Between the Lines: Candidates for governor face the challenge of getting their messages across

Oct 1, 2006

Campaigns for November elections traditionally began after Labor Day, but this summer's State Fair set the tone in a long race for governor. 

Democrat Day — called Governor's Day in honor of the party in power — was loud, star-studded and packed with folks wearing bright blue T-shirts to show support for incumbent Gov. Rod Blagojevich. Many wore the names of unions as they stepped off 60 charter buses. The $20,000 to $25,000 cost of their transportation from hometowns to fairgrounds was paid by the Blagojevich political fund, according to campaign spokeswoman Sheila Nix. 

Once inside the grounds, the crowds danced to We Are Family before a banner that read, "Illinois Democrats: Working for Families."

Then Blagojevich, running for his second term, took the stage to tout the ways he had "fundamentally changed" the state's economic and social well-being during his first term — despite inheriting "a state in utter and complete meltdown" from a GOP administration that was "only interested in serving itself."

The next day, Republicans gathered at a smaller, lower-key rally accompanied by live jazz. Participants, mostly locals, raised red signs to support state Treasurer Judy Baar Topinka for governor, then sang the national anthem.

Topinka's remarks opened with a string of quips about Blagojevich. "Boy, when you have to bus in your supporters because you can't get them here voluntarily, you've got a real problem." She then summarized a series of policy proposals that center on what she calls the "three E's" — education, economy and ethics — and acknowledged that her $1.5 million campaign purse pales in comparison to Blagojevich 's $12.2 million at the end of June.

"It's not easy running against an incumbent, a guy who's got a lot of money," she told her supporters. "He'll always have a lot more money than I have. But jeepers, I've never had a lot of money and [have] run for public office. And you know what? I've never lost a race. And I don't intend to lose this one."

The onstage photo opportunity included the six statewide GOP candidates as they interlocked hands through Simply the Best and positioned themselves in front of a party banner that read "Leaders We Can  Trust."

Creating such vivid campaign images is the candidates' challenge. Seeing beyond those images to character and policy will be the voters ' challenge. In November, Illinoisans will have to choose among three candidates for governor: Blagojevich, a Chicago Democrat; Topinka, a Riverside Repub-lican; and Rich Whitney, a Carbondale member of the Green Party. In turn, the candidates face a number of challenges as they try to reach voters.

The early returns underscore some of those difficulties. Voters are ambivalent about whom they like and trust, according to a Chicago Tribune poll taken during the first week of September. Out of 600 likely voters, 45 percent said they will vote for Blagojevich. While he led Topinka by 12 percentage points, anything below 50 percent suggests vulnerability for an incumbent. But Topinka didn't pose a strong alternative, according to that poll, pulling only 33 percent support. Voter apathy about these candidates was further highlighted by responses to the Tribune poll on the issue of ethics. When asked who they thought could clean up state government, only 29 percent said Blagojevich; 27 percent said Topinka; and 15 percent said they didn't know. 

What this suggests is that voters — a mere eight weeks from Election Day — weren't confident about re-electing Blagojevich but lacked enthusiasm for Topinka. Meanwhile, 6 percent of the respondents said they would vote for Whitney.

Prior to the poll, Blagojevich tailored his campaign to highlight his experience. He has served one term as governor, three terms as a U.S. representative and two terms as a state representative. Blagojevich, born on the Northwest Side of Chicago to Serbian immigrant parents, earned a law degree from Pepperdine University Law School in California. He has served as a Cook County assistant state's attorney. 

Topinka's campaign has focused on fiscal responsibility, which she says she has honed through almost 12 years as state treasurer, and on the legislative know-how gained during her decade in the state Senate and four years in the Illinois House. Topinka, who grew up in a Cook County suburb, earned a journalism degree from Northwestern University in Evanston. She worked at suburban newspapers before entering politics.

Whitney is a founding member of the Illinois Green Party and is campaigning for "clean energy and clean government." He didn't have a designated day at the State Fair in Springfield. In fact, he wasn't even an official candidate through most of the summer. After securing more than the required 25,000 signatures to get on the November ballot, he chose to campaign at the DuQuoin State Fair in the southern part of the state. A graduate of Southern Illinois University Law School, Whitney is an attorney. He made unsuccessful bids for a seat in Illinois House District 115 in 2002 and 2004, but emphasizes that he earned the legal status of an "established" party in that relatively conservative district.

All three candidates have their work cut out for them as they attempt to package appeals to a broad enough cross section of this state's diverse political culture.

For his part, Blagojevich secured clutch votes from the blue-collar Metro East region across from St. Louis for his 2002 gubernatorial win, but lost in 63 other counties outside the Chicago metropolitan area. His strongest voter base was and is the heavily Democratic city of Chicago and Cook and DuPage counties, which have been trending Democratic. 

Topinka lost both of those high-population Chicago suburban counties to Democrat Tom Dart in her 2002 re-election for treasurer, but she slid to victory with a clear majority of the vote in 95 other counties.

Whitney's strongest showing in his two races for the 115th legislative seat was his home base of Jackson County in the southern-most portion of the state. He says he also has gained momentum in the university towns of Bloomington-Normal, Champaign-Urbana and Peoria.

But wherever they live, voters are likely to care more about daily life than about politics, says Chris Mooney, a Springfield-based political scientist with the University of Illinois ' Institute of Government and Public Affairs. "That's the job of a leader, to convince the electorate that there 's something that ought to be done."

Voters are attuned to policy questions, primarily the quality of their kids' education, affordability and access to health care and the availability of good-paying jobs. But the glue that holds these issues together rests on a candidate 's master budget plan. And that is complicated to read because so much of what the candidate says — estimates of spending, estimates of revenues — must be taken on some measure of faith. Voters have to trust the candidate who stands behind the numbers more than the numbers themselves. 

The candidates' stances on taxes are almost always crystal clear, though, whether or not the numbers add up. 

Blagojevich has pledged not to raise the state income or sales taxes to generate additional revenue. Topinka says a tax hike would be a last resort, but she wouldn't rule it out. Both have looked to gaming for extra cash, something Whitney says he adamantly opposes as he campaigns for tax reform.

Education spending often dominates voters' concerns, and for good reason. With nearly 900 school districts, Illinois has one of the largest student achievement gaps between wealthy and poor school districts. But finding ways to improve education leads, inexorably, to the politically tricky question of school funding.

Blagojevich's education platform this time out rests on his first-term accomplishments. He says he inherited a $5 billion budget deficit from previous Republican administrations. Nevertheless, he has managed to dedicate $3.8 billion in new funding to elementary and secondary education without increasing state income or sales taxes. And that has helped to raise the minimum per pupil spending to $5,334. Critics note that 's still short — by some $1,000 per pupil — of the amount recommended in the Education Funding Advisory Board's 2005 report to the General Assembly.

Blagojevich frames all of his education initiatives as relief for moderate-income families. For instance, he has enacted state subsidized preschool for up to 10,000 3- and 4-year-old students considered at-risk financially or educationally. And now college students from families who make less than $200,000 can apply for $500 grants from the state to cover tuition.

In the campaign, Blagojevich proposed raising $10 billion for elementary and secondary education by selling or leasing the Illinois Lottery to investors. But in September, he upped the estimated value. "Real potential buyers have been offering closer to $15 billion," says Nix, his campaign spokeswoman.

In fact, privatization is at the heart of the governor's strategy to generate revenue for a number of programs. 

But skepticism about the governor's fiscal projections has been an unwelcome theme throughout the Blagojevich Administration. It stymied his proposed school construction program during the spring legislative session, for instance. The bonding program would have cleared a three-year waiting list of 24 schools that need state dollars to build new facilities. The measure failed when Republicans refused to vote for a budget or a construction program that relied on what they call unreliable one-time revenue sources.

"Excuses," says Rebecca Rausch, Blagojevich spokeswoman. "It's a smoke screen, and it 's actually a pretty poor excuse not to vote for school construction."

Meanwhile, the governor continues to visit schools and universities through-out the state, noting they could get construction money if Republicans would cooperate. One such visit to deep southern Illinois in late August led him to promise $1.9 million for the renovation of the dilapidated Carterville High School. Unable to promise money from a capital program, the administration will have to tap a different pot of state money called Build Illinois.

"Some of these buildings around the state need some maintenance and can 't wait for politicians in Springfield to vote for a capital bill," Rausch says.

Topinka casts her plan for education and school construction as an alternative. While Blagojevich wants to sell a state asset, she wants to create a state asset: a land-based casino in Chicago. She also would allow the nine other Illinois riverboats to more than double the limit on their gaming positions. 

She estimates the gaming plan could generate one-time revenues of $650 million and a continuing $600 million per year. She also proposed $3 billion for school construction projects.

She, too, faces skeptics who say her plan is too optimistic about how far she could stretch the casino revenue. Some question the logistical problem of trying to replace the legally challenged 10th casino license with a new one for a Chicago venue.

But Mooney says, if marketed correctly, Topinka's proposal for a Chicago casino could resonate with voters who would typically feel nervous about relying on gaming for education funding. "The Park Ridge soccer mom is going to be a little nervous about that because it 's something unseemly. But if you put that out as an alternative to a tax hike — where our culture is not one that looks out for the common good as much as the individual good — it might be seen as a lesser of two evils."

And it doesn't hurt that Chicago Mayor Richard Daley, a Democrat, hasn't opposed her plan. He has pushed for a city-owned casino before, but a privately owned casino could still benefit his city. 

Whitney's education plan separates him from the others in that he looks to tax reform, not gaming revenue, as a way to increase school spending. He says the current system relies too heavily on property taxes — read local property wealth — and contributes to the disparity in spending from one school district to another.

He supports legislation that has been stalled in the legislature since 2005. It would increase the individual income tax rate from 3 percent to 5 percent and the corporate rate from 4.8 percent to 8 percent. 

To offer relief, the plan would give tax credits to lower- and middle-income Illinoisans and designate $2.4 billion for a special property tax relief fund. The intent is to level the playing field for cash-poor school districts.

Whitney argues the plan is popular among voters and bases that conclusion on a 2004 public survey conducted for A+ Illinois, an education advocacy group led by civic and business organizations. Results showed 66 percent of those surveyed said they favored the idea of school funding reform to educe reliance on property taxes, which would mean increasing the state income and/or sales taxes.

Health care concerns among voters center on affordability of insurance and access to doctors of choice. The candidates, meanwhile, share another, broader concern about how the state can pay for the medical care of those who cannot afford insurance.

Blagojevich expanded eligibility for Medicaid, the state and federal health insurance for the poor and disabled. And he toured Illinois this summer to promote his All Kids health insurance program designed to connect children to a managed care system he estimates could save the state $57 million. So far, about 75,000 children have been newly enrolled, says Amy Rosenband, spokeswoman for the Illinois Department of Healthcare and Family Services. That's well on the way to reaching the goal of 95,000 by June 2007.

Though he received national attention for the program, Blagojevich must calm medical providers who are keeping tabs on the state's $1.3 billion acklog in reimbursements to doctors, hospitals and nursing homes that care for Medicaid-eligible patients. Blagojevich's administration promises doctors caring for All Kids patients will get reimbursed within 30 days.

Topinka says the state needs to tame Medicaid costs before they eat the entire budget. She proposes capping income eligibility for future All Kids patients. "People who make $100,000 a year should not be on that program," she says. But, she adds, "No one is being kicked off Medicaid. If they 're eligible now, they will still be eligible under my plan."

She would require more identification and six-month follow-ups to ensure people have not exceeded ligibility guidelines. "It 's fair to make sure that the people who are on Medicaid are the people who truly need it," she says, "because I don 't want to dilute whatever funds we have for people who don 't need it." 

Whitney supports a form of universal health care in which the state would offer one health insurance plan for all residents. It would be publicly funded with tax dollars. He believes the required tax increase would be smaller than the savings realized by families, businesses and the government.

Job worries also bedevil voters, who must be convinced the next governor can offer solutions to trends that are sending manufacturing jobs overseas and threatening the nation 's energy security. And all three candidates tied parts of their economic plans to alternative energy sources that use Illinois ' natural resources.

On State Fair Agriculture Day, Blagojevich announced he 's releasing $25 million in grants to help build ethanol and biodiesel plants. A week later, he announced a $1.2 billion "energy independence" plan. His goal is to meet half the state 's energy needs with renewable fuels made from Illinois corn, soybeans and coal by 2017. The plan would increase the number of gas stations that offer E85 and provide incentives for automakers to produce energy-efficient cars. He also would invest in 10 coal gasification plants to make cleaner-burning coal — though those plants would be contingent on legislative support for the capital bill.

Topinka also released her energy plan at the State Fair. It would create an Illinois Rural Economic Development Authority with $500 million in bonding authority to assist farmers in producing renewable fuels, including wind energy. It also would require all gas sold in Illinois to contain ethanol and require all state buildings to be more energy-efficient.

Whitney dubs his economic plan the "New Deal." While he says his ideas for sustainable energy and cleaner transportation are not new, he paints his opponents' plans as too narrow and tailored to corporate interests. He considers his plan broader and more balanced, with the jury still out on whether ethanol could be the primary solution. "When it comes to energy, we shouldn't be putting all of our eggs in one basket," he says. 

Instead, Whitney supports incentives and mandates so companies will produce more wind, solar, geothermal and biomass energy. He also says more emphasis on mass transit, such as train travel, could create more job opportunities than shoveling more money into state highways.

Candidates' strategies to overcome their negatives and boost their positives rest on efforts to monitor public perception and raise money.

Blagojevich did not get two of his former significant endorsements. The Illinois Education Association and AFSCME Council 31 did not endorse any candidate for governor. Previous campaign donors are such unions as the Illinois Federation of Teachers, the Laborers' International Union, the Service Employees International Union and the Illinois AFL-CIO.  

"Front-line services in every key department have been eroded under the Blagojevich Administration," says Anders Lindall, AFSCME spokesman. "The need to adequately fund public employee pensions, to fairly and fully fund public education, these are all challenges that the state must meet."

But Blagojevich 's biggest challenge could be his credibility, says Mooney. "He's just not trusted by the people he works with. He's not trusted by the journalists. That 's not just because he says one thing and does another. The words coming out of his mouth, you can 't verify. They don 't mean anything in the future."

The spring legislative session was an indication of lawmakers' distrust. Democrats made him sign memos that their district projects would get the dollars the governor was promising.

Worse, Blagojevich's administration is knee deep in legal mud, as federal investigators probe alleged political favoritism and fraud in state hires and contracts. And he himself has been interviewed by the FBI. 

Yet the governor's campaign juggernaut could roll past these problems if the investigations find no wrongdoing on his part — and Topinka fails to gain traction. 

Blagojevich's campaign records show he started the year with $15.5 million, spent millions of dollars on advertising by midyear and still had $12.2 million available to spend as of June 30.

Topinka's much smaller campaign purse of $1.5 million could partially explain her post-Labor Day start in advertising. Her midyear campaign records show she spent little on ads in the first half of the year.

"We have said that we will advertise at the appropriate time," says her campaign spokesman, John McGovern. "We 're looking to do that at a point when we believe voters are paying attention and are engaged in the election."

Mooney says the delayed response to Blagojevich's spring slogans, "What 's she thinking?" put her at an early disadvantage. Without a coherent message that counters Blagojevich's allegations that she doesn't understand the state's needs, Mooney says voters could question Topinka 's credibility. "Not in the sense that you don 't believe what she says, but moving up to the ability [and] gravitas to be a governor."

The slower start to getting her message out also has had an impact on her campaign purse. "A late start and lack of experience and skill in her team has hurt her fundraising," says Kent Redfield, Mooney's colleague at the University of Illinois at Springfield and director of the Sunshine Project, which researches campaign finance. 

"The fact that she did not raise a lot for the primary and had modest numbers as of June 30 makes contributors hedge their bets," he says. "You do not want to back a loser or have to deal with a governor you did not support."

Previously, her major campaign supporters included the Illinois Hospital Association, the Illinois Association of Realtors and the Illinois State Medical Society. This year she added such business groups as the Illinois Chamber of Commerce.

Mooney says waiting to spend every penny she has until she knows the outcome of the federal investigation into Blagojevich's administration also could turn into an advantage. "It almost doesn't matter what she does with her campaign if the [U.S.] attorney comes out with some high-level indictments," he says.

Whitney acknowledges he has much less money to spread his message. His campaign records show he had only $860 on June 30. 

"I'd be the first to admit that it looks pathetic," he says, adding that much of his funding went through the state Green Party. He also wasn't an official gubernatorial candidate until August 31, giving him little time to play campaign catch-up with his opponents and their multimillion-dollar kitties.

"We've been at such a terrible disadvantage in getting our message out," he says. His Green Party slate must educate voters who only know the party by stereotype, as tree huggers or environmental guerrillas.

But he adds fundraising and media attention are on the upswing because he's no longer preoccupied with petitioning and gathering 39,000 signatures to get on the ballot. He predicts his numbers in the polls will rise when people get to know him, but that will be a challenge considering his lack of campaign cash and an invitation to only one of the gubernatorial debates. 

As of mid-September, he had yet to be invited to this month's two scheduled debates, one October 2 in Decatur on the Illinois Radio Network and one October 26 on the public WTTW Channel 11 in Chicago.

"Now you've got to be polling at a certain number right away, when a lot of media hasn't covered us," he says. "I think that 's manifestly unfair."

He says the political system fails to serve the public interest. "The voters of this state deserve to hear all points of view, and that 's what the debates should be about. They should be about having the best-informed electorate, and not what's going to make the best show for the ratings."

From now to November 7, candidates will work day and night to convince voters they should be elected. Their success hinges on whether those who turn out on Election Day hear their messages and, more important, believe the promises they make. 

 

Rod Blagojevich
Incumbent
Chicago Democrat, 
age 49
Prior experience: Governor 2003-present; U.S. representative 1997-2003; state representative 1993-1997.
Web site: www.rodforillinois.com
Sheila Nix, his campaign spokeswoman, answered the following questions in a conversation with Statehouse bureau chief Bethany Carson.

Q. What's your response to reports that say Illinois has a $3 billion budget deficit when accounting for outstanding bills and Medicaid backlogs?
First of all, I don't think that's right. I think there's always been [a] Medicaid back payment, and that was in place when we took over. We've made some progress. The good news is that the governor's office was just able to release an additional $500 million to pay down the Medicaid backlog. The economy's getting better, so they had higher than projected revenues. That will reduce the payment cycle to under 60 days. The next revenue projection looks like that's going to be a little bit higher, too. That money will also go into the Medicaid backlog, and then that gets the payment cycle down to 51 days.

Q. The governor's estimate of how much the state could garner by privatizing the Illinois Lottery has increased from $10 billion to $15 billion. Why?
Some of the research that was being done to explore the market has gotten back some higher projections than were originally anticipated. Real potential buyers have been offering closer to $15 billion.

Q. What makes Gov. Rod Blagojevich's energy plan more realistic for the state than proposals by the other candidates?
Gov. Blagojevich started doing some investments in ethanol and biodiesel fuels. In terms of having a lot of experience and putting a lot of thought into it based on what they've already seen, [his administration has] the level of knowledge and understanding of the market to be able to put forth a plan that will be successful. 

 

Judy Baar Topinka
Three-term state treasurer 
Riverside Republican,
age 62
Prior experience: 
Treasurer 1995-present; 
state senator 1985-1995; 
state representative 1981-1985. 
Web site: www.judyforgov.com
She answered the following  questions in a phone conversation with Statehouse bureau chief Bethany Carson.

Q. What are some specific examples of how you would scale back Medicaid costs?
We want to look at Medicaid in the hopes of getting onto a managed care [system]. We would be establishing a Medicaid reform task force. That would be on Day 1, so as to slow the growth. I want to be real clear that my proposal does not cut off people who are currently on [Medicaid]. If they're eligible now, they will be eligible under my plan. We 're going to pursue a federal block grant for Medicaid so we don't have this one-size-fits-all situation that exists.We would utilize the state's 10th casino license that has lain dormant for a decade. This is basically [Chicago Mayor Richard Daley's] proposal without city ownership. That would generate a one-time revenue of $650 million for the sale of the license, and about $600 million per year. That would pay off all our old Medicaid bills.

Q. What do you say to the skeptics who think you've overestimated what you can do with revenue gained by your Chicago casino proposal?
I think we've seen the legislature come close to passing a 10th license, about twice. They've been egged on by the governor, but as they've gotten close, he cut them off at the knees and tried to make them look bad. They are not going to throw that ball to a receiver who is going to horse around with them. They know I would be a willing receiver. I think we can work it out. I don't think I'm overestimating. I think I can make it happen.

Q. How would tightening guidelines for Medicaid eligibility impact All Kids?
I think it would make it easier because right now we see people who are trying to get into All Kids being rejected by Medicaid providers because [providers'] bills haven 't been paid. They're not going to take anybody new on when they can't get paid for those that they've already provided for. Now, if you make $100,000 a year, I don't think this state should be paying for your child. At that point, you should be picking up your own children's health care. 

 

Rich Whitney 
Attorney 
Carbondale Green, 
age 51
Prior experience: Unsuccessful run for a seat in Illinois House District 115 in 2002 and 2004.
Web site: www.whitneyforgov.org
He answered the following questions in a phone conversation with Statehouse bureau chief Bethany Carson.

Q. What makes your energy plan more realistic for the state?
Mine is broader. When it comes to energy, we shouldn't be putting all of our eggs in one basket. There's this whole debate about whether or not it actually takes more energy to create each gallon of ethanol. To me, this indicates that we need to be cautious. There is no one magic bullet that's going to solve all of our energy problems. It has to be a multiphased approach looking at a lot of different clean energy options, as well as energy efficiency, sustainable transportation and smart urban design. All of these things have to be done to get us out of the fix that we're in today. I do believe ethanol is a part of the answer, but only a part. We need to take a little more cautious approach and have a little more balanced portfolio on where we 're going with clean energy.

Q. What makes you confident a so-called tax swap — income for property — for education funding could gain legislative approval?
Because it does enjoy such broad-based support among the people, that's obviously the tool we would have to use to convince the legislature that they need to do the right thing. We're not starting from zero here. We have a base of support already. One of the reasons it has not passed is because that base of support within the Democratic Party has not had the support of their own governor. Just having a governor who gets elected and is actually going to be an advocate of this, I think that's going to make a huge difference and make many legislators feel safe that they can go ahead and support this very common-sense plan that is badly needed in Illinois. Then the next step is to go back to the people, the education lobbies, the citizens groups, that have been fighting for this for years, and say, "Look, you have a governor who's in your corner now. You need to go back and do your part and put pressure on the individual legislators who are bottling this up."

 

Illinois Issues, October 2006