Ill. Democrats welcome diversity in anything but candidates' opinions

September 20, 1998|By George F. Will

CHICAGO -- If Glenn Poshard seems to be rowing toward his goal with muffled oars, he can argue that this is one reason why he should reach his goal. His goal is to be the first Democrat elected governor of Illinois since 1974. If, as he expects, he is outspent 3-to-1 (say, $15 million to $5 million), that will be partly because he offends a faction of his party that deserves to be offended, and partly because his Republican opponent is raising and spending money in ways that suggest that Illinois Republicans have been in power a tad too long.

Mr. Poshard, a former schoolteacher, is a five-term congressman who won in 1996 with 67 percent of the vote. However, 10 years ago he promised to serve just five terms and today is scandalizing the political class by keeping his promise. He is from a species more endangered and more valuable than the snail darter: He is a (more or less) conservative Southern Democrat.

(Although Illinois' northern edge is farther north than Cape Cod, the southern tip is farther south than Richmond. Mr. Poshard's district, covering the southeast portion of the state, was originally settled largely by farmers trekking west through Kentucky, as Thomas Lincoln did.)

Mr. Poshard opposes abortion, gun control, the gay rights agenda and Clean Air Act provisions that have devastated coal mining in his district. (He favored mandating scrubbers to make Southern Illinois' high-sulfur coal safe to burn.) He supported the 1996 welfare reform legislation and supports a balanced-budget constitutional amendment. Hence he is having a hard time prying open the purses of "lake front liberals," the affluent check writers on Chicago's Gold Coast who provide much of the money for the sort of Democratic candidates who produce a Republican ascendancy.

Another conservative

His opponent, Secretary of State George Ryan from Kankakee, also is a conservative of sorts. He was state chairman of Phil Gramm's 1996 presidential campaign. He is anti-abortion, helped defeat the Equal Rights Amendment and promises not to raise taxes, 'though the heavens fall. However, the venerable congressman Henry Hyde is chairing Conservatives for George Ryan to assuage conservatives offended by Mr. Ryan's new conviction that Cook County's gay rights ordinance is insufficiently liberal.

It forbids people who rent four or more units in an owner-occupied building from discriminating on the basis of sexual preference. Mr. Ryan wants to apply this to people who rent even one unit, as many people do in the ethnic "bungalow belt" around this city. Mr. Ryan is running the sort of ads Democrats usually run against Republicans, calling Mr. Poshard "extreme." Jack Roeser, a conservative former gubernatorial candidate and Ryan friend, says of Mr. Ryan, "An alien from another planet has occupied his body."

A name about town

As secretary of state, Mr. Ryan has appeared in $1.3 million worth of taxpayer-paid advertising for an organ donor program, and public safety ads for the Illinois Sheriffs' Association.

He recently spent $143,000 of public money mailing to senior citizens 500,000 refrigerator magnets inscribed with a senior citizens hot-line telephone number, and the name of the secretary of state. In the past five years, he has raised $800,000 from car and truck dealers he regulates.

Mr. Poshard opposes a third Chicago airport in the south suburbs, so Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. is unhappy with him. Mr. Poshard opposes gambling, so Mr. Ryan has received (according to Crain's Chicago Business) 10 percent of his money from gambling interests.

Some conservative Democrats are mad at Mr. Poshard because he, unlike Mr. Ryan, opposes a constitutional amendment to ban flag burning.

Mr. Poshard joined the Army at 17, had a cousin whose name is on the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, and his district has more veterans than any other district in the state. (Kids enlist after high school, now that the Clean Air Act has, he says, closed 80 percent of the mines.) But he believes flag burning is not sufficiently epidemic to justify fiddling with the First Amendment.

Mr. Poshard's social conservatism is alloyed with a populism (William Jennings Bryan was born in Salem, just outside the current boundaries of Mr. Poshard's district) that makes him a fervid supporter of organized labor. That is mandatory in the region where John L. Lewis began his rise to the top of the United Mine Workers and where juries acquitted those who murdered 23 scabs in 1922.

Mr. Poshard, some of whose constituents live closer to Jackson, Miss., than to Jackson Boulevard in Chicago, is testing liberal Democrats' belief in "diversity." They seem determined to demonstrate, redundantly, that they believe in diversity in everything other than ideas.

George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 9/20/98

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