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Democrats have obstacles to overcome to find candidate to replace Costello

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, June 6, 2012 - It's deja vu all over again.

Just last week, Brad Harriman, the Democratic candidate for Illinois' 12th congressional district, annouced that he was leaving the race because of health reasons. In some ways, the search for a new Democratic candidate echoes the scramble to find a Democratic candidate after longtime incumbent, U.S. Rep. Jerry Costello, D-Belleville, surprised everyone by announcing his retirement from Congress. 

After Costello made his announcement, speculation about potential replacements ran rampant. But one-by-one, potentially high-profile candidates – such as Lt. Gov. Shelia Simon, St. Clair County Board Chairman Mark Kern, Madison County Chief Judge Ann Callis, former state Rep. Jay Hoffman, and state Rep. Jerry Costello Jr. – declined to run. Harriman emerged as the consensus candidate, grabbing Costello’s endorsement and easily winning the Democratic primary for the seat that encompasses portions of the Metro East.

Now that Harriman is withdrawing, Democratic leaders in the sprawling district need a new candidate to withstand a strong challenge from Republican Jason Plummer. Plummer, an executive at O'Fallon-based R.P. Lumber, was the Republican nominee for lieutenant governor in 2010 and is potentially able to finance his campaign himself. He is also getting help from groups, such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

Since Harriman made his own surprising announcement, several well-known Democrats are working to squash any speculation that they are waiting in the wings. Costello Jr. and Kern, for instance, told the Belleville News-Democrat that they were not interested. And Hoffman, who is running for state representative, said in a statement he’s not planning on seeking the nomination.

“I started my career in public service as a law enforcement official in the St. Clair County state's attorney's office and this is an opportunity to continue to serve the people of my community,” said Hoffman, who nearly defeated Shimkus in 1996 for a congressional seat. “The Illinois House gives me the best opportunity to advocate for the issues I care about most passionately: economic development, education and job creation.”

One person who is considering applying is William Enyart, the adjunct general of the Illinois National Guard. Enyart, a Belleville attorney, told the Belleville News-Democrat last week that he would discuss running for the seat with his family.

Perhaps former Madison County Democratic Party Chairman Matt Melucci was prophetic when he told the Beacon last November that he may have considered jumping into the 12th District race at some point in time. But Melucci, who died of cancer earlier this year, said the timing of Costello’s retirement proved to be inopportune for him and other potential candidates.

"A lot of people like myself are closer to the end of their political career," said Melucci, who also served as Madison County's circuit clerk. "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.”

David Yepsen, a former columnist for the Des Moines Register who now works at the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale, said the decision of potentially high-profile candidates to sit out on the 12th District race isn’t that surprising. One of the problems from a practical standpoint, he said, is that it’s not the easiest decision for a local political figure to enter a race that could send somebody to Washington, D.C.

“I mean, there are a lot of reasons why people don’t want to go to Congress. It’s a brutal campaign to get there,” said Yepsen. “It’s a brutal lifestyle; you’re living on a jet plane. There's a lot of partisanship and acrimony on both ends. One of the issues nationwide is a lot of people are either getting out of Congress or are saying, ‘No, I really don’t want to run or care to participate.’”

While a campaign for Congress can be a jolt to somebody’s lifestyle, Yepsen added, “The prize at the end was you got to make some serious public policy.” But he added in today’s atmosphere, “the prize is much diminished.”

“Congress is not into earmarks anymore,” Yepsen continued. “The federal government’s broke, so there’s not much money to do anything. The ability to cut taxes is limited by the federal deficit. So really no matter what your philosophy is, your ability to get anything done once you get there is pretty limited. So why go through the crucible or gauntlet of running if it’s really not worth much when you get there?”

In search of Democratic candidates

Still Democrats are moving forward with selecting a candidate to replace Harriman.

The actual vote will be “weighted,” meaning that county chairmen in counties with more Democratic ballots in the March primary will have more sway. 

Randolph County Circuit Clerk Barb Brown – who serves as the Democratic central committeewoman for the 12th District – said in a press release that people interested in pursuing the nomination will receive a questionnaire and should return it by June 15. Interviews should begin soon afterward.

In an interview on Friday, Brown said she doesn’t anticipate an “enormous” number of potential candidates. She said some people considering the effort are those with “political experience and people who are pretty thoughtful about what they want to commit themselves to.”

“We try to be very careful when people speak with us about this. We’re very realistic with them about what it takes in this day and age to be a congressional candidate,” Brown said. “This is a quite large district. It covers more than one media market, but it happens to include one of the most expensive media markets anywhere in the country – that being St. Louis.

“The people who go through the formal application process will be people who have thought this through and think they can take on all those responsibilities,” she added, noting that she expects several "well-versed" candidates to come forward. “A lot of other people might like to do it, but when they look at the demands will probably think this just isn’t for them.”

Brown said that Illinois’ early primary may play to the party’s advantage. Many people who may vote in a general election, she said, may not be paying a great deal of attention until around Labor Day.

“I’ve been in this business a long time. People like you or me watch this very closely and latch onto every word that’s uttered in political circles,” Brown said. “The people who will decide this race have not even begun to think about it. They don’t know what the issues are. They’re going to take a look at this come Labor Day, and we’ve got ample time to get this candidate up and running and be a strong contender by that time. I’m very confident about that.”

Indeed, Yepsen said Harriman’s departure is “not completely fatal to Democrats.” Missouri’s primary isn’t until August, while Iowa is having its primary on Tuesday.

“So while it’s disruptive by Illinois timetables, it’s not by the timetables of voters,” Yepsen said. 

He added though: “You can’t beat somebody with nobody in this game, so the Democrats are going to have to come up with a good credible candidate.”

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