Long fight for U.S. Senate seat begins

Take one Senate Chamber filled with Washington Democrats eager to hold onto their majority. Add a handful of unabashed Republicans gunning for the political forefront. Now sprinkle in a passel of voters whose brush with economic recession has left many with a virulent disposition toward both parties. The result? A truculent race for Barack Obama’s U.S. Senate seat and a spinous climb to the top of Capitol Hill.

Scott Brown’s Massachusetts victory in mid-January caused a major upset for Democrats who not only lost the late Senator Edward Kennedy’s seat to Republicans but also the 60 votes needed to prevent GOP filibusters. Democrat Evan Bayh’s bye-bye to Congress after twelve years in the Senate certainly didn’t alleviate the febrile atmosphere that seemingly whelmed the Democratic Party overnight.

But Alexi Giannoulias, the Democratic candidate favored to win Obama’s former senate seat in November, is taking it all in stride, criticizing Republican opponent Mark Kirk whose last ten years “stooped in D.C. politics,” Giannoulias claims, have made him a Washington “insider.”

“He’s been an insider for a decade,” he says. “Because of the terrible decisions he’s made in D.C. touching jobs, the economy and bank bailouts on Wall Street, he’s helped contribute to one of the worst economic recessions since the Great Depression.”

Kirk claims his party has been anything but torpid toward the country’s need for employment. The candidate says he has worked with his colleagues in Congress to help bring jobs to the American people.

“I voted against Pelosi’s trillion-dollar stimulus plan, and I will continue to fight against pork barrel projects that are of no use in creating good-paying jobs,” he says.

The GOP candidate railed against his opponent for using his family’s Broadway Bank to approve loans to mob figures such as Tony Rezko, a key figure in the corruption case surrounding then-Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich. “My opponent has called me a Washington insider, but I haven’t been inside loan deals with mob figures,” Kirk says.

Giannoulias says Kirk’s statements are the latest evidence to attest to the fact that “he will say and do absolutely anything to get elected” and claims community lenders, such as Broadway Bank, do most of their business in real estate, a market which has dropped between 30-40 percent. “Community banks are struggling,” he says. “Broadway Bank is no exception.”

The Democrat went on to defend himself, claiming he is the first candidate to run in the United States Senate in the State of Illinois who has not taken money from lobbyists or corporate PACs. “(Kirk) will take money from lobbyists, big industries on Wall Street, the pharmaceutical lobby and any corporate PAC willing to shell out cash,” he says. “Representative Kirk has voted against wage increases time and again. He’s voted against reform efforts to reign in Wall Street spending. He’s voted against health care reform for the American people. He’s voted against pay-go to provide accountability for improving the budgets. He has blatantly voted against and stood against the needs of the people in this state over and over. I plan to work on behalf of the people of Illinois and will bring Illinois citizens the change they deserve.”

With issues such as healthcare, jobs and fiscal responsibility exerting nothing less than a fissiparous effect between the two parties, the political tennis match is just beginning. And with the November election still nine months away—an eternity in politics—voters might be urged to expect the unexpected in a hotly contested race where anything can happen.

Getting Acquainted

Mark Kirk isn’t just any Republican running for Senate. He represents the GOP’s golden chance to take back Obama’s former seat from Democrats—a seat Republicans have targeted since Blagojevich was arrested for attempting to sell it. Blagojevich’s appointee, Roland Burris, decided not to run for a full term. Republican supporters lavished Kirk with 234,277 votes, or 58 percent in the GOP primary with 64 percent of precincts reporting.

Having begun his career on the staff of his predecessor, Congressman John Porter, Kirk represents the 10th Congressional District of Illinois. Congressman Kirk is a member of the powerful House Appropriations Committee and is co-chairman of the moderate GOP Tuesday Group and the bipartisan US-China Working Group. Mark Kirk’s suburban agenda has led him to draft legislation for commuter rail funding, improving veteran’s healthcare, ensuring military voting and boosting aviation security—all of which became law. A resident of Highland Park, Kirk is a Naval Reserve intelligence officer and has served in conflicts with Afghanistan, Iraq, Haiti and Bosnia. He was named Intelligence Officer of the Year in 1999 for his service in Kosovo. A lawmaker with a noetic appetite, Kirk holds a Bachelor’s degree from Cornell University, a master’s from the London School of Economics and a law degree from Georgetown.

“We need a senator who can bring reform, integrity and experience to Washington,” says Kirk. “I will fight for lower taxes, less spending and pro-growth policies.”

On the opposing side, Democratic voters nominated Giannoulias with 345,307 votes, or 39 percent with 99 percent of precincts reporting. Former Chicago Inspector General David Hoffman followed close behind with 34 percent. In his acceptance speech, Giannoulias said Illinois voters “sent a message” that they want a senator “who will fight to limit the power of Washington special interests and protect the jobs of everyday Illinois families.”

Giannoulias was elected State Treasurer on November 7, 2006, and began his term by putting an end to the banalities of pay-to-play politics. His first act was to issue an executive order that enacted the most sweeping ethics reforms in the history of his office by banning contributions to his campaign from office employees, contractors and banks.

Giannoulias graduated cum laude from Boston University with an economics degree and earned a law degree from Tulane University’s School of Law. He formerly served on the Board of Directors of the Community Bankers Association and as Vice President of Broadway Bank in Chicago’s Edgewater community.

Hot Button Topics

On hot button topics such as jobs and health care, Democrats and Republicans are far from coalescing. Like most Republicans, Kirk believes Democrats in Congress have abdicated their responsibility to the American people by failing to lower taxes and create incentives for job growth. The GOP candidate believes the Obama administration has belied the number of jobs actually created by the trillion-dollar stimulus bill since its passage in February of 2009. Recognizing that agriculture forms the backbone of the Illinois economy, Kirk adamantly opposes raising taxes on Illinois families and imposing regulations on small businesses and farmers. He also shares his party’s desire to cut nocuous pork barrel spending and make current tax relief permanent.

“During my time in office I have stood against such wasteful spending practices as the funding for Alaska’s ‘bridge to nowhere,’ and I have taken on tobacco companies for the funding of candy cigarettes to children,” he says.

Giannoulias denies his party’s “mash” with high spending, which Republicans claim has created an onerous plight for middle-class workers and small businesses. “Kirk has supported tax breaks for big companies that have cost the people of Illinois hundreds of jobs,” he says. “I helped save 600 jobs in Des Plaines, Illinois, with a company called Hartmarx.”

The Democratic candidate argues his opponent is “out of touch” with the people in his state and doesn’t understand the needs of Illinois citizens. “Congressman Kirk has never spent time in Peoria or Bloomington,” he says. “As State Treasurer, I have been enormously involved in the economics and the financial dealings of both cities. I have stood up for the people of Illinois as Illinois State Treasurer and I will continue to do so in the Senate.”

Kirk launched another volley against his opponent, attacking Giannoulias on allegations surrounding the Bright Start College Savings program, claiming the treasurer’s office lost about $150 million in investments made by parents attempting to save money for their children’s education.

“Hundreds of parents lost their investments,” Kirk says. “Alexi is a candidate the people of Illinois simply cannot afford.”

Giannoulias says Oppenheimer Funds, the manager responsible for losing the money, offered to settle. “We took responsibility,” he says. “We reformed the program. Money Magazine and Consumer Reports highlighted it as one of the top programs in the county in 2009.”

Although his record as State Treasurer isn’t completely void of gaffes, Giannoulias believes he has done his best to deal responsibly with state funds. “I am the first State Treasurer to secure a fair, equitable settlement for insurers,” he says. “There are thousands of 529s and 401k funds where families have lost money, and Bright Start will help them fiscally.”

Aside from fiscal issues, healthcare for the nation has been a strenuous topic on Capitol Hill for months. Giannoulias believes Congress must enact a plan that controls skyrocketing premiums and ensures access to quality, affordable healthcare. He believes the creation of a public health insurance option would give consumers more choice, create more competition and lower costs.

“Families can choose what’s best for them,” he says. “They can enjoy the freedom they have to choose their own doctor. Health care should be made by patients and their doctors—not by insurance companies.”

Kirk says adopting the Medical Rights Act will help prevent the government from coming between a patient and his or her doctor. Tort reform, the expansion of electronic medical records and allowing Americans to buy cheaper and more flexible health insurance from any state in the union without raising taxes, adding to the deficit or cutting Medicare funding are just a few of the goals Kirk believes should be included in healthcare legislation.

Building Trust

While Republicans target open seats in the Senate, one Democrat has her eye on the U.S. House seat currently held by Representative Aaron Schock. Dierdre (D.K.) Hirner of Springfield defeated Carl Ray in last month’s primary winning with 13,635 votes, or 54.3 percent in the 20-county district while Ray of Washington garnered 11,496 votes, or 45.7 percent.

“I attribute my success to getting out and walking in the district, meeting with voters face-to-face so they get to know me,” Hirner says.

Hirner has received endorsements from the UAW, IL AFL, CIO and the Illinois Federation of Teachers. “These endorsements speak for themselves,” she says. “They show I am truly committed to the working men and women of our district. They know I will work for them and not for myself if elected.”

The Democrat claims she has built up a level of trust among voters that she believes will help her win in November. “Having spoken with the voters in my district, they know they can trust me,” she says. “They know I’m going to bat for them. I’m going to represent their interests in Washington—not my own.”

Hirner will challenge Schock in the November elections, an incumbent not lacking in popularity or political experience. But Hirner says she’s not worried. “Sure, I’ve got some work to do,” she says. “But I believe my advantage lies in the fact that I can connect with the people of this district. I know their struggles. I’ve experienced the same fiscal ups and downs that many of them are dealing with today. I understand what they are going through.”

The candidate is the former director of the Illinois Environmental Regulatory Group. After giving much of her life to public service, she says she desires to give back to the community.

Sheldon Schafer, a Green Party candidate who is currently vice president and director of the Lakeview Museum in Peoria, will also appear on November’s ballot.

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