The midterm elections are less than a week away. While the emergence of the
Tea Party and lackluster economy have inspired everyone within reach of
pen or microphone to predict the death of the Democratic party, the
reality is that the House and Senate are both up for grabs.
race for Illinois' 9th Congressional District is a microcosm of
the national political environment. 12-year incumbent Rep. Jan
Schakowsky, a Democrat, is being challenged by Republican upstart Joel
Pollak, a legal researcher and political novice backed by the Tea Party.
I interviewed Congresswoman Schakowsky and Mr. Pollak earlier this month and have thought extensively about our conversations. It will not surprise you to learn that they disagree on most subjects. The new health care bill is a great example.
Congresswoman Schakowsky considers health care to be a human right and describes the bill as a historic achievement. Mr. Pollak would not categorize health care as an individual responsibility or a human right but was certain that the bill would leave more people without insurance and drive up costs, despite the legislation's intent to the contrary.
If you have read my blog, you know which candidate I tend to agree with and whom I would vote for if I lived in the 9th District. This post is not going to be about policy issues - you can find information on many of the candidates' respective positions by visiting the the Chicago Tribune
website - Schakowsky
. As a side note, I found it interesting that the Tribune's right-leaning editorial board endorsed the left-leaning Schakowsky
But I digress... this post is about the two candidates as people and politicians. I came away from both interviews feeling impressed by their candor and passion for the political process. I also wonder how two intelligent, well-meaning individuals could be diametrically opposed on so many issues. I guess that's the magic of campaign season.
Rep. Jan Schakowsky
I met Rep. Schakowsky at a small coffee house outside of a Democratic call center in the 49th Ward. She had been speaking with volunteers to fire them up for the final weeks of the campaign. She was approachable, down to earth and genuinely seemed to relish campaigning - a rarity for many seasoned politicians.
My interview with Rep. Schakowsky was one of the most informal and relaxed discussions I have ever had with a politician during a campaign. I was most impressed with her willingness to support the Obama administration at a time when many Democrats are going to great lengths not to be associated with the President or the party.
Mrs. Schakowsky is not afraid to predict that the last congress will go down as one of the most productive and influential in the history of the country. She compares the health care bill to social security during FDR. Rep. Schakowsky believes Mr. Obama has had an immensely successful two years and that the country is better off as a result of government programs - from the stimulus to the credit card bill. These are not popular positions in many corners of the country. Over the last two years the Democrats have dominated the legislative process while losing many battles in the court of public opinion.
I believe that if more Democrats had the gumption to make the case for their beliefs the party would be better off. It's true that Rep. Schakowsky has the luxury of a "safe" seat, but I cannot imagine her changing tune with the political trade winds, even if she represented the Kentucky's 9th District.
When I asked Rep. Schakowsky about the disconnect between the party's legislative achievements and its standing with the public her answer was simple. "The economy is bad," she said. "If your father and uncle are out of work, it's hard to concentrate on anything else." I think that's a very convincing argument.
Mr. Joel Pollak
I met Joel Pollak at a Starbuck's in Evanston. The irony of interviewing a Tea Party insurgent at the crowning symbol of American elitism obviously did not occur to his press team (who in fairness, were very nice and intelligent people). Fortunately, Mr. Pollak did not order a half-caf, easy-foam, vanilla latte. The setting was actually a good representation of Joel Pollak the man. He is an unlikely candidate to be aligned with the Tea Party.
Mr. Pollak is a practicing intellectual. A graduate of Harvard and Harvard Law - he would probably be more stimulated by a conversation with Barack Obama than Sarah Palin. Our interview was supposed to take 30 minutes and we ended up closing the coffee house down two hours later.
Mr. Pollak is exactly the kind of spokesperson the Tea Party should be promoting. He does not fit the movement's angry and nativist caricature epitomized by Newt Gingrich and Glenn Beck. His anti-elitist rhetoric seemed somewhat half-hearted and he even conceded that government had a role to play in public life. Hopefully that won't disqualify him from Tea Party support.
The most interesting part of our interview was listening to Mr. Pollak talk about voting for Al Gore an John Kerry. He was never a fan of George W. Bush and has not changed his mind in that regard. Mr. Pollak's history enables him to avoid the most difficult questions confronting other members of the Tea Party - where were you guys when President Bush spent eight years turning surpluses into deficits?
Mr. Pollak is process person with deep respect for our constitution. A great example is his take on the Manhattan mosque. While Mr. Pollak considers it to be a "bad decision" to build the mosque in close proximity to Ground Zero, his respect for the First Amendment overrides his distaste for what the mosque represents. At the same time, his respect for the political process leads him to support some questionable policy. He takes a hard rhetorical stance against special interests, but supports the Citizens United Supreme Court ruling which expanded corporate and special interest influence in our political process to an unprecedented degree.
Mr. Pollak has an incredible gift for debate and an equally strong knack for never conceding a point. The latter is something he'll need to develop as an elected official but his perspective makes sense as a person who has not worked in government before. As the cliche says, the legislative process is like making sausage - a messy task that will hopefully yield good results. As I have written previously, it will be interesting to see how Tea Party candidates will cope with the realities of governing. It's easy to demand purity on the campaign trail but impossible to do so when in office.
Although this is Mr. Pollak's first campaign and the odds of victory are not in his favor, I expect him to stick around the political scene for a long time. It is amazing to think about his relatively quick transformation from a liberal to Tea Party darling. It would not surprise me if Mr. Pollak continues his political evolution in the coming years. Who knows, maybe he'll be a Green Party candidate for Governor in 2014.
Good for the 9th
The two candidates are a study in contrast. A powerful incumbent who believes in government's power to improve the lives of its citizens and a political novice hoping to ride the wave of Tea Party enthusiasm and his own impressive abilities to power while continuing his intellectual metamorphosis along the way.
This race is a refreshing break from most of the other campaigns across the state. Mrs. Schakowsky and Mr. Pollak are formidable thinkers and offer stark approaches to governing. Unlike other races, Illinois voters will not have to choose between the lesser of two evils when casting their votes for the state's 9th Congressional District.
Correction: The original version this post cited Mr. Pollak as a law student rather than a legal researcher. It was brought to my attention that Mr. Pollak graduated from Harvard Law in 2009. I regret the error.
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Barack Obama, Congress, Conservative, Elections, Illinois, Jan Schakowsky, Joel Pollak, Liberal, Politics, Senate, Tea Party