Ill. Democrats Seek Lieutenant Governor Candidate

Democrat Scott Lee Cohen dropped out of the Illinois lieutenant governor race after facing accusations that he had abused his ex-wife and held a knife to the throat of a former girlfriend. The governor, who would have been his running mate, and one of the state's senators had called on Cohen to step aside. The party will try to fix the damage to its statewide ticket.

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

To Illinois now, where the Democratic nominee for lieutenant governor has dropped out of the race. Pawnbroker Scott Lee Cohen withdrew last night after accusations that included domestic abuse and an admission of steroid use.

As NPR's Cheryl Corley reports, Democrats are searching for a new candidate and a way to save their ticket.

CHERYL CORLEY: This was one of those upset victories where a political unknown, in this case, millionaire pawnbroker Scott Lee Cohen, ran a slew of television ads and beat out a field of political veterans in the Democrats' primary for lieutenant governor. It was a sweet surprise for Cohen but brief. Party leaders began calling for him to step aside the next day after his private life became public. A mess of a divorce with his ex-wife, missed child support, allegations that he had pulled a knife on former girlfriend who'd been convicted of prostitution. During an interview on public television, Cohen refused to quit.

Mr. SCOTT LEE COHEN (Pawnbroker): Listen, I worked hard for the people to get elected. I'm going to work very hard for the people when I'm the lieutenant governor. I will not step down. I did nothing wrong.

CORLEY: Democratic leaders fearful that Cohen could pull the entire party ticket down urged him to step aside. Last night in a Chicago restaurant packed with Super Bowl fans, Cohen sat at a table with family members. His eyes filled with tears and he patted the shoulders of one of his weeping sons as he held an unusual emotional press conference during the Super Bowl's halftime.

Mr. COHEN: For the good...

(Soundbite of restaurant)

Mr. COHEN: ...of the people of the state of Illinois and for the Democratic Party...

(Soundbite of crying)

Mr. COHEN: ...I will resign.

Governor PAT QUINN (Illinois): I think anyone watching TV last night would be moved by a dad with his son and his other family members nearby speaking from his heart. And I think everyone in Illinois saw it that way.

CORLEY: That's Illinois Governor Pat Quinn. He replaced former Governor Rod Blagojevich, who was ousted from office in a corruption scandal. Voters in Illinois choose the lieutenant governor and governor separately during the primary, but they run together as a team afterwards.

Last week, Quinn won the primary race for governor in his own right in a tough battle with the state's comptroller. Now he's in the unique position of helping to choose his running mate for the November elections. It's up to party leaders, not Illinois voters. The state's recent political scandals and Cohen's victory has set off debates about the vetting process here. Steve Brown, spokesman for the Illinois Democratic Party, pointed out the party chairman had backed someone else in the lieutenant governor's race.

Mr. STEVE BROWN (Spokesman, Illinois Democratic Party): But I think rather than point fingers or ask questions, what we're going try and do is meet with the central committee members, look at all the alternatives, work to find the strongest candidate to fill that vacant seat.

CORLEY: Meanwhile, Governor Quinn, who served six years as Illinois lieutenant governor, says he knows one way to prevent a Cohen controversy in the future.

Gov. QUINN: I think we should pass a law that we would allow the candidates for governor in the primary to pick their running mate and they would run side by side.

CORLEY: But that's for later. First, Democrats in Illinois have to decide who will be their nominee for lieutenant governor in November. The candidates who lost out to Scott Lee Cohen can be considered, but this new race is wide open.

Cheryl Corley, NPR News, Chicago.

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