Racial issues intensify Illinois gubernatorial primary

By Lois Romano
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 2, 2010

CHIGAGO -- Here at Manny's legendary deli, where expansive pols have for decades stormed across the linoleum floor appealing for votes from the well-fed, Dan Hynes does not suit up as much of a dragon slayer.

Slight and pale, and a bland campaigner by Chicago standards, the Democratic state comptroller can't seem to entice folks to look up from their bulky corned beef sandwiches. But outside the restaurant, in a nasty, personal and racially tense race, Hynes has managed to come within a hair of knocking off Gov. Pat Quinn in Tuesday's Illinois Democratic primary.

In the final days of the contest, the men, both of whom are white, have taken the fight to the African American community, sputtering charges and countercharges of race-baiting as they brawl over the words of a revered dead black mayor, and whether Hynes for years ignored criminal activity in a historically black cemetery.

The latest polls from last week show that Hynes and Quinn -- who was up 26 points a month ago -- are locked in a statistical dead heat, with upward of 20 percent of likely voters undecided. Although the angry political climate is affecting incumbents across the country, the Illinois cliffhanger may turn less on national trends than on the notoriously rough nature of this state's politics. "Incompetent" is one of the kinder adjectives they have called each other.

On the Republican side, the seven-way race is just as close, but far more polite. Former state GOP chairman Andy McKenna has a slight lead over former Illinois attorney general Jim Ryan, with state Sen. Kirk Dillard close behind. A Democrat had not been elected governor in Illinois for 30 years, until Rod Blagojevich in 2002. And that hasn't proved a stellar moment for Democrats.

Quinn, 61, was promoted from lieutenant governor one year ago, when Blagojevich was removed from office, indicted on federal corruption charges that he tried sell Barack Obama's vacated Senate seat. The current governor seems never to tire of reminding voters of those dark days and the mess he inherited.

But Quinn made a mess of his own, when, during the fall, a state program allowed for the early release of 1,700 inmates from state prisons as a cost-cutting measure -- including some who had served only a few weeks. The governor blamed his corrections chief, but quickly admitted that the release was a big mistake. Hynes seized on it to portray Quinn as ineffectual and bumbling.

The comptroller also has criticized Quinn for not getting a grip on the state's $13 billion deficit. The Pew Center on the States released a study last year showing Illinois among the top financially troubled states in the country, citing "its lack of fiscal discipline to balance its state budget." Hynes has proposed reducing the deficit through taxes on the wealthy, using the rainy-day fund as a one-time investment to reduce the deficit, and laying off Blagojevich holdovers on the state payroll.

"Pat Quinn has made a series of flubs that have left the impression that he may be in over his head," said David Yepsen, director of the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale.

The dynamics of the race imploded a couple of weeks ago when Hynes, 41, aired a campaign ad showing a clip of Mayor Harold Washington -- who died in 1987 and is an iconic political figure here -- talking about why he fired Quinn from his post as revenue director. In the 24-year-old interview, Washington called Quinn an "undisciplined individual" and said his greatest mistake in government was hiring Quinn.

Quinn, clearly shaken, spent a week trying to deal with the fallout. Initially, it did not look as if he could recover. But in the past 72 hours, the governor has gone on the offensive. A number of high-profile African American supporters -- such as Jesse L. Jackson and Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. (D-Ill.), his son, -- jumped to Quinn's defense, accusing Hynes of trying to divide the black community. Infuriating to some African Americans was that Hynes's father, Tom, a former Cook County assessor, briefly left the party to mount a third-party candidacy in 1987 against Washington.

As part of his push back, Quinn is flaunting new revelations that the office of comptroller -- which has oversight for cemeteries -- knew as early as 2003 that human remains had been found at Burr Oak Cemetery, a historic graveyard near Alsip, Ill., where Emmett Till, the civil rights-era murder victim, is buried. Last summer, it was discovered that some overseers were illegally exhuming bodies to resell plots, and putting remains in mass graves. Hynes denies knowing this was going on.

In a testy debate Thursday night on a top African American radio show, Quinn and moderator Cliff Kelley went after Hynes. "Was the intent to try to divide the black community or to draw votes from people who are racist and didn't want Washington in office in the first place?" Kelley asked. Hynes said he aired the ad to "explain to people that the governor's inability to solve problems and his lack of competence is not just a one-time situation."

For his part, Quinn seemed to mention the name of every black leader in the state who supported him, some multiple times. "Is anyone keeping track of how many names the governor drops?" an exasperated Hynes said. "I think we're approaching a record."

The candidates have been bouncing from event to event throughout the city and state, seeking black votes. In recent days, Quinn has announced a number of new projects that will create thousands of jobs in Illinois.

At a festive union rally Saturday for Quinn, with a large African American turnout, some voters said they were turned off by Hynes's attacks. "What's going on today is more important than something that happened 25 years ago," said Tina Carroll, a day-care provider whose services are supplemented by the state coffers. "I do not like all this hashing back and forth. We are really hurting for jobs, and I see Governor Quinn doing something about it. "

Rep. Bobby Rush (D-Ill.) joined Quinn and lashed out at Hynes, calling him "cold and calculating" for not doing something about the cemetery years ago. Rush also repeatedly denounced the Harold Washington ad as "evil."

Across town, Hynes shot back that Quinn was "desperate because he's losing."

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