Changed Battlefield Challenges Veteran Congressman : Politics: After 34 years, a redrawn district and anti-incumbent sentiment are forcing Rep. Dan Rostenkowski to campaign hard in Chicago.


With anti-incumbent fever spreading across the land, even the onetime safest seats in the House no longer can be taken for granted.

So Democrat Dan Rostenkowski of Illinois, a 34-year veteran of Congress and chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, is out hustling for votes just like any freshman lawmaker.

"I won't bite," he recently told a group of young, urban professionals he once would have scorned as hostile liberals from Chicago's lakefront area. But now they are constituents to be wooed, just like the working-class white ethnics who are his political base, as he seeks to ward off a challenge from a reform-minded Democrat in Tuesday's Illinois primary.

Clearly a bit uneasy, Rostenkowski outlined a political career that began long before many in his audience were born. He concluded with an allusion to his power and influence.

"I can pick up the telephone in Washington and make things move, particularly in the interest of the city of Chicago," he said in his usual blunt way. "I'm tough. . . . I play it as hardball as I can."

Marguerite Quinn, a 32-year-old prosecutor in the Republican state's attorney's office, liked what she heard. "I'm impressed," she said.

For nearly his entire congressional career, the 64-year-old Rostenkowski never had a primary fight and was able to coast into office with the aid of Chicago's high-powered Democratic machine. But that machine is sputtering now, and Illinois politics is in a general state of upheaval, thanks to a redrawing of voting districts after the 1990 census.

Thrown into a new district containing only a third of his former constituents, Rostenkowski faces another worry as well. As the Chicago Tribune said in an editorial endorsing him: "The problem for Rep. Dan Rostenkowski is that he's one of the most influential people in Congress, but he's running in a year when both Congress and influence are out of favor."

Several long-entrenched House members, in fact, are hitting the campaign trail hard this year in efforts to assuage an electorate that often seems to regard incumbent as a dirty word.

In the Chicago area alone, strong primary challenges have also been launched against veteran Reps. Philip M. Crane, a suburban Republican, and Gus Savage and Charles A. Hayes, Democrats from the city's South Side. Even once-popular two-term Democratic Sen. Alan J. (Al the Pal) Dixon of Illinois is struggling against two primary opponents who have never been elected to statewide office.

Rostenkowski began to worry about his reelection after an early poll indicated that he might be vulnerable.

Instead of spending only $35,000 on his campaign, as he did in 1990, the tough-talking "Rosty" budgeted $500,000 for this year's race. He switched from his past reliance on a smooth-running political machine to an emphasis on targeted mailings, scientific polling and a media consultant to seek support from a new generation of voters. And he began showing up on street corners and kaffeeklatsches with surprising frequency.

The man whose remarks on taxes and trade can make the stock market tremble started talking more about what he has done to repave the Kennedy Expressway, which slices through his northwest Chicago district. He has said more about nailing down federal funds to help keep local mass transit fares down than he has about the middle-income tax cut that he bulled through his committee and the House.

"Chicagoans prefer to have an alderman in Washington rather than a national leader," explained a Chicago political observer.

"You come home to eat your humble pie," Rostenkowski told a reporter. "In Washington, it's 'Mr. Chairman' this and 'Mr. Chairman' that. You come back here and it's: 'Hey y"

The experience of selling himself to a new electorate seems to have had an effect on Rostenkowski's long-range plans; he has started telling voters that he may retire from Congress after his next two-year term, or perhaps four years from now, giving up the power of his chairmanship.

Rostenkowski's opponent--Dick Simpson, a former Chicago alderman--is waging a typical anti-incumbent campaign. He is running against Congress--attacking the House check overdraft scandal, demanding a 12-year limit on the terms of representatives and denouncing back-room deals with a crusader's zeal.

"This election is a referendum on a corrupt Congress," Simpson declared. "I think (Rostenkowski) is personally and politically corrupt."

Simpson asserted that the 1986 tax reform measure championed by Rostenkowski is responsible for "wrecking the economy," and he charged that the veteran lawmaker had personally profited from other legislation he steered through Congress.

He reminded Chicago voters of a highly publicized episode in 1989 when Rostenkowski ran away from a meeting with senior citizens who were angry about the now-repealed catastrophic health care law, which would have raised taxes on well-off seniors.

The target of this campaign abuse, however, has smiled and shrugged off the attacks without replying in detail. "This Dick Simpson probably would accuse me of starting the Chicago fire," Rostenkowski quipped. "When you're losing as badly as Mr. Simpson is losing, I'm sure he'll throw a little mud."

On one issue--the checking scandal--Rostenkowski claims he is immune from political harm. When the first question at a recent coffee hour was about disclosure of the names of those who wrote bad checks, a beaming Rostenkowski pulled out a letter certifying that he never overdrew his account during the 39-month period under scrutiny.

But Rostenkowski is painfully aware that his run-in with the senior citizens was a political debacle, and he has taken steps to overcome it. He recently arranged for Social Security Commissioner Gwendolyn S. King to fly to Chicago just to attend a neighborhood meeting called to protest the planned move of a local Social Security office to a less desirable area.

King, who took the invitation as a command performance for the chairman of the House panel that oversees her agency, said at the meeting that she would try to continue services in the same place.

Her appearance and her promise demonstrated Rostenkowski's clout in a way that Chicago voters appreciate. But his primary foe is undeterred.

Simpson, 51, was a Young Turk on the Chicago City Council, fighting the Democratic machine in the 1970s. Then he dropped out of politics, got divorced, was graduated from a Presbyterian theological seminary and wrote a book describing visions of a global nuclear catastrophe in the 1990s. He now works as an associate professor of political science at the Chicago campus of the University of Illinois.

On the campaign trail, Simpson is energetic, solemn and, his critics charge, sanctimonious. He has compiled a computer data base of the new district's voters that is a state-of-the-art version of the traditional precinct campaign's scribbled list of prospects.

He is counting on a high turnout to eke out an upset victory and is hoping that his television ads will overcome Rostenkowski's advantage in name recognition. "It's a very close race," Simpson insisted.

Despite his brave words, independent polls indicate that Rostenkowski has surged ahead by a margin of almost 2 to 1. In his early polls, Rostenkowski acknowledged, his favorable rating was 42%--below the 50% level considered essential for survival. Now, however, he says his favorable rating has jumped to 56%--a figure confirmed by a recent Chicago Tribune poll.

Rostenkowski has also found that his new district is much like his old one, with the exception of an area along the lakefront that has high-rise apartments instead of the bungalows that predominate in other areas.

A Democratic ally best summed up Rostenkowski's appeal to rank-and-file Chicago voters.

"Dan gets things done for the folks at home. . . . He lives in the same house his grandfather did, and he doesn't put on airs."

Eaton, who is based in Washington, reported this story while on assignment in Chicago.

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