HERE’S A CENTRIST DEMOCRAT from Illinois, strong on labor but marred by the banking scandal, talking about hope. It’s not Barack Obama, but a leading candidate to take the seat he once held in the U.S. Senate. The race reflects who the Democrats tend to be these days: not grassroots, insurgent progressives but establishment types tinged with corruption.
In the battle over a seat Republicans eye as a trophy, the Democrats have put up Alexi Giannoulias, Illinois’s thirty-four-year-old state treasurer. Labor leaders and some of Chicago’s top progressive Democrats tout Giannoulias as a man of the people. But that image took a beating this year as it became clear his family’s bank had an especially bad record of making the kind of risky loans that brought on the economic crisis. And the bank made loans to some convicted white collar criminals and other unsavory characters, which hasn’t helped him any.
In a race pundits are calling the nation’s nastiest Senate contest, Giannoulias is running against Republican Mark Kirk, a suburban Chicago Congressman big on national security with a penchant for embellishing his resume, and a Green Party candidate, LeAlan Marvin Jones, who hails from Chicago’s South Side public housing projects, where he gained prominence as a teen journalist.
An August 11 Rasmussen Reports poll had Giannoulias tied with Kirk at 40 percent each. Rasmussen Reports identifies Illinois as one of four “toss-up” states with a Democratic Senate seat that could be won by a Republican. (The others are open seats in Colorado and Pennsylvania and Russ Feingold’s seat in Wisconsin.)
At a luncheon for the Metropolitan Planning Council in Chicago on the longest day of the year, Giannoulias repeatedly invoked his “passion” for all things sustainable—especially his proposed national infrastructure fund. He showed off knowledge of the planning council’s nuts and bolts work. And he pledged support for “re-reversing” the Chicago River, a controversial local issue involving sewage treatment and the Asian carp invasion, thus pleasing environmentalists and opposing the powerful shipping and riverboat tour industries. He jokingly hoped that Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley, who gets quite agitated over the river, was not in the room.
Kirk also spoke at the luncheon, but his snide jabs fell flat or elicited disapproving hisses from about a thousand civic leaders, staff, and donors gathered for the regional planning agency’s fundraiser. He paused for emphasis in mentioning the “collapsing Greek economy.” He stressed the word “adult” in calling for fiscal conservancy, seemingly a reference to Giannoulias’s youth. And there was no mistaking his meaning when he said of Giannoulias’s proposed infrastructure fund: “At least the FDIC wouldn’t close that thing.”
During the health care reform debates, Giannoulias supported a public option. He wants to repeal Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. He has also been a proponent of mine safety, working class jobs, and small businesses, frequently invoking his father’s roots as a Greek immigrant pickle salesman who later made it big in real estate and banking. He has called for renegotiating NAFTA and other free trade pacts and closing tax loopholes that encourage offshoring jobs. As treasurer, he threatened to cut off state business to Bank of America if it didn’t extend the money due workers occupying the Republic Windows and Doors factory in December 2008. Later he made the same threat to Wells Fargo, which was planning to liquidate the historic Hartmarx suit-making plant, which supplied Obama’s inaugural duds. In both cases, the banks relented, and the workers got their money (Republic Windows) and kept their jobs (Hartmarx).
“This wasn’t something where labor had to run to Alexi and say, ‘You should be involved’—he just threw his hat in the ring and rolled up his sleeves,” says Chicago Federation of Labor President Jorge Ramirez. “This is exactly what elected officials are supposed to do—saving jobs. No one had to prep him for this. He has the mentality of a first responder. When others are rushing out, he’s rushing in.”
But progressive critics say these are relatively easy positions to take in a heavily Democratic, liberal city like Chicago. They fault Giannoulias for defending Israel’s fatal attack on the Gaza flotilla and for sending mixed messages on Afghanistan. In May, while talking about the national debt, he referred to “two wars that we didn’t need.” When attacked by Kirk for seemingly failing to back Obama’s Afghanistan policy, his campaign backtracked and said he meant that the effort in Afghanistan should have been better funded.