Politics 2005: Week of January 31

Is Grooming Gus Good? For some of us–er, middle-aged political reporters–it’s hard to believe that Rep. Mike Bilirakis (R.-Fla.) is now among the more senior GOP House members and chairman of the Health Subcommittee of the House Energy and Commerce Committee. Twenty-two years ago, Tarpon Springs lawyer and first-time candidate Bilirakis came out of nowhere to defeat two veteran Republican office-holders and go on to become the newly carved 9th District’s first congressman. In part, the initial upset and political success of Bilirakis came precisely from his being a fresh face and from solid financial support from fellow Greek-Americans. At 74 and now the most familiar political face in the district, Bilirakis has long made it clear he would not run again in ’06. Last month, the candidate he has long groomed as his successor in the heavily Republican district, his son, three-term state Rep. Gus Bilirakis, filed the official papers to run. The 41-year-old Bilirakis’s bid for Congress has already won the support of such prominent district residents as St. Petersburg College President Carl Kuttler and New York Yankees owner George Steinbrenner, a longtime friend of the elder Bilirakis. Interestingly, while Mike Bilirakis was perceived as an outsider and a strong conservative in his first bid for Congress, Gus Bilirakis has, according to the St. Petersburg (Fla.) Times, “developed a reputation as a low-key moderate with roots in Tarpon Springs.” In contrast, the candidate regarded as Bilirakis’ leading opponent in the August 2006 primary is a local favorite of evangelical conservatives, former state Sen. (1986-2000) John Grant. The 61-year-old legislator’s old Senate district in Hillsborough and Pasco Counties comprises a narrow majority of the 9th District. Grant won fame in office among conservatives for criticizing the University of South Florida student government for inviting gay Olympic diver Greg Louganis to speak. Other prospective Republican candidates for the open seat include state Sen. Victor Crist, former state Sen. Jack Latvala, and former House Speaker Johnnie Byrd, an also-ran in the GOP U.S. Senate primary last year. Any talk of a Bilirakis succeeding Bilirakis invites discussion of the growing number of relatives following relatives into congressional seats. Noting that seven of the 41 just-elected House members are relatives of prominent politicians with names such as Boren, Mack and Carnahan, and that six members of the Senate are children of senators, a Washington Post January 23 article concluded, “Washington sometimes resembles the court of Louis XIV without the powdered wigs.” But the reporter also noted that being the offspring of a congressman is no guarantee of political success: Last year, the sons of retiring Republican Representatives Nick Smith (Mich.) and Billy Tauzin (La.) both lost bids to succeed their fathers, and in 2002, the son of House Majority Leader Dick Armey lost the Republican primary for the Texas district his father had held for 18 years. McKenna Takes ‘The Titanic’ There really was no surprise when the State Central Committee of the Illinois Republican Party met in Springfield January 14 to elect a new party chairman. Although more than 500 county party leaders, GOP activists, and reporters jammed the Renaissance Hotel, the chairmanship was being decided by just the 19 SCC members–all of whom had weighted votes–in executive session. Thus, while Chicago businessman and onetime GOP U.S. House hopeful Jim Nalepa held the crowd spellbound with his presentation and his call for beginning the meeting with the under-attack Pledge of Allegiance, the SCC gave 86% of its votes to rival Andy McKenna, Jr. and made him chairman. (Two other contenders, state Vice Chairman Steve McGlynn and Cook County GOP Chairman Gary Skoien, withdrew before the vote). The chief executive officer of the Schwarz Paper Co. and third-place finisher in the Republican Senate primary last year, McKenna is considered a strong conservative who makes no bones about his pro-life stance. His position is in sharp contrast to that of the outgoing chairman (and lone GOPer in statewide office), Treasurer Judy Baar Topinka, long criticized by party conservatives. A successful businessman and proven fund-raiser (he raised more than $2 million for his Senate bid), McKenna is also light years removed from the old statehouse gang of Republicans who are presently targets of corruption probes. Asked by reporters about how the Illinois GOP–which lost both a Senate and U.S. House seat last fall as well as the state’s electoral votes–could withstand the racketeering trial of former Republican Gov. (1998-2002) George Ryan, the chairman-elect replied: “The people in the Ryan trial are not part of this party.” Although many conservatives praised McKenna as a fresh leader, others were critical of his failure so far to denounce the Democratic machine of Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley or to hint that he would fire any of the Topinka staff at state party headquarters. Many conservatives do not like the selective, back-room mechanism for choosing a chairman, convinced that had a new state convention been called with delegates more representative of the party grass-roots, Nalepa and his magnetic speaking style would have carried the day. Jack Roeser, head of the conservative Renew Illinois group, led a delegation to Springfield to demand that the SCC refuse to elect a chairman and that a new convention be called for this task. Prior to the vote, Roeser hinted to me that he and his allies on the right might well pursue a change of the party rules to permit such a convention and a vote on party officers–especially on Roeser’s longtime arch-enemy, Republican National Committeeman Robert Kjellander. As for Nalepa, Chicago political strategist Bill Pascoe told me that Nalepa’s remarks “wowed the crowd” and that his “moving around the room with a microphone, Elizabeth Dole-style, was visually riveting.” Pascoe noted that the former U.S. Army ranger was unrecognized by most Republicans two months ago. “But after this campaign for chairman,” he added, “there are a number of leading Republicans trying to figure out how to put Jim Nalepa to good use for a party in desperate need of new leadership.” Hinting strongly that the runner-up would yet have his day in the sun, Illinois political blogger par excellence Jeff Berkowitz concluded: “Andy McKenna, Jr., was elected this afternoon. … Jim Nalepa, who won the hearts and minds of many in the one hour or so public portion of the Republican State Central Committee meeting, came in second. …” Short Takes Asa vs. Win? The surprise recent resignation of Asa Hutchinson as deputy under secretary of Homeland Security and the hint that he would run for governor of Arkansas next year have sparked nightmares among Razorback State GOPers about their first contested primary for governor since 1990 (in which the eventual nominee, weakened by the nomination fight, lost to Democratic incumbent Bill Clinton). With Republican Gov. Mike Huckabee “termed out” next year, it was widely assumed that the GOP nominee would be Lt. Gov. Winthrop Rockefeller, namesake-son of Arkansas’s first GOP governor (1966-70) since Reconstruction. Should Hutchinson enter the race, however, Rockefeller would face an opponent almost as well-known as he–Hutchinson made two statewide races before serving in the House from 1996-2001, where he received national attention as a House manager in the Clinton impeachment trial. Republicans did get some consolation, however, when very popular three-term Rep. Mike Ross announced that he would remain in the House rather than seek the Democratic nod for governor, for which he would have been the favorite. More on Hill Rats: Some familiar faces have re-emerged in new slots on Capitol Hill. Deana Funderburk, longtime legislative assistant to House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R.-Tex.), recently announced she is leaving his office. The daughter of conservative former Rep. (1994-96) David Funderburk (R.-N.C.), she will go to work for a fellow North Carolinian, freshman GOP Rep. Virginia Foxx, as legislative director … The veteran radio reporter known as the “Peck’s Blab Boy” of conservative journalism has signed on as press secretary for conservative Rep. Steve Pearce (R.-N.M.). Jim Burns, who spent more than a quarter-century in broadcasting and was senior staff writer for the Cybercast News Service, was most recently press secretary to former Rep. (1992-2004) Mac Collins (R.-Ga.).