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Airbags

It's a bad year for moderate Republican legislators serving in districts that are rapidly trending Democratic. Just ask State Rep. Paul Froehlich.

After nearly 10 years running the once powerful Schaumburg Township Republican organization and serving as state representative for the 56th IL House district, last June Froehlich jumped the GOP ship to join the House Democrats. The reasons Froehlich gave for leaving the GOP were opposition to the national GOP's platform and to Bush's policies, and a feeling that the Republican Party left him. One of Froehlich's biggest allies in Schaumburg Township, former Schaumburg Trustee Fred Crespo, had already left Froehlich's GOP organization in 2006 to run as a Democrat for the neighboring 44th IL House district seat (and won). Having a "D" after his name is a win-win for Froehlich, as his feelings toward the national GOP are echoed throughout the voting habits of his constituents and his allies in the Illinois House.

While Froehlich's public explanation of the switch is seemingly legitimate, there's reason to believe there were other reasons why Froehlich made the decision. Chief among them is the increasing frequency with which the GOP refuses to allow moderate legislators to influence its agenda. This is most apparent on the national GOP scene where policy has steadily moved to the right, though the effects do trickle down locally. Ultimately, a moderate legislator needs to be able to garner support from his colleagues in order to gather the votes to pass bills that benefit the constituents of his district. If Republican legislators are under intense pressure from their party leaders to tow the party line, the likelihood of people like Froehlich being able to influence their votes is slim to none.

Such is the case with House minority leader, Tom Cross. Cross' response to Froehlich's independent-minded voting record was to threaten to run a conservative against him in the GOP primary and to blacklist him from receiving support from House Republicans. Indeed, a quick glance at Froehlich's legislation proposals for 2007 shows that he wasn't able to accomplish much. If Froehlich wanted to stay in office and have the ability to show some leadership on his issues, the only logical move was to join hands with Michael Madigan.

While Froehlich had the wisdom and foresight to see the writing on the wall with regards to his career as a Republican legislator in a Dem-leaning district, other moderate Republican legislators in similar situations have not been as smart. With the backlash against the national GOP stronger than it's been in years, the increased voter turnout due to a presidential voting year, and the lack of support from their party, one has to wonder how many of these so-called moderate Republicans will survive the polls this year.

Case in point is Rep. Elizabeth Coulson of the 17th IL House district. Coulson is widely considered to be a moderate Republican mainly due to her socially liberal stances on some issues, reproductive rights in particular.

The 17th district is located on the North Shore and encompasses some very Democratic leaning communities. In fact, the district is represented in Washington by one of the most unabashedly liberal representatives in the country, Rep. Jan Schakowsky.

On the surface, Rep. Coulson is pretty liberal for a Republican, though her voice is decidedly in the minority in her caucus. She frequently votes the way a Democrat would want her to, though she rarely, if ever, is able to get her colleagues to stand behind her on key votes. However, she does show some influence towards getting Illinois Republicans elected. In 2006, Rep. Coulson raised nearly $12,000 for Illinois Republican candidates and local GOP organizations. For the first half of 2007, she's raised $5,000 for Illinois Republicans. Coulson's committee summaries include a shameful litany of campaign contributions received from special interests, including pharmaceutical companies, energy (read: oil) companies, the Illinois Hospital Association (killer of universal healthcare policies) and cable TV interests. If she's willing to take cash from groups like these and she's giving it to Republicans far more right-wing than herself, how moderate is Beth Coulson, really? And is this behavior together with the liberal quality of the district the only thing that saves her from a vengeful Tom Cross axing her in a GOP primary?

In a district as liberal as Coulson's, one has to wonder what in the world is keeping her in office. Sure, her votes on most issues are frequently liberal, but does that really matter when she's fundraising for right-wing Republicans and when she doesn't have the influence to pull her colleagues her way on key votes? Is it enough that she votes the right way but doesn't ever present any landmark legislation that will benefit her constituents like Jan Schakowsky frequently does? Whose side is she on, anyway? And why doesn't she pull a Froehlich and switch?

Relating to elections, surely it can't be politically advantageous to be a moderate. Elections are won and lost due to how successful a candidate is at building his or her base and turning as many of them as possible into evangelists for the candidate. Who is a moderate's base? More specifically, who is Beth Coulson's base? They're certainly not activists! It's not as if armies of militant moderates are pounding the pavement every cycle trying to catch your attention on the issues. More often than not, they're people of who don't think about politics more than five minutes a week. The last thing on their mind is volunteering for a political candidate.

Coulson is expected to have a tough fight on her hands this year in the form of a Democratic Party activist who knows what it means to base-build. Daniel Biss is a 30-year-old professor of mathematics at the University of Chicago and a volunteer teacher to underserved kids in Lawndale. He's been actively organizing Democratic activists in the Chicago area for years and has forged friendships and alliances with many. Chief among them is the district's beloved congresswoman, Rep. Jan Schakowsky, who granted her endorsement to Biss early on.

If Biss is to win the 17th district seat, there's an argument to be made that, even as a Freshman State Representative, he would be a more effective leader on the issues for which Beth Coulson can only offer her singular vote. Being a member of the majority House Democrats will automatically enable Biss to line up more legislators behind his proposals. Being firmly implanted behind the values and platform of the party to which he belongs can only work to his advantage. It's a lonely road for moderate Republicans trying to get things done for their district and looking for the same support. Just ask Paul Froehlich.

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Comments

pau1ke11y / November 29, 2007 1:12 PM

Beth Coulson also has the problem of doing next to nothing for all the years she has been in the House. It will be nice to get a representative in the House who will actually work to change the woeful politics in Springfield. Daniel Biss will be a great Rep.

Charlotte / November 29, 2007 2:10 PM

Do you think that Beth Coulson has done nothing in Springfield because she is lazy or because she simply has no influence on other members to vote her way? I believe the latter is the case.

Hiram Wurf / December 2, 2007 8:50 PM

Hi Charlotte, you write:

"Rep. Coulson is pretty liberal for a Republican, though her voice is decidedly in the minority in her caucus... [and] rarely, if ever, is able to get her colleagues to stand behind her on key votes. However, she does show some influence towards getting Illinois Republicans elected. In 2006, Rep. Coulson raised nearly $12,000 for Illinois Republican candidates and local GOP organizations.... Is it enough that she votes the right way but doesn't ever present any landmark legislation that will benefit her constituents...?"

That just doesn't seem like a ton of money to influence other legislators to me - especially since she didn't have a serious challenge last time (Judith Ross had no money to speak of) and according to ICPR's Sunshine Database (http://www.ilcampaign.org/sunshine/index.asp) doesn't seem to give much (at least in the races from 2001 to 2006 - and it seems like much less money in 01-02 and 03-04). By comparison, among other IL GOP House members in 2006:

- Paul Froehlich donated $5,000 to the House GOP Leadership (like Coulson) and another $7,500 to the IL House Republican Victory Fund, and $2,950 to IL GOP local organizations and candidates;

- Joe Dunn (Naperville) gave $8,000 to the House GOP Leadership, and about $18,000 to IL GOP local organizations and candidates; and

- Jim Meyer (Naperville), not known as a particular 'go-getter' gave $5,000 to the IL GOP Leaders, $2,500 to the IL GOP Victory Fund and $5,700+ to IL GOP local organizations and candidates.

Beth Coulson seems to inhabit the worst of both worlds - she does help support much more conservative colleagues - working against the interests of her constituents - but Coulson does not seem to influence their positions to her more moderate social views - again failing her constituents.

 

About the Author(s)

Charlotte Lynn lives and works in politics in the greater Chicago area when she's not laying low in a suburb of Cleveland. You can contact her at chicagocharlotte@gmail.com.

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