Candidate vetting for dummies

Illinois rank and file Republican voters can’t afford to spend the next five years they like did that last five years. It’s no longer good enough to blindly trust the men and women who have stepped up to lead, or for that matter, to trust the folks around them. Illinois Republicans need to be stingy with the benefit of the doubt, especially when there’s a lot of evidence that our current political leaders either don’t know what they’re doing or they lack the right motivation.

Some of us are willing to do the difficult work of naming names and reporting unpleasant information when necessary. Articles that my friends and I have posted this past week about Tony Peraica and Jim Oberweis are examples of the kind of reporting that has been sorely lacking on our side of the political aisle for a long time.

The Illinois Republican Party isn’t where it is by accident. Our General Assembly leadership and statewide candidates during the past three election cycles haven’t exactly lit the prairie on fire.

Despite the hopes of some people, the Democrats are not going to defeat themselves. And a state that has lacked any kind of Republican message for many years isn’t going to see GOP platform principles advanced by candidates who have shown they don’t have what it takes to succeed.

Out of desperation, many Republicans have failed to apply high enough standards to our leaders and candidates. We know where that has gotten us.

An episode that took place in 2004 illustrates nicely why those of us have quit deferring to the self-appointed or the highly paid. You’ll remember that the Chicago Tribune successfully went to court to get U.S. Senate Republican candidate Jack Ryan’s divorce documents unsealed. It’s worth noting that a former director of the Tribune Company is Andrew McKenna Sr., father of Andy Jr., who was defeated handily in the primary by Jack Ryan.

Unproven allegations made by Jack Ryan’s wife hit the fan (allegations which Jack strongly denied by the way), and Jim Edgar and Judy Baar Topinka made it known that if Jack stayed in the race, he would not only have to run against media darling Barack Obama, he’d have to run against the Illinois Republican Party establishment (which included at that time Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives Dennis Hastert).

After Jack Ryan left the race, the drama to fill the vacancy became one of the biggest all time political boondoggles. Through the combined efforts of conservatives, moderates, and liberals, the candidacy of Alan Keyes was born. That’s right, all segments of the party were working together.

A friend of Keyes (FOK) got the great idea of recruiting his Maryland buddy to move to Illinois to take on Obama. The reaction by many of us was initially positive. Since other potentially good candidates here in Illinois wouldn’t step up, we thought we’d at least have someone in the race who had the ability to articulate a good message.

The FOKers worked the phones and persuaded a couple of Republican General Assembly members, one of whom served on the GOP’s State Central Committee, to consider Keyes. Keyes was flown in, interviewed, and after some controversy, Party Chairman Topinka and the 19-member State Central Committee, which was filled with people from all ideological segments of the party, gave Alan the nod.

After Keyes was slated, a former GOP gubernatorial candidate asked for the opportunity to meet the candidate to encourage him to hit Obama for having done nothing while in the General Assembly to help impoverished inner city kids escape failing public schools.

A few days later, I was one of three who met with Alan and two of his staffers for a little over an hour and a half. It only took about fifteen minutes, however, to discover that Alan Keyes had personality “issues” that were sure to sink his campaign.

I told several people in the hallway right afterwards and on cell phone conversations outside the building that I thought the race was over. In the past I’d seen Keyes give great speeches. That day I quickly discovered he was not fit to be a candidate. What was puzzling was how he had escaped proper vetting in such a high-profile circumstance.

Our meeting with Keyes would’ve been perfect for a hidden camera. Alan Keyes leaned far back in his chair, legs crossed, pontificating Elmer Gantry-like, condescending, and demonstrating a shockingly thin skin. His inability to civilly interact with people who came in the room as potentially his biggest supporters was a sight to behold.

The reason for this rehash of recent history is simple. Even some of us with extensive political experience were then still in the habit of deferring to others when it came to some important decisions. After seeing how certain political “experts” and the leadership of the Republican Party failed to adequately vet the candidacy of Alan Keyes, our days of deference were over.

Incredibly, the Keyes drama played out in another form during the next cycle when Jim Edgar teamed up with Topinka to promote Judy’s own candidacy. As with Keyes, all points on the ideological spectrum joined hands to help her get nominated, including state Senators Bill Brady, Kirk Dillard, Senate Republican Leader Frank Watson, and House Republican Leader Tom Cross.

My friends and I didn’t remain silent. While we failed to prevent her primary victory, we avoided the train wreck that would’ve been her governorship. Incredibly, Judy received fewer votes in the General Election than even Alan Keyes had.

As in the old days of Hollywood, some of the same B-movie actors of Illinois who brought you the Keyes and Topinka productions are now signed on with the Jim Oberweis and Tony Peraica campaigns. Who said that “left” and “right” can’t play well together in Illinois Republican politics?

Jim and Tony are presenting themselves as conservatives, but we know that’s not enough. National Committeeman Bob Kjellander, Party Chairman Andy McKenna, and recently resigned Congressman Denny Hastert also sold themselves as conservatives.

For progress to be made there has to be competence, political know-how, and the proper motives. All of which has been severely lacking as evidenced by the current state of affairs.

Now we’re seeing variations on the Keyes and Topinka fiascos in this election cycle, and as I said, it’s being brought to you by some of the same people.

Republicans and Democrats respond to real leadership when they see it. Charlatans, however, can get elected because many times voters just don’t hear enough of the facts. Concerned citizens will weigh information when it’s presented. My friends and I will not be deterred when it comes to helping provide that information.