By CHARLES N. WHEELER III
'Home field' for GOP
Computer-drawn map has Republicans targeting numerous Illinois House districts in attempt to get closer to gaining control of state's lower chamber
Laurel Lunt Prussing is a marked woman. So is Barbara A. Giolitto. Likewise Marylou Lowder Kent. All three are Democratic candidates for the Illinois House running in districts drawn to favor Republicans. Prussing and Giolitto were elected for the first time two years ago, while Kent is a candidate for the first time. All three rank high on House Minority Leader Lee A. Daniels' hit list for the November general election.
The Elmhurst Republican has nothing against women, of course; suburban males like Reps. John Sheehy, David McAfee and John Ostenburg — all Democrats elected in Republican territory — also are prime GOP targets.
Those half dozen races figure to be among the most hotly contested this fall, because if Daniels and his GOP troops are to overcome House Speaker Michael J. Madigan's current 67-51 Democratic majority, they'll have to reclaim such GOP-leaning districts in November.
While a gain of nine seats may be more than Republicans can attain, key factors seemed to be working in the GOP's favor as the campaign heads into the home stretch, raising expectations that Daniels can make serious inroads into Madigan's cushion. Among the good omens for Republicans, consigned to minority status in the House since 1981:
• Demographics. All 118 House members are running in districts drawn by GOP political strategists using state-of-the-art computer technology to maximize Republican strength. In 1992, the first election under the new map, Republicans picked up only five seats in the House, despite gaining control of the Senate for the first time in two decades. Democrats kept their grip on the House by winning in 14 districts that carry a Republican label from the Almanac of Illinois Politics. The victory margin was less than 400 for four of the successful Democrats. Prussing, for example, won by only 34 votes. Only one Republican — Rep. Ron Stephens of Troy — won in a Democratic-leaning district, and then by a mere 259 votes. Thus, Republicans come into the 1994 election with home field advantage.
• Top-of-the-ticket strength. Most polls suggested Gov. Jim Edgar held a comfortable lead over his Democratic challenger, state Comptroller Dawn dark Netsch, with less than two months to Election Day. "Her numbers are dismal," conceded one Democrat, "but her numbers aren't dragging down ours yet." The governor's TV spots portraying the comptroller as a tax raiser who is soft on crime appeared to have paid off. Worse, from a Democratic standpoint, Netsch had only about one-fifth as much money in her campaign warchest as Edgar, severely limiting her ability to mount a comparable media blitz in response.
While GOP legislative candidates joined Edgar in blasting Netsch, only a handful of Democrats were willing to sign on for the comptroller's proposed income tax increase.
A half-dozen districts now held by Democrats but mapped for GOP advantage will be among the most hotly contested races this fall
• Tax cap turnout. Cook County voters will be asked in November whether they favor limiting the amount of property taxes local governments may impose. Although the referendum is nonbinding, folks lured to the polls by the tax cap issue might decide to vote as well for Edgar, who has championed the notion, and other Republicans. That could give the edge to GOP legislative candidates in some close contests, especially in south and southwest Cook County, expected to be a major battleground.
• White House woes. Traditionally, the president's party does not fare well in mid-term elections, and President Clinton's sagging approval ratings certainly don't inspire confidence that 1994 will be the exception to the rule.
• Senate assistance. Only 21 of the 59 Senate seats are up for election this year, most of them in districts so heavily partisan that the outcome is a foregone conclusion. Perhaps the only seat in real jeopardy is in the GOP-leaning 29th district, where Sen. Grace Mary Stern (D-Highland Park) faces Kathleen K. Parker of Northbrook, a Regional Transportation Authority board member.
24/October 1994/Illinois Issues
Six contested races to watch
for Illinois House of Representatives
With their majority secure and the Senate card limited, Senate Republicans are lending a hand to their House colleagues, running GOP campaigns in several target House districts, said Michael Tristano, Daniels' chief of staff. "They have a lot of excess capacity," Tristano said. "We're pleased to have them take a couple of them off our plate."
Democrats are not without some weapons of their own, of course. Perhaps the most formidable is Madigan's campaign operation, which provides essential ingredients like seasoned manpower, media expertise, savvy polling and money — lots and lots of money — to Democratic candidates in target districts.
Madigan's forces expect to spend upwards of $100,000 in target districts, with the price tag approaching $200,000 in some, said Tim Mapes, Madigan's chief of staff. The speaker's campaign financing committee, Friends of Michael J. Madigan, reported some $2 million on hand before Labor Day and hoped to raise an additional $2 million before the election. "You never have enough," said Mapes.
Almost $17 million was spent on legislative races in 1992, when all 159 seats were at stake, up from $10.1 million in 1990, when 20 Senate seats were up. Tristano, though, is not so sure that costs will continue to escalate. "I think that there is a ceiling, a point of diminishing returns," he said. "Once you get to 15 pieces of mail, I don't know if the 16th makes a difference." The House Republican campaign committee expects to spend about $1.5 million on the election, including $150,000 or more on some contested seats, according to Tristano.
What does the money buy? Television time and direct mail, mostly. "TV and direct mail are the most expensive compo-
Incumbent Democrats hope to benefit from Speaker Michael Madigan's shrewd partisan management of the spring legislative session
nents," Mapes said. "You have to compete with the opposition to get your message out."
As much as half of a campaign budget goes to producing and airing the 30-second spots that have begun to saturate the airwaves. The direct mail pieces, usually brochures or letters, soak up another 30 percent or more, at a cost of some $7,000 for each districtwide mailing. The rest covers everything else — staff, rent, computer equipment, telephones, utilities, and other overhead.
Money isn't the only advantage for House Democrats. As the majority party, they control the flow of legislation in the lower chamber, and incumbent Democrats hope to benefit from Madigan's shrewd partisan management of the spring legislative session. For example, while Netsch was talking school finance, the speaker zeroed in on what polls say is the No. 1 issue on voters' minds — crime — and orchestrated repeated roll calls on which House Democrats could burnish their anti-crime records by voting to ban assault weapons or to give municipalities $200 million to hire more police officers.
Madigan's skillful maneuvering and a similar performance by Senate President James "Pate" Philip (R-Wood Dale) last spring illustrate why much more than personal ambition is involved in the partisan struggle for legislative control.
With the gavel comes unparalleled ability to shape public policy in Illinois, a point well understood by the hundreds of interest groups that form political action committees to funnel millions of dollars into legislative races.
The stakes in the House are particularly high this year, with Republicans all but guaranteed control of the Senate and with Edgar holding a commanding lead over Netsch for the Executive Mansion. A Republican House majority would set the stage for dramatic changes in workers' compensation and the civil justice system long sought by business groups like the Illinois Manufacturers' Association, a major GOP bankroller. A Democratic majority, on the other hand, is all that stands between such changes and fierce opponents like the Illinois Trial Lawyers Association, historically the most generous special interest group and a major Madigan benefactor. In similar fashion, a GOP House could be expected to take a much different approach to a Democratic-controlled chamber on such divisive issues as the budget shortfall Chicago schools will face next year and suburban complaints about O'Hare International Airport.
The fate of those and a host of other issues could well be determined by the choices made by voters in a score of districts around the state.
While House Republicans are bird-dogging a couple of dozen districts, perhaps no targets are as tantalizing as Prussing, Giolitto and Kent.
October 1994/Illinois Issues/25
Two years ago, Prussing posted the narrowest victory of any of the 118 House members, edging her Republican opponent by a mere 34 votes. Since then she has been courageous (or foolhardy) enough to propose expanding the state sales tax to certain services and to embrace Democratic gubernatorial candidate Dawn dark Netsch's plan for a 42 percent increase in income tax rates coupled with property tax relief.
Democratic strategists hope her candor and forthrightness will resonate with voters in her district, the 103rd, which is dominated by the University of Illinois. The Republican brain trust is equally counting on the tax issue to tip another tight race to her Republican opponent, Richard J. Winkel Jr., a Champaign lawyer and county board member.
Giolitto, a Democrat, posted a narrow win in the strongly Republican 68th district two years ago, unseating former Rep. Ron Wait, the Belvidere Republican, by 378 votes, setting the stage for a rematch this year.
This time, Wait has Sen. David Syverson (R-Rockford) aboard, and Republicans are trying to portray Giolitto as a lackluster freshman who's out of touch with the district. Democrats respond that voters made the right choice when they ousted Wait two years ago, and nothing's changed.
Kent, a Springfield attorney and community college trustee, was slated by Democratic leaders to replace Rep. Michael Curran (D-Springfield). Curran's surprise withdrawal from the race this summer put his 100th House district seat very much in play, energizing the long-shot GOP candidacy of Springfield Ald. Gwenn Klingler. "I told her she went to bed losing by 30 points and woke up 20 points ahead," quipped Tristano. "She got a great break."
Democrats hope recent controversial votes by the GOP-controlled Springfield City Council will hurt Klingler's chances, but concede it's now a horse race. Curran's withdrawal "added $100,000 to the (Democratic) budget for that race," Mapes said.
Besides the three women, Republicans also are high on their chances in several other districts. Key targets include a trio of south and southwest suburban incumbents:
• Rep. John R. Sheehy (D-Tinley Park), a 209-vote winner in 1992, now challenged by Tinley Park Mayor Edward J. Zabrocki Jr. in the solidly Republican 37th district in the southwest suburbs.
• Rep. David B. McAfee, a former mayor of Indian Head Park who now calls LaGrange home, facing Eileen Lyons of Western Springs in the southwest suburban 47th district, also drawn with a GOP bias. Republicans challenged the Democratic lawmaker's residence, hoping to knock him off the ballot, but lost at the appellate court level and were headed to the Illinois Supreme Court as the campaign season moved into the home stretch. Whatever the justices decide, the issue provides ammunition for Lyons, a Western Springs homemaker.
• Rep. John A. Ostenburg (D-Park Forest), pitted against Flora L. Ciarlo, an educator and Steger council member, in the south suburban 80th district, also a Republican leaner.
Capturing those three seats would help Republicans consolidate their power in the rapidly growing south suburban region, where Democrats have made inroads in recent years.
In addition, House Republicans expect spirited challenges against Democratic incumbents in several downstate districts. Under fire are:
• Rep. Bill Edley (D-Macomb), facing Richard P. Myers, a Colchester farmer, in the GOP-tilting 95th district, where the fiery Edley won by 759 votes in 1992.
• Rep. Larry Hicks (D-Mt. Vernon), again facing John 0. Jones of Mt. Vernon, in the Democratic-leaning 107th district, another race in which Senate Republican forces are aiding the GOP challenger.
• Rep. Gerald Hawkins (D-DuQuoin), matched up again with Mike Bost of Murphysboro in the solidly Democratic 115th district.
While GOP strategists see opportunity almost everywhere, Democrats are mostly playing defense. Still, Madigan's forces are looking closely at a handful of GOP-held seats. Topping the Democratic wish list is the rematch in the 110th district in southwestern Illinois, where Robert A. Daiber, a farmer from Marine, hopes to avenge his 259-vote loss to Rep. Ron Stephens (R-Troy). Democrats also like their chances in the matchup between Grundy County State's Attorney Dave Neal and Republican Stephen Spangler of Newark for the 75th House district seat being vacated by Rep. Jerry Weller (R- Morris), a congressional hopeful. Other Republican incumbents in the Democrats' sights include:
Democrats also like their chances in the matchup between Grundy County State's Attorney Dave Neal and Republican Stephen Spangler of Newark for the 75th House district seat being vacated by Rep. Jerry Weller (R- Morris), a congressional hopeful.
Other Republican incumbents in the Democrats' sights include:
• Rep. Larry Wennlund (R-New Lenox), pitted against Lois R. Mayer of Mokena in the south suburban 38th House district.
• Rep. Maureen Murphy (R-Evergreen Park), facing Nancy A. Stack of Oak Lawn in the southwest suburban 36th district.
• Rep. Jay Ackerman (R-Morton), challenged by retired school teacher Grace Bunn Lievens, also of Morton, in the 89th House district.
• Rep. Tom Ryder (R-Jerseyville), facing Jerry Montague, a former elementary school principal from Alton, in the 97th House district.
Three years ago, Republicans were jubilant when Secretary of State George Ryan pulled the name of GOP State Chairman Al Jourdan out of a crystal bowl, giving the party the tie-breaking vote on the Legislative Redistricting Commission and a free hand to draw new districts. The elation proved premature for House Republicans, though, as Madigan and his well-oiled campaign operation overcame the cartographic obstacles to retain a majority in the 1992 election.
To a large extent, Democrats succeeded by electing new faces like Prussing, Giolitto, Sheehy and Ostenburg in districts fashioned to favor Republicans.
How well GOP challengers fare this time against Democrats who won on rival turf will determine whether House Republicans finally will have something to cheer about when the polls close November 8.
Charles N. Wheeler III is director of the Public Affairs Reporting Program at Sangamon State University, Springfield.
26/October 1994/Illinois Issues