Key Election Fight Looming In Illinois


After a smoldering bribery scandal and string of broken campaign pledges limited George Ryan to one term as governor, Republicans are looking to two-term Attorney General Jim Ryan to lead Republicans into battle and cleanse the party of the political sins associated with the sitting governor.

What Democrats see in this election is a chance that one of their own U.S. Rep. Rod Blagojevich might retake an office the party hasn't controlled since Gerald Ford was in the White House, American servicemen were in Vietnam and a youthful Blagojevich was learning to drive.

Illinois is one of 36 states across the country hosting gubernatorial elections this fall and is among 20 where an incumbent isn't seeking re-election. If Democrats win the race in Illinois, it will be the first time the party has elected a governor here since 1972.

With about seven months until the general election, Blagojevich is in the role of the early frontrunner. A survey last week by WBBM-Channel 2 and the Chicago Sun-Times found that Blagojevich maintained a 52 percent to 34 percent lead over Ryan if the election were held now. The poll of more than 600 probable voters had a margin of error of 3.5 percentage points.

Given Illinois' history of electing Republicans as governor, Jim Ryan normally might cruise into this election with the aura of the incumbent. But he inherits a damaged party and shares the unpopular governor's last name, a fact some strategists view as a disadvantage. Ryan's yard signs, for example, carry the attorney general's first name in larger type than his last name.

While not charged criminally, Gov. George Ryan has had to answer for 40 convictions in a long-running federal investigation of the illegal sale of commercial drivers licenses in the secretary of state's office he once led.

Federal prosecutors contend at least $170,000 in bribe-tainted campaign contributions from the sale of those licenses went to George Ryan, who has denied knowledge of the scheme.

Politically, the governor might have survived the scandal had it not been for a series of broken campaign pledges that eroded support within his own party and caused his public approval ratings to plunge to historic lows of approximately 30 percent.

He went against his word by signing legislation to allow casino gambling in Cook County and to boost license fees and liquor taxes to support a $12 billion infrastructure program. He also angered conservative Republicans by vetoing legislation that would have curtailed government-funded abortions for the poor, imposing a landmark moratorium on capital punishment after campaigning as a supporter of the death penalty, and visiting Communist-led Cuba.

And now, complicated by the nation's economic downturn and a rapid escalation of state spending on Gov. Ryan's watch, the Illinois budget is $500 million in the red, prompting a painful round of budget cuts and state layoffs that likely will saddle the next governor.

"For 25 years we've had a system in place in Springfield that has sat back and hoped things would get better, that has accepted mediocrity, that has accepted corruption. We have an attorney general who's a part of that system,'' said Blagojevich.

Jim Ryan, who is not related to the governor, has made deliberate attempts to distance himself from the incumbent, even breaching conventional political etiquette by announcing his gubernatorial candidacy before George Ryan announced his political retirement last summer.

Neither of Jim Ryan's primary opponents, Lt. Gov. Corinne Wood or state Sen. Patrick O'Malley (R-Palos Park), have endorsed his candidacy following last week's primary. Blagojevich's two main rivals quickly embraced his campaign.

Besides his lack of a unified base, Ryan's biggest negatives are allegations that he did not act on the driver's license scandal under George Ryan a "nonsense issue,'' Ryan has said - and the exonerations of two men he put on Death Row for the murder of a young girl while DuPage County state's attorney. Ryan also opposes all abortions except when a woman's life is endangered.

But Jim Ryan has generated significant public sympathy during his time in office having fought off recurrent cancer, losing a daughter to a brain tumor and nearly having his wife die because of heart problems.

And against Blagojevich, Ryan already has indicated he intends to zero in the congressman's links to the sometimes ethically challenged Democratic machine in Chicago. Blagojevich's father-in-law, Richard Mell, is one of the most influential aldermen on Chicago's city council and is widely credited as being the spine of Blagojevich's political organization.

"Who's he kidding?'' Jim Ryan said in a thinly-veiled reference to Mell's influence on Blagojevich's campaign. "I know where I grew up, and I know how I got to this point in my life, and by the way, it's an honor just to be here. I didn't have any help. I don't need to elaborate."

Whoever the gubernatorial winner is, the next governor faces the strong likelihood that he will be dealing with a Democratic state Legislature for the first time in a decade. Democrats controlled the process last fall of drawing legislative boundaries and are poised to build on their majority in the House and retake the state Senate for the first time since 1993.

Clearly, it is too early to handicap this fall's gubernatorial race with accuracy, but many longtime observers believe Democrats with Blagojevich heading the ticket are positioned for a watershed year in Illinois.

"I think the Democrats are hungry this year,'' said John Jackson, a political scientist at Southern Illinois University's Public Policy Institute in Carbondale, Ill. "The Democrats feel this is their year. I frankly think if the Democrats can't win this year, they might as well throw in the towel as a party."


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