Don't blame Alexi | Bleader

Monday, February 1, 2010

Don't blame Alexi

Posted By on 02.01.10 at 10:56 AM

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The Democratic primary race for U.S. Senate is ending pretty much as it began several months ago: Alexi Giannoulias appears to have a big lead in money and poll numbers but continues to be forced to field questions about how he contributed to the poor health of the bank his family owns.

What's changed is that he’s gotten a lot better at dodging those questions and convincing other local Dems that even with his problems he’s got the smell of a winner.

Maybe he really is ready to go to Washington.

Sunday morning Giannoulias held a get-out-the-vote rally in a west-side meeting hall, Teamsters Local 705. It was an odd thing to behold, even in the context of this strangely uninspired Senate campaign.

I was late (thanks for the delays, CTA), so I didn’t get to hear Jacob Meister’s speech explaining that 48 hours before Election Day, after spending $1 million on his candidacy, he was dropping his own bid for the Senate and endorsing Giannoulias. This, after weeks of accusing Giannoulias rival David Hoffman of homophobia. (To read the back story, click here and scroll down to the section on Meister.)

Meister insists he wasn’t an Alexi plant.

The Giannoulias campaign had been blasting supporters with e-mails urging them to come out to the rally, but the union hall wasn’t close to full—perhaps 150 people were there, most of them campaign staffers and volunteers or Democratic pols. Among the officeholders were many who consider themselves progressives, such as aldermen Bob Fioretti and Toni Foulkes, congressmen Jan Schakowsky and Mike Quigley, county assessor Jim Houlihan, and county commissioner Larry Suffredin.

Since he started talking about running for Senate a year ago, Giannoulias has been impressively disciplined in talking about little besides the need to create jobs—a wise move, since it’s the top concern for most voters and it helps him shift the conversation away from Broadway Bank and his relative lack of experience. Sunday he stepped to the podium and did it again, hitting not only the same themes but using the same lines he has for months.

“This race will offer voters a stark choice between the failed past of reckless economic policies that caused the most severe recession since the Great Depression and a promise for the future, where we create jobs, good paying jobs, right here in Illinois . . . ”

As I listened, campaign spokeswoman Kati Phillips came up and handed me several press releases. One was titled “Statement from Giannoulias Campaign Regarding Continued Misrepresentation of Broadway Bank Facts.” It was responding to a piece by Chicago News Cooperative business writer David Greising reiterating what others of us have reported previously: public records show that the bank is in bad shape as a result of the high-risk lending strategies it engaged in when Giannoulias oversaw its loans. The press release stated—as Giannoulias and his campaign have always stated in response to questions about the bank—that he hasn’t worked there for four years and it’s not the only bank that’s struggling right now.

Another press release was a statement from Broadway Bank, on bank letterhead, asserting that when Giannoulias “left daily operations in September 2005 to run for state treasurer, the bank was in a very strong position.”

Left unaddressed, of course, were the central points of Alexi’s bank problem: that some of the bad loans now crippling Broadway were issued on his watch, that he’s continued to profit personally from the bank’s business since leaving his job there, and that he hasn't provided detailed answers to questions about the whole mess.

Nor did the press releases mention that, as Greising put it, “Broadway Bank is the source of the wealth that has made him a viable candidate. It also provides his main claim to professional expertise.”

But after following this campaign for months, I'm not sure it matters. Giannoulias has dodged these troubles for four years and he looks to be dodging them again. Sure, the bank is an irritating problem for him, but anyone who thinks that he’s too weak and too loaded down with baggage to beat Republican Mark Kirk next fall hasn’t watched him duck, charm, and speechify his way to prominence over the last few years. He knows that to win an election you need money and TV and connections. You need to create an appealing story line and claim it as reality until more than half the voters decide it’s at least better than what they’ve heard from the other guy. (And they've heard a lot of contradictory stuff from Kirk.)

If it sounds like the bar’s pretty low, that’s because it is. But that's not all Giannoulias's fault. If he wins it’s because the people who went to the polls decided they’d rather have somebody good at playing by the rules we have now than someone complaining about those rules. And because they chose to vote for somebody who really wants the job.

“No one will worker harder for working-class families than I will,” Giannoulias declared from the podium, his voice rising with emotion. “No one will make you more proud as your next United States Senator.”

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