Friday, January 13, 2006

It’s Official: Topinka Will Pass on the City Club Debate and Gidwitz Will Probably Duck It Too

city club
State Treasurer Judy Baar Topinka has informed the City Club of Chicago (of which I’m chairman) that she will not be able to attend the club’s debate on January 25 at noon at Maggiano’s because of the press of business. The responsibilities of the Treasurer are, as you realize, very onerous indeed. In addition, it appears very likely that Ron Gidwitz will be a no-show as well, although efforts to get his office to give a final up or down have been unsuccessful. Thus he who taught us how he took an inherited business and raised it to the status of a Fortune 500 company, providing jobs for 1,000 families also is on the verge of sending a regret that he cannot attend. The good news: Topinka did pass the word that she will appear on my WLS radio show at some future date, however. When she did not say. Possibly she will do it if she wins the nomination. Then it will be safe. The only ones debating at the City Club will be two conservatives: Jim Oberweis and State Sen. Bill Brady (R-Bloomington).

In addition, Gov. Rod Blagojevich’s people have informed the City Club that he will not be able to debate his challenger, Edwin Eisendrath on February 3 (noon) at Maggiano’s. No surprise there. Frankly, I understand Blagojevich’s motivation more than I can Topinka’s. He has the governorship nomination to lose if he does badly against Eisendrath. Conversely, if Topinka handled a debate with aplomb against two conservatives and one fellow social liberal with charm and a certain degree of chutzpah, she could put to rest the notion gaining currency that she is terrified of defending her social and administrative record in an onslaught. The down side is that she could very possibly stumble. But whether she will or not is not for us to witness. She’s playing it safe.

By playing it safe she could very well be wrong. First, the audience of the City Club of Chicago is far—and I mean far—from a conservative group. It’s robustly Democratic, basis its Chicago orientation and the charismatic leadership of president Jay Doherty, a leading Democratic activist, who has prompted an enthusiastic following: and that’s the way it should be. But there is little doubt that the City Club crowd would be far more sympathetic to her social views than they would to Brady or Oberweis. What better place to put down the suspicion that she fears confrontation than to show up, put on a good show and bask in what surely would be a warm response from an audience, many of whom are in her corner on social issues.

Second, the structure of the media being what they are—and with her there, they would cover it hugely—she would doubtless have a strong rooting section there which could allay the rumor that she’s fearful of a fight. The history of debates shows that often the under-dog, so-called (and by being out-numbered, Topinka could call herself the under-dog) gets the sympathy and if she does a respectable job comes out the winner. JFK was the under-dog in 1960 next to a vice president. Harold Washington was the underdog in a battle with Jane Byrne and Richard Daley. But Judy is not a plunger, is cautious, probably too cautious.

I’ve predicted steadily that Topinka would pass the Chicago event in order to quash its news coverage. Indeed, now the media have a reason to skip the contest since the purported front-runner will not show. But why no Gidwitz baffles me. Why Gidwitz, who has much more to gain by bringing his campaign to a wider forum and who has been spending the moon on paid TV commercials, is stonewalling the invitation is a mystery. My guess is that because Topinka and Gidwitz have long been allied on social policy, they have tacitly agreed that Gidwitz not show up and stand alone as the house liberal because if he boots the debate on social issues, he could hurt her residually as well. But social issues apart, he has made no bones about the fact that he has the guts to cut back spending and make tough decisions, even if he dooms himself to one term. Gidwitz might be competitive with Oberweis and Brady on business issues which are popular with a conservative audience. He’s another one who is cautious. Too cautious.

There’ll be another Republican debate on that date —in the evening at Naperville, to be covered by CBS-TV. Oberweis and Brady will be there as well but that debate may well be managed with partiality to Topinka, with liberal reporters throwing balls at her which will be much softer than hurled at a City Club event where candidates themselves will be required to ask questions of each other before getting to the tough questions from the audience. But this much is true: the two Republican candidates of the old establishment, Topinka with ties that go back to Jim Thompson, Jim Edgar and George Ryan—and Gidwitz, who personifies country-club Republicanism, decline to participate in rough-and-tumble, preferring to perform at staged events where embarrassment can be controlled if not obviated altogether. One thing is certain: by wimping out, Topinka may have adversely affected the pre-primary campaign. City Club-style debates don’t come around very often.

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