Besieged Rep. Jerry Weller (R-Ill.) is expected to announce as early as today that he is retiring from Congress, weeks after a Chicago newspaper exposed potentially questionable land deals in Central America.
Republican sources confirmed late Wednesday that Weller will not seek an eighth term but were uncertain as to when he would announce his decision.
But Weller’s campaign manager, Steven Shearer, balked at the retirement rumors and said Wednesday evening, “the Congressman has not made a decision.” Weller’s Congressional office said he would announce his re-election plans in the coming weeks.
“He has no plans to announce his retirement. None,” Shearer said. “We’re continuing with our political operation full-speed ahead.”
Earlier this month, the Chicago Tribune published an investigation into Weller’s Nicaraguan land deals, suggesting that Weller has bought and sold several beachfront properties that he did not disclose on his financial disclosure forms. Weller was a strong advocate of the Central America Free Trade Agreement, which critics note provides protections to land investors in Central America — including Weller.
Questions also have been raised about Weller’s decision not to disclose the assets of his wife, Zury Rios Sosa, who is a member of the Guatemalan Congress and is the daughter of a general who ruled Guatemala briefly in the 1980s. Weller claims he has no knowledge of his wife’s assets and is not involved in her financial dealings, despite the fact that his mother and brother sit on the board of a nonprofit group she established this summer.
Weller provided no response to the Tribune, and Democrats have noted that Weller has offered no public explanation for the real estate transactions since the story first ran on Sept. 7.
Weller’s expected retirement comes as Democrats prime the pump for what they hope will be a tough re-election year for Congressional Republicans in the Land of Lincoln.
“Illinois’ 11th Congressional seat has been a top pickup opportunity for Democrats well before Congressman Weller’s political meltdown,” said Ryan Rudominer, a spokesman with the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. “Voters there are simply looking for a new direction and are turning to Democrats to solve problems facing Illinois and our nation that President Bush and the Republican Party have neglected for years.”
Democrats point particularly to Weller’s district, which runs due west from the Indiana border just south of Chicago, doglegging south and through Bloomington, as a potential pickup opportunity.
Former President Bill Clinton carried the district throughout the 1990s, while President Bush received 49.5 percent of the vote there in 2000 and 53 percent four years later. But statewide races are the harbinger, Democrats say, as 63 percent of the the district voters five years ago picked Secretary of State Jesse White (D) and former state Comptroller Dan Hynes (D) took 60 percent of the vote. Last year, district voters preferred Democratic Attorney General Lisa Madigan and Gov. Rod Blagojevich (D).
Despite the apparent hospitable environment, House Democrats have been slow in recruiting a strong candidate less than two months out from Illinois’ early filing deadline — though that could change with Weller’s departure. To date, Kankakee Community College President Jerry Webber (D) is entertaining a run, as is assistant state Senate Majority Leader Debbie Halverson (D).
Should Weller step aside next year, Republicans are confident there is no shortage of credible candidates to retain the seat. So far, Joliet lawyer Dick Cavanaugh, New Lenox Mayor Tim Baldermann, bank president Jim Roolf, former Frankfort Mayor Ray Rossi and state Sen. Gary Dahl are seen as potential successors to Weller.
“If the current pattern for open-seat races in Illinois holds up, Republicans should end up with a top-tier recruit while Democrats are forced to settle for a subpar candidate,” a GOP strategist said. “In the past, the district has performed well for Republicans, so I would place this seat in the lean-Republican column.”