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Versace’s Departure Shakes Up Illinois’ 18th District Race

Correction Appended

Former professional basketball coach Dick Versace’s decision last week to abandon his Congressional aspirations in central Illinois may include a silver lining for local Democrats: ample time to find a successor.

The heavily touted Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee-recruited candidate, who was running unopposed in the Feb. 5, 2008, primary, said last Friday that “due to unforeseen circumstances” he was quitting his House run. The week before, Versace’s campaign manager, Alex Pearson, resigned for unspecified reasons, according to local media accounts.

“I thank everyone for their support and encouragement in this race, and I ask that you please respect my privacy and that of my family as we face this difficult personal issue,” Versace said.

The one-time district-based Bradley University basketball coach declined to elaborate on his decision. DCCC Chairman Chris Van Hollen (Md.) also did not provide details in a statement, saying, “We wish Dick Versace well. Our thoughts and prayers are with Dick and his family at this difficult time.”

Versace’s departure, which was rumored for weeks, will be the first major test for a new statute enacted by Illinois Democratic Gov. Rod Blagojevich in early November, an unrelated tweak to a state law that was in the works for months and could help Democrats as they try to recover from Versace’s withdrawal.

Part of larger omnibus package, Blagojevich on Nov. 9 lengthened the moratorium on write-in candidates in the runup to the primary election from several days to roughly two months. The change, tied to another provision limiting the amount of ballot space allotted to write-in candidates, allows local election authorities to ship off their Election Day printing orders six weeks out, rather than making them guess the number of possible write-in candidates and leave space for them, ultimately wasting paper.

Although interpretations of the new law vary, according to the Illinois State Board of Elections, Dec. 6 marked the last day hopefuls could file to be a write-in candidate. Versace, who announced his withdrawal last Friday, has until tomorrow to ask that his name be removed from the ballot, a decision subject to approval by state elections supervisors.

According to state regulators, Blagojevich’s pen also narrowed the process by which candidates such as Versace are replaced. Once done at the precinct level, the former college and professional basketball coach’s replacement now will be selected by a relative handful of county-level Democratic leaders. The local committee chairmen will have to untangle the new law’s complicated set of variables — namely, how Versace’s still legally viable campaign affects how and when they act.

So far, state Sen. John Sullivan, former state Rep. Bill Edley and state Appellate Judge Sue Myerscough are rumored as Versace’s possible Democratic replacements.

Should Versace keep his campaign intact on paper, he wouldn’t have to decide until early April to officially scrub his name from the Nov. 4, 2008, ballot, undoubtedly buying Democrats time in a district they view as competitive, but one that now lacks a candidate.

State election officials also said that local Democratic committee chairs would then have until Aug. 28, 2008, to name Sullivan, Myerscough, Edley or another Democrat to fill Versace’s spot on the ballot.

Officials from both parties remained quiet Monday on the initially promising matchup. Republicans remain confident that retiring Rep. Ray LaHood’s (R-Ill.) successor will be either 26-year-old wunderkind state Rep. Aaron Schock, John Morris or Jim McConoughey.

“With three strong Republican challengers running for the nomination, we believe that we remain in a good position to retain the seat,” said Ken Spain, spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee.

Although few doubted Versace’s candor, some state political insiders suggested that the execution of his departure is highly scripted. Versace stumbled occasionally on the trail, local media outlets observed, and his decision has been in the works for weeks. Coupled with the murky new law, one political operative hinted that Versace’s departure may have been his parting gift to the DCCC.

“It’s like Chicago ward politics coming to central Illinois,” the source said.

Correction: Dec. 11, 2007

Illinois Republican state Rep. Aaron Schock’s name was misspelled.