Groundhog day

Meister ends Illinois senate campaign under suspicious circumstances

By Steve Saltarelli

For Illinois, today is about more than just Punxsutawney Phil; it’s about filling out ballots for the 2010 Primary Election. In this wild world of Illinois politics, campaign season, at least, comes early every year.

Our February 2 primary—the earliest in the nation—sits a whole month before Texas’s March 2 date, a whole spring before the June 8 “Super Tuesday” of primaries, and about a baseball season from the last primary on September 18 (Hawaii). For Illinois, the implications of an early primary are far from inconsequential. Prevailing wisdom dictates that early primaries are beneficial to established candidates and incumbents, as the holiday break restricts advertising run-up for political hopefuls (attack ads aren’t terribly effective when voters are either traveling or eating Christmas dinner), and sub-zero temperatures stifle large voter turnout on Election Day. Such is the ingenuity of machine politics—they’ve even found a way to harness the cold.

Early primary or not, today is the culmination of months of campaigning on the candidates’ part. All the press conferences, all the phone banking, all the attack ads, all the debates, all the baby-kissing—it all comes down to this. Never mind the polls, never mind the newspapers’ endorsements, the only thing that matters on Election Day is who shows up: A simple percentage that slays dreams and makes kings.

Last Sunday, Jacob Meister ended his bid for the Democratic nomination for U.S. Senate, endorsing frontrunner and Illinois treasurer, Alexi Giannoulias, who leads former Chicago Inspector General David Hoffman (whom I endorsed in my last column) and Urban League President Cheryle Jackson in the quest for the Senate seat soon to be vacated by Roland Burris. Perhaps in an effort to “save face,” Meister, a first-time candidate favored by only 1 percent of voters in a recent Chicago Tribune poll, suddenly dropped out and backed Giannoulias, writing on his website, “Alexi has assured that he will…fight for the issues that have been the cornerstone of my platform.” While this is certainly a plausible explanation, candidate Cheryle Jackson reacted in a more cynical fashion, saying of Meister’s announcement, “This was not a surprise…. This is something we knew all along, that [Meister] was in the race to help the treasurer.”

This is no doubt a serious allegation, and it is one that should be approached with measured consideration. Perhaps we should take a closer look at the Meister campaign….

On October 6, attorney Jacob Meister announced that he had raised $1,057,000 in the third quarter of 2009, effectively kicking off his 2010 Senate campaign. Almost all of that cash came via loans Meister personally offered to his campaign—one for $1 million, and a second for $30,000. While bringing in outside cash was (and remained) a problem for the campaign, the loans gained Meister an air of viability in what was sure to become an expensive Senate campaign.

During his formal campaign kickoff, Meister announced that he was running for Senate in order to “take back Illinois politics from career politicians,” adding on his website, “Some known names have already begun to declare their candidacies for the U.S. Senate seat that will open up next year in Illinois. Trouble is, while these candidates’ names are known, so is their baggage.” It was an obvious swipe at Giannoulias, who was in hot water for the questionable loaning practices of the Giannoulias family-owned Broadway Bank, which counted Tony Rezko and accused mobsters amongst its clientele. It was also a shot at Jackson, the former Press Secretary to impeached Governor Rod Blagojevich. Meister had officially announced himself, and came out swinging.

As the campaign progressed, Meister found his rhythm. He opened six campaign offices across the state, gathered 20,000 signatures to get on the ballot, and garnered significant interest from the media as the first openly gay Senate candidate from Illinois. Additionally, he continued his attacks on those leading the polls, stating in the December 2009 Chicago Tribune questionnaire that, “When voters go to the polls in February and again in November, they can be sure that I am neither connected to Rod Blagojevich or Tony Rezko.” Meister’s campaign was, in fact, moving full speed ahead—they re-launched his website, began releasing campaign commercials, and Meister was invited alongside the “Big Three” to the Tribune Editorial Board debate. Despite their best efforts, though, the campaign didn’t appear to be gaining any traction: fundraising was stagnant, and Meister was yet to break five percent in any poll. Heading into the holiday season, things looked grim for the first-time campaigner.

Then with 2010 came not only a new year, but also a major strategic shift within the Meister camp. During the first televised debate on ABC7 (January 12), Meister spent nearly all of his time bashing Hoffman, who despite surging in the polls after sweeping the newspaper endorsements was still a distant second to Giannoulias. In his opening statement, Meister pounced on what he perceived to be negative campaigning from Hoffman, stating, “Those are the type of tactics he learned working for the Daley Machine.” Hoffman, a vocal opponent of the Mayor’s office, ignored the repeated barbs. For Meister, though, there was nary a word about the Treasurer. Instead he persisted with the “unexplained attacks” (as one reporter categorized them) in the post-debate press conference. “[Hoffman]’s running on a platform of integrity. I have seen nothing of the sort,” said Meister.

While the attacks raised more than a few eyebrows, they did little to boost Meister’s Senate chances. A January 26 poll done by Public Policy Polling showed Meister garnering only one percent of likely voters, with 18 percent favoring Jackson, 20 percent backing Hoffman, and Giannoulias ahead with 32 percent. The fact that 27 percent of the poll’s respondents were undecided was troubling to the Giannoulias camp, suggesting Alexi was not yet out of the woods despite his double-digit lead. More unfavorable news soon came for Giannoulias, as Broadway Bank entered a consent decree with the FDIC in order to keep the bank afloat, requiring Broadway to raise $50 million in capital and cease dividend payment without regulatory approval. The announcement drew immediate criticism from Giannoulias’s opponents—Jackson called the Treasurer “unelectable” while Hoffman hammered Alexi for personally collecting $8 million in bank dividends over the last four years.

On January 27, Meister weighed in. “Mr. Giannoulias’s family business is suffering from the economy, and his opponents are trying to take advantage of that. That’s wrong.” It was a strict departure from the message purported on Meister’s website, where he posted, “Those who can best offer fresh ideas are those who haven’t been associated with what has brought us to the verge of systemic collapse.” Like, bankers?

Attacking Alexi, apparently, was no longer fair game for Meister.

Four days after those comments, Jacob Meister dropped from the Senate race and stood next to Alexi Giannoulias, who continued to duck questions on Broadway Bank until after the primary. When asked whether he was simply a stalking horse for Giannoulias during the campaign, Meister replied, “The suggestion that I was in any way recruited or in cahoots with Alexi or anyone in his camp is ridiculous.”

Ridiculous indeed, Mr. Meister.

— Steve Saltarelli is a fourth-year in the College majoring in Law, Letters & Society.