Saturday, October 15, 2005

Geography Ain't Destiny: Or a Look At The Very Similar Ways Two Very Different Congressmen Got Elected

Illinois's 15th and 10th CDs could not be more different geographically and socioeconomically, or, some would say, politically. One stretches south from Champaign, in a corridor of Eastern Illinois, the latter hugs Lake Michgian's north shore. However, in 2000, the people of both districts found themselves in the same posistion.

The Illinois delegation was struck with the retirements of US Rep. Tom Ewing of Champaign and the venerate John Edward Porter of Deerfield. The race-both the GOP primary and the general-to succeed Porter was a well documented one that grabbed headlines across the Chicagoland area and culminated with the narrow election of now US Rep Mark Kirk. Nary 160 miles south, however, in the cornfields of central Illinois, a very similar political dynamic was brewing.

A contentious three-way GOP primary took place between then state rep Bill Brady(now a senator and gubernatorial candidate)of Bloomington, his colleague Tim Johnson of Champaign, and Sam Ewing, son of the outgoing congressman. In the 10th, the primary was essentially identical:for all practical purposes it was among Kirk, printing heiress Shawn Margaret Donnelly and affluent businessman John Cox. The elder Ewing had been a personal friend of Speaker Hastert since their days in the Illinois House, but the fact that Ewing postponed his retirement a cycle(from 1998 to 2000) so that his son would be eligible to won had earned the Speaker's ire. He backed the relatively unknown Brady. Johnson had the endorsement of then governor George Ryan. In the 10th, party leaders were similarly split. Kirk was hurtled into frontrunner status by a late endorsement from Porter, to whom he had once been chief of staff. Johnson, who had served 12 terms in Springfield, was fond of professing, "I've been involved in the politics of my party longer than Sam Ewing's been alive"-and that was true. Ewing's election day performance was disappointing. Johnson and Brady each carried their respective districts and the veteran state legislator and dogged campaigner rolled up a margin in the rest of the district. Kirk carried the day with a 31% plurality. (Donnelly, with only 15%, was his nearest compeittor.)

Kirk's general election race against then state rep. Lauren Beth Gash played out on the very expensive suburban airwaves. Johnson found himself staring down a little known college professor and failed lt. gubernatorial candidate: Michael Kelleher. Kirk defeated Gash 51-49 and Kelleher held Johnson to a 52% victory. Kirk's service for Porter was prominent in the 10th race, as each candidate asserted that it was he or she who was the proper heir to Porter's legacy. Johnson's years in the Illinois House came under the microscope-including an unfortunate photograph of a device he had rigged with a paperclip to cast votes when he was absent from the floor.

Other similarites between Kirk and Johnson go beyond their political histories. Both are pro-environment moderates and members of the centrist Republican Main Street Partnership. Both have obviated a potential challenger from the ranks of the ILGA-then state rep Julie Curry(now at Ronan Potts)saw her seat redistricted out of the 15th in the 2000 remap and Sen. Susan Garett recently abjured from challenging Kirk.

Both Kirk and Johnson are the progeny of peculiar circumstances uniquely their own. However, their career trajectories have taken them in vastly different directions, Johnson's, to a tenuous peace with Hastert, and Kirk's, to chairmanship of the Tuesday Group and a status as one of the Speaker's most trusted allies. Johnson, at 59, is likely to retire first. Kirk may leave the House only to seek higher office. But we can expect the tenacity that brought them into office to serve them for a long time.

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