Oberweis and Foster Rematch for Congress

October 23, 2008

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Some of the latest national polls have shown the country is leaning Democrat this election. But there was an early indicator of that trend back in March, with a special election in Chicago's far western suburbs. That's when a Democrat new to the political process helped turn the 14th Congressional District from red to blue, at least temporarily. Now he's in a rematch to keep the seat and the national parties are once again turning their eyes to the region.

Bill Foster's relatively new to politics and he's still not that comfortable in front of a microphone. Here he is at a recent candidate forum in west suburban Aurora, answering a question about how the economic crisis affects student loans.

FOSTER: You know, it's not just student loans that lock up, you know, uh, in this district, um, there are car lots, um, for people that are, you know, just, um, selling cars and whenever you are a selling car, um, you take out a loan to get, to put that car out on the lot...

But despite his awkwardness on the stage, Foster won his seat in Congress back in a special election, held on a cold March Saturday. He defeated Republican Jim Oberweis, of the ice cream chain Oberweis Dairy. Ask any Democrat about the election and they'll tell you the victory was no small feat. Illinois' senior Senator Dick Durbin was at Foster's celebration party.

DURBIN: This 14th District has never seen such election day activity in its history. In its history!

The reason it was no small feat is because of Foster's predecessor, Speaker Dennis Hastert. The Republican Hastert dominated his Democratic opponents in almost every election for 20 years, in a sprawling district that stretches from the rapidly growing suburban Kane and Kendall Counties to the Mississippi River. When Democrats took over Congress in early 2007, Hastert lost his Speakership and left office early, which led to the special election to fill out his term. Foster downplays Hastert's influence in the district.

FOSTER: The more I grow into the job, I really see that the people here are an independent district that had been voting for Dennis Hastert for many years because they personally liked him. And as a scientist and businessman, I think they're very open to having me as a representative as well.

GITELSON: I think there were two things going for Bill Foster when he won back in March in the special election for the 14th Congressional District.

Alan Gitelson is a Loyola University political scientist. He says a lot of the Democratic growth in the 14th District has come from a boom in Latinos and more Chicagoans moving to the suburbs. And Gitelson says another factor that went in Foster's favor had less to do with Foster and more to do with his opponent, Jim Oberweis.

GITELSON: He was an individual who was boisterous, loud, and, at times, challenging in such a way that his negative image, really, in a sense, outshown any other aspects about him.

While the special election was Foster's first campaign, it was Oberweis' fourth. In three previous campaigns, he'd never won his party's nomination. Oberweis acknowledges his past failures and says he has a new tone to the fall campaign.

OBERWEIS: Have you seen the commercials?
ARNOLD: I have, yeah.
OBERWEIS: Surely you would agree those have to be very positive commercials, right?
COMMERCIAL: I'm Julie, the favorite. And I'm Jenni. We're proud to tell you our dad is Jim Oberweis and he's running for Congress.

Oberweis says he's received a strong response to his new upbeat approach. But commercials aside, Loyola Professor Alan Gitelson says there's something else that drew the eyes of political watchers: money. Both Foster and Oberweis are wealthy and have each loaned more than a million dollars of their own cash to their campaigns in the past year.

GITELSON: In a sense, money has been neutralized in this campaign, so what, in effect, you're going to be seeing, really, are individuals battling for their ideas.

Gitelson says it's their ideas on the economy that matter most right now. Foster and Oberweis split on the recent federal bailout plan. Foster says he reluctantly voted for it twice. Oberweis says the plan was a bad idea and suggests raising the limits on federal deposit insurance. However voters perceive the candidates, and their take on the economy, Oberweis says there's one more wild card for the November election: turnout. Oberweis says he's expecting three times the number of voters than came out in March.

And in a district with a tradition of Republican representation, Oberweis says more voters can only help him.

I'm Tony Arnold, Chicago Public Radio.