Mangieri learns his lessons

by Mike Kroll

The Illinois 2002 primary election is currently less than a month-and-a-half away and Knox County State's Attorney Paul Mangieri will find himself in a different, and comfortably uncontested, ballot position that most anyone expected a few months ago. Until last December Mangieri was one of handful of candidates seeking the Democratic Illinois Lieutenant Governor nomination -- and a long shot at that. Instead Mangieri gets a pass in the primary after which he must begin campaigning in earnest for the 37th District Illinois State Senate post against the Republican nominee, former Illinois Department of Transportation Highway Engineer Dale Risinger. Republicans had anticipated a primary contest to fill the seat vacated by Carl Hawkinson put political staffer Matt Jones unexpectedly withdrew from the race earlier this month.

Rather than scurrying across the length and breath of the entire state seeking primary votes Mangieri will have the luxury of ample time to conduct a grassroots style of campaigning he favors but which is impractical when seeking statewide office. Now in the middle of his second term as state's attorney, Mangieri is no longer a political neophyte. While he had learned many political lessons running for state's attorney Mangieri quite candidly admits it is nothing at all like running for statewide office.

''Intellectually I thought I had a good grasp of what was involved in a statewide race before I announced for Lieutenant Governor but I frankly had no idea how difficult and demanding such a campaign would be. It was a great experience and I have no regrets for my jumping into that race. I learned an awful lot that will be of value in the future. I am now just as excited about campaigning for the brand new 37th senate district - my first foray into legislative office.''

Running for Lieutenant Governor while simultaneously holding down the Knox County State's Attorney job and raising the big money required for a statewide race was exhausting for Mangieri. ''It was downright energizing to meet with regular people as I campaigned. I was able to share my vision with them, but more importantly, so many had an opportunity to share their experiences and views with me. But all the logistics of the campaign process sapped much of that energy. My sleep habits are totally messed up right now.''

I asked Mangieri if he could summarize the two or three biggest lessons of his experience campaigning for Lieutenant Governor. As I listened to him tell stories of the campaign trail it became increasingly clear that this man most consider very politically savvy locally felt more like Jimmy Stewart in ''Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.'' Some of the lessons Mangieri learned were heartbreaking for a young man who still considers himself a political idealist.

''One thing about a primary campaign is that you are working a very different audience than in the general election. I like dealing with the rank-and-file voters. They still believe in the bedrock principals of our democracy. But in a primary race you need to deal with political party officials and statewide candidates of both parties who have a much more cynical and narrow view of the process. My first major lesson was that while almost nobody says as much in a statewide primary campaign few things matter more than money.''

While Mangieri score well with voters across the state as he campaigned he could not compare with some of his Democratic opponents in political fund raising. Everyone acknowledged that Mangieri delivered a fiery and stirring political speech that frequently won over voters but he was less successful securing contributions from the biggest political donors.

''[Former Speaker of the House] Tip O'Neill was right when he stated, 'all politics is local.' To the typical voter the most important issues are always close to home even in statewide and national races. Candidates must recognize these divergent and unique issues but also that they aren't necessarily compatible from town to town. When you run for statewide office a responsible candidate cannot afford to be that parochial. You need to be willing to stand up for the proposition that the greater good for all supercedes that of any single locality. That's a very tough and often uncomfortable balancing act but statewide problems demand statewide solutions.''

In Mangieri's own direct experience perhaps the best example of this point is the Illinois school-aid formula. While it is generally assumed that local control of education is always more desirable that state control the economic and social realities are quite different. ''When the per pupil expenses for students in Barrington are $10-12,000 greater than those for rural downstate students it is in all of our best interest to alter the formula so that our children's future is not predetermined by their zip code. This position will not be universally popular but it is the right thing to do.''

Mangieri concedes that winning the Democratic nod for Lieutenant Governor was not in his cards this time around -- but that hasn't discouraged his political aspirations. ''I learned many things over the past year not the least of which is the secret to a relatively unknown downstater being a successful statewide candidate here in Illinois. Sure it helps immensely to be wealthy but a campaign rich in ideas and properly waged can still prevail. We were close this time and I am confident of the future but I am not ready to share my secret just yet. I am looking forward to be a freshman state senator a year from now.''

Uploaded to The Zephyr Online January 31, 2002

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