Swinging Senators to Be

Attendees of the Union League Club's Dem Senatorial Forum were treated to candidates largely in agreement, but whose actions show little evidence they have been infected by the holiday spirit.
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Seven more shopping days until Christmas, and a mere forty more until voters must make their Election Day decisions for who will represent the Democratic, Republican, and Green parties on the ballot next November in Illinois. Yesterday's attendees of the Union League Club's Democratic U.S. Senatorial Candidate Forum were treated to a delectable selection of candidates largely in agreement on the issues of the day, but whose words and actions show little evidence that they have been infected by the holiday spirit.

In their respective four corners, the four candidates vying for the Democratic senatorial nomination include State Treasurer Alexi Giannoulias, former Chicago Inspector General David Hoffman, Chicago Urban League President Cheryle Robinson Jackson and commercial litigator Jacob Meister. Giannoulias, a mere 33, has served as treasurer since 2007, and before that was vice president of family-owned Broadway Bank. Hoffman was inspector general the past four years and also boasts experience as an assistant U.S. attorney and Supreme Court clerk. Jackson has been with the Urban League since resigning as Governor Rod Blagojevich's press secretary after his first term in office. Meister worked previously as a congressional staffer.

Giannoulias struck early at probable Republican nominee U.S. Representative Mark Kirk by tying him to former President Bush's "failed" economic policies. As state treasurer, he boasts of a record of consumer advocacy and economic development. Giannoulias celebrated his refusal to accept campaign contributions from federal lobbyists and political action committees (PACs), then went on with a story about "Tim and Susan," a husband and wife he allegedly met on the campaign trail who have fallen on hard times and stand as a microcosm of what plagues the country and the rationale for his candidacy.

Hoffman suggests that this campaign is about who voters trust to be a strong and effective leader. In Illinois, he claims, the system works for those with political clout and hefty campaign war chests. Hoffman prods us to examine the character of those who we elect, and touted his credentials as a member of the Illinois Reform Commission, plus that fact that he has no ties to Blagojevich nor his financier Tony Rezko.

Jackson, in her position at the Urban League, is "on the front lines and in the trenches." She shifted the organizational focus from social services to economic development, and from this vantage point witnessed the first signs of the recent recession. She listed early childhood education, access to health care, and investment in women as the issues closest to her heart.

Meister has premised his campaign on "experience and purpose," and calls his 2020 jobs plan the "most comprehensive in the race."

What follows is an issue-by-issue synopsis of the candidate's answers to a laundry list of questions posed by Union League Club moderator Chris Robling and members of the audience.

Economic Development

* Giannoulias: Tax credits for businesses who hire new employees, a pay roll tax holiday for workers.
* Hoffman: Need to distribute stimulus funding immediately and encourage banks to lend to small businesses.
* Jackson: Help small businesses with cash flow, focus on job training.
* Meister: Develop green technologies and industries.

Financial Reform

* Giannoulias: Create a "living will" for failing institutions.
* Hoffman: Focus on consumer protection.
* Jackson: Oversight and regulation a must, would create a consumer protection financial oversight agency.
* Meister: House legislation a good start, but should also regulate derivatives and further separate banking and securities.

Health Care

* Giannoulias: Spent the bulk of this segment railing on Hoffman for investing in banks and later critiquing them.
* Hoffman: Countered with Giannoulias' association with Broadway Bank, one the "worst-performing institutions in the country."
* Jackson: The health care crisis must be addressed now, as current cost trends are simply unsustainable.
* Meister: Supports national health care which will help offset some of the legacy costs borne by the flailing auto industry.

Public Option

* Giannoulias: Supports, and predicts it would create competition and rid system of waste.
* Hoffman: Supports system of universal coverage, and critiques Kirk's vote against lowering prescription drug costs.
* Jackson: Yes, to drive down costs and compete with private providers, but also to emphasize outcome-based medicine.
* Meister: "Absolutely"--lack of competition locks people out of the current system.

Thomson Detention Center

* Giannoulias: Need to close Guantanamo, and Thomson is largely unused. Must address national security concerns, but we shouldn't engage in fear mongering (alluding to Kirk).
* Hoffman: Attacks Giannoulias for his youth, the fact that he's held only two jobs, one of them at his family's bank, and the fact that he couldn't protect the peoples' money while overseeing the Brightstar college savings program as treasurer.
* Jackson: The question is what's best for Illinois, and she responds with an unequivocal "yes."
* Meister: Touts the creation of 2,500-3,000 jobs, and therefore considers a "win-win" for Illinois and the nation.


* Giannoulias: Need to extend unemployment benefits.
* Hoffman: Banks must begin lending again, and the federal government should secure state safety nets.
* Jackson: Invest in emerging industries, better train our existing workforce, and improve our schools.


* Giannoulias: Supports the policies of the Obama Administration; cites the need to also focus on Pakistan and pursue an integrated approach in the region that transcends mere military force; considers a timetable for withdrawal "necessary."
* Hoffman: Against the recent escalation, but admits that the US must remain in the region. Sees Obama's new strategy as an expansion of our mission, with no form commitment for withdrawal.
* Jackson: Opposed expansion, and considers our national priorities flawed. Invasion is the wrong approach.
* Meister: Supports our president and the troops, and reminds us not to forget about Pakistan. Withdrawal should protect our "vital interests."

Middle East Peace Process

* Giannoulias: First priority is the safety and security of the Israeli people; then, isolate Hamas and work to build a moderate alternative organization to represent the Palestinian people.
* Hoffman: A two-state solution is necessary, and the U.S. must play an active leadership role in this process, prodding both sides to make concessions.

From a global perspective, this debate was clearly a standoff between Giannoulias and Hoffman. The latter's implied barbs drew direct fire from the former, which spawned repeated jabs throughout the balance of the debate that served to distract the candidates and audience from the issues before them. Jackson and Meister preferred to stay above the fray. The proverbial elephant in the room was Mark Kirk, who drew the ire of both Giannoulias and Hoffman.

Hoffman delivered the most compelling performance of the quartet, though he did come off an unnecessarily mean at times. Giannoulias nailed his talking points and did nothing to undermine his frontrunner status. Jackson, on the other hand, asked the moderator to repeat questions a handful of times, even after the other three candidates has responded, and then proceeded to stammer through her responses. Meister read directly from his briefing book, but showed sporadic flashes of brilliance, all the while invoking hand gestures off kilter with his words.

While voters may have visions of sugar plums currently dancing in their heads, the Senate primary will follow the holiday hangover. It's never too early to pick a horse in this after Christmas sale with well-stocked shelves.

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