COUNTRYSIDE, Ill. — It’s a beautiful fall weekend in Chicagoland, and Mark Pera’s campaign for Congress is humming.
Volunteers waving campaign signs outside his headquarters here elicit the occasional friendly honk from passing motorists, and canvassers are out gathering signatures to get Pera, an assistant Cook County state’s attorney, on the Feb. 5 Democratic primary ballot to challenge Rep. Dan Lipinski.
Nearby, on the southwest side of Chicago, nothing is stirring at the campaign office of another Democratic contender in the 3rd district, lawyer Jim Capparelli. A map of the district is posted on the wall and a table is lined with clipboards and phones, but while it is just four months to primary day, there is no activity inside.
Pera wants voters to think about how Lipinski was put in office — and he also is running to Lipinski’s left on issues such as the Iraq War, abortion rights, stem-cell research and energy. But his chances of making it to Congress may have as much to do with Chicago machine politics as the quality of his campaign — and the incumbent’s.
Knowledgeable Democrats in the district wonder whether the other two Democrats in the primary, Capparelli especially but also Palos Hills Mayor Jerry Bennett, are trying to reprise what many insiders believe was a stunt designed to clinch Lipinski’s re-election last year.
“I can’t read people’s minds,” Pera said in an interview at his headquarters, “but the objective signs are, the other candidates have no office space, their Web sites are barren.”
On the Trail
The southwest Chicago suburb of Berwyn is observing Houby Fest, a celebration of the region’s Czech roots, and scores of political candidates are marching in the parade. Pera and his family walk the parade route, greeting voters and passing out fliers; none of the other Congressional candidates are there, though a Lipinski supporter drives a sport utility vehicle with campaign signs and streamers in the parade.
Bennett said in an interview he had no campaign activities planned for the Columbus Day weekend. The phone number listed on Capparelli’s campaign Web site goes to a generic voice-mail prompt, and Capparelli did not respond to repeated messages left at the office.
According to Pera, Bennett and Capparelli’s no-shows at the parade were consistent with their inactivity throughout the campaign. “The conclusion is inescapable that we are the only viable, serious candidate,” Pera said.
Allegations swirled during the 2006 cycle that Lipinski or his backers helped arrange a spoiler candidate to split the anti-incumbent vote. It was Lipinski’s first primary, as he became the Democratic nominee in 2004 after his father, longtime Rep. Bill Lipinski (D), won the primary, announced he was retiring, and helped his son, who hadn’t lived in the district for years and was then a political science professor at the University of Tennessee, get on the ballot.
Another assistant Cook County state’s attorney, John Sullivan, challenged Lipinski last year on most of the same issues that Pera is using this cycle. But financial planner John Kelly muddied the waters by jumping in as well, offering few policy differences from Lipinski.
Lipinski won the primary with 54 percent — Kelly got 26 percent and Sullivan 20 percent — and he coasted to re-election in November.
Kitty Kurth, a Democratic consultant in Chicago who worked for Sullivan, said Kelly was “without question” inserted into the race by the Democratic machine to split the anti-Lipinski vote.
“John Kelly was a dupe, but I don’t know he knows he was a dupe,” Kurth said.
Kelly’s campaign manager was Mike Joyce, whose brother, state Rep. Kevin Joyce (D), and father, Jeremiah Joyce, supported Lipinski. Jeremiah Joyce is an adviser to Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley (D) and is close to prominent Chicago political families.
“I think Kelly was convinced he was a real candidate at the time, but the people that worked on his campaign and surrounded him, that tells a different story,” Sullivan said.
“I think it’s typical of the machine politics that goes on in Illinois,” he added. “Whether Dan Lipinski knew that John Kelly was a spoiler, I don’t know. To me it was blatantly obvious.”
Laurel Schmidt, who was attending the Houby Fest, believes Kelly was a spoiler. “He was just an Irish surname to confuse people,” she said.
“That’s traditional Chicago politics,” chimed in Rachel Herbener of the city’s Bridgeport neighborhood, the Daleys’ political home base. “‘Put in the ringer.’”
Lipinski, asked about Sullivan and Kelly the same weekend during an interview at an Oak Lawn children’s museum he secured funding for, said, “They certainly seemed serious to me. I don’t have much to say about that. [Spoiler rumors] are just stories that sell newspapers.”
History Repeats Itself?
But the rumors persist.
Capparelli’s campaign Web site makes no mention of his policy positions or his opponents, other than to say he is “not a transplant from the world of academia.”
“I don’t know if [Capparelli’s] a Joyce family plant, but it’s possible,” Kurth said.
Meanwhile, Bennett, the Palos Hills mayor, endorsed Lipinski in 2006, and his statement of support is still featured on Lipinski’s campaign Web site.
Asked in a recent interview what Lipinski did wrong over the last year to lose his support, Bennett replied, “Like anybody in public office, I talked to him when he was going to run [in 2004]. He said he was going to be active like his father. I gave him a chance, but certainly he’s failed in that chance.”
Pera seemed skeptical.
“If you were a serious candidate for Congress, wouldn’t you be on the phone demanding that endorsement be taken down?” he said. “The fact that Bennett gave his endorsement and it’s still on Lipinski’s site four months from the election is astounding.”
Pera spokesman Pat Corcoran said Monday the campaign raised $100,000 in the third quarter, giving it $241,000 raised through Sept. 30, with $180,000 in cash on hand.
Pera’s cousin Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.) held a fundraiser for him in California last month, and Corcoran said recent endorsements by NARAL Pro-Choice America and Democracy for America led to an uptick in contributions toward the end of the quarter.
Lipinski has $321,000 in cash on hand after raising $76,000 in the third quarter.
Bennett, whom both Kurth and Sullivan believe is a serious candidate, raised $56,000 ($25,000 of his own money) in the quarter and banked $50,000; Capparelli had not filed a Federal Election Commission report by Roll Call press time Monday.
Pera said how Lipinski got into office will always be part of the race.
At a campaign event “people came up to me and said, unsolicited, ‘What, your father can’t get you a Congressional seat?’” he recalled. “All my father ever got me was a job in a steel mill.”
But Sullivan cautioned against focusing too heavily on the nepotism issue.
“If the voters were really going to make a decision on that issue, they would have made it in the last race,” he said. “Most voters have moved on from it. Now it’s got to be the issues of the war and health care. Those issues hurt him in the district.”
Lipinski agreed that the circumstances of his first election are no longer potent.
“All I can say is, I ran in the ’04 general, ’06 primary and ’06 general. This is the fourth time I’m in the ballot,” Lipinski said. “It’s pretty clear people have had opportunities to judge me for what I’m doing in office.”
And On the Issues…
Pera said he will seek to cast Lipinski as an ally of President Bush.
“The campaign will be framed on the fact that every time Bush has needed a vote from a Democrat, he’s turned to Dan Lipinski and got it. … On stem-cell research, he was one of 14 Democrats to uphold Bush’s veto. He voted with Republicans on choice, on [the Florida right-to-die case of Terri] Schiavo. On issue after issue he stands with Bush. This is a very Democratic district and voters want a Representative that reflects their views, and he doesn’t.”
Lipinski defends his record.
“I’ve been very upfront from the first day in 2004 that I am pro-life and that’s a position I feel dedicated to. Certainly all Democrats are not pro-choice in this district,” he said.
Lipinski said he voted for a resolution condemning the troop surge in Iraq. However, he said, “If we keep insisting on bringing legislation without Republican support, it’s not going to bring an end to the war. We’ve allowed Bush to support the status quo. … Here we are in October and we have not changed the direction of the war. The way to change it is to reach out to Republicans.
“These are not simplistic issues. It’s easy to make them simplistic — ‘You’re either with Bush or against Bush’ — but that’s not the only way to look at it.”
The Lipinski Legacy
Lipinski has going for him a family name that clearly is still powerful in the district. Bill Lipinski served in Congress for 22 years and before that as a Chicago alderman for eight. The third-ranking Democrat on the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee when he retired, he steered billions in federal aid to the district.
One Lipinski supporter at the Houby Fest, Helen Ekl, was standing at an ice cream truck along the parade route when Pera came by to greet her. She threw the flier Pera handed her into the truck after he left.
“I love the Lipinskis. The father did a hell of a lot, and Dan is trying to. I’ve been a Lipinski backer for years,” said Ekl, a hairdresser from Chicago. She said she was not upset at how the Congressional seat was handed down.
“Dan is quite qualified,” she said. “He’s got a lot of education behind him.”
“The father is great, and the son’s doing well,” added Rudy Valdez, a retiree who registered his approval when he saw the Lipinski SUV drive by. “All families do what they have to do with their families. You know how it is. [Dan] is intelligent enough to do the job.”
But other parade-watchers disagreed.
“I remember Bill Lipinski from way back when, but it should have been up to the voters to decide who gets the seat, rather than hand it off,” said Rich Grindel, a Cicero bus driver. “But that’s the way politics just seems to be.”