A Look At Senate, Gubernatorial Races In Illinois

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All Things Considered continues checking in on political races around the country. Today, NPR's Robert Siegel talks to Jim Webb, a political editor with the Chicago Tribune, about both the Senate race and the governor's race in Illinois.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

Of all the Senate races this fall, the one in Illinois has special resonance for the Obama White House. It's the president's old seat, occupied now by Senator Roland Burris, thanks to his appointment by Rod Blagojevich. Blagojevich, of course, was later impeached. Burris is retiring. And that leaves Illinois Republicans with a chance to win both an Illinois seat in the Senate and also the governorship. The polls show that both races are close.

We are continuing our rounds of the big 2011 election contest, and today it's Illinois. And Im joined by Jim Webb, the political editor of the Chicago Tribune. Welcome to the program.

Mr. JIM WEBB (Political Editor, Chicago Tribune): Thank you. Good to be here.

SIEGEL: And to first, the Senate race, it is Democrat Alexi Giannoulias against Republican Mark Kirk. Tell us who they are.

Mr. WEBB: Well, Alexi Giannoulias is actually a friend of President Obama's and he cites Obama as his reason for getting into politics. He's one of the younger candidates we have in Illinois this year. He was a professional basketball player in Europe before he decided to get into public service.

His only other job before becoming state treasurer was as a family banker with his family's bank, Broadway Bank, which has now been taken over by federal regulators. And thats been proven to be both an early resume booster for him, and now a major problem for him in this race.

SIEGEL: And Mark Kirk?

Mr. WEBB: And Mark Kirk is a Republican congressman from the North Shore of Chicago. He's a veteran federal lawmaker, and was seen early on as a very strong candidate but has had some of his own stumbles here this summer.

SIEGEL: One of them involved his record as a naval officer.

Mr. WEBB: Thats right. The problem he ran into earlier this year was he forced to acknowledge that, in fact, he extended his own resume. He embellished some facts about what he was doing when he was in war zones. And he's also been forced to admit that some of his own personal story, including the dramatic rescue when he was a teenager on Lake Michigan, was - the facts that he's explained there dont necessarily line up with what really happened.

SIEGEL: Well, here are a couple of clips from commercials from the two Senate candidates. First, Giannoulias who is, as you say, one Democrat who is not running away from Barack Obama.

(Soundbite of a political ad)

President BARACK OBAMA: Alexi is my friend. I know his character. You can trust him. You can count on him. On his very first day in office, Alexi enacted sweeping ethics reforms. He's proven himself as someone who isnt afraid to stand up to special interest.

SIEGEL: President Obama says he trusts Alexi Giannoulias. Republican Mark Kirk, in one of his commercials, says he doesnt.

(Soundbite of a political ad)

Unidentified Woman: Trust your money with Chicago politician Alexi Giannoulias? Alexi misled families in the Bright Start College Savings scandal. Cost to them: 73 million. Alexi's risky loans helped trigger the Broadway Bank collapse. Cost: 394 million. And now...

SIEGEL: Well, Jim Webb, the argument seems to be in large part that Giannoulias' background disqualifies him from office.

Mr. WEBB: Well, he's absolutely got a major problem with the fact that when he ran for office the very first time, as the state treasurer or as a candidate for treasurer, he said: Trust me, Im a banker, I know what Im doing.

Unfortunately for him, not long after that, our newspaper disclosed that when he was a senior officer there, his family's bank was making loans to criminal figures who were convicted felons. It's been a continuing issue in the Senate race, as he tries to explain how he was a veteran banker, and yet didnt have anything to do with some of the more questionable figures that his family bank was associated with.

SIEGEL: So thats the Senate race. In the race for governor, who's running?

Mr. WEBB: In the race for governor, we have an incumbent, Pat Quinn, who was the two-time running mate of now-convicted former Governor Rod Blagojevich, who is trying hard to tell the Illinois voters that he is a different kind of governor than the guy he shared a state house with for six years.

And he's opposed by a veteran Republican state senator, Bill Brady, from central Illinois, who is not very well-known to most voters in Illinois but has benefited in the early going by the idea that he is not Pat Quinn.

SIEGEL: In truth, as lieutenant governor, Quinn actually was fairly independent, politically, of Blagojevich, wasn't he? They run separately in primaries in Illinois.

Mr. WEBB: That's right, they do. They have to run together on a ticket in the fall campaign, in the general election. And so the Republicans right now are plastering billboards all over town showing Pat Quinn standing up for Rod Blagojevich.

But the truth is, at the end of the Blagojevich administration, Quinn was out there telling people: I don't approve of the fundraising tear that this guy's on. He's not doing the right things. He opposed him on taxes and a number of other issues.

So he can fairly claim that he was independent. But the Republicans are going to keep trying to say that he ran as part of the Quinn-Blagojevich years.

SIEGEL: Jim Webb of the Chicago Tribune, thanks for talking with us.

Mr. WEBB: Thank you, good to be here.

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