Down and Out of Office, Illinois GOP Starts Over

Times Staff Writer

Andrew McKenna Jr. stands before a tense crowd and prepares his plea. The audience, like the ones at four other local events he has faced in the last 36 hours, has gathered to celebrate Abraham Lincoln’s birthday.

McKenna, however, is here for one reason. He is here to rebuild an organization that has become so troubled that many people consider it politically irrelevant: the Republican Party in Illinois.

A former governor faces federal corruption and racketeering charges. There was the party’s embarrassing showing -- and lopsided loss -- in last year’s U.S. Senate race. It lost the governorship in 2002, after having held it for 25 years. Prior to that election, Republicans held nearly all other top statewide offices. Today, it holds one.


Meanwhile, the party has rotated through numerous state chairmen -- the latest of whom is McKenna.

McKenna shares a personal experience with those attending the Grant Township Lincoln Day dinner: When he was last at church, a man in the pew in front of him turned around and laughed. When McKenna asked what was funny, the man replied, “If I had your job, I’d be going to church too.”

“Clearly, as a party, we need to earn back the public’s trust,” McKenna said. “And when you’ve hit the bottom as hard as we have, you have no where else to look but up.”

Nationally, these are celebratory times for the GOP.

President Bush’s successful reelection bid helped Republicans expand their majority in Congress. Nationally, they see the political trends mostly moving in their favor.

In Illinois, there’s no such assumption.

It was the one Midwestern state the Democrats could count on from the start of the presidential campaign -- Bush won just 45% of the Illinois vote.

During the 2004 open primary, less than a third of the ballots cast were Republican. Fundraising has been sluggish too, say state GOP officials.

The Senate race was messy. The winner of the GOP primary withdrew from the race after divorce records detailed allegations that he had taken his former wife to sex clubs and had tried to get her to perform sex acts in front of others. Jack Ryan’s replacement, controversial talk show host Alan Keyes, was soundly beaten by Democrat Barack Obama.

The election results also showed another trend: Collar counties around the Democratic-dominated city of Chicago, which once had been firmly red, were slowly shifting to blue.

“For the Republicans, Illinois is a huge problem,” said Stuart Rothenberg, an independent political analyst. “There’s no other word but ‘disaster’ to describe their situation.”

State officials say they understand the severity of their predicament. With the campaign push for the 2006 gubernatorial and other statewide offices underway, the GOP is grasping for a fresh start.

McKenna, 48, hopes to lead that transition. Born in Chicago and raised in Long Beach, Ind., he is one of seven children and was raised in a civic-minded environment.

His father, Andrew McKenna Sr., is chairman of Schwarz Paper Co., an investor in the Chicago Bears, a former chairman of both the Chicago White Sox and Cubs, and a former director of Tribune Co., which is the parent company of The Times.

The younger McKenna, who is president of Schwarz, acknowledges that one of the party’s first orders of business is to find strong candidates for the 2006 election. The key is to show voters that the party has changed, that it can offer viable political alternatives.

But some Republicans say they simply don’t trust that things have changed.

“There’s a bunch of people saying they want unification, saying that they’re different,” said conservative activist Jack Roeser. “That’s what [former Gov.] George Ryan told us years ago, and look where it got us.”

This year, prosecutors filed a 114-page document with detailed accusations of why and how Ryan took gifts and money in exchange for government contracts.

The trouble dates back to when Ryan, 70, was secretary of state. He allegedly talked with top aides about ways to help his friends -- particularly businessman Lawrence E. Warner, who is also charged in the 22-count racketeering conspiracy case.

The two men have pleaded not guilty. Their trial begins this fall.

Political watchers say that though the scandals grabbed the public’s attention, a deep philosophical divide within the GOP’s moderate and conservative groups was far more destructive to the party.

Paul Green, a political scientist at Roosevelt University in Chicago, points to Ryan’s tenure in the governor’s office as a pivotal moment for the state party.

After Ryan, no relation to the former Senate candidate, won in 1998, the self-described moderate alienated the party’s conservative faction by visiting Cuba to discuss trade agreements and vetoing bans on state-funded abortions for the poor. And before he left office in 2003, Ryan commuted the sentences of all the state’s death-row inmates.

Such moves, when added to his federal indictment, caused distrust among voters and vicious infighting among party members, Green said.

Moderates insisted that their policies would woo back the electorate and draw in conservative Democrats. Conservatives, pointing to Ryan’s troubles, accused the moderates of being philosophically out of touch: If Ryan was the poster child of a moderate Illinois Republican, then that faction’s message was shameful.

“When you have a governor like Ryan, you have Watergate-level implosions,” said U.S. Rep. Mark S. Kirk (R-Ill.).

Today, McKenna and other GOP leaders say they are hoping Ryan’s troubles will be lost amid the scandals and missteps plaguing the state’s Democratic Party.

Gov. Rod R. Blagojevich has struggled with the state comptroller’s office, which is refusing to pay for millions of dollars in flu vaccine that the governor ordered from Europe but never received and never got federal permission to obtain.

Blagojevich also recently was embroiled in a public feud with his father-in-law, Richard Mell, a powerful Chicago alderman who is credited with helping Blagojevich win the governorship.

Chicago’s best-known Democrat, Mayor Richard Daley, has also been bombarded with a constant stream of news reports over corruption troubles inside City Hall. Those troubles include: indictments in which private trucking companies are accused of paying off city employees and the guilty plea by a Daley fundraiser who used his 77-year-old mother and an African American friend to obtain $100 million in city janitorial contracts that had been earmarked for companies owned by women and minorities.

“We hope that voters are going to be able to tell the difference between corruption from the past, and corruption happening today,” McKenna said. “At a certain point, it’s just a lot of corruption and you have to start over.”

Part of the fresh start means apologizing for ignoring the significance of the suburbs -- and the people of Lake County.

From the Lincoln Day dinner podium, McKenna pleaded for local Republicans to set aside the state GOP’s troubled past. Again and again, he told the skeptical audience that the future holds enormous promise. And the GOP needs everyone -- especially people in the suburbs -- to help recruit, raise money and rebuild the party’s lineup of political candidates.

In the past, he said, the GOP overlooked the pull of grass-roots political organizing. When it was in power, it consolidated its political pull within the top state offices.

“That won’t happen again,” McKenna said.

After McKenna spoke, a small crowd gathered around him, curious about the party’s solution for boosting the local economy and ideas for persuading local Democrats to vote Republican.

JoAnn Osmond began peppering McKenna with questions and complaints. For years, the local group has had trouble recruiting new volunteers. Longtime members, jaded by the Senate race, have dropped out. Internal squabbling has divided those who remain.

“Are you going to back us and help us unite everyone?” asked the state representative and county chairwoman for the Lake County Republican Federation.

McKenna replied: “I’m here now, aren’t I?”