail travel but is critical of Amtrak. "Amtrak just isn’t operated like a real business. It provides lousy customer service, poorly maintains its equipment and operates on schedules that are the height of inconvenience. Passenger rail service must be saved and enhanced and that requires better management and perhaps greater privatization. Just imagine what rail service might be like if operated by the Disney folks! While Lane’s solution to every problem is to spend more money I want to see some of the reforms suggested for Amtrak put in place and quickly."

By supporting lower taxes and smaller government, Calderone positions himself astride the mainstream of the Republican Party and in close agreement with Rees. He also favors term limits and "sensible" healthcare reform. Calderone remembers the flat-tax proposal of former presidential candidate Steve Forbes with great fondness. "Our convoluted and complex tax code amounts to job protection for accountants and needs to be replaced. We not only pay too much in taxes but have to struggle too much to calculate what we owe. There’s a whole raft of tax reform we can and should do. The last tax law was mutilated by compromised in congress to accommodate the Democrats."

As a CPA you might expect Rees to take some offense to Calderone’s characterization of our federal tax code. After all, the pressure of the tax season was part of the reason he was only able to speak briefly with me by telephone. Rees however agrees that the present tax code is too complex. That is part of the reason why he participates in a weekly radio call-in show answering listeners’ questions about taxes and operating a small business.

"There are four main issues that are quite personal to me in this race. Foremost among them is the present lack of economic leadership. Our incumbent Congressman has simply failed to do a good job in this regard. Good jobs are fleeing this district while Lane does nothing to stem the flow. I want to put forth some innovative ideas that will help counterbalance the NAFTA-induced exportation of jobs. We need to create tax incentives that will foster broad-based employee ownership of businesses. For example, just look at the Green Bay Packers. The people in that town own the principal business and it ain’t moving! Another program I would work toward is one that supports local communities in purchasing the real estate and equipment of companies that move. Let’s help local folks reinvigorate these local businesses like the boiler plant in Kewanee and support their local economy."

Like Calderone, Rees is concerned about the decline in family farms. "Family farmers simply cannot succeed today without significant government subsidy. We need to help farmers regain control of the marketplace for their products. Specifically for our local farmers we need to develop broader markets for corn and soybeans to drive up demand for these crops and push up prices. Ethanol and soy diesel are two potentially huge markets that we have only begun to develop. Our farmers deserve a congressman who will take a greater interest in the important agricultural base of this district."

"We need to put in place safeguards for the long-term health of the social security program. I favor a constitutional amendment that would combine guaranteed funding for social security with the requirement of a balanced budget. It is important that we stop the game-playing that goes on constantly in Washington. As long as we maintain trillions of dollars in debt, we must stop allowing our politicians to say we have a budget surplus. We need to apply commonsense and sound accounting practice to the budgeting of the Federal government."

Rees’ fourth issue is national defense and intelligence. "We may not need to spend a lot more money on defense but we sure need to spend it more wisely and reasonably. Security and defense are one of the principal roles of our federal government. The events of September 11th show that much remains to be done to secure this country. I am running for Congress because I’m tired of what I see happening in Washington. I understand budgeting and I know how to cut expenses. I pledge to get the taxpayer the best return for his tax dollar."

Both of these men spent their time comparing their views to Lane Evans and neither contrasted himself with the other. Calderone put it directly when he stated, "My opponent is Lane Evans; that’s the guy I’m running against. I don’t feel Lane Evans is fit to lead this district. I base my view on his wrong-headed ideology rather than his physical condition. I want people to support me because of what I stand for in comparison to Lane."

Buried as he is in the midst of tax season it is hard to imagine just how Rees expects to get his message out before March 19th. Neither candidate has a lot of resources and given the prevailing wisdom that this is now an incredibly safe Democratic district, it seems unlikely that either the statewide or national Republican Party will pony up much support for this congressional race. Nevertheless Calderone and Rees seem undaunted in their quest.