3 Jewish Democrats vying in Illinois Congress race

CHICAGO (JTA) — What do you get when three Jews run for the same Congressional seat? You get a political race that sounds like it's in need of a good punch line.

The answer will come following Tuesday's Democratic primary, when the probable successor to Illinois Democratic Rep. Sidney Yates will be crowned.

Will it be State Sen. Howard Carroll, businessman J.B. Pritzker or State Rep. Jan Schakowsky?

Except for a one-term hiatus in 1963-'64, when he tried unsuccessfully for a U.S. Senate seat, Yates has represented the district continuously since 1948. Nicknamed "the Knesset seat," the 9th district — covering part of Chicago and several of its northern suburbs — is considered the Midwest's most heavily Jewish Congressional district.

So how do three Jewish candidates go after that vote?

"It can only turn out bad," bemoaned longtime political activist Larry Hochberg, concerned that Jewish resources, particularly campaign contributions, will be divided among three candidates, rather than being focused on one.

"But there's nothing you can do. Everyone's entitled to run," he said.

Former Chicago Alderman Sol Gutstein said the 9th district "was carved out as a Jewish seat. It's a safe Jewish district. A non-Jew running against a Jew there is spinning his wheels. There's no other large concentration of voters. And Jews always vote in higher numbers. That's what protects us."

The race will not only be tough, but also expensive. While the average cost of a 1996 campaign for the U.S. House of Representatives was $490,000, each of the candidates in this race is expected to spend at least $800,000.

Carroll's supporters point to his 24 years in the Illinois Senate, 16 as chairman of the Appropriations Committee, as proof that he has the kind of legislative experience necessary to be successful in Washington.

Schakowsky's appeal, say her supporters, is her liberal stance. She's counting on the progressive and women's vote.

Pritzker, heir to the Hyatt Hotel chain, emphasizes his national experience and prior work in Washington.

Those differences may prove decisive, because while the district is heavily Jewish, it is far from monolithic, encompassing liberals, the fervently religious and many in between.

"Women are going to be an enormous base of [my] support. My history has been as a champion of issues that affect ordinary people," said Schakowsky, who credits Judaism with bringing her "to the place I am today."

She said her "long history of commitment to social justice issues, questions of poverty, children, are issues the Jewish community cares about.

"One of the things I've highlighted is the Jewish voice that speaks to me, that helps shape much of what I do," she said. "The tikkun olam [healing the world] message has been the spirit of my advocacy for so long."

Schakowsky said that "when it comes to support for Israel, there really aren't many differences" between the three candidates. "All of us will be ardent supporters of aid to Israel, will not only have a good voting record but will be spokespeople and organizers on the floor for Israel."

Though he's the only one of the three never to have held public office, Pritzker points out that he's the only one with federal legislative experience, having worked as an aide to Cong. Tom Lantos (D-CA) and U.S. Senators Terry Sanford (D-NC) and Alan Dixon (D-IL). He also cites his role as national chairman of the Democratic Leadership for the 21st Century, a group that mobilizes young voters into Democratic politics.

"I have enormous respect for the service Howard and Jan have given. But…I'm the only one who has written federal legislation."

He is by far the wealthiest of the candidates. Some have suggested that he's using his family name and enormous wealth to buy his way into Congress.

"The fact is, I am extremely proud of my family name. We have developed a very good reputation as community activists, as people involved in the life of Chicago, in helping to preserve some of the best things and build some great institutions in this city."

Pritzker said his wealth can also be seen as providing "true independence. One thing is clear about everything I have done: Nobody is going to own me.

"I hope my opponents continue to attack for me being wealthy and giving to charity. I am going to continue to work as activist on Jewish causes."

Carroll calls himself the candidate "who gets things done, whose actions speak louder than words. I have the record. I've been the author of legislation on hate crimes, Sunday burial, anti-terrorism bills, paramilitary training camps in Illinois and on and on. These are just on Jewish issues. Then there's my record on education, crime, health care.

"Neither of my opponents can match those credentials."

Nor can they match, he said, what he's done for those outside the Jewish community.

"I represent all ethnic groups — Assyrians, Koreans, Indians, you name it. I have broad support, I fight equally for all groups," said Carroll.

As for his work among Jews, he cites such actions as aiding the Orthodox community's Hanna Sacks Bais Yaakov High School for Girls keep its campus and introducing a resolution calling for the Swiss government to provide a full accounting of assets taken from Jews. He has also hosted a daily minyan in his office.

For Joseph Morris, Midwestern president of B'nai B'rith and a local Republican activist, the race provides a dual answer to the age-old question of "Is it good for the Jews?"

On one hand, having three Jewish candidates illustrates how well represented the community is in the political arena.

"Jews have thoroughly embraced the rough and tumble world of Chicago politics," Morris said.

On the other hand, he regrets the intrusion into a political campaign of "intermural spats that detract from the serious discussion of public policy questions."

Paul Green, a professor at Chicago's Governor State University, said Jewish infighting is nothing new.

"The notion of ethnic and religious solidarity has never really been there. Historically, Jewish candidates have always gone at each other."

But it's a good thing these three candidates are running this race, Green said, "because it means a Jewish candidate is going to win."