They contribute millions of dollars to political
Conservatives have taken control of Republican organizations in such states as Iowa,
Virginia, Texas and South Carolina. But they haven't been as fortunate in Illinois. Despite
financial backing from a handful of wealthy businessmen, conservative candidates in this
state are consistent losers to moderate Republicans. Illinois' conservatives continue to be
mired in ideology, unwilling to play practical politics. They even have trouble getting
along with one another. So every election they wind up bickering among themselves.
Still, the 20-year reign of Republican moderates will be tested anew this campaign season.
Analysis by James L. Merriner
Two Chicago industrialists, Barre Seid and Denis J. Healy, have sunk a combined $3.4 million into conservative causes and candidates in Illinois since 1989. Despite this impressive bankroll, candidates they backed were losers and organizations they subsidized are struggling.
In fact, Republican moderates regularly prevail over the party's right wing in this state. You might think hard-headed businessmen would demand a better return for their money. In other states, conservatives have realized a payoff for their efforts. They've managed to take control of Republican organizations in Iowa, Virginia, Texas and South Carolina. So what gives in Illinois?
As elsewhere, conservatives in this state regularly divide along theoretical and strategic lines, but, as much as anything, personal rancor explains why conservatives can't seem to top 40 percent of the Illinois GOP primary vote.
Seid and Healy, though far from the whole of the conservative movement here, stand at the head of a class of right-wing donors who consistently play politics at its most pure and personal. The practical give-and-take of mainstream candidates doesn't appeal to them, nor do the tactics of professional campaign organizers. Thus, beyond nudging the GOP middle toward the right on occasion and nettling one another endlessly, Illinois conservatives have been unable to make any statewide electoral gains.
For some conservatives, campaigns appear to offer little more than the chance for a good pout. A private gathering of the clan last summer at the O'Hare Marriott proves the
30 * February 1996 Illinois Issues
point. Conservatives want to test anew the 20-year reign of moderates led by Republican Govs. James R. Thompson and Jim Edgar. Specifically, they're itching to knock out Edgar's lieutenant governor, Bob Kustra, in the March 19 primary for the U.S. Senate. Commentator Thomas F. Roeser summoned about six dozen conservative leaders to the airport motel to talk about it, and the group agreed to back state Rep. Al Salvi of Wauconda.
But, in a show of personal pique typical of the movement, another wealthy conservative, Jack O. Roeser, boycotted the meeting (the two Roesers are not related). He had supported Seid's protege, conservative activist Steven Baer, in his 1990 primary challenge to Edgar. But when Jack Roeser launched his own bid against Edgar in 1994, he discovered that, in the politics of the right anyway, turnabout is not necessarily fair play. Baer refused to support Roeser in his bid. The O'Hare Marriott meeting included Baer's operatives, so Roeser stayed away.
Indeed, Baer has been a pivotal, and controversial, figure in the recent history of the conservative movement. His political career took shape during a stint as head of the United Republican Fund of Illinois, a longstanding GOP conservative rump group. As executive director from the mid- to late-'80s, he lent the organization a decidedly ideological cast. Toward the end of Thompson's administration, the Republican governor's relations with the organization grew chilly, in part because the URF began supporting challengers to Thompson-backed legislative candidates.
But the relationship between GOP regulars and conservatives within the party reached its nadir during Baer's 1990 primary battle for governor, when Edgar ended by calling Baer a fringe candidate. Still, Baer managed to take 33.5 percent of the primary vote. A good showing, considering conservatives got a late start in deciding to get behind the challenger.
The URF was organized independently of the Republican Party. Trying to trace the group's 62-year history is like trying to follow an impossibly complex case through probate. Nevertheless, the individuals who have filled its leadership posts over the years are among the state's most influential conservatives, and the changing roster reflects major and minor power shifts in the conservative movement.
While the state Republican establishment is not fond of the URF — going so far in the late '80s as to challenge the group in court over rights to the name "Republican" — not even the URF's leaders are on warm terms with one another. (DuPage County politician Aldo Botti took over as URF president in mid-1994, but lasted about 60 days before quitting in exasperation over the multi-faceted bloodletting.)
Baer took the helm of the URF in 1984. That year, emboldened by the presidency of Ronald Reagan, Illinois conservatives mounted a challenge to then-U.S. Sen. Charles H. Percy, a figurehead of the country-club GOP moderate establishment. Percy's opponent, Tom Corcoran, got 36.7 percent of the primary vote. That remains a high-water mark for a statewide conservative challenger.
The '80s also saw a rise in the fortunes of financial backers of conservative causes. Seid, head of Trippe Manufacturing Co., grew rich on the wave of the personal computer revolution by manufacturing such items as power-surge suppressors. He became an entrepreneur by using Trippe's revenues to buy and sell other firms. He also is an arts patron, giving generously to opera companies and universities. Described as a "true believer" conservative, he subsidized the Chicago-based URF to the tune of $887,580 in just 29 months. But he turned the spigot off when Baer quit as the group's leader in 1991.
Asked recently about his relationship with Seid, Baer, who now runs a
Illinois Issues February 1996 * 31
32 * February 1996 Illinois Issues
"reverse mortgage" business in Riverside, said, "I became friends with a lot of people with money because that was my job, to raise money for conservative candidates." Another GOP insider who asked not to be named gives some hint of what drew wealthy donors like Seid. "Steve [Baer] was very good at witnessing the conservative gospel to these [donors]. He would go in and say, 'You can make it happen, you're the difference between winning and losing.'"
Healy, president of Turtle Wax, was also writing checks to conservative causes during the '80s. In fact, there was talk of running Healy against Edgar in 1990, but Healy quickly squelched such talk in favor of Baer. He gave the Baer campaign a relatively modest $30,000, but his generosity to the URF since 1989 has amounted to $327,893. And, last June, Healy forgave $124,820 in loans to the group.
Healy came from a family of police officers in the Bronx and married into a wealthy family here. He and his wife, Sondra, operate Turtle Wax as a personal subchapter-S corporation, which means they have no board of directors to answer to. Healy serves as the chairman of the URF and, his detractors say, he doesn't answer to that board either.
Jack O. Roeser makes the list of conservative angels, but mostly for bankrolling himself. Roeser, who lives in Barrington, heads Otto Engineering, which is based in Carpentersville. He's put up nearly $1.7 million in cash, loans and in-kind contributions, mostly for his own 1994 primary campaign for governor.
Two other conservative angels are Alexander Magnus, who operates Manteks, a corporate managing firm in Arlington Heights, and J. Patrick Rooney, chairman of Golden Rule Insurance, which is based in Lawrenceville. Magnus has donated and lent $290,000 to conservative causes. Rooney has given $105,517 in cash and in-kind contributions.
In general, conservatives are probusiness, anti-tax and anti-abortion. In Illinois, though, there's a split between the big-business conservatives — animated by balanced budgets, term limits for politicians and limits on business regulations — and the social-agenda conservatives, driven by the pro-life movement, opposition to gun control and a desire to institute school prayer, school vouchers and home schooling. The two groups overlap but are far from identical.
The Illinois Republican establishment leans to the big-business school of thought. And, because Illinois historically has been a middle-of-theroad, bipartisan state inhospitable to ideological causes, the social conservatives, championed by the Christian Coalition and similar "religious right" groups, have secured only a narrow beachhead in Illinois state politics.
The URF and other Illinois conservatives also split along strategic lines: whether to fight for change inside the system or to bring it down from the outside. But more than a dispute over tactics, this debate has amounted to a moral argument that has sundered alliances and even friendships.
The URF, now avidly pursuing a work-within-the-system strategy after the Baer loss in 1990, endorsed Edgar for re-election in 1994. Meanwhile, Jack Roeser challenged Edgar in the primary after the governor refused to renew the "no-new-taxes" pledge he had made in 1990 to woo conservatives. But Roeser's campaign was virtually a one-man band. He garnered a quarter of the primary vote and stopped sending his dollars to the URF.
That fall, Baer, backed by Seid, created the Term Limits & Tax Limits Party and launched a brief challenge to Edgar in the general election. Edgar's people viewed it as an annoying political problem. Some conservatives took it as an outright betrayal of the Republican conservative tradition.
In the end, Edgar's campaign aides challenged Baer's petitions and, rather than deplete the new party's resources in a legal ballot defense, Baer quit the race.
Seid's loan of $715,997 was partly repaid in the amount of $385,417. The party still exists on paper, but its cash on hand as of last June 30 amounted to $3,643. That leaves two major, nonreligious conservative groups, other than the URF, in play — Roeser's Family Taxpayers Network and Family PAC, funded by Seid and others. Roeser has given $587,190 in gifts, loans and in-kind contributions to the Network. Seid has given $153,000 to Family PAC, which is run by political consultant Paul Caprio, who is close to Baer. Both groups support right-wing candidates in the General Assembly primaries and general elections. Their record is mixed at best.
For the most part, conservative funders prefer to stay behind the scenes. Neither Seid nor Healy would comment for this article. And it is a measure of their obscurity that not even their allies are certain of the degree to which they stand inside either conservative camp — party insiders versus rebels, or big-business conservatives versus social-issue zealots.
Seid, Healy and their fellow angels tend to hand over the money then turn back to running their businesses, leaving the mechanics of the movement to ideologues. The outcome when an ideologue goes up against a political pro is predictable. The pros defeated Corcoran in 1984, Baer in 1990, and Roeser and Baer in 1994.
This year, Roeser says he is supporting Salvi — despite his personal pique last summer — as are Seid and Healy. However, Donald Totten, the Schaumburg Township Republican committeeman and longtime conservative organizer, has signed on as Kustra's campaign manager. Totten sits on the URF board and some conservatives see him as an establishment infiltrator of the conservative movement.
Among Illinois conservatives, everything seems to be political except politics. That's personal. *
James L. Merriner, who has been political editor for the Atlanta Constitution and political writer for the Chicago Sun-Times, is a free-lance journalist. He is writing a biography of former U.S. Rep. Dan Rostenkowski of Chicago.
Illinois Issues February 1996 * 33
Sam S. Manivong, Illinois Periodicals Online Coordinator