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Guilt by association rarely successful in politics



Illinois Gov. George Ryan right State Treasurer Judy Baar Topinkget together Governors Day Illinois State Fair Springfield Wednesday Aug. 15

Illinois Gov. George Ryan, right, and State Treasurer Judy Baar Topinka get together on Governors Day at the Illinois State Fair in Springfield Wednesday Aug. 15, 2001. The fair will run throught Sunday Aug. 19. (AP Photo/Seth Perlman) ORG XMIT: SD104

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Updated: May 14, 2014 6:27AM

Anyone following politics in Illinois remembers the ad well.

Judy Baar Topinka in khakis dancing the polka with the casually dressed former Gov. George Ryan.

Ryan was absolute kryptonite at the time — 2006 — freshly convicted at federal trial for a series of schemes and awaiting sentencing.

The slow-motion clip of Topinka and Ryan with locked arms that played again and again in negative TV ads during her run for governor helped sink Topinka’s bid.

Who did we get instead?

Rod Blagojevich.

So how ironic now, that using guilt by association has turned full circle in this governor’s race, and it’s the convicted Blagojevich and those who schemed under him who will be tapped as players.

Soon after Bruce Rauner made a gaffe last week after speaking in front of William Cellini, Gov. Pat Quinn’s campaign jumped on the GOP candidate for failing to immediately repudiate a felon known as the ultimate insider in state politics.

The Rauner campaign in turn launched a rebuttal, pulling out every positive comment Quinn had made about Blagojevich in 2005 and 2006 after the Blagojevich administration was under intense scrutiny.

Guilt by association in politics is as old as campaigns themselves.

But how well does it work?

One can argue it did in Blagojevich vs. Topinka. It also seemed to work when state Sen. Bill Brady, in the 2010 GOP gubernatorial primary, launched ads against opponent Kirk Dillard, showing a video clip of Dillard endorsing President Barack Obama. Dillard’s numbers tanked downstate and Brady eked out a victory, ultimately losing to Quinn in the general election.

It didn’t stick against Obama. Tony Rezko, Bill Ayers, Jeremiah Wright. Negative ads, talking points in debates bombarded Obama — ultimately, however, to no avail.

In the Illinois GOP primary, outside groups attempted to link Rauner to another convicted felon, Stuart Levine, who was paid by a Rauner company at the same time that Levine sat on the Teachers Retirement System board and voted to give that company state business. Levine was a serial con artist who was one of the most influential cooperators in the early stages of the Blagojevich probe.

If that ad moved numbers, it wasn’t enough. Rauner emerged the victor.

This week, the Rauner campaign creation “Quinnocchio” — a gadfly staffer who dresses up like the storybook character and stands outside all Quinn-related events holding protest signs — changed up the wording on his poster board.

His sign read: “Quinnocchio lies about Blago.”

Kent Redfield, emeritus professor of political science at the University of Illinois at Springfield, said linking Quinn to Blagojevich is as unlikely to succeed as attempting to link Rauner to Cellini.

For the most part, guilt-by-association tactics are like throwing red meat to the faithful, Redfield said. It’ll fire up the base but is unlikely to persuade people who are on the fence.

“If they’re not really credible, I don’t think it does anything more than reinforce people’s prejudice,” he said.

Why did it work against Topinka then?

“You’ve got a nice visual,” he said. “It worked because of the absence of any kind of effective pushback during the summer. Rauner’s people are more than capable of pushing back.”

As are Quinn’s people, Redfield said. Not to mention there’s no credible links to corruption in tying Rauner to Cellini or Quinn to Blagojevich, he says. Blagojevich’s criminal case was well-vetted over two trials, hundreds of secretly recorded conversations were played and there was no evidence linking Quinn to any of the acts.

“For most people, it becomes noise. If you’re an undecided voter, you want to see what candidates will do about fixing the economy, what are we going to do about fixing taxes,” Redfield said. “There were certainly attempts to link Quinn to Blagojevich in the (2010) Brady campaign. … We’ve kind of been through all of that. Whatever people believe about Quinn, they don’t believe he’s dishonest.”

For Topinka’s part, after Blagojevich’s charges, she had the last laugh.

At one point she ended up in the Sun-Times newsroom, handing out bumper stickers.

“Don’t blame me,” they read. “I voted for Topinka.”


Twitter: @natashakorecki

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