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What Makes Jim Run?

Jim Oberweis earned a fortune in business, but in politics he hasn’t fared so well—failing in runs for governor, the Senate, and Congress while burning through $7 million of his own money and one 35-year marriage. Now he’s taking his second stab at Dennis Hastert’s old congressional seat—even as he risks becoming a political punch line

(page 4 of 6)

Early in 2001, Oberweis gathered his immediate family and told them that he planned to run for the U.S. Senate the following year. “He said, If anybody really objects to this, I’m not going to do it,” recalls his daughter Jenni Roberts during a phone call from a birthday party at Chuck E. Cheese for one of Oberweis’s 14 grandchildren.

“It’s been something he’s always kicked around, something he always had an interest in,” his son Joe says. “I was a little surprised when he actually went forward with it in 2001. At the time it was an exciting thing.”

The excitement didn’t last long. In an interview with the radio host Steve Dahl in October of that year, Oberweis was asked his position on abortion.

“The honest answer is I’ve been a lifelong Catholic—still am,” he said on the air. “Obviously, I have concerns about that particular issue. However, I think that right now we’re getting a very, very strong symbol in the Taliban of what can happen if we try to impose our religious beliefs on others. So I really think that that issue is a choice that government should stay out of and let people make that the way they see fit.”

The statement was remarkably temperate for a Republican candidate, and a rival candidate immediately attacked Oberweis for it. He went on to lose the Senate primary by nearly 15 points to a little-known state legislator. “I had virtually been on the moon for 20 years as far as politics was concerned,” Oberweis explains now. “My answer was, I thought, the logical conservative response: OK, I’m pro-life, but as a true conservative we shouldn’t have the government dictating that for us, and the Taliban are the best example of that when you go too far.”

It’s a view consistent with the less-is-more approach of one of Oberweis’s political idols, Barry Goldwater. (Ronald Reagan, who was born in what is now the 14th District, is the other.) And Oberweis still espouses it, to an extent, such as when he tells me, “I wish that whether you’re pro-life or pro-abortion, that was not an attribute of the Republican Party or the Democratic Party.” But he says that in the year following the radio interview, he came to believe that if voters understand he is personally pro-life, they are authorizing him to legislate those beliefs. When Oberweis ran for Senate in 2004, he supported passing a constitutional amendment against abortion, according to the Sun-Times.

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