Politics 2005: Week of January 10

Who’s Next for Captain of Illinois GOP Titanic?

The old quip about who wants to be captain of the Titanic is being asked in Illinois these days, as Prairie State Republicans prepare to elect a successor to retiring state party Chairman Judy Baar Topinka January 15. .

In addition to the state party’s pitiful finances, Illinois GOPers have only one statewide elected official (Topinka, who doubles as state treasurer) and are in the minority in both houses of the state legislature. Last year, its downward spiral continued: John Kerry handily captured Illinois’ electoral votes, Democrat Barack Obama won the seat of retiring Republican Sen. Peter Fitzgerald with 70% of the vote, and veteran Republican Rep. Phil Crane lost the House seat he had held since 1969.

This successively dim political picture is made even weaker by an intra-party rivalry that has become a blood feud: Conservatives–notably businessman Jack Roeser and his Renew Illinois group–have charged that the atrophy of the state organization is the legacy of the foiling of conservative candidates and issues by moderates Topinka and GOP National Committeeman Bob Kjellander. Topinka and Kjellander, in turn, often dismiss Roeser and Co. as “extremists.” Language in interviews with the respective camp grows even rougher.

All of this will be played out next week, when the 19 members of the Republican State Central Committee–all of them with weighted votes–meet to elect a chairman. There are three serious contenders: businessmen Andy McKenna (who placed fourth in the GOP Senate primary last year) and Jim Nalepa (who came close to beating Democratic Rep. William Lipinski in his Chicago-based district in 1994 and ’96), and Cook County (Chicago) GOP Chairman Gary Skoien. Both Nalepa and McKenna are considered conservatives, while Skoien is widely distrusted on the right for his primary challenge to conservative Crane in 1996. (A fourth contender is state party Vice Chairman Steve McGlynn, but his chances are usually rated less than those of the other three contenders because he comes from the far-less-populated Southern Illinois area known as “Little Egypt.”)

With such a small group choosing a chairman (and its members almost unanimously clamming up when asked about their leanings), no one is predicting what will happen. As the election draws closer, there are signs that Nalepa–a West Point graduate, former U.S. Army Ranger, and head of a multi-million dollar head-hunting firm–may have some advantages. At a party luncheon in Chicago last month, outgoing Sen. Fitzgerald acknowledged “my friend Jim Nalepa” and recalled how the Chicago businessman organized the first major fund-raising event for him when he launched his winning Senate bid in 1998.

With his take-no-prisoners persona and bearing a strong resemblance to filmdom’s John Travolta, Nalepa has been spelling out precisely what he would do at the party helm in private meetings with members of the State Central Committee. “In 1942, the American Army had been soundly defeated and demoralized at the battle of El Gutar,” Nalepa said, likening that defeat to the recent history of the Illinois GOP. “To pick up the pieces, they didn’t send in ‘Caspar Milquetoast.’ They sent in George Patton. The rest is history.”

Nalepa then lays out his “Operation Phoenix” to bring a dynamic rebirth of the party. The steps to “Phoenix,” says Nalepa, include choosing a forceful chairman not tied or beholden to the past, launching an aggressive party fund-raising campaign and efforts to recruit candidates for office from the local to statewide level (bringing in experts from other states if necessary, he adds), and activating the grass roots with a platform that “stands for something.” Nalepa also calls for hiring “grass-roots coordinators”–“one for the conservative base and one for moderates”–and for taking a hard-line against Chicago Mayor Richard Daley’s Democratic machine.

Nalepa’s tough talk and take-it-or-leave-it plan may be too strong medicine for the party leaders to swallow, but several on the right who took pains to say they like McKenna also said that Nalepa’s persona is demonstrating appeal. Recalling how Nalepa was the lone chairman hopeful to attend his Renew Illinois banquet in December featuring former Jersey City Mayor Bret Schundler, Roeser said that, “Jim worked the crowd and made a strong impression on our folks.” Nalepa may also have gotten a boost when the State Central Committee recently agreed to open up their chairman-selection session to the 102 county chairmen and permit candidates to address the audience.

Surveying the race for the party helm, veteran Chicago conservative commentator and radio talk show host Tom Roeser (no relation to Jack) told me: “I don’t know whether the party will take Nalepa or not. But one thing’s for sure–when he walks into a room, you know it.”

New ‘Hill Rats’

With the new House and Senate sworn in January 4, there are new as well as familiar faces on the staffs of conservative lawmakers. Among them:

Doctor’s Helper. To no one’s surprise, Sen. Tom Coburn (R.-Okla.) tapped longtime associate Mike Schwartz as his chief of staff. When the physician-politician was in the House (1994-2000), Schwartz was his legislative director. After a few years as a lobbyist for Concerned Women for America, social issues expert Schwartz left for Oklahoma this year to manage the winning attempt by Coburn (lifetime American Conservative Union rating: 97%) to take the seat of retiring Sen. Don Nickles (R.-Okla.).

Martinez’s “Little Sessions.” As in the case of Coburn and Schwartz, conservatives also heartily applauded freshman Florida GOP Sen. Mel Martinez’s choice of John Little as chief of staff. A graduate of Southern Methodist University in Dallas, and Cumberland School of Law in Birmingham, Little has spent seven years on the staff of conservative Sen. Jeff Sessions (R.-Ala.), rising to become legislative director. The 32-year-old Little was particularly hailed on the right as Sessions’ point man on judicial nominations and is a widely respected figure among conservative staffers on Capitol Hill. Also on Martinez’s staff is legislative director Tripp Baird, who has been a policy analyst for the conservative Heritage Foundation.

Team Allen. More than a few Virginia pundits and pols think that the shake-up in the campaign and Capitol Hill office of Sen. George Allen (R.-Va.) is a strong sign that if, as expected, he is re-elected in 2006, the 52-year-old senator will seek the Republican presidential nomination in ’08. Taking over as Allen’s Senate chief of staff is Dick Wadhams, who formerly held the top spot in the office of conservative Sen. Wayne Allard (R.-Colo.). But Wadhams is far better known as a campaign manager par excellence, having run the winning races of Allard and Colorado Republican Gov. Bill Owens. Most recently, Wadhams won national acclaim from GOPers after running the successful race of Republican John Thune against Senate Democratic Leader Tom Daschle in South Dakota.

Taking over Allen’s ’06 re-election effort is Jason Miller, who earned high marks for running the initial races of Republican Representatives Darrell Issa (Calif.) and Ric Keller (Fla.) in 2000.

Not in the official Allen camp, but certainly in his orbit, is Jay Timmons, whose relationship with the senator has been likened to that of Louis Howe to Franklin D. Roosevelt and Karl Rove to George W. Bush–the consigliore with the years-long devotion to making “the boss” President. Timmons, right-hand man to Allen while he was governor of the Old Dominion (1993-97) and in the Senate, and most recently operating head of the National Republican Senatorial Committee under Chairman Allen, is expected to soon launch a private consulting business. Allen-watchers, however, almost universally predict that the new firm will free Timmons to travel nationwide and sound out potential backers for his man’s yet-unannounced candidacy.

Dole’s Helmsman. Conservatives were delighted last week when just-elected National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman Elizabeth Dole (N.C.) chose veteran North Carolina political operative Mark Stephens to be executive director of the NRSC. The new operating head of the committee for the ’06 Senate campaigns got his start in former North Carolina GOP Sen. Jesse Helms’s political operation, the National Congressional Club. He went on to help run campaigns for such noted Tar Heel State conservative Republicans as Sen. John East and former Raleigh Mayor Tom Fetzer.