Carol Felsenthal
On politics

The Illinois Delegation—and Its No-Shows—at the RNC in Tampa

Illinois couldn’t be bluer, so not surprisingly we were nowhere near the stage at the just concluded Republican National Convention in Tampa. Still, there were some key attendees—and a few interesting no-shows—at the GOP fest.

Illinois couldn’t be bluer, so not surprisingly we were nowhere near the stage at the just concluded Republican National Convention in Tampa.

Yes, Republican Governor Chris Christie, from the blue state of New Jersey, was the keynote speaker—and badly misfired by giving a speech touting himself instead of nominee Romney—but we still have a Democrat, Pat Quinn, in the state’s top spot, and the last Republican governor, George Ryan, remains in prison.

As for the more high-visibility Republican congressmen from Illinois, Joe Walsh in the 8th stayed home, and Bob Dold running for his life in the 10th, went to Tampa for just 24 hours. Dold needs to keep his distance from the Republicans’ more extreme aspects—for example, the abortion plank offering no exceptions, including rape. In Walsh’s case, he couldn’t let opponent Tammy Duckworth depict him as partying along the coast of Florida while Louisiana’s most vulnerable citizens are being rescued off makeshift rafts. Republicans need independents to win and were likely relieved that Walsh stayed away, given his recent claim that, when it came to war heroes, John McCain was the real thing while Duckworth, who lost both legs and most of the use of her right arm while piloting a helicopter in Iraq, wasn’t, because she talked too much about her service. (Walsh has no military service.) 

Senator Mark Kirk was not there, still recuperating in his Highland Park home from a serious stroke and brain surgery, no sense of when he’ll return to Washington. He did send to Tampa a one-minute, “heavily edited” video, which was played to the Illinois delegation to a standing ovation. Had his health not taken such a terrible hit, Kirk would have been the star of Illinois’s show, hobnobbing, negotiating, strategizing to retain the Republican majority in the congressional delegation. The freshman senator and longtime North Shore congressman is one of the party’s foreign policy standouts—an Naval reserve officer and expert on Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, the Middle East. The Romney team could have used him to amp up Mitt’s nonexistent foreign policy cred. Kirk, who endorsed Romney early on, might even have been on a short list to become Romney’s National Security Advisor—and then maybe, in a second Romney term, Secretary of State.

The star who was there was hunky Peoria congressman Aaron Schock, a House gym workout buddy of VP candidate Paul Ryan and also a favorite of Romney’s. Expect to see the GQ-featured congressman serving as a frequent surrogate to try to rev up the enthusiasm of young voters (outside of Illinois, presumably) for Romney.

Republican party stalwarts did use the venue to jockey for position in the race to replace the increasingly vulnerable Pat Quinn. Former Gov. Jim Edgar and former Speaker of the U.S. House and current Washington lobbyist Denny Hastert were at the center of that action in Tampa, the former pushing his guy, Hinsdale moderate state senator Kirk Dillard, who lost the primary by 193 votes to state senator Bill Brady of Bloomington, who ended up losing to Quinn. Brady, who was also in Tampa, seems to want to give a race against Quinn another go, which would seem to be good news for the embattled Quinn.

Failed Republican gubernatorial primary candidate and former Helen Curtis CEO Ron Gidwitz was also there. Chicagoan Gidwitz has placed himself in the mix for many local offices, including mayor. Is there still another race in his future? Maybe, and, as we’ve seen this cycle when the piles of Republican SUPER PAC money aimed at defeating Obama could put Romney in the White House, Gidwitz could not be better connected. He has a longtime relationship with the Koch brothers, who fund Americans for Prosperity, has been chairman of its Illinois operation, and was hanging out at the convention with delegate David Koch.

There were lots of shots leveled in Tampa at House Speaker Mike Madigan—backed up by coffee mugs and pet accessories carrying “Fire Madigan” slogans—but most of that campaign seemed to disappear in the ether, demonstrating once again the Speaker’s unconventional power. Who outside Illinois has ever heard of him? Even those inside couldn’t tell you why the hugely successful assessment-lowering LaSalle Street lawyer has amassed more power than any Illinois politician local, state, or national.

Speaking of local, at next week’s DNC, opening Tuesday in Charlotte, North Carolina, one of the featured speakers is our mayor, although the looming school strike—date set for September 10—could keep Rahm in a room engaging in heavy negotiation with CTU President Karen Lewis. All in all, I’m sure he’d rather be in Charlotte. That convention, given favorite son Barack Obama, would put Chicago and Illinois, for better or worse, back in the spotlight.

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