McLean County Republicans Host 13th District Candidate Forum

-By Jon Zahm

(Note: Original post can be seen at http://illinois13.com/)

A good sized crowd of over 150 Republicans, activists, and media attended a forum hosted by the McLean County Republican Central Committee, and its Chairman John W. Parrott, Jr., on April 16th over the lunch hour at the Doubletree in Bloomington. Six candidates interested in the appointment to the 13th Congressional seat by the 14 County Chairmen came to give 5 minute introductions on who they were, and why they were exploring this bid. The candidates, in alphabetical order, were David Paul Blumenshine, a Real Estate Broker from Bloomington, State Representative Dan Brady from Bloomington, Congressman Hultgren’s Chief of Staff Jerry Clarke of Urbana, Congressman Shimkus’ Projects Director Rodney Davis of Taylorville, Senator Kyle McCarter of Lebanon, and former State Representative Mike Tate of Springfield. I will now give an analysis of each of their presentations and my view on their prospects going forward.

Blumenshine: This gentleman gave a very positive and enthusiastic presentation. A devout Christian, he thanked Senator McCarter for his emphasis on religious freedom issues and pro-life legislation. Blumenshine pointed out that we should never forget the 50 million babies never born due the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision. In the March 20 election Blumenshine served as Campaign Manager for Jason Chambers, who won a tough primary to be the nominee for McLean County State’s Attorney. This shows that he has the ability to organize Republicans in the largest county in the new 13th (19%). However. Blumenshine did not demonstrate a real strong command of Federal issues during his presentation or answers to questions after the individual speeches. He did present himself as a two-term self limiter and a person without political entanglements. I am glad Blumenshine is presenting his credentials. It is good to have candidates who proudly and openly profess conservative Christian values. Not being a proven vote getter is a huge disadvantage though, and I don’t see how he will be able to succeed in securing support outside his home base.

(Dan) Brady: Rep. Brady is a former Champaign County Coroner and is a proven vote earner throughout the east part of the district. He has the same last name (though unrelated) as Senator Bill Brady, who is very well-known and liked throughout Central Illinois. That is an advantage. He is a cousin to State Party Chairman Pat Brady, which is a disadvantage because of Pat Brady’s lack of success as Chair, and the enemies he has made of many conservatives in the state. Rep. Brady gave a good talk focusing on what he identified as good qualities that he has that will lead to a victory: high energy, person to person campaign skills, name recognition, and ability to raise money. He also effectively invoked the names and values of Abe Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt. Good work in a 5 minute speech. The biggest obstacle for Rep. Brady to overcome with the grassroots is his longstanding and vocal opposition to SB 600/SB 35. Those are the bills that would have allowed regular Republican primary voters to directly elect their State Party Central Committeemen, the body that governs how the state party operates and spends party funds. Rep. Brady did not just oppose the bills, he did so in a harsh and accusatory fashion. I know this because I attended a key hearing on this issue in Springfield. Rep. Brady is a viable candidate for the office but he should ask his cousin Pat Brady to recuse himself from this process because of the taint of the appearance of nepotism that having the two Bradys intertwined in this decision creates.

Clarke: Jerry Clarke and Brady were the only two candidates to have bio sheets on all the tables. That was well executed. Clarke offered effective personal testimony about the integrity of his parents, who both died young, and what they taught him about community service. Clarke also shared the value of his decorated military service and how that prepares him for other public service. Less convincing was his attempt to deflect anticipated criticism that he should not run for Congress in DC when he is the father to four children aged 1 to 7. His comment was that his wife has effectively managed without him when he was deployed in the military and she wants him to run to help battle the out of control spending in our nation’s Capitol. His wife’s support is admirable, and it is ultimately a family decision for them, but I would argue that Clarke is part of the problem in DC with runaway spending. He collects the maximum allowed salary of a Chief of Staff (he works for my 14th District Congressman Randy Hultgren), an obscene $168,000, or $14,000 a month. On top of this, of course, is access to Cadillac style perks and benefits. When a staffer bleeds the taxpayers this much for what should be a public service position, what will they do when they can vote the public’s purse? Clarke has no idea how to run a successful campaign. He was the highly paid Manager of Jim Ryan’s loss to Rod Blagojevich and the highly paid ($120,000) Manager of Bill Brady’s loss to Pat Quinn in 2010. The same year Mark Kirk and 5 Republican Congressional candidates defeated Democrats, and Republicans made gains in the State Senate and House, but Clarke could not lead his client to victory. There are a lot of political consultants and sycophants in Central Illinois hopping on the Clarke bandwagon looking for political jobs and appointments from this ultimate insider. But if he gets the appointment this seat becomes a national target because there is no more vulnerable prospective candidate than Clarke. And I could write a whole book on the debacle that was the Illinois House Republican Organization under Lee Daniels, where Clarke worked for over 10 years, and rose to the number 2 spot in the group. The number 1, Mike Tristano, went to prison for directing the operation in a fashion where campaign work was routinely performed on taxpayer paid state time.

Davis: In a lot of ways Rodney Davis is the opposite of Clarke. While Clarke routinely loses key elections as a political operative, Davis wins them. While Clarke is surly, dark and dour, Davis is optimistic, friendly, and congenial. While Davis works long hours for a Congressman, he collects a more reasonable $104,000 salary for his efforts. The presentation that Davis gave was very solid and showed his command of talking points and making complex concepts easy to understand. I liked Davis’ anecdotes about growing up in the family restaurant business and how he coaches Little League currently. He and I both are father’s of 11 year old twin boys. The biggest drawback to Davis as a Congressional candidate is his personal electoral history. Having lost a bid for State Representative, and also as Mayor of his home town of Taylorville, is a real vulnerability. Translating from running campaigns, to being a candidate, is a big step, especially when it is a step as high as Congress. While Davis does have valuable Congressional constituent service experience, there is still a chasm between being the staffer and being the member. I could see him as a Congressman one day, I just don’t think he is the best choice for an appointment. He should have to earn a spot like this with an election or two within the boundaries of the new 13th.

McCarter: The presentation by State Senator McCarter was strong. He made it very clear that he is both a social and fiscal conservative. He shared about the closeness of his family, including the tragic loss of his daughter at a young age, and having a son in the Air Force. As a manufacturing business owner he made it very clear that he was a businessman first, and political office holder second. McCarter said specifically that rights come from God, not government (which of course is what the Founding Fathers believed and enshrined in the Constitution and Bill of Rights). A Facebook page has been started to Draft Kyle McCarter for Congress but he has not made a final decision to run. He is praying over the decision and, with his family, deciding if the best place for his brand of conservative public service is in State or Federal government. McCarter currently represents a significant part of the new 13th District as Senator. This includes the Decatur part of the District which, despite its’ Democrat leanings, McCarter won in the last election by approximately 1000 votes. In my view McCarter is the best candidate for this office as he has the best blend of business, political, and family/community experience in the field. The biggest drawback he has is that his home is outside the District. But that is not uncommon in a redistricting year, and it did not prevent Republican Bobby Schilling, or Democrat Melissa Bean, from winning Congressional elections in Illinois.

Tate: Mike Tate is a former State Rep. from Decatur who served 5 terms as a pro-life, pro-gun, pro business Republican legislator in a Democrat district. He has served since then as the leader of an organization that supports the interests of Independent Insurance Agents in Illinois. In his presentation he pointed out that he has a great deal of connections throughout the state due to his relationships with many agents, who are generally community pillars due to their type of work. Tate described himself as a great retail campaigner. I could see all of the speakers I heard doing that effectively, except Clarke. This is definitely a district, due to the many small towns, where the ability to glad hand in main street corridors, is important. Tate also spoke of his status as a farm owner, and current resident of Springfield, as ways that he can connect with diverse parts of the District. I think Tate is the dark horse in this field. He made a pretty compelling case. He is not a legislator, but he has electoral experience. He is not a lobbyist, per se, but he has advocacy experience in an important field. He has three different geographic points on the map where he is tied to. The greatest setback to Tate could be his age (58). That is not a common age from which to launch a Federal office bid. But if he runs on a 3 term self limit he could mitigate the issue. Also up in the air is whether he has the current rolodex of political relationships to win over the majority of the 14 County Chairmen.

I asked a question of all the candidates after the 5 minute speeches. Very notably, Clarke left without explanation from him or Mr. Parrott, the emcee, before the questions were asked. Mine was “What is your view on a National Right to Work law and do you support the work of Governor Scott Walker in Wisconsin on collective bargaining and public employee unions?

The one who answered this most directly was McCarter, who spoke articulately about the business climate issues in Illinois due to the costs of project labor agreements, prevailing wage laws, and public union employee bargaining. All the speakers said or implied that they supported Walker reforms, but McCarter came closest to saying he was in favor of Right to Work legislation which is the law of the land now in 23 states, including Indiana.

After the event I spoke to incoming Champaign County Republican Chairman Habeeb Habeeb. He has the biggest chunk of the weighted vote. Outgoing Champaign Chair Jason Barickman has already endorsed Clarke. I hope Habeeb can remain neutral through the vetting process and reach an independent conclusion best for the region and the state. I also spoke to Macoupin County Chair Terri Koyne. She is a longtime conservative activist. I was encouraged by her comments that this was going to be a thorough and open process and that she would fight for at least one town hall type event in each affected county so that regular voters, not just party bosses, can see, touch, and hear from all candidates directly, and influence their Chairmen as to whom to support.

Senator Sam McCann, a Senator and construction company owner from Carlinville, had a previously scheduled speech at the Springfield Tea Party so he was not present. I had tried to recruit McCann to run against Johnson in the primary but he decided, after prayerful consideration, to stay in the Senate race, which he won over two strong opponents. McCann would be a strong candidate but I hope he will defer to his friend and colleague McCarter as they carry many of the same strengths to the table, and McCann has a lot of people invested in his Senate campaign that just ended.

Representative Adam Brown, of Decatur, is a conservative, a farmer, and brings a lot of youth (26) and vigor to the table. But it appears that he has withdrawn from wanting to be considered. He has a very bright future either way.

I think we will have a nominee by the middle of May. In the mean time I will continue to cover this race through www.illinois13.com.

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