REBELLION, RENEW ILLINOIS, AND ROVE
With less than a week to go before Illinois Republicans hold their state convention in Collinsville May 14-15, signs are strong that the GOPers in Abe Lincoln’s home state will wage a holy war among themselves. At a time when Republicans hold only one statewide office and are minorities in both houses of the legislature, party conservatives will try to depose controversial Republican National Committeeman Bob Kjellander from his perch and have additionally been sounding out prospective opponents to State Party Chairman Judy Baar Topinka, who is also state treasurer.
Prairie State conservatives appear to be on a collision course with the Bush White House and particularly Karl Rove, the President’s political alter ego. Kjellander (pronounced “Shee-land-er”), who is chairman of the Bush-Cheney 2004 campaign for the Great Lakes, is also a friend of Rove since their College Republican days. (Ironically, as much as they are targets of some on the right these days, Rove and Kjellander first forged their friendship helping a well-liked conservative in Illinois–Ralph Tyler Smith. Smith was appointed to the Senate in 1969 to replace late Senate GOP Leader Everett Dirksen, and faced an uphill race in the special election the following year against Democrat Adlai Stevenson, III. Rove was dispatched from national CR headquarters to try to help Smith and worked closely with Kjellander, then president of the University of Illinois College Republicans. Their efforts failed, Stevenson defeated Smith.)
In ’01, after considerable public balking, California Republicans went along with a controversial plan that diluted power of elected party officials and enhanced that of Bush friend and Los Angeles investment banker Gerald Parsky. A number of party conservatives who had doubts about the “Parsky Plan” eventually went along with it because, as State Vice Chairman Jalene Forbis told me at the time, “Jerry is the President’s friend” and they didn’t want to alienate Bush or Rove.
There are no such hesitations among Illinois conservatives. Last week, they found themselves with an impressive contender to put up against Kjellander for the national committeeman’s slot: They tapped State Sen. Steve Rauschenberger of Elgin, who had placed third in the recent eight-candidate primary for U.S. senator despite spending much less money than the top vote-getters. In addition, conservative Bonnie Miller of Oregon, Ill., is challenging Republican National Committeewoman Mary Jo Arndt and sources within the party say there will be almost surely be a challenge to Topinka for chairman when her term ends in November. Among the conservatives rumored as state chairman hopefuls are Illinois United Republican Fund President Joe Morris, Chicago businessman and former U.S. House nominee Jim Nalepa, and Glenview businessman Andrew McKenna, Jr. one of the runners-up in the recent Senate primary.
Animosity between conservatives and Kjellander is no recent development. Last year, for example, the Springfield “superlobbyist” told me how he strongly supported moderate-to-liberal former Gov. (1990-98) James Edgar to succeed retiring Sen. Peter Fitzgerald (R.-Ill.) in ’04. Days after Fitzgerald’s surprise retirement, then-White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer confirmed to me that, despite differences on abortion and other cultural issues, President Bush had telephoned Edgar and encouraged him to run–a sign that Rove and Kjellander were working to secure the nomination for senator of a Republican widely disliked by conservatives. (Edgar eventually opted not to run.)
It was shortly after the ’02 elections, however, that Kjellander’s major strike against the right occurred–his orchestration of the ouster of longtime nemesis and staunch conservative Gary MacDougal as state party chairman.
“Gary had put a new, effective, and decent face on the party,” recalled Carpentersville industrialist Jack Roeser, veteran conservative activist, contributor, and past (1994) candidate for governor. “He said we needed ‘to turn the lights on at headquarters’ so I gave him $25,000 and agreed to raise another $100,000. He also brought on the former CEO at Sears and Roebuck [Edward Brennan] and the party had a $170,000 surplus after the campaign. And even with the indictments of people around [retiring Republican Gov. George] Ryan [who has himself since been indicted on corruption charges], our nominee for governor still got a respectable 45% of the vote. But because Gary was conservative and pro-life and because Bob Kjellander does not like him, he had to go as chairman.”
Specifically, Roeser charged, Kjellander used his reputation as “the man to see in Springfield” to secure the support of House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R.-Ill.) and other high-level Illinois Republicans to depose MacDougal as chairman in favor of moderate-to-liberal Topinka, the lone survivor of the Democratic sweep of statewide offices that November, who herself is now under investigation by the U.S. attorney. (Another ironic strand in the web of intrigue surrounding the Illinois Republican Party is that Chicago entrepreneur MacDougal is himself a Bush family friend who volunteered to work in Washington with campaign manager James Baker in the elder Bush’s winning presidential race of 1988. The following year, during a private meeting at his suite at the Jefferson Hotel in Washington, MacDougal volunteered to me how then-President Bush had discouraged his interest in a Senate race the following year because he was backing moderate Rep. Lynn Martin. MacDougal finally deferred to Martin, who went on to lose badly to the late Democratic Sen. Paul Simon.)
“Our U.S. House delegation did meet in Speaker Hastert’s office after the [’02 elections] and we did discuss how we needed a new chairman,” Rep. Donald Manzullo (R.-Ill.) confirmed to me last week. But he quickly denied that any of the lawmakers had anything against MacDougal and that the desire for a new chairman “was because the elections had been such a disaster.” The congressman added that “I don’t think I’ve ever even met MacDougal or Kjellander” and that he doesn’t get involved very much in party matters.
. . . AND ROESER AND RAUSCHENBERGER
At 80, Jack Roeser is truly a grand old man of Illinois conservatism and shows no signs of letting up. With a few friends and $30,000 of his own money, Roeser recently launched a new group called “Renew Illinois” to raise $2.5 million for state candidates who support what he calls “a state platform for ethical government and a job-creating, growing economy.” Taking a page from Republicans of a decade ago who swept to control of the U.S. House with the “Contract With America,” Renew Illinois will support candidates who sign a “Contract with the People of Illinois” that calls for fighting corruption and opposing new taxes.
He added that part of the mission of “Renew” is to rid the state party of Kjellander, Topinka, and other leaders because “the Republican Party in Illinois is going nowhere good while they are in charge.” Roeser pointed to a controversial $809,000 fee Kjellander received as a consultant for Bear-Stearns after the firm became a key underwriter of the sale last year of $10 billion in state bonds to help its pension systems. In anticipation of the convention battle for national committeeman, “Renew Illinois” is already running TV spots showing Kjellander’s face moving on a “PAC-man” game board gobbling up dollar signs while an announcer’s voice blares: “Bob Kjellander recently got an $809,000 pay-off from [Democratic] Gov. [Rod] Blagojevich’s big bond scheme.” Rauschenberger has long echoed this theme, telling the Chicago Tribune’s John Kass: “Bob Kjellander has got to go. Having him around in party leadership hurts reform.” (Earlier in his column, Kass included Kjellander in what he called “the bipartisan culture of sleaze.”) The crusade to rid the state party of Kjellander has built up steam among the grassroots base, especially since Rauschenberger spoke out regarding the matter. “New leadership is crucial for Republicans in Illinois,” explained Roeser. “U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald has indicted over 60 political figures so far, mostly Republicans. Our GOP is riddled with unethical leaders. Those who are serious about rebuilding the party know that we must continue to root them out.”
As attacks against him stepped up, the 55-year-old Kjellander recently fired back at his enemies in an interview with the Springfield State Journal-Register. Denouncing Roeser as a “rule-or-ruin guy,” Kjellander told Journal-Register columnist Bernard Schoenburg that “Roeser and his ilk have a vision of the Republican Party that excludes everybody but their narrow-minded true believers” and the attacks on him are “just typical of people who would rather tear down the party so that they can sweep up the ashes and have a pure party.”
Insisting that there is a place in the Republican Party for moderates as well as conservatives, the nine-year RNC member quickly added that he is not a liberal, that he is the only one of the three RNC members from Illinois who is pro-life. Yet in a December article by CNSNews.com’s Robert Bluey, Kjellander referred to the conservative base as a “small incestuous group,” hardly the language to promote unity among the ranks.
Regarding his $809,000 from Bear-Stearns, Kjellander told Schoenburg that this was private rather than public money and that he “never spoke to anyone in the [state] administration” about the bond deal, but only advised his client.
“Inevitably, discussion with Roeser and Co. about the challenge to Kjellander comes back to whether it is worth it to incur Karl Rove’s wrath,” replied Roeser: “Hopefully, Karl Rove will separate himself from Kjellander. It is hard to believe that the astute Rove will continue a relationship that promises little but division and continued defeat.”