Illinois primary offers map for gubernatorial candidates

Thursday, March 21, 2002

CHICAGO -- Democrat Rod Blagojevich and Republican Jim Ryan need look no further than their expensive and bruising primary races to find themes they can use against each other in the Nov. 5 general election for Illinois governor.

Ryan, the state attorney general, began his challenge Wednesday of trying to unify a fractured Republican Party while Blagojevich vowed he was the man to reverse Democrats' 25-year losing streak in governor's races.

Both will have to overcome weaknesses exposed by the losers in Tuesday's primary, from Ryan's supposed ties to a bribery scandal that weakened outgoing GOP Gov. George Ryan to Blagojevich's collection of legal fees while he held a full-time job as a congressman from Chicago.

Illinois is one of 36 states holding elections for governor this year, and one of 17 states in which the incumbent is not running.

Democrats hope to sail into power by capitalizing on the sitting governor's woes. Meanwhile Republicans, worried about losing the state House and Senate to the Democrats, see the race as their best bet at keeping some hold over the state.

"Both parties want to win the office badly," said Jim Nowlan, a senior fellow at the University of Illinois' Institute of Government and Public Affairs.

"The Democrats, they see Ryan as having been cut up in the primary, so they see the blood, and they know that George Ryan is there to beat up on. On the other hand, I could see Republicans playing on the theme of 'Don't let Chicago dictate to all of Illinois."'

Blagojevich wasted no time Wednesday linking his opponent to the federal investigation of the trading of drivers licenses for bribes when Gov. Ryan oversaw drivers bureaus as secretary of state.

Trading blows

Blagojevich said Jim Ryan had evidence of the scandal as early as 1997 but did nothing as attorney general to investigate it.

"He looked the other way on corruption," Blagojevich said, calling his opponent "asleep at the switch."

Federal prosecutors say about $170,000 of bribe money ended up in Gov. Ryan's campaign fund. The governor has not been charged with wrongdoing.

Jim Ryan, who is not related to the governor, has said it would have been irresponsible to interfere in a federal investigation. He said Wednesday that his opponents tried to raise the issue in the primary "and the voters didn't buy it."

He also took a poke at Blagojevich, who like Ryan was a Golden Gloves boxer in his youth.

"I'll remind you that Rod fought in the Golden Gloves and I won in the Golden Gloves," Ryan said.

Ryan and Blagojevich present a stark ideological contrast for Illinois voters, who are known for picking a governor who is close to the middle.

Blagojevich is a liberal anti-gun crusader who supports abortion rights, while Ryan opposes abortion even in cases of rape and incest, and would not back additional restrictions on Illinois gun owners.

Both men spent millions of dollars fighting in bitter primary campaigns that ended in a flurry of attacks in television commercials and debates.

Blagojevich squeaked by his two opponents with 37 percent of the vote, winning largely on the support of labor unions and Democratic chairmen outside Chicago and its suburbs. The second-place finisher, former Chicago schools chief Paul Vallas, got 34 percent, while former state Attorney General Roland Burris had 29 percent.

Ryan had a much easier time, taking 45 percent of the vote. State Sen. Patrick O'Malley took 28 percent and Lt. Gov. Corinne Wood had 27 percent.

Republicans hadn't seen a contested governor's primary in decades, and the infighting took its toll on the party. Wood and O'Malley battered Ryan on the bribery scandal and his handling of a 1983 murder case when he was DuPage County prosecutor. Three men went to prison -- one to death row -- but were later released amid questions about the investigation.

O'Malley was far from conciliatory after the election, saying Ryan had many questions to answer if he expected Republican support in November. But Ryan, the lead candidate at a GOP unity rally Wednesday, vowed to get the entire party behind him.

On the Democratic side, Vallas ran ads accusing Blagojevich of "money laundering" for a financial swap between his congressional campaign fund and the Democratic National Campaign Committee.

Blagojevich gave the national party $640,000 he had raised under strict federal campaign finance rules. In return, the campaign committee furnished him with $900,000 in so-called "soft money" for him to use in Illinois, where fund-raising rules are much more lax.

Vallas also hit Blagojevich for receiving more than $700,000 in legal fees while he was in Congress. Although congressional rules generally bar members from earning outside income, the fees came from the settlement of cases Blagojevich had worked on before he was elected.

Blagojevich took pains to point out that the fees and money swap were both legal. But GOP analyst Gary Mack said they will probably come up again in the fall.

Mack said Republicans also will seize on Blagojevich's ties to Chicago's Democratic Machine, which could hurt him outside Chicago and the suburbs. Blagojevich's father-in-law, Chicago Alderman Dick Mell, is a longtime ward boss.

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