Thursday, May 31, 2007

ABO vs. Obama - 2004

Back in 2004 I witnessed the old adage, “Things can always get worse.”

Just when I thought the Republican Party in Illinois had hit bottom, they began digging a hole. They were reeling from the Governor George Ryan scandal of selling drivers licenses to fund party activity, followed closely by Ryan’s effort to engineer a legacy for himself by removing the tollbooths. He found no traction with that effort so he commuted all the death sentences in the state. (He finally found something he could do that was outside the checks and balances.)

Now, follow along here because there are a few different Ryan’s in this story, kind of like keeping track of the Johns and the Marys in the New Testatment.

Jack Ryan won the primary election to be the Republican candidate for US Senate in 2004. Peter Fitzgerald would not serve a second term. He was totally frustrated that our elected officials didn’t really want to analyze and fix problems; they wanted to play political games while Rome burned.

It turns out that Jack was not a dull boy after all. His divorce papers became public and they contained some kinky stuff; not at all befitting a family values candidate. So Jack bowed out.

So who do you replace him with after the primary? Logic may suggest the person who came in second. But we don’t do that here in Illinois. The decision defaults to the party bosses to name someone, and they NEVER go with the public’s second choice. It is time for party leaders to exert their influence; take matters into the cloakroom so to speak.

You’ll never find anyone in Washington to admit it, so we’ll have to wait for Karl Rove to publish his tell-all memoirs. But this was a presidential election year and Bush was out to get a record number of Hispanic votes. He began in January 2004 talking about his Guest Worker program for the first time since 9/11. The second place candidate in the Illinois Senate Republican Primary was Jim Oberweis. The message from the White House was that they wanted ABO, Anyone But Oberweis.

You see, Oberweis may have been popular with the voters but he ran TV ads that warned us about the illegal alien problem. He showed pictures of Soldier Field (where the Bears play) and claimed that enough illegals cross the border every week to fill the stadium. That would be 60,000+ per week.

When I saw those ads I thought he was exaggerating. I had never even considered that there was a problem. Sure, I knew some folks snuck across the border, but they kept to themselves. Besides, surely those we pay to protect us had a handle on these things. But no one disputes those numbers any more. Oberweis was right. In fact, maybe his numbers were a little low. If we had only known.

So, who was ABO? Well, the reluctant party chair was Judy Barr Topinka. The party was scandal-ridden and had no money. It would be like making her captain of the Titanic AFTER it hit the iceberg. But Judy was loyal to the wishes of Washington and Oberwies was never considered. Various names were bantered about, mostly the rich and the famous. Even Da Coach, Mike Ditka, was considered seriously. Most Illinoisans never even knew Ditka was a Republican and here he was being considered. But he went on camera and turned them down.

So, along came a carpetbagger by the name of Alan Keyes. Like Hillary in New York, he was going to campaign here having never lived here in his life. Keyes was a conservative talk show host, black, with a history of strong rhetoric. I can’t imagine why Washington would approve him. After all, he spoke out against Dick Cheney’s lesbian daughter (and all gays) and he too had made some statements about illegal aliens. But the party must have seen him as a cipher, a place holder, a zero.

It didn’t take much to realize he was unelectable. We tried to make sense of it all. Maybe he was coming in to go head-to-head with another black candidate. Or maybe he would attract the attention of the far right. Or maybe he was strong enough and loud enough to compete with Jesse Jackson. Nothing made sense. Maybe Bush actually wanted Obama to win. That made more sense than anything else, but even that was a huge stretch of the imagination.

Topinka held her nose and was cordial enough at the start, but even before election day she was wishing him well, SOMEWHERE ELSE.

So that, my dear friends, is how Barry Obama first came to national office. ABO had a name. It was Alan Keyes and he set a record for losing the Illinois Senate race by the greatest margin.

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