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Brown: Congressional hopeful Toi Hutchinson’s NRA answers off target

Updated: March 2, 2013 6:36AM



In accepting Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle’s endorsement for Congress, Sen. Toi Hutchinson said Monday she hopes to bring to Washington the same “refreshing brand of straight talk” for which Preckwinkle is known.

If so, she’s off to a bad start.

Hutchinson of Olympia Fields continued Monday to sidestep questions about what she did to earn high marks from the National Rifle Association in prior elections as she tries to re-position herself from a gun rights to a gun safety candidate — or maybe to have it both ways.

The NRA’s endorsement served Hutchinson well in her election to the state Senate from a far south suburban district that includes parts of Will and Kankakee counties but now looms as a potential liability in the Democratic race for the seat vacated by Jesse Jackson Jr. amid a national conversation about gun violence.

Instead of answering a reporter’s direct question about her high rating from the NRA (A- in 2010), Hutchinson retreated to her campaign talking points about how she is co-sponsoring state legislation introduced in the fall session that would ban assault weapons and high-capacity ammunition magazines, the same position now embraced by President Barack Obama as part of his effort to combat gun violence.

The Preckwinkle endorsement was a major positive development for the Hutchinson campaign, but her handling of the NRA issue detracted from the afterglow and looms as a thorny problem from here until the Feb. 26 special election.

Preckwinkle’s decision to back Hutchinson in the crowded 17-candidate Democratic field came as something of a surprise because one of the other leading contenders, former state Rep. Robin Kelly of Matteson, was a top aide to the County Board president before stepping down for this campaign.

Being able to identify herself as the chief of Preckwinkle’s Bureau of Administration has clearly been an asset to Kelly, figuring prominently in her campaign narrative.

It’s not as if Preckwinkle can put a political operation into the field for Hutchinson, but her good government stamp of approval carries a certain weight with like-minded voters.

Although Preckwinkle’s record as a powerbroker is spotty at best (her candidates lost in the three major contested races she made endorsements in last year), her support is a definite plus in a multi-candidate field such as this in which nobody is particularly well known and where voters are looking for any clues to draw distinctions between the candidates.

Preckwinkle said she will campaign with Hutchinson and help her raise funds. She also promised to “vocally defend her against attacks from opponents” on the gun violence issue.

That was a reference to Kelly’s relentless efforts to use guns to differentiate herself from the field — and from Hutchinson in particular — by contrasting her “F” rating from the NRA with Hutchinson’s defense of 2nd Amendment rights. Kelly has been demanding for weeks that Hutchinson and former Congresswoman Debbie Halvorson make public their NRA candidate questionnaires to reveal what positions they took to earn the group’s endorsement.

In her 2010 campaign, Hutchinson made clear her support for gun rights.

“The 2nd Amendment gives an American the right to bear arms to protect themselves and their property. Law-abiding citizens don’t need any more infringements on their constitutional right to protect their families and their property,” she stated in a news release that included a quote from the executive director of the Illinois State Rifle Association praising her as the “type of advocate for 2nd Amendment rights that the 40th district needs.”

But now she only wants to talk about the assault weapons ban.

Even Preckwinkle was a little short on straight talk as she tried to square her own past “F” rating from the NRA with her endorsement of Hutchinson.

“I looked at where Toi is now” on gun issues, Preckwinkle told me in a phone interview, avoiding the issue of where Hutchinson had been previously.

“When you’re looking to support a candidate, you have to look at the totality of the candidate,” Preckwinkle said, and to which I would agree.

That “totality,” Preckwinkle later explained at the press conference, includes Hutchinson’s advocacy for increased mental health services, school programs and social workers as a response to violence.

Fair enough. From what I’ve seen of Hutchinson during her brief time in Springfield, she’s the equal of any candidate in this race. I’m sure her evolving views on guns can be explained.

A straight-talking elected official would step up and do that.



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