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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

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Oberweis had thought his political career was over after losing in that earlier 2002 race. “I’m done and now I’m back to business,” he recalls of his thinking then. But before he could pick up where he left off, his marriage fell apart. “I was, I thought, happily married for 35 years, and I absolutely can tell you I never strayed in any way during that period of time and never even considered the possibility of not being with my wife for the rest of our lives,” Oberweis says. “And then one day she left and moved in with another guy.”

Oberweis brings this up, unprompted, at the end of an interview in his campaign office. “I can tell you it was by far the worst thing that I ever went through in my life. I literally lost about 70 pounds in six months.”

The man she left him for was a former employee of the dairy (she also left the company). Oberweis says he’s still not entirely sure why it happened. “We obviously had some differences over what we thought our lives should be,” he says. “She thought I should retire and play golf. She wanted to go bird watching and take life easy, and I’m not finished with my life yet.”

Oberweis’s former wife, Elaine Pearson (she changed her name after remarrying), says she is not surprised by his description of their split. “Obviously it was not 35 years of bliss and one day I woke up and left,” she says. “I’m sure that’s how he saw it, but that’s certainly not what I felt at the time.”

Oberweis says his wife “hated politics,” and Pearson acknowledges that his fledgling political  career played a role in the divorce—"He chose politics over what he knew I would want,” she says—though it was not the decisive factor. “I am not a political being and I am also not a Republican conservative,” Pearson says. “So if you put the two things together, I was not happy to be involved in any sort of race for the Senate.” Oberweis, she says, “throws his heart and soul into whatever endeavor he is pursuing, whether it’s his job or a political run or whatever. That means there’s a total imbalance in life, and I needed balance.”

On July 4, 2007, Oberweis married Julie Malloy, a divorced information technology executive 12 years his junior, with whom he had played hide-and-seek as a child when she lived next door to his cousins in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. “I was very impressed with not only her athletic ability but her intelligence,” Oberweis says of their courtship on jogging trails. Julie now works as Oberweis’s vice president, sharing a glass-walled office with him at the dairy’s headquarters on Ice Cream Drive, where he serves as chairman of the Oberweis Group Inc., the company that oversees his business holdings. Joe Oberweis is chairman and CEO of the dairy, while Jim’s other son, Jim Jr., heads the financial firm.

Despite Oberweis’s current marriage, a number of people I interviewed cited his sudden divorce as central to understanding Oberweis’s political crusade. “I think he’s determined to get approval,” says Jack Roeser, the founder of the conservative Family Taxpayers Network and Oberweis’s chief financial backer in his gubernatorial run. “He got into a fight and he doesn’t want to leave the fight without winning it. I think it’s a mistake on his part to think that . . . politics is going to certify you as a person.”

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