Gizzi on Politics: April 14-18

What’s Wrong In Weller Country?
One of the major dilemmas lately faced by the cash-strapped National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC) stems from the GOPs apparent passion for wealthy candidates who can fund their own campaigns. This means the party occasionally winds up with nominees who 1) are terrible candidates other than their ability to “self-fund,” 2) have engaged in little or no grass-roots party activity and 3) have histories of supporting and donating to Democrats.

The last two attributes appear to be the case in Illinois’ 11th District (Will County), where Republican Rep. Jerry Weller is stepping down and his choice of a successor abruptly withdrew two weeks after winning the primary. Citing his responsibilities as New Lenox mayor, local police chief, and a father of five, Tim Baldermann relinquished the Republican nomination and thus left naming his replacement to area party leaders.

Among those leaders, Will County Party Chairman Dick Kavanagh is “first among equals.” His county will comprise about 49% of the weighted vote in the selection process for a nominee later this month, with the other weighted votes cast by seven other county chairmen. Kavanagh and the other county leaders will meet in a closed-door session at the end of April to choose a replacement for Baldermann. Kavanagh, a well-connected attorney, has said he wants the vote for a new House nominee to be unanimous.

But it very likely won’t be, if conservatives have anything to say about it. Sources in the Chicago-area say that local conservatives are furious about the prospect that the nomination might go to multi-millionaire cement manufacturer Martin Ozinga, reportedly Kavanagh’s choice. Not only does Ozinga live outside the 11th District, but his family has a history of donating to machine Democrats who are anathema to the GOP grass-roots. A check of contribution records shows that one family business, Ozinga Chicago RMC of Chicago, made donations of $2,500 to the 25th Ward Regular Democratic Organization in Chicago in both ’05 and ’06, gave $1,500 to Democratic Mayor Richard M. Daley’s re-election campaign in ’03, $2,100 to Democratic State Atty. Gen. Lisa Madigan for her ’03 race, and $5,000 that same year to Democratic Gov. Rod Blagojevich. (The governor is now the subject of a corruption investigation spearheaded by U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald.)

In fairness to the Ozingas, the same records also show that Martin himself has contributed $1,000 to the Cook County Republican Leadership Organization and that the Ozinga Brothers, Inc., another family-run business, has made several donations to the Will County GOP Central Committee.

“The NRCC is urging Kavanagh to take Ozinga because he’ll spend his own money,” said a prominent 11th District conservative involved in Republican politics since the early 1960s. “Many conservatives are seriously thinking of voting for the Green Party candidate in protest, since Ozinga–after the Chicago newspapers smear him into oblivion for his work in the road-building industry—is almost a ‘can’t possibly win’ candidate.” The Democratic nominee is State Sen. Debbie Halvorson, a favorite of the far-left EMILY’s List political action committee.

In an effort to keep Ozinga from carrying the GOP banner, many area conservatives are rallying behind Frankfort real estate developer Henry Meers, Jr., a staunch conservative and member of the “President’s Club” of conservative Heritage Foundation donors. Since Baldermann dropped out and Ozinga appeared on the scene, Meers has been making the rounds of town committee meetings throughout the 11th District. Although there appears to be mounting enthusiasm for him and few doubt he would be formidable in a primary situation, Meers must win over a group of eight to overcome Ozinga. And the odds of his doing so appear very long right now.

Bill Dickinson, R.I.P

“The Winston Churchill of Alabama,” is how then-Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John Tower (R.-Tex.) hailed Rep. Bill Dickinson (R.-Ala.) at a campaign rally in Montgomery in 1982. As the Alabamian faced one of the toughest campaigns of his House career, Tower’s encomium was not simply election-year rhetoric. Tower was a leader on defense in the Senate, and Dickinson was the ranking Republican on the House Armed Services Committee, the point man in the House for President Ronald Reagan’s crusade to revitalize the American military. Since the Senate was in Republican hands and Democrats ruled the House throughout Reagan’s eight years in the White House, Dickinson’s task was usually more difficult than Tower’s. But, by working closely with such “Cold War Democrats” as Representatives Sonny Montgomery (Miss.) and Sam Stratton (N.Y.), Dickinson and Reagan got most of what they wanted in the defense authorization process.

Upon learning that Dickinson had died March 31 at age 82, I recalled Winston Churchill in thinking about the barrel-chested Opelika lawyer who campaigned as “Just Plain Bill.” Like Britain’s wartime prime minister in his early campaigns to hold his seat in Parliament, Dickinson rarely had an easy race for the 2nd District House seat he held from 1964-92.
A graduate of the University of Alabama Law School and a U.S. Navy veteran of World War II, Dickinson had served as a judge on several lower courts in Opelika and Lee County and briefly as a vice president of the Southern Railroad before accepting the Republican nomination for what seemed to be a hopeless race in 1964 against apparently invincible Democratic Rep. George M. Grant.

But as Barry Goldwater swept Alabama, five of the state’s eight congressional districts went Republican for the first time since Reconstruction. Dickinson easily ousted Grant, who had held the district since 1938. Of the GOP “64 babies,” Glenn Andrews and Jim Martin left the House in 1966, Jack Edwards and John Buchanan would have easy times winning the generals until the ends of their careers ( Although Buchanan lost a primary in 1980 after moving sharply left), but Dickinson, as Congressional Quarterly noted in 1984, “rarely escaped serious opposition. Six times he has won re-election with less than 60% of the vote, four times he has been held under 55%.” In ’82, he had his closest brush with defeat, edging out onetime George Wallace press secretary Billy Joe Camp by 1,386 votes.

“That’s because Bill took on tougher issues that didn’t make him a more endearing figure,” Ron Buckhalt, former WBAM radio (Montgomery) news director and Dickinson’s onetime press secretary, recalled to me. “He was an outspoken backer of victory in Vietnam. He worked to keep anti-war leaders like Jane Fonda from using the Capitol to talk to the media. He focused attention on the issue of food stamps for strikers and signed letters for the National Right to Work Committee. And he was always pushing legislation to stop court-ordered school busing.”

In 1992, Dickinson decided to step down—two years before Republicans won the majority in the House that would have made him chairman of the Armed Services Committee.

Considered a fluke when he was first elected as a Republican in the Deep South, Dickinson’s career in Congress covered the period when it became the most reliable region in the nation for the GOP. As Ron Buckhalt put it, “Bill always said, ‘The South is the future of the Republican Party and the Republican Party is the future of the South.’ And he lived to see it and make it happen.”

A Second Chance in DeLay Country

The Democratic House district that Republicans say is one of their best hopes anywhere of retaking now has a GOP nominee. In the most-watched run-off in Texas last week, Pete Olson (R.-Tex.), former top aide to Sen. John Cornyn won the right to run for the 22nd District seat Republican Shelly Sekula Gibbs held for two months in ’06.

In one of the most unusual political sagas that year, House Republican Leader Tom DeLay resigned both the seat and the GOP renomination following his indictment on alleged violations of state campaign finance laws. Although local Republican leaders backed Gibbs for nomination to replace him, state judges would not permit her name to replace DeLay’s on the November ballot for a full term. Thus, Democrat Nick Lampson won the district, but Gibbs did carry the GOP standard in the special election for the remainder of DeLay’s unexpired term and thus got to serve in Congress for two months.

Last week, Olson rolled up 69% of the vote against Gibbs and thus will face Lampson in November.