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Who Is Mark Kirk?

Up until his recent turn into right-wing loony land, I had always respected Mark Kirk. In fact, when I interviewed him in 2000 during his first congressional campaign I came away thinking he might be on a national ticket someday. His biggest obstacle to national renown, it seemed to me, would be the rightward turn of his party. Now he's turning with it - depressingly so. But if you take a look at the Mark Kirk of 2000, you'll see the attributes and background that made him an impressive candidate then with a bright future. Here is the Chicago magazine story I wrote then of that first campaign.

Two Pols in a Pod

The race to replace GOP congressman John Porter has attracted national notice as a key battle in the House, and the two parties have sent in their heavy guns. One problem: How do you tell the candidates apart?

Two scenes from one of the nation's most widely watched - and expensive - congressional campaigns, now playing on the North Shore:

Lauren Beth Gash is knocking on doors in Highland Park one August evening when she comes up on a man sitting on a motorcycle in his driveway. Gash asks for his vote. He gives her a skeptical eye. "How do you feel about all this nursing home stuff?" he asks, apropos of nothing. "What nursing home stuff?" she replies. The stories in the papers, he explains, about the abuse of nursing home residents. "Of course I'm against nursing home abuse," Gash says tersely. "Everyone is." And then she tacks in the unexpected direction of a Chamber of Commerce mouthpiece. "But it's a complicated issue. We can't make regulations so stringent that we put owners out of business."

Gash is the Democrat in this race.

Mark Steven Kirk is the scanning the largely African American crowd at the First Fellowship Baptist Church in Waukegan minutes before a candidates' forum one day in September. He is looking for his favorite ministers. Then he takes his place behind a lectern and opens his segment of the forum by explaining his ten-point plan for Waukegan; four of the first five points address environmental issues. And then he introduces a special member of the audience - Representative Jesse Jackson Jr., a Democrat.

Kirk, who is also pro-choice and pro-gun control, is the Republican in this race.

This muddle is the fight to replace the retiring John Porter, the Republican whose moderate blend of social liberalism and fiscal conservatism won him 11 terms. And yet, for a campaign steeped in so much significance - by summer's end it had been featured prominently in The Washington Post, The New York Times, and Business Week, what with control of the U.S. House of Representatives perhaps hanging in the balance - it's nearly impossible to discern major policy differences between the candidates. For all the money they are getting from their national parties, both candidates have done their best to disassociate themselves from their benefactors. The words "Democrat" and "Republican" are largely absent from their campaign literature.

That's because Gash and Kirk have determined that party disloyalty is a virtue in the 10th District, which stretches north from Wilmette to the Wisconsin border and west to Arlington Heights. "Voters in this district look beyond party," says Porter, who aligned himself with Democrats on social issues more often than did the typical Republican.

What really seems to matter in the 10th, a mostly prosperous suburban district that also includes the blue-collar cities Waukegan and North Chicago, is the pragmatic ability to bring the federal government to bear on the district's problems. In other words, bringing home the goods.

The question is, Does this give the advantage to Kirk, who has learned well how to navigate the intricate byways of Washington in his 16 years as a Porter aide and House lawyer, or to Gash, whose service as a four-term state legislator led the Chicago Tribune to call her one of Illinois's most independent, dedicated politicians?

*

A framed magazine cover of Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan hangs on the wall of Gashs's campaign headquarters in a Highland Park office building. Madigan has autographed the cover for Gash, and signed it sarcastically, "To a fellow New Democrat." In fact, Madigan is an Old Democrat, machine boss, ward heeler, deal cutter. Gash is the real New Democrat, suburban soccer mom, chair of the Illinois House Judiciary Committee on Criminal Law, and card-carrying member of the Democratic Leadership Council, the moderate wing of the national party from which Bill Clinton, Al Gore, and Joe Lieberman sprang. She points to another photo, of her and Madigan face to face on the House floor, "another time when he was mad at me," she says.

Gash, 40, likes to say she has always been an activist - her campaign office is wallpapered with T-shirts blaring "Q101 Rock the Vote," "Walk for Israel," "Kids First Health Fair Volunteer," and "Skate Deerfield!" - but it's been a moderate activism. She worked as a hospital volunteer in high school, a Big Sister in college. "I was raised that way," she says. "It was just a given that we were going to do things to make the world a better place."

Armed with a Clark University (Massachusetts) psychology degree and a Georgetown University law degree, the Summit, New Jersey native went to work as Senator Alan Dixon's federal projects director, steering federal money back to Illinois. She joined Senator Paul Simon's 1990 re-election campaign as his statewide constituency coordinator. It's clear she reveres Simon; at her headquarters, he seems to be in more photos of past Gash campaigns than the candidate herself.

Gash settled in Highland Park with her husband and two kids, becoming active in the Highland Park PTA, Prairie State Legal Services in Waukegan, and the League of Women Voters. She supported a moderate Republican as her state senate representative in 1992 until he lost a four-way primary to a Christian Coalition candidate. Then she jummped into the race for the Democrats, who were not fielding a candidate, and won what had always been considered a safe Republican seat. Gash has represented the 69th District, spanning northwest Cook County and southern Lake County, ever since, developing a reputation as an independent mom-legislator and a strong campaigner.

Gash's trademark issue may be her (unsuccessful) attempts to pass legislation requiring the Illinois Toll Highway Authority to submit it's budget to the legislature. Along the way she got the Deerfield toll plaza demolished - probably worth more votes than supporting Mom and apple pie.

The vote that the Gash team most likes to point to is her 1995 support for Chicago school reform. She was one of only four Democrats to back the bill. "You can be assured that there were a lot of special interest groups that were very upset," Gash says. "To go against your [party] leaders on an issue like that was not easy." She was also one of a small band of legislators to oppose Governor George Ryan's $12-billion public works project, Illinois First, arguing that massive amounts of spending in the legislation was unaccounted for. "It was outrageous. It was a blank check," she says.

*

Mark Kirk was at ground zero when Porter turned what was expected to be another sleepy re-election campaign into a frenzy worthy of the national spotlight. "I rode the elevator with him up to the press conference where he announced [his retirement]," Kirk says, "and I tried every trick in the book to change his mind."

Early speculation had Lieutenant Governor Corinne Wood, a former state representative from the area, as the favorite to replace Porter. Kirk, assured that Wood had decided to run, offered his help. He recalls thinking, "They're going to ask her, 'What committees do you want?' and I'll help her say which ones she wants, and there's a thousand issues that a congressman handles that, as a state official in Springfield, she probably doesn't know. You've got to be way up to speed on immigration; you have to know your Superfund down to a T; you gotta know the Surface Transportation Reauthorization Act, big time."

But Wood - and several other attractive moderate candidates - bailed out. The result was a 12-person Republican primary field so unnoteworthy that U.S. House Speaker Dennis Hastert begged Porter to change his mind. (Gash ran unopposed in the Democratic primary.) Though he was outspent by six other candidates, Kirk persevered on the strength of Porter's endorsement and a surprisingly deft touch with retail politics. "He was everywhere," says Ant Somonian, executive director of the Lake County Republican Federation. "And he had volunteers who really believed - a guerilla army."

For Kirk, now 41, who grew up in Kenilworth, the primary was a return home. As a teenager at New Trier High School, he volunteered in a re-election campaign for Senator Charles Percy. He was not politically active at Cornell University, where he studied history, but while earning his master's degree at the London School of Economics, he worked for Margaret Thatcher's 1983 re-election. The following year he went to work for Porter as an unpaid intern sorting mail, found a part-time fellowship studying the Soviet navy for a rear admiral, and eventually became Porter's chief of staff.

"The big battle that sort of made me as a congressional staff was when the Reagan Administration wanted four billion bucks to build a whole new generation of chemical weapons," Kirk says. "We ended up in this titanic struggle against the Reagan White House, and the Porter amendment to delete funding for chemical weapons won 210 to 209."

Kirk left Porter in 1990 for a position with the World Bank, then joined the State Department, where he worked on the Central American peace process. He got his law degree from Georgetown in 1992 and practiced for three years with Baker & McKenzie, focusing on international trade and finance. In 1995, Kirk became counsel fo the U.S. House International Relations Committee, drafting legislation and conducting missions to dozens of countries.

*

From the start, the campaign in the 10th, which will probably cost each side more than $1 million, has been on the pundits' "hot race" lists because the open seat could go to either party. Campaigns & Elections, a trade magazine for political professionals, put the odds that Republicans would retain the seat at 4-3 after Porter's retiremenet, 6-5 after Kirk's primary victory. Political experts mostly agree that Gash would have been the heavy favorite had a more conservative candidate won the Republican primary, but that Kirk consolidated his support after the primary and had a fair amount of momentum. At the same time, some observers, such as the Chicago Sun-Times's Washington bureau chief Lynn Sweet, thought that Joe Lieberman's Vice Presidential nomination gave the edge to Gash, because Jewish voters who supported Porter in the past would be inclined to turn back to the Democratic ticket.

Both candidates spent the summer conducting traditional campaigns: shaking hands at train stations, giving speeches to civic groups, rubbing shoulders with political celebrities. (Kirk stumped with Arizona Senator John McCain and former astronaut Jim Lovell, who runs a restaurant in the district; Gash landed Tipper Gore and House minority leader Richard Gephardt, of Missouri.) All told, the candidates are expected to debate more than a dozen times. And as the campaign reaches the stretch run, the air war of costly TV ads should get quite noisy.

But Kirk says he spends most of his time deploying volunteers. That may be hard to believe, but Peter Giangreco, a Democrat strategist handling Gash's direct mail campaign, says "For all of the millions of dollars and genis consultants and national resources that are being put into this, it could very well be the field operation that wins it in the end."

Gash's field operation took a hit in August when she dumped her campaign manager, press secretary, and scheduler; shortly thereafter, Michael Sneed quoted an anonymous source in her Sun-Times column as saying Gash had alienated Magidan and uber-strategist David Axelrod. (Madigan wouldn't comment, but his spokesman, Steve Brown, said, "I don't think Lauren Beth Gash has driven anyone crazy . . . I don't know that she's caused Mike any aggravation." (Axelrod did not return phone calls for comment.)

Fair or not, the combination of a major staff change and a gossip column item left the impression of a campaign that was listing. Charles Cook, whose political newsletter is closely read in Washington, told me in early September that "the whells [had] come off" Gash's campaign; a month earlier he had rated the race a tossup. Gash allies derided that view and said her new team had improved the campaign by scheduling more public appearances and improving outreach to community groups.

When I went along with Gash as she campaigned door to door in Highland Park, her home turf, I found her to be more impressive connecting with voters than in an interview, in which she tended to fall back on lines from her stump speech ("I worked hard to earn my 'F' rating from the NRA"; "When we drop our kids off at school, we shouldn't have to worry that one of their classmates may have a bun in their backpack").

The first voter Gash encountered, for example, ranted about not getting Gash's help to oppose a local road project several years earlier. When the man mentioned he was a senior citizen, Gash immediately turned the conversation to prescription drug prices. He said he would vote for Gash despite the road.

But the real coup was the man on a motorcycle who asked about nursing homes. It turned out he was a nursing home operator himself. Ant Simonian, of the Lake County Republican Federation, had just told me that Gash was "more in step with unions and labor than in step with the business community." She cited Gash's vote for the Structural Work Act (which business groups criticized as a duplicate of workers' compensation), her opposition to tort reform legislation that would limit damage awards in lawsuits, and her support for price caps on pharmaceuticals. And lbaor is one of Gash's largest contributors of campaign cash. But Gash didn't sound anti-business to the motorcycle man. He pledged his vote to her.

"It's so funny they would continue to use the same things that have failed them so miserably in apst campaigns against me," Gash says. "The Structural Work Act is for people up on the 95th floor cleaning windows; it has to do with scaffolding safety. Did I vote for safety? Of course. A lot of my independent votes against my party have been pro-business votes. Probably the majority of them. That particular argument doesn't cut it."

*

The same week Gash was going door to door in Highland Park, Kirk was out of the district. A reserve naval intelligence officer, he was dodging gunfire flying a mission over Iraq. I sat down with him later for an interview at his campaign headquarters in a Glenview strip mall; the neat, professional, button-down feel of Kirk HQ contrasted sharply with Gash's spirited, ragtag operation. Unlike Gash, Kirk chose his press secretary's office for the interview; her walls were lined with newspaper articles touting Kirk's campaign, particularly his underfunded primary win.

Kirk himself is bright and animated, an intellectual who peppers his language with the occasional "like" and "whatever." He uses phrases such as "break, break," as if reading a military telegram, and "roll forward," to advance a story he is telling, and an arsenal of vocal sound effects such as bzzzt! and arrggh!

Gash and fellow Democrats chide Kirk for making foreing policy an issue in the campaign; Gash concedes the issue to him with a smile and a wave of the hand when I bring it up. ("I have yet to walk down the street and have someone way they're concerned about Saudi Arabia," says Terry Link, a state senator from Vernon Hills and head of the Democratic operation in Lake County. "They're concerned about traffic, health care, prescription drugs.")

Kirk is prepared for this line of attack. "[Foreign policy] is not the major focus on the campaign," he says, "but it's vitally important. We have a very strong Jewish community; it has a powerful interest in the safety and security of Israel, and the Middle East peace process. We have a growing group of citizens from Armenia, for example, who are vitally concerned about what's going on with the blockade against their homeland. There are over 12,000 Koreans living in the district who are very worried about their citizens in North Korea who are starving to death.

"One of our major employers right here in the district is Motorola, which sold almost $1 billion worth of goods last year just in China alone. So if you think that debating trade is some sort of foreign issue, then you've got to go into Vernon Hills and tell those people, 'I don't care about your job,' because their jobs depend, and their family income depends, on exports."

As he says, however, his campaign focus isn't on foreign policy. He's just as excited talking about solving the gridlock that, he jokes, has turned Half-Day Road into All-Day Road.

*

As the Porter-endorsed candidate, and a former Porter aide, Kirk is essentially the stand-in incumbent. Gash, in the role of challenger and slight underdog, took the offensive when I talked to her and, in turn, Kirk later responded. The back-and-forth offers a good picture of the difference in their styles.

Gash, comparing her background to Kirk's: "I've had the experience of raising a family here in the district. The important thing thing is that I did the carpools in the district and talked to people about what people here cared about. And that I went to the grocery stores, that my kids were raised here, that I was involved in groups here, that I lived here."

Kirk: "She didn't grow up here; she grew up in New Jersey. I grew up here. She doesn't have a New Trier degree. Her degree is from some high school on the East Coast. And when I went away to Washington, I didn't go away to Washington to forget about the district; I went to represent this district and fight for the home team, in D.C."

Gash, on Kirk's experience: "When he says he can hit the ground running because he's worked in Washington, I look at him and think, I don't know if he understands the massive difference between being a staff member and being an actual elected official. I almost think it's odd, that he doesn't get it; that there's a tremendous difference between working for someone and enacting their policies or helping to support their candidacy, and being the one making the actual decisions."

Kirk: "When we had a near midair collision at Waukegan Airport, John Porter went to the FAA and said, 'I need a control tower to make sure Waukegan Airport is safe.' And the FAA basically said, 'Screw you.' So we had to get it in legislation. Well, by 'get it in legislation,' what does that mean? That means Mark Kirk has to go to the transportation committee, work with the staff, write in the legislation, talk to all the different members - anyone that has a problem, I get John Porter to call them - wire the whole thing. Then go over to the Senate, do exactly the same thing. Then go make sure we crush the Administration weenies that are stopping us from trying to get our control tower. And what does all this frustrating experience mean? A year later we have our control tower. And we have safe operations at Waukegan Airport."

Gash, who has the endorsement of Planned Parenthood, sowing doubt about Kirk's positions on abortion and guns: "I have the record, the backup of a record, to actually show that when I say it I mean it, and I've done it."

Kirk: "I've actually done it on the House floor. I know how to run a whip list on the House floor, write a 'Dear Colleague' [letter], reach out to the groups, do the press conference, get the endorsements, work with groups like Population Action International [the international family planning agency] and Planned Parenthood, weed out the districts with the key swing votes that you need, and make it happen. Lauren knows a lot about Springfield. But this is not a race about Springfield. This is about who represents us in Washington."

Gash, on what this race is about: "A woman's right to choose, gun safety, the environment, education. Health care is very, very critical. And trigger locks. We passed that through my committee. I've had to fight he NRA. I know what it's like. I can stand up to them. Anyone will say that they will. It's another thing to have to be an elected official and do it."

Kirk: "This race is much more about who is going to fix transportation, who knows how to clean up Waukegan Harbor, who is gonna get the waste out of the district, who is the best person to get western access to O'Hare. The dominant experience in our district is: 'I've got my kids [with me in the car]; I'm just gonna make my plane. I get on the Mannheim, and it's a parking lot. I can see the terminal and I'm not gonna get there.' Now imagine the situation five years from now when your congressman's done the right job - 30 percent of those cars are not there anymore, because the Naperville-Downers Grove people got into the airport from the west instead of the east, and you made your flight."

*

Ask the political experts about the voters of the 10th District and invariably the words "sophisticated," "independent," and "highly educated" come up. "Affluent" is a given. A recent study found Lake County, where most of the 10th District resides, to be the 16th richest county in the country, in per capita wealth. Du Page County, bastion of Midwestern Republicanism, ranked 25th. Still, the district has changed significantly over the years in ways that seem to favor Democrats. It has attracted more people from the city, for example, and become more diverse. Waukegan and North Chicago, in particular, have large African American and Hispanic populations that tend to vote Democratic. "It's a very swing district," says Simonian. "People in the district split their tickets all the time."

If only voters could combine Gash and Kirk, the legislator-mom and the worldly Washingtonite. On issues, the candidates are similar enough that Lake County Democratic chairman Link himself asks, "How do you differentiate between the two?" After November 7th, a significant difference will finally reveal itself: One candidate will become a member of Congress.

-

Comments welcome.



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Posted on February 18, 2010


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