Master of the deal, Rostenkowski looks for one more

February 19, 1994|By Karen Hosler | Karen Hosler,Sun Staff Correspondent

CHICAGO -- For two years, Washington has been waiting for the federal prosecutors' ax to fall on one of the nation's most powerful lawmakers. But the first and most devastating blow to Rep. Dan Rostenkowski could be landed next month by voters in this city where politics is a blood sport.

Democrats such as Robert Best, 74, a regular contributor to the 80 percent landslides the 18-term congressman once enjoyed, have been bombarded by so many news reports of alleged corruption involving Mr. Rostenkowski that they've come to believe the worst.

"They don't just pick these things out of a clear blue sky," said Mr. Best, a retired Montgomery Ward employee who will be casting his ballot for one of Mr. Rostenkowski's several vigorous challengers in the March 15 primary. "I only vote for honest people."

From the ethnic communities along Milwaukee Avenue to the gentrified neighborhoods of Lincoln Park and Chicago's lakefront Gold Coast, the word on the street in the congressman's district is pretty much the same.

In the midst of another frenzied primary season, the city is plastered with brightly colored placards, banners and lawn signs for dozens of candidates. But there is little evidence of support for the congressman much of Washington considers to be the political equivalent of Michael Jordan.

Aurelia Pucinski, clerk of the court for Cook County, broke the usual party protocol at a candidate's forum the other night to predict victory for John Cullerton, a 45-year-old state senator who only got into the contest because he figured Mr. Rostenkowski would have been indicted or retired by now.

"Dan Rostenkowski is a great congressman -- he deserves to be re-elected, but it's going to be tough," she said. "People get tired of politicians after a while. We're in the process of change right now."

Yet, even in the political fight of his life, Mr. Rostenkowski, 66, a product of Chicago's famed Democratic machine, is visibly uncomfortable with modern-day campaigning.

As chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, Mr. Rostenkowski is a master at making deals and building consensus. But he doesn't seem to know how to appeal for votes here.

Troubled campaign

At the media kickoff of his campaign Tuesday, the congressman fidgeted like a captive schoolboy through a dozen success stories of retrained workers, self-consciously mugging for TV cameras and mustering only an off-handed mention that he had secured the $500,000 grant that financed the retraining program.

The next day, before an audience of high school students, Mr. Rostenkowski got into trouble by proposing school uniforms as a response to a shooting near the school.

"That's a totally superficial suggestion," one student complained, prompting the lawmaker to acknowledge, "School security is not my bag."

Most troubling to his legion of friends and allies, Mr.

Rostenkowski has waited until less than a month before the primary election to launch his campaign. His headquarters is an empty shell with lawn signs, bumper stickers and volunteers yet to arrive. Radio and newspaper ads aren't scheduled until next week.

David Axelrod, a political consultant who recently signed on to the Rostenkowski effort, lamented the late start, using basketball jargon. "This should have been a four-quarter press, and we're down to a fight in the final two minutes," he said.

Top aides say Mr. Rostenkowski's spirit has been broken by the unusually lengthy federal investigation. He originally expected the probe to end a year ago, then felt certain a resolution would come by the fall. Instead, the inquiry has broadened to cover seemingly every public and private act in his three-decade career.

Rostenkowski allies say that the delay is grossly unfair and indicates that the prosecutors have failed to make a case. The congressman has insisted that he is innocent of any wrongdoing.

But his recent decision to repay $82,000 -- for office purchases made through the House supply store that he acknowledged "arguably" could be considered personal -- is widely seen here as an admission of guilt.

"He got too greedy," Jerry Dambrowski, 23, a telephone company consultant, said of the one-time hero of Chicago's vast Polish-American community. "He was around too long and started thinking of himself first."

A Clinton ally at risk

A loss for Mr. Rostenkowski would reverberate far beyond Chicago. As chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, he wields enormous influence over the nation's fiscal policy. He is also the only legislative leader President Clinton can count on to shepherd legislation through largely intact.

This power would evaporate so quickly if Mr. Rostenkowski were defeated at the polls that Mr. Clinton's already embattled health care reform proposal, expected to get a big boost from the Ways xTC and Means Committee later this spring, would surely suffer.

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