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After Costello, GOP sees opportunity to turn blue Metro East district red

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Nov. 14, 2011 - A late October grant signing ceremony in Granite City was supposed to celebrate funding for a port. But the event was also a chance for dignitaries to shower retiring U.S. Rep. Jerry Costello, a Democrat from Belleville, with gratitude.

U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, a Republican who once represented central Illinois in Congress, called Costello "one of the best -- if not one of the greatest -- congressmen to represent Illinois."

After LaHood spoke, Dennis Wilmsmeyer, the executive director of America's Central Port, pointed to a nearby conductor train car. A white sheet dropped, revealing that the train had been named after Costello.

Illinois' 12th District -- including Metro East cities such as East St. Louis, Belleville, Alton and Granite City -- voted for Barack Obama in the 2008 presidential contest by nearly 10 percentage points. Costello, known for bringing home the bacon for high-profile projects throughout the region, routinely won re-election by wide margins, including one in 2010 with nearly 60 percent of the vote.

But with Costello set to retire, Republicans are increasingly optimistic that they can take over the Metro East congressional district. While several Republican candidates have jumped into the contest -- including a former Belleville mayor and the GOP's nominee last year for lieutenant governor -- numerous Democratic candidates have declined.

That effectively leaves Brad Harriman, a former regional superintendent, as the Democratic candidate.

People on all sides say the race will be one to watch next November.

"We expect this race to be competitive," said Nathan Gonzales, a political analyst with the Rothenberg Political Report. "It's just been overshadowed by an entrenched incumbent for years."

He adds, "In a presidential year with the president on the ballot, the Democrat would start with a slight advantage. But I think it's a great race."

Costello's Kingdom

Costello, the dean of the Illinois' House delegation, was first elected to Congress in a special election in 1988. During his tenure, he helped secure funds to build up Scott Air Force Base, Southern Illinois University in Carbondale and a new Mississippi River bridge.

"He is the best," said U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., in an interview. "Jerry Costello more than any person kept Scott Air Force Base open through several base closing commissions. ... So I wouldn't want to be compared to him. No candidate would want to be compared to him."

U.S. Rep. John Shimkus, R-Collinsville, called Costello "the patron saint of Scott Air Force Base" and said his retirement "will cause all of us to work a little harder to fill this gap."

The race in the 12th District may pit a rising star in the Illinois Republican Party against the state's highest ranking federal Democratic lawmaker.

U.S. Sen. Mark Kirk, R-Illinois, a suburban Chicago congressman before being elected to the Senate in 2010, said in an interview he plans to get involved in the 12th District race, adding that Republican representation in the Metro East will help the region.

"When you look at the various races around the country, it's more likely than not we'll have a Republican majority in the Senate next year," Kirk said. "Therefore, having a Republican member for this congressional district means they will have more allies who are actually in the majority -- not just in the House of Representatives but also in the Senate."

Kirk said the race will be a "big focus" next year for him, as he said he wants to elect "more fiscal conservatives to Washington."

Durbin, who was born in East St. Louis, said he plans to campaign to keep the district in Democratic hands. Durbin said he has already had lunch with Harriman in early November.

"I've got a sentimental attachment to this area; St. Clair County's where I was born," Durbin said. "I'm anxious to help good candidates win."

Even though Democrats are expected to fare well in House races across Illinois, political analysts say it's crucial that the party hold all their seats to have any chance of taking back the House of Representatives.

Durbin agreed: "The 12th District is one we should win, (but) I can't take anything for granted....This is a change year in the electorate. So whoever runs is going to have to tell people that they ... want to bring change to Washington in the right way."

But, said Keith Boeckelman, a political science professor at Western Illinois University, it's unlikely that Costello's successor will be as successful in acquiring funds for local projects.

That's due in part, he said, to the political direction of the Republican Party -- and the reality of how the U.S. House of Representatives works.

"In addition to the anti-earmark perspective in general [with] the Republicans, if you get somebody who's not nearly as senior in there -- whether Republican or Democrat -- they're going to have a harder time delivering for the district like Costello did," Boeckelman said.

Before he announced his retirement, three Republicans -- former Belleville mayor Rodger Cook, 2010 Republican nominee Teri Newman and O'Fallon resident Theresa Kormos -- were angling to challenge Costello. Jason Plummer, an Edwardsville native who now lives in O'Fallon, joined the contest after Costello decided against re-election.

While Cook told the Beacon he's had experience in working cooperatively with officials from Missouri -- pointing, for example, to helping bring the MetroLink to Belleville -- he also emphasized that federal spending needed to be brought under control.

"Jerry Costello was very successful in bringing back money to this district," Cook said. "And nobody can argue that. There is no more money. This country's broke. We're on a path that's unsustainable. There are not going to be any earmarks; there are not going to be any special projects."

Newman -- who unsuccessfully ran against Costello in 2010 -- said reining in spending would be a prominent theme of her campaign, along with repealing federal health-care legislation passed in 2010.

"I don't care what they say about earmarks; we can't have these earmarks that go to the contributors and the donors of the particular politicians," Newman said. "And that's what's happening. We have these earmarks that pay for so many of these crazy things."

"The government has no money; it's our money," she added. "But the system is set up that it is allowing politicians to buy our votes with our own money. And that cannot be."

Plummer, the Republican nominee for lieutenant governor last year, said he made bi-state cooperation a big part of his 2010 campaign. And he wants to do the same for his congressional campaign.

"It's a phenomenal area of resources," said Plummer, referring to both the Missouri and Illinois sides of the river. "Unfortunately, because of poor public policy, southern Illinois is really struggling economically. There's a huge opportunity to tap both sides of the river to turn the area into an economic hub of the Midwest."

Plummer said some "very, very positive" things have come about through both the Illinois and Missouri delegations.

"One big hurdle is that so much public policy in Illinois is focused on Chicago and we need politicians ... that aren't always focused on Chicago; they're focused on their district and on their constituents," Plummer said.

Because of the deteriorating economy, Kormos said Congress "needs to make serious cuts in the budget."

"We cannot continue to spend because there's no money to spend," Kormos said. "So the money that used to flow probably would not be directly available when we're talking about cuts. But at the same time, the money that would be available I would see that it's wisely spent."

Republican Optimism

Even though Costello won re-election in 2010 by a fairly wide margin, cracks began to appear last year in the typically reliable 12th District.

Gov. Pat Quinn in 2010 lost a number of counties there and won St. Clair County by less than 2 percentage points. By contrast, then-Gov. Rod Blagojevich essentially swept the district's counties in his 2006 re-election victory.

Another warning shot occurred in the nearby 17th District, which stretches from northwest Illinois to western Illinois towns such as Macomb, Quincy and Fieldon. Republican Bobby Schilling easily defeated incumbent Democratic U.S. Rep. Phil Hare, becoming the district's first GOP representative in decades.

A spokeswoman for the National Republican Campaign Committee -- which helps GOP House candidates -- said that her group sees the district as competitive.

"Even before Jerry Costello announced he was retiring we saw this seat as a pick-up opportunity," said NRCC spokeswoman Andrea Bozek in a statement.

Plummer said Illinois' fiscal troubles and his showing in his last race influenced his decision to get into this race.

"People of all stripes -- Republican, Democratic, independent, whatever -- realize that the way things are going in Springfield, Illinois, and Washington, D.C., are not solving the problems," said Plummer, an executive at a lumber business and a former chairman of the Madison County Republican Party.

"I ran very strongly in the 12th congressional district," Plummer added. "People responded very positively to my message of lowering the burdens on business and creating an environment where businesses can grow and people can find stable jobs. And I'm going to offer that same vision in this campaign."

Newman said her experience running for the seat -- as well as her detailed platform on immigration, taxation, health care and gun rights -- will help her.

"I actually have a plan," Newman said. "I have a plan for everything that is ailing America, a plan on how to fix it. And I am very, very good in getting people to sign on to my plan."

Cook said his longstanding ties to the district will serve him well both in the primary and the general election.

"I'm not a party insider; I'm not a career politician," Cook said. "I ran because nobody else would take a stand in Belleville. I took a stand because no other qualified candidate would take on this race. And after spending time with people down south, I've got a lot of friends throughout the southern part of the district. I'm well known, better known in the Belleville area than (Plummer)."

Kormos said she's the only candidate who can "understand what the people of the district are going through."

"Being a nurse, I'm used to being a public servant," Kormos said. "That's what the people are hungry for. They're hungry for someone to represent them who truly understands and represents their conservative values. And I'm someone who can put the 'servant' part back into public service. People are tired of the polished professional who just gives a good talk but otherwise are out of touch with the average person."

Harriman Takes The Flag

Even though the 12th District seat has been Democratic for decades, the party hasn't seen a rush of candidates to replace Costello.

The Belleville News-Democrat reported in October that several potential contenders -- including Lt. Gov. Sheila Simon, Board Chairman Mark Kern, State's Attorney Brendan Kelly, Chief Judge John Baricevic, state Rep. Jerry Costello II and former state representative Tom Holbrook -- declined to run for Costello's seat.

And in a move that came as something of a surprise, Madison County Chief Judge Ann Callis announced that she wouldn't run either.

That left Harriman -- a former St. Clair County regional superintendent of schools -- as the leading candidate. Harriman decided to retire from his position after Gov. Pat Quinn decided not to pay the state's regional superintendents.

Nate Brown, a volunteer with Harriman's campaign, said the campaign is still getting organized and wasn't ready to comment.

"I think there will be an appropriate time for us to sit down and speak," Brown said.

Madison County Democratic Party Chairman Matt Melucci explained why more candidates haven't come forward yet.

"A lot of people like myself are closer to the end of their political career," said Melucci, who also serves as Madison County's circuit clerk. "I, for example, am retiring at the end of this term. Now, had this been 10 years earlier or if I were 10 or 15 years younger, I would have taken a very close look at this -- as would have other people. We want to get someone who's got the time, the ability and the age to serve for a reasonable period of time hopefully."

Jason Rosenbaum, a freelance journalist in St. Louis, covers state and local government and politics.

Jason is the politics correspondent for St. Louis Public Radio.

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