Gizzi on Politics

The Illinois Story

There were three Republican primaries last week to pick nominees in U.S. House districts vacated by GOP incumbents in Illinois. By far, the most closely watched of any was the 14th District, where former House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert resigned early, triggering a special election March 8.

Winning the nomination for both the special election and the general election this fall was millionaire dairyman Jim Oberweis, who had Hastert’s endorsement. After losing two GOP primaries for U.S. senator and one for governor, Oberweis was as well-known among voters as a sitting congressman and won by 56% to 41% over State Sen. Chris Lauzen. Oberweis, who had spent $6 million of his own money on the three statewide races, spent $1.6 million more on the House primary.

Both Oberweis and Lauzin were considered strong conservatives and, while they agreed on virtually every issue, their campaigns grew rough and at times personal. Pundits and local pols now say Oberweiss will have an unusually spirited battle trying to hold the district, which has been in Republican hands without interruption since 1976, against Democrat Bill Foster, also a wealthy businessman.

In the 11th District (Will County), where seven-termer Republican Rep. Jerry Weller is retiring, New Lenox Mayor Tim Baldermann was the easy GOP primary winner over two opponents. Balderman, who was backed by Weller (lifetime American Conservative Union rating: 86%) and is cut from the same ideological cloth, will now face a rock ’em, sock ’em fall battle with Democratic State Sen. Debbie Halvorson. The 11th District is considered the most vulnerable of GOP-held turf in Illinois.

Republicans feel much better about the 18th District (Peoria), where another seven-termer, Rep. Ray LaHood is stepping down. Twenty-six-year-old State Rep. Aaron Schock, who is considered more conservative than LaHood (lifetime ACU rating: 74%), was a big winner over two GOP primary opponents. Democrats had high hopes of a takeover with businessman and one-time basketball coach Dick Versace, but he withdrew from the race after the filing deadline and local party leaders now have to recruit a nominee.

In the 10th District (suburban Chicago), three-term Republican Rep. Mark Steven Kirk faces a rematch with Democrat Dan Seals, a businessman who held Kirk to 53% of the vote in ’06.

The only Democratic House member in Illinois considered vulnerable to a Republican assault is sophomore Democrat Melissa Bean in the 8th District (suburban Chicago), who faces a well-funded opponent in Steve Greenberg, businessman and former pro hockey player.

The Other Illinois Race

Occasionally, Democratic infighting flares up in contests in Cook County (Chicago) and leads to a Republican crack at a major office. This is the case with the patronage-rich office of state’s attorney, where retiring Democrat Dick Devine endorsed his assistant Bob Milan for the top prosecutorial post that Richard Daley held before he was elected mayor.

But Milan lost to another assistant state’s attorney, career prosecutor Anita Alvarez, in the six-candidate Democratic primary. Although Alvarez was not the choice of Devine, other opponents blamed her for corruption and mismanagement that occurred in the prosecutorial office. Cook County Democrats remain bitterly divided over the race and it seems clear that many of the supporters of her former opponents will not endorse Alvarez in the fall. This gives Tony Peraica an excellent chance of becoming the first Republican state’s attorney in Cook County since Bernard Carey in 1976, who was unseated by Daley in ’80. A Croatian immigrant and onetime Pat Buchanan for President booster, County Commissioner Peraica lost a close race for president of the Cook County Board of Supervisors in ’06.

Earl Butz, R.I.P.

Omni Shoreham Hotel, 1985: The occasion was a roast by the Saints and Sinners, the venerable charitable group that is, in some ways, official Washington’s version of the Friars Club. Presiding over a packed ballroom was the premier Saint/Sinner, Col. Donald Dawson, famed as a top Truman White House aide and the husband of Hungarian actress Ilona Massey. The “roastee” was Dick Lesher, president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and I was the guest of Leger’s political affairs pointman at the chamber, former Rep. (1980-82) Mick Staton (R.-W.Va.).

And then the “roastmaster” was introduced, a man who needed no introduction: Earl Butz, former secretary of Agriculture in the Nixon and Ford Administrations. He was expected to deploy the howitzer-style wit that had cost him his job. He did not disappoint.
“I come from Indiana,” Butz began, “where we had two Democratic senators in the 1960s: Birch Bayh and Vance Hartke, or, as we used to say back home, Senator Bayh and Senator Bought!”

He then proceeded to needle Lesher for his work habits, expense account and other items, and jabbed himself for the racial joke overheard and publicized by John W. Dean III that led to his resignation during the fall of the 1976 presidential election. The Saints and Sinners laughed at every barb and then gave Butz a standing ovation.

When Earl Butz died February 2 at age 98, almost all of the obituaries focused on what the New York Times called “a vulgar racial comment.” But, as his remarks at the roast I attended demonstrated, there was another side to the Hoosier farm boy—just as there was so much more to his life story.

Born and raised on a farm in Albion, Ind., where he guided horse-drawn plows, Butz earned his undergraduate degree and a doctorate from Purdue Unviersity—in fact, the first doctorate in agricultural economics to be awarded by the school. Butz headed his alma mater’s agricultural economics department from 1946-54, served as assistant secretary of Agriculture under Secretary Ezra Taft Benson for three years, and then returned to Purdue as dean of agriculture.

In 1968, Butz ran for the Republican nomination for governor. While conservatives admired his speaking style and strong pro-free market views, most of them rallied to another conservative, Secretary of State Edgar Whitcomb, who won nomination and election.

Named by President Nixon as secretary of Agriculture, Butz was confirmed by a close Senate vote of 51 to 44. There was some controversy over his nomination, in large part because of his close identification with agribusiness and his public calls for more of a free-market approach to agriculture years before “Freedom to Farm” became a major conservative cause.

Conservatives cheered Butz for his dueling with extreme environmentalists. When liberal Sen. Edmund Muskie (D.-Maine) grilled Butz before a Senate committee over the Nixon Administration’s failure to rapidly spend $24 billion authorized in an anti-water-pollution measure, Butz fired back that spending the money would have necessitated a tax increase of $18.5 billion. “That is right, and I propose that,” Muskie replied, just after insisting, “I am not for a general tax increase until we make taxes fair” (See Human Events, March 17, 1973.). But Butz’s biggest accomplishment—the massive grain deal with the Soviet Union that energized the U.S. farm belt—also drew fire from Human Events and other conservatives as an unwise instance of the U.S.’s dealing with that Communist tyranny.

Years after he was forced out of the Cabinet, Butz was still a much-sought-after campaigner for Republicans in the Midwest. Well into his 90s, he went into his office at Purdue every day.