Updated: April 17, 2014 6:10AM
He almost made it.
Illinois’ foremost political blunderer, dairy magnate Jim Oberweis, nearly arrived at the Republican primary race for U.S. Senate by staying under the radar screen without a major blooper.
He was so close.
Yes, there were whispers of criticism for skipping out on debates against competitor Doug Truax, but he quietly tiptoed through those while keeping up his polling points.
Just as he was to come in for a soft landing, Oberweis veered violently off course, landing in sunny Florida a week before the primary election, just as another snowstorm was to hit the Chicago area.
Winter-weary Illinois voters were stuck navigating yet another miserable commute, delayed train or snow-piled sidewalk.
So this time, when Oberweis went missing from a debate because he was in Florida, attention was paid.
And the old Oberweis image re-emerged: the one criticized as politically tone deaf, the one who lost five elections in 11 years, the one the longtime businessman himself wanted you all to forget.
That was the Oberweis who apologized in his initial video announcement for this race, saying he had learned from past mistakes.
Truax reveled in the political gaffe. He lampooned his opponent in a mock postcard sending greetings from Florida that conjured images of a “Jimmy Buffett” Oberweis, slipping on flip-flops and sipping pineapple concoctions poolside.
Truax, 43, whose spokesman Dan Curry went to the emergency room after he was hit on the head with falling ice, called Oberweis arrogant and disconnected.
“You’ve got to be committed to be doing this if you’re going to go the distance,” Truax said in an interview. “I don’t think he’s committed enough to do it. (The Florida trip) proves my point. I don’t think we can trust him because of what’s been going on.”
In a phone call after he returned to Illinois, Oberweis said he made the trip essentially because he was trying to stay out of the doghouse. The usually stoic Oberweis opened up a bit about his personal life, talking about how his first marriage ended because his ex-wife felt he worked too much.
“Look I’ve tried to stay away from personal matters,” said Oberweis, 67. “I was married to my first wife for 35 years, happily. I was stunned when she left. It was the worst thing that happened to me in my life. One of her major complaints was that I worked too much.” Oberweis described this as an emotionally trying time — one he didn’t want to relive. He couldn’t sleep; he dropped 60 pounds. He’s now been married for nearly seven years, he explained, and wants to make sure he doesn’t make the same mistake. It was his wife’s birthday, and he wanted to be there for her. In Florida.
Oberweis’ capacity to open up a bit shows he did bring back something positive from Florida — some warmth.
Still, questions remained. Why not fly to Florida and fly back the next day?
He says he also held fundraisers in Florida.
How long was he gone? “I don’t think that’s necessarily relevant.”
The voters do.
“A few days.”
How were the fundraisers? “They were just fine.”
Why not fly your wife back to Illinois for her birthday?
She’s flying in tomorrow.
Oberweis says he’s not arrogant and not taking voters for granted. Talk of his not having true residence in Illinois because his wife claimed a homestead exemption on the Florida condo, he says:
“That is absolutely, completely, totally nuts. There is no truth to it whatsoever. Why somebody would make something like that up . . .
This is why good people don’t want to run for political office. The only thing that I can tell you is when we bought the condominium, my wife intended on spending winters down there. She claimed the homestead exemption in Florida. . . . I had to withdraw my homestead exemption in Illinois. Which means I pay more real estate taxes in Illinois, not less. I have been in my same home for the last 36 years.”
But Truax says Oberweis has been a no-show for much of the campaign.
“I don’t really trust much of what he says. We’ve been through this now with him ducking out of debates. Now he’s said he was only going to be gone a couple of days, but it’s been a week. I just view it as a basic honesty thing,” Truax said. “I just don’t trust it.”
For the record, Truax’s wife had her birthday during the campaign too. The couple discussed it ahead of time and agreed it was OK to be apart.
Truax spent it at a Lincoln Day dinner promoting his candidacy.
“I’m committed to doing this,” Truax said. “And he’s apparently not.”