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New boundaries threaten Democratic status quo in First District

Updated: February 16, 2012 3:14PM

To run for Congress as a Republican in the fall against incumbent Democrat Bobby Rush might seem foolhardy. Rush doesn’t just win elections; he rings up 80 percent of the vote.

And yet three candidates are vying in the March Republican primary for the honor of taking on Rush, counting on the district’s newly-drawn boundaries — now stretching considerably further south into Will County — to upend the status quo. The new district is less African-American, more suburban and more Republican.

Perhaps not surprisingly in a district that remains heavily Democratic, two of the GOP candidates are best described as political moderates, with views on a number of issues that would not be out of place for a middle-of-the-road Democrat. They are Donald E. Peloquin, 61, the mayor of Blue Island for the last 27 years, and Frederick Collins, 43, a third-generation Chicago Police officer.

Also running is blog radio host Jimmy Lee Tillman, 43, a candidate who makes no bones that his first allegiance is to African-American voters. But he also claims to be a moderate Republican, in the mold of State Treasurer Judy Baar Topinka.

Collins says he is convinced black voters are finally looking for an alternative to the Democratic Party. African Americans are generally more of a like mind with Republicans on social issues such as abortion, he says, and they have come to believe the Democrats will never deliver “the American Dream” of opportunity that they grew up hearing about “at the kitchen table.”

If the measure of a candidate is how fully and thoughtfully they fill out a questionnaire, we’d have to say all three candidates fall short, though in different ways.

Peloquin gave only perfunctory responses to most questions and left completely unanswered questions about Social Security and Medicare reform, home foreclosures, global warming and the nation’s growing income gap. When members of the Editorial Board asked Peloquin why he skipped the questions, he candidly said he didn’t feel well enough informed to answer them. But as a congressman, he said, he would be heavily focused on “local stuff,” anyway, such as creating jobs by promoting the transportation resources of the Chicago region.

Collins submitted more complete written answers, but we’re not sure how committed he is to the views he expressed. Asked by members of the Editorial Board, for example, what he would do to shore up the Social Security trust fund, he talked generally about the importance of the program and about possibly allowing Americans to personally invest their own Social Security contributions. We had to remind him that he had proposed two different solutions — raising the age of eligibility and reducing benefits for wealthier people — on his questionnaire.

As for Tillman, his written responses were superficial. To save Social Security, for example, he would “reinforce the way it’s properly funded to protect future generations.”

The candidate with the only experience as an elected official is Peloquin, a suburban mayor since 1985, and he says it has given him with the wisdom and skills to be an effective congressman. For example, he said, he would not vote to raise taxes as a congressman, but also would not sign a no-taxes pledge, having learned as a mayor not to box himself in. As a Republican mayor in a town with many Democrats, he says, he’s also learned how to work across party lines. The cornerstone of Peloquin’s campaign is a proposal to create an “intermodal transportation” facility, with federal funding, that would link rail, truck and air freight. Transportation is “key,” he says, to the Chicago region’s economic recovery. As part of that, he favors the creation of a third airport, located in the south suburbs and open at first only to air freight traffic.

Collins stresses cutting taxes for individuals who earn less than $250,000 a year, and for corporations, but also favors federal spending of the sort Peloquin has proposed — on local job-creating infrastructure projects. Like Collins, he favors the creation of a third airport, but says it should handle both freight and passenger traffic from the outset.

Tillman proposes cutting taxes to businesses in several ways, including a tax break for corporations that rent existing facilities and hire at least five to ten workers from the neighborhood.

Speculation in the 1st District is that Rush faces legitimate opponents in the primary and general elections this year because he is 66 and in frail health. The thinking is that he may step down before long, making even a losing run against him now worthwhile. It’s a way to lay the groundwork for a wide-open race in the future.

But Peloquin, expressing a view held by all three GOP contenders, said, “Any incumbent is vulnerable right now.”

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