The Audacity of Hillary

Hillary Clinton might be the Dems’ presidential front-runner, but the trip to the White House makes a stop in Obama Country. Can the hometown girl beat the state’s favorite son on what’s now his home turf?

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A couple of hours before Hillary Clinton squared off against her Democratic primary rivals at the AFL-CIO–sponsored presidential debate held in August at Soldier Field, a few dozen of her ardent volunteers, clad in blue “Hillary for President” T-shirts, gathered at a card table outside the stadium. With the temperature near 90 degrees, they huddled beneath the beating rays of the summer sun to begin the petition drive to get the New York senator on the Illinois ballot. Soon, 15,000 or so union members were lining up to enter the stadium: an ideal pool in which to fish for the 3,000 signatures Clinton needed. While the volunteers signed up supporters, the cochairman of Clinton’s nationwide grassroots organization, J. B. Pritzker, the billionaire heir to the Hyatt hotels, passed out bottled water to his helpers.

Meanwhile, just a football field away, at the stadium’s far south parking lot, Senator Barack Obama’s campaign held a get-together of its own: a big tailgate rally, with 500 or so supporters, clapping to the Bears’ fight song, “Bear Down, Chicago Bears!” Obama’s campaign was also collecting signatures, but just for its volunteer rolls.

The crowd that turned out for Obama’s rally had Clinton volunteers feeling outnumbered but not discouraged. In just a couple of hours, the Clinton team says, it collected around 800 signatures for its nominating papers. “It was really important to us to use the AFL-CIO debate to actually get some real work done, instead of just screaming for our candidate,” says Stacey Zolt Hara, a former press secretary for U.S. Senator Dick Durbin who is helping Clinton’s campaign with its local press operations. “We’re very much a substance-over-style campaign.”

Maybe so, but the differences between the two campaigns in Illinois could also be summed up another way—the same way one Obama supporter put it on a sign he held up at the Soldier Field tailgate rally: “Home field advantage.”

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With a commanding double-digit lead in many early nationwide pre-primary polls, Hillary Clinton is widely viewed as the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, at least for now. But here in Illinois, despite her hometown roots in Park Ridge, and even with the powerful, deep-pocketed local political network she formed during her eight years as First Lady and six as a U.S. senator, Clinton finds herself in an unusual position: as the underdog—fighting what her backers are calling an “insurgent campaign” against the state’s favorite son. It’s hard to tell how “underdog” she really is: Early polls in Illinois show that Clinton is trailing Obama here, but not by much, and seems to be gaining on him, though many pundits and insiders dismiss such early surveys. 

In any case, the race has many Illinois Democrats feeling deeply divided, even those who have already taken sides: Do they go with their old friend Hillary, whom they’ve followed through the highs and lows of Clinton campaigns and the Clinton White House, or stay loyal to their home-state senator? U.S. representative Bobby Rush (1st) chose Obama early on, but told the press at the time that it was “one of the most difficult decisions that [he’s] had to make in politics.” The intense competition has divided families—witness the Pritzkers: J. B. Pritzker’s older sister, Penny, is Obama’s national finance chairwoman. The race has also proved awkward for the Jackson clan. Reverend Jesse Jackson and his congressman son, Jesse Jr. (2nd), are in Obama’s camp; Yusef, the youngest son, is going with Clinton, while the middle son, Jonathan, is still “undecided.” When U.S. representative Rahm Emanuel (5th), a former aide to President Bill Clinton who is also close with Obama, was asked where he stood in the race, he reportedly replied, “I’m hiding under my desk."  (As of press time, in late August, he remained officially uncommitted.)

So far, the political establishment sides overwhelmingly with Obama—publicly, at least. Almost every Democratic elected official in Illinois—Mayor Richard M. Daley, Governor Rod Blagojevich, and Senator Durbin, to name a few—has endorsed Obama. Only a handful of elected officials, mostly political small fry compared with Obama’s supporters, have come out for Clinton. State representative Jack Franks of Woodstock, for one, is the only state lawmaker to buck the Barack bandwagon so far, joined by lesser-known politicians like Aldermen Bernard Stone (50th) and Danny Solis (25th); Solis’s younger sister Patti Solis Doyle is Clinton’s national campaign manager.

Most of the state’s best-known Democratic benefactors are already backing Obama, even a few longtime Clinton family friends who slept in the Lincoln bedroom or sipped coffee on the Truman balcony during the Clinton White House years—people such as Marc Schulman, of Eli’s Cheesecake, Thomas Hynes, the former Cook County assessor turned lobbyist, and former commerce secretary William Daley. Lewis Manilow, who was Bill Clinton’s Illinois campaign finance chairman in 1992, and gave $3,000 to Hillary for her New York Senate races, has pledged his support and his money to Obama. “Hillary’s terrific—if she wins [the nomination], I’ll support her,” says Manilow. But he thinks Illinois will be solidly behind its hometown senator come February 5th, primary day. “If I were Hillary, I wouldn’t waste my time here,” he says. 

Obama had also outraised Clinton by a margin of more than four to one in Illinois—$6,907,641 to $1,717,370—after the first six months of the campaign, according to Federal Election Commission records. (By comparison, Clinton held a little more than a two-to-one fundraising edge in New York, $13,808,121 to $5,828,524.) The fundraising gap in Illinois was at one point even larger; after the first three months of the campaign, Clinton had raised next to nothing here—a meager $373,432 to Obama’s $3,742,757.

Other local Democratic bigwigs have tried to stay neutral. Some are hedging their bets by giving cash to both candidates or they are sitting out the primary race entirely, not wanting to choose sides. “I’m kind of staying out of it,” says North Shore businessman Lou Weisbach, a major Democratic donor, who has doled out nearly $850,000 to Democratic candidates and party committees since 1990.

Although Obama has lured most of the Clinton network’s longtime local supporters, Hillary’s list of political friends and upper-echelon donors still makes up an impressive roster. It includes the television mogul Fred Eychaner, one of the nation’s heaviest-hitting Democratic donors, who has written checks totaling more than $8 million since 1990; Kendall College president Howard Tullman, another top-tier donor; mega-lawyer Myron Cherry, a major so-called bundler of campaign donations; talk show host Jerry Springer; and Ted Tetzlaff, chairman of the McPier authority.

But some Clinton backers are finding it tough being on the “wrong” side of the campaign. “It’s kind of dicey—there are people who consider you a traitor or a Judas,” says Valerie Alexander, Senator Durbin’s former Chicago chief of staff, who initially supported Obama but switched after Clinton’s strong performances in the early debates. “If you meet somebody and say, ‘I’m for Hillary,’ they look at you kind of puzzled, like, ‘How can you do this?’ There’s this automatic assumption that you’re supposed to be supporting Barack.” Alexander’s husband, Michael, a lobbyist and also a former Durbin aide, surely thought so. A staunch Obama supporter, he thought his wife was joking when she announced her switch. “And when it became clear that she wasn’t kidding,” he says, “in all honesty, it was a little awkward. For the first time in the four years or so that we’ve been married, we’ve kind of started talking about the weather; presidential politics became a little taboo." 

Valerie Alexander felt particularly anxious about telling her old boss and political mentor, Dick Durbin, one of Obama’s most vocal boosters. “I couldn’t just pick up the phone and tell him—I didn’t want to appear disloyal,” she recalls. Instead she broke the news in an e-mail to Durbin’s wife, Loretta, asking her, “How can I tell Dick that I’m with Hillary without him punching me in the face?”

J. B. Pritzker knows how that goes. “You get the feeling that you’re in a bubble here,” he says. “It’s strange, ‘cause I talk to my friends at the Obama campaign and they’re like, ‘Oh, isn’t he doing great?’ And I’m like, ‘Actually, why don’t you head over the border to Wisconsin, where she’s up 15, 20 points, whatever the latest are, and then you’ll get a sense for how he’s doing nationally.’”

Clinton herself, who was born in Edgewater and lived in Park Ridge through high school, has vowed to challenge the Hawaii-born Obama on what is now considered his home turf. “I am not ceding any voter, anywhere, to anyone,” she told local reporters in May, during a campaign stopover in Chicago. She added: “I don’t consider Chicago or Illinois off limits to me.”

Certainly, it used to be just the opposite: Before Illinois got swept up in Obamamania, the state—particularly the Chicago area—was true-blue Clinton Country. Bill Clinton defeated George H. W. Bush (and Ross Perot) in 1992, collecting 49 percent of the statewide vote and 72 percent in the city. Four years later, he won re-election with 54 percent support in Illinois and nearly 80 percent citywide. Donors in the state have been big supporters of both of Hillary’s Senate campaigns—even after the lifelong Cubs fan donned a Yankees cap before her first race in 2000. In that election, Illinois Democrats gave her $717,000, fifth most among all the states. And last year, Illinois donors fattened her campaign coffers by more than $887,000.

“The people in Illinois who are choosing to go with Hillary Clinton are choosing to do so because they’ve known her for a long time,” says Pritzker. “She’s a homegrown girl. She’s a favorite daughter. If there’s anybody in this race that can also claim favorite status here, it’s her. She loves Illinois, and she would like to win Illinois.”

 

Illustration: Jason Seiler

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