Oberweis on Durbin: ‘Slick’ pol with ‘sorry record’—and ‘a bully’

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U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., may be a powerful Democrat, but his Republican challenger accuses him of using his power to “bully” and “threaten” political enemies with the force of the government. 

In a sit-down interview with Early & Often, the Chicago Sun-Times’ political website, state Sen. Jim Oberweis accused Durbin of having little to show for his 32 years in Washington. However, when the Republican from Sugar Grove viewed was asked about his own record of losing five out of six political contests he quibbled with the term “unsuccessful.” 

“Hang on, when you say unsuccessfully, I’ve never come in less than second,” Oberweis said. “In some cases there were five candidates, eight candidates — and some very good candidates, other state senators, people who’ve had billion-dollar companies and one who became the head of the state party. People who spend three and four and five times the money that I did.”

Oberweis ran and lost races for U.S. Senate, governor and Congress before he was elected in 2012 to the Illinois Senate.

In his current race, Oberweis and Durbin differed sharply on Durbin’s successful campaign to keep Walgreen Co. from leaving the country to tap tax benefits. Oberweis said it was one in a string of events where Durbin used intimidation to get his way. Oberweis cited another instance in which Durbin sent a letter to the IRS asking it to check on the nonprofit status of Karl Rove’s Crossroads committee as well as when Durbin wrote a letter asking companies to disclose if they had contributed to ALEC, an organization behind crafting “stand your ground” legislation in the wake of the Trayvon Martin shooting.  

“The problem is that Dick Durbin has become a bully. He threatens to use government power against private individuals,” Oberweis said. “I don’t believe that he should use the IRS as a weapon against his political opponents, which is exactly what he was trying to do.”

Durbin’s camp welcomed the bully label. 

“If perennial candidate Jim Oberweis’ biggest problem with Sen. Durbin is that he’s supposedly bullying Karl Rove and the Koch Brothers, he might as well get a head start on his next campaign,” Durbin campaign spokesman Ron Holmes said. 

On the minimum wage, Oberweis said Durbin incorrectly casts him as opposing it. Oberweis sponsored state legislation to increase the minimum wage in Illinois for those who are 26 and older, rather than those 18 and older, arguing that small businesses would be forced to lay off teenage workers if their costs go up. Durbin has attacked Oberweis for that stance, arguing that it would hurt single mothers and struggling young families. 

“My plan is much better because it won’t hurt minority teenagers,” Oberweis said. 

Oberweis is known for his string of ice cream shops, Oberweis Dairy. He says he remains a “non-executive” member of the board, and his sons run the operations of Oberweis Dairy and Oberweis Securities. 

Oberweis, however, said he remains the official “taster” of new ice cream flavors before they’re sold at retail.

“That’s one job I haven’t given up,” he said from an Oberweis shop on Sheffield Avenue in Chicago. 

Here is a transcript, edited for space, of the Oberweis interview.

Q: How much time have you spent on the South Side; have you made inroads there?

A: I was out on the corner of 79th and Cottage Grove five times. Handing out literature … After I did it, there was a little in the press about it, Pat Quinn was there for 10 minutes while the cameras were there and then, gone. In my case, I’ve been out for one, two or three hours. I have been amazed by how friendly the people are in that neighborhood … everybody’s rolling down their windows taking the information … I will say, the first night a couple people said. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen a white Republican here before. But thank you, and I’m going to vote for you.”

Q: Your opponent said: Hey, if my opponent wants to wage this campaign in the African-American communities in this state, feel free.

A: We are. We are waging it in every part of this state.

Q: What are the wage policies in your business?

A: We put incentives in for our employees to earn higher wages based on sales in the store when they are working and efficiency in the stores … we think it’s a great management technique. 

Q. How many Oberweis stores are on the South Side of Chicago where you’re trying to make inroads?

A. [We have] one at 95th and Kedzie, which has been a great store for us. I had no idea, but Pastor Corey Brooks asked me to check. If I remember correctly, 22 out of 30 employees at that store were African-American and our manager is African-American. We also have a store on Torrence, and again I think it’s 16 out of 22 employees are African-American and the manager is African-American.

Q. Do you see any plans to expand in those areas?

A. We’ve had some conversations with Pastor Brooks. He’s hoping to build a community development center on the lot where the former infamous motel was located. … He has wanted to have something there that would be perhaps a training center or an ice cream store where people could learn basic skills for jobs. I have told him that I will strongly encourage my son to try to make an attractive opportunity to do that. Perhaps by granting him or someone who would run … that location [a franchise] for free as a test to see how that would work out … nothing is definite or agreed upon. 

Q: On Friday, you have Herman Cain to headline a fundraiser … you’ve said you had “much in common with Herman Cain.” What do you have in common with him?

A: I think a belief in the worth and the integrity of individual initiatives, I think we both believe that.

Q: Sexual misconduct allegations sidetracked his candidacy for president. What is your opinion of that?

A: I honestly have no knowledge, no facts  … he’s obviously denied that. He’s a successful businessman — that would be something else that I have in common with him.

Q: Does it concern you that more than one woman came out and accused him of sexual misconduct?

A: You know what? When you get into the political world. I will tell you firsthand, people accuse you of all kinds of things that aren’t true. Nothing was proved in that area. So I tend to take him at his word.

Q: You said earlier today you were not a member of the tea party but you think the country is better for it?

A: Look, I believe that, my understanding, I’ve been to a few tea party meetings, is members there are typically people who have not been involved in politics; they’re concerned about the direction of our country. They’re concerned about too much government. They’re concerned about too high of taxes and they’re concerned about the educational opportunities for their kids … those are the things I’m concerned about, those are the things most Americans are concerned about … so for Dick Durbin to somehow vilify people … is absolutely ridiculous.

Q: Dick Durbin called you a walking tax inversion because of the homestead exemption, your wife living in Florida and so forth.

A: This is more Dick Durbin nonsense. Dick Durbin is a slick politician. He’s a bully. He will try to threaten anybody and get away from his sorry record. The record of the last six years is the average family in Illinois has lost $5,053 in earnings power. That’s what he doesn’t want to talk about.

Q: Can you just explain quickly why you claimed homestead in Florida rather than in Illinois?

A: Because it’s the law. The law says, and I didn’t know that until we bought the home, you’re not allowed to have two exemptions. I assumed initially that my wife could have the exemption on her property and I could have the exemption on my home that I’ve been in for 37 years. This guy tried to accuse me of not being an Illinoisan.

Q: So why can’t your wife claim the exemption in Illinois?

A: I’m not sure but I believe the homestead exemption in Florida is a little bigger than the one in Illinois, so it made more sense to let her take the exemption. Which means I pay more Illinois taxes. So Illinois benefits because I pay higher taxes.

Q: But then she pays lower taxes?

A: Yes. Real estate taxes.

Q: But then that benefits you too, right?

A: Well, this is a second marriage for us. We’ve been married seven years and we do keep separate finances.

Q: Were you insulted when U.S. Sen. Mark Kirk initially waffled on campaigning with you?

A: I believe that Senator Durbin did help Mark during his physical challenge … and I think Mark appreciated that. He was a little taken aback when he was asked the question, but that changed very quickly. He’s been very supportive … he did a fundraiser for me here in Chicago. In Washington he introduced me to other people.

Q: When was the last time you spoke?

A: To Mark? Two weeks ago.

Q: Do you have any campaign events with him?

A: Not specifically just the two of us, but I’m sure I’ll be seeing him at future events.

Q: If you lose in November, will you run again for office?

A: I have no intention to lose. I really think that the people of Illinois are ready for change.

Q: What do you say to people who say it’s disrespectful … you’re only passing through, you want something higher. The State General Assembly isn’t good enough. Why isn’t it good enough for you?

A: I’ve served two years in Springfield. Quite frankly, a number of people asked me to run for the Senate seat because it is critically important that we replace Mr. Durbin, and they felt I was the strongest candidate.

Q: You did vote in favor of the pension reform bill.

A: Literally, when I went to the floor that day, I wasn’t sure how I would vote … eventually I was persuaded that while it wasn’t a good bill … it will solve about 20 percent of the problem. It would allow us to pass a bill and let the Illinois Supreme Court determine if it is constitutional.

Q: You’ve said you’ve had some regrets on immigration and your rhetoric in the past about illegal immigrants. Have you mended fences with them?

A:  Look, we’ve been talking to, campaigning with, listening to every group, not just Hispanics not just African-Americans. Also Asians, Poles, Ukrainians, Greeks, everything. Because we’re all America. That’s what America is about, coming together, solving common problems and doing our best to solve them.

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