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01/04/2010

Primary or "February Fix"?

  I was sitting in the kitchen this weekend having coffee and conversation with my sister-in-law Blanca when she asked if I'd enjoyed my time off during the holidays.  I answered that the 16 days to focus on my wife, children, grandchildren and extended family was a much-needed blessing.  But I admitted I was anxious about getting back to work today and excited about covering the "stretch run" leading up to the February 2nd election,

  That's when she asked the next question that caused yours truly to gulp and my cup to land in the saucer with a clatter:

  "What election?"

   "Blanc", as we call her, is the 60-something widow of a Chicago police officer who lives in the 23rd Ward (Ald. Michael Zalewski) on Chicago's southwest side.  She says she votes in every election.  And during primaries, she says she usually pulls a democratic ballot.

   So assuming she takes this week to "wind down" from the holidays, pay a few bills and get back on her routine, that leaves Blanc about three weeks to decide for whom she'll vote in the primary.  She will make her decisions during a barrage of television, radio and internet ads, handbills stuck in her mailbox, yardsigns and perhaps personal appeals from many of the hundreds of candidates from several parties running for statewide and local offices.  She might watch a debate or two and will find it tough to avoid the TV, radio and newspaper stories on the back and forth between contenders in more races than she could ever count.  And despite her claim never to have missed a vote, with primary election day in the literal dead of winter, think of all the possible weather conditions that could keep Blanc away from her neighborhood polling place if she takes all the available time to make her decisions. 

Overwhelmed Voters

   It sounds overwhelming because it is overwhelming.  And the political pros will tell you that overwhelmed voters tend to vote for familiar names, i.e. incumbents.  And the more cynical pols will say that a midwinter primary, barely a month after New Year's Day, is self-tailored by the controlling Illinois democratic party powers-that-be to keep themselves in control.  

  In its April 28, 2009 report, the Illinois Reform Commission recommended pushing the primary election back to June at the earliest.  Not only would a later-in-the-year primary reduce the amounts of money needed by primary winners campaigning for the November general election, the commission found that "holding primaries in February, in the middle of the coldest months of the year creates an inhospitable environment for challengers to mount a credible campaign." 

The Fix Is In?

  Lawmakers in Springfield had the Reform Commission report in hand with plenty of time in their Spring '09 regular session to push back the date of  the 2010 primary.   House Speaker Michael Madigan and Senate President John Cullerton apparently had no interest in implementing any reform that meant risking the democratic majorities in their respective chambers.

  But what's worse is the fact that the early primary affects hundreds of other races including statewide contests for Governor, U.S. Senate and the democratic race for Cook County Board President.  The pre-election polls we've seen clearly indicate that "name recognition" has catapulted certain candidates into the "lead" because voters are simply not as familiar with the rest of the fields, especially those candidates who've never held public office.  With so little time to campaign, incumbents have a clear advantage and some will win on February 2nd only because of when the primary was scheduled.

Year of Reform...to Year of the Rigged Election?

  Governor Pat Quinn likes to refer to 2009 as "The Year of Reform" in Illinois politics.  The General Assembly passed and the governor signed a bill that for the first time set limits on how much individuals, corporations and unions may contribute to candidates.  The measure was hailed as a giant first step toward ending "pay to play" politics in the state that since the 1970's has seen three ex-governors imprisoned and a fourth under indictment awaiting trial.

  But seriously, how many Illinois voters actually donate money to political candidates?  In other words, the "reform" implemented by a law to limit campaign contributions pales when compared to the negative impact of a too soon, midwinter primary election that could have been rescheduled.

  Retiring Cook County Commissioner Forrest Claypool said it outright at a news conference last week, calling the Illinois voting system "rigged".  The self-described reformer said voters are being "manipulated" by the democratic party bosses, including "boss of bosses" party chairman/House Speaker Madigan.

  "People have to understand that they're being taken for suckers", continued Claypool, who urged voters to cast ballots despite the cold and confusion to make it clear exactly who is in control in a democracy.

  Or at least, who's supposed to be in control.

 



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