Steinberg: Our M&M’s race for U.S. Senate

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U.S. Rep. Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., appears before the Chicago City Council’s finance committee in July 2015 | AP file photo

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Illinois became a state in 1818, and its first two senators were elected to staggered terms: Jesse B. Thomas, for six years, and Ninian Edwards for two, before running for — and winning — his second, six-year term.

This kept the Senate elections staggered, generally, and formed two tracks, like M&M’s racing at a Bulls game, and it’s easy to view them as in competition.

Spoiler alert: Track No. 1 is winning.

Track 1’s Thomas proposed the Missouri Compromise, to limit slavery, and Track 1, as we shall call it, has seen a pantheon of greatness: Stephen Douglas, Paul Douglas, Charles H. Percy, Paul Simon and his protege, Dick Durbin, who, since 1997, carved out a niche for himself as, if not a name that will echo through history, then a no-drama workhorse twirling a dozen policy plates at once, bringing home the bacon to Illinois, year-in, year-out.

But on Track 2 . . .

It’s first occupant, Edwards, who as governor sent the Illinois militia to ambush Indian tribes, was forced to resign midway into his second term, after being exposed penning anonymous, unfounded attacks on a political rival.

More recent times have seen flashes of adequacy: Adlai Stevenson III and Alan Dixon, to name two, before the needle dipped downward with the sui generis Carol Moseley Braun, who found showing up to work well beyond her skill set, setting the nadir for others to dive toward. She was replaced by bored Republican businessman Peter Fitzgerald, who went to Congress forgetting that he’d be forced to work and compromise and listen and do other things he found tiresome. Yes, he — all together now! — gave us U.S. State’s Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald, setting him on his saucer, like a tip, then hastily blotting his lips and fleeing into well-earned obscurity.

Enter Barack Obama, a meteor who blazed across the Senate so quickly it’s easy to forget that he was there. He used his half a term to leapfrog into the White House, promptly resigning, like Ninian Thomas, and even those who respect and admire President Obama, such as myself, well, if you put a gun to our heads and demanded to name something he did as senator from Illinois beside boost himself upward, well, we’d all be dead men.

He left us with the shame that is Roland Burris, tainted from the start, appointed to the seat by Rod Blagojevich, just before he was hustled off to prison. Burris’ goal in becoming senator seemed to be a) employment and b) another line to chisel on his Cheops-like gravestone.


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Burris begat Mark Kirk, a sour naval reservist and undistinguished Republican congressman from my own 10th District. He was known primarily for spinning his brushes with action into imaginary heroics, though he got the chance to prove his mettle in 2012, when felled by a stroke. He did bravely struggle back, but what was more important to the state is that his ordeal left him more humane. He worked to save the lives of heroin addicts by getting the overdose cure Narcan into police cars. Such liberal interests, of course, are at cross purposes with the present GOP train wreck and thus left him vulnerable to assault from the velociraptors at the far right of his party.

Fortunately Kirk’s particular predator came in a particularly toothless form, in the person of one James Marter, a 53-year-old Oswego software consultant, whose underfunded non-campaign was based on the usual dreary pathology of far-right fixations, from lashing out at women’s health to deifying gun rights to denying the scientific certainty of climate catastrophe manifesting itself day by day. One glimpse at Marter is enough to make the most liberal Democrat toss our hats in the air, let out a “Huzzah!” and grab the traces of Kirk’s carriage and draw him cheering through the Loop.

Kirk won handily, the results announced seconds after the polls close, a welcome reminder that the whole country hasn’t gone insane, yet, despite Donald Trump’s best efforts.

Which leads to the trio on the Democratic side, where U.S. Rep. Tammy Duckworth, also inevitably, prevailed, despite a vigorous, aggrieved effort by former Chicago Urban League CEO Andrea Zopp and state Sen. Napoleon Harris, a former NFL player running a vanity campaign.

Duckworth, a two-term congresswoman, benefits from the respect that being a war hero brings. An Army helicopter pilot, she lost both her legs when her Black Hawk was downed by a rocket grenade in Iraq in 2004. She went on to serve as director of the Illinois Department of Veterans Affairs and in the federal VA, thankless tasks that she did without particular success or failure.

Thus my chips will go on Kirk defeating Duckworth in November, just out of sheer momentum, and that his post-stroke moderation — he broke ranks with other Republicans racing toward the cliff and suggested that the president nominates Supreme Court justices, even Barack Obama, even in his last term — is enough to scoop up the mushy center. And Duckworth is living proof that a person can be both a decorated war hero and uninteresting. While she has been good at accepting power being handed to her, she has proved less adept at gaining it herself.

Anyone who has interacted with Kirk in the past year, as I have, might be tempted to whisper the awkward question as to whether his infirmity makes him unable to serve the needs of the people of Illinois. But that might seem unkind, so I will leave the chore to others or, more likely, leave it as something we’ll discover in 2017.

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