ArchPundit (Larry Handlin) has challenged my characterization of new state senate president John Cullerton’s 1994 congressional campaign against incumbent Dan Rostenkowski and reformer Dick Simpson – which I drew from press accounts including the New York Times article I excerpted and linked to – as tinfoil hat territory.
I went back and looked at the coverage in real time and it’s clear that Cullerton wasn’t necessarily a traditional stalking horse with no intention of winning office himself and acting only as a spoiler to the challenger, but that he was a stalking horse of a sort in that his objective was to prevent Simpson from winning Rostenkowski’s seat and taking it from the Machine. It didn’t matter much to Cullerton whether he won as the backup or Rostenkowski retained the seat.
The coverage shows that Cullerton, like many others, considered running for Rostenkowski’s seat in 1994 because Rostenkowski was vulnerable. Simpson had won 43 percent of the vote in his losing challenge two years prior, and Rostenkowski had since fallen under the cloud of corruption that eventually sent him to prison. It wasn’t even clear for awhile that Rostenkowski would run for re-election that year.
Cullerton got ready just in case, saying at first that he would only run if Rostenkowski didn’t. Then, reading the polls and discussing the race with party leaders, Cullerton entered the campaign anyway to give the Machine a fail-safe option. Cullerton spent most of the campaign, the reporting shows, attacking Simpson, not Rostenkowski.
Of course, the whole thing backfired when Rostenkowski won the primary but was dispatched in the general election by neophyte Republican Michael Flanagan. Still, that was a better result for the Machine than a Simpson victory. Two years later, Ald. Dick Mell engineered the takeover of the seat by his son-in-law, Rod Blagojevich. Order was restored.
Here are the relevant excerpts from the papers.
April 1, 1993: “[A] gaggle of elected officials with ties to the old Machine are mapping strategy to run for Rostenkowski ‘s seat on the theory he may be indicted, decide to retire or be so weakened as the target of a federal corruption investigation that he could be defeated,” Lynn Sweet reported.
“Those overtly testing the waters, in alphabetical order, are freshman state Rep. Rod Blagojevich (D-Chicago), son-in-law of the 33rd Ward committeeman, Ald. Richard F. Mell; state Sen. John J. Cullerton (D-Chicago), supported by 44th Ward Committeeman Bernard J. Hansen; former state Rep. Gary G. Marinaro (D-Melrose Park), the Proviso Township committeeman, and Ald. Eugene Schulter (47th).
“Cullerton and Schulter are forming exploratory committees but say they will not run against Rostenkowski .
“’I hope that he continues to serve because he is good for Chicago and my district,’ said Cullerton.”
Aug. 27, 1993: Keep in mind that political polls aren’t always accurate, but here’s one that’s caught our eye: A just completed sampling of the 5th Congressional District indicates that Dick Simpson would beat Dan Rostenkowski if their ’92 primary match-up were held today. Along with perennial candidate Simpson, state Sen. John Cullerton and state Rep. Rod Blagojevich (Ald. Richard Mell’s son-in-law) are certain to take note. It’s almost a sure bet Blagojevich will run for Rosty’s seat. While Cullerton has been saying he’ll definitely run if the beleaguered Ways & Means chairman retires, he’s now saying he’d still consider a primary race, even if Rosty doesn’t pull out.”
Oct. 27, 1993: “State Sen. John Cullerton (D-Chicago), another congressional hopeful, said that he won’t run if Rostenkowski runs for another term,” Steve Neal reported. “Cullerton’s political allies are also Rostenkowski supporters . . .
“Ald. Richard F. Mell (33rd), the Northwest Side’s most influential Democratic committeeman, has agreed with Mayor Daley’s camp to support Rostenkowski for a final term in ’94 in exchange for Daley’s backing of Blagojevich as Rosty’s heir in ’96.
“Former Ald. Dick Simpson (44th), who got 43 percent of the vote against Rostenkowski in the 1992 Democratic primary, may well emerge as Rostenkowski ‘s only challenger in the March primary.”
Dec. 5, 1993: “’Now that [Rostenkowski] is running, the question is, Is he electable?’ said state Sen. John Cullerton (D-Chicago),” Lynn Sweet reported. “A year ago, Cullerton said he would not run against Rostenkowski. If Cullerton and Simpson both ran against Rostenkowski, they would split his most likely strongest opposition along the lakefront.”
Jan. 6, 1994: “State Sen. John Cullerton is taking a poll this week to see how U.S. Rep. Dan Rostenkowski is doing,” the Tribune’s Inc. column reported. “Cullerton, who’s tap-dancing on a fine line, says he ‘probably’ won’t run if Rosty is at 50 percent. If he isn’t, Cullerton will stay in the race. But, he says, he won’t be running against Rostenkowski. He’ll be opposing Dick Simpson.”
Jan. 10, 1994: “Does U.S. Rep. Dan Rostenkowski want state Sen. John Cullerton to stay in the race so he’ll draw votes from Dick Simpson?” Inc. reported. “So far no one, including Rosty’s ward-boss allies from the Northwest Side, has suggested Cullerton get out.”
Jan. 11, 1994 “After taking a poll, State Sen. John Cullerton has stopped tap-dancing and is flat-out running against Dick Simpson and U.S. Rep. Dan Rostenkowski. ‘I don’t think he’s in a position to serve the district,’ Cullerton said of Rosty. ‘He can’t win.’ (Cullerton’s poll of 500 voters shows only 21 percent think Rostenkowski should be re-elected.)”
Jan. 25, 1994: “State Sen. John Cullerton, who has been a Rosty ally in the past, is staying in the anti-Rosty race because in no way does he want his other opponent, former Ald. Dick Simpson, to win,” Sneed reported. “Simpson is his own guy, a la possible future mayoral candidate David Orr, and none of the Machine pols want him to in Da Mix. Go get ’em, Dick.”
Jan 26, 1994 “Cullerton, whose political family has supported Rostenkowski in his previous congressional races, said that it hadn’t been his intention to run against the incumbent,” Neal reported. “But Cullerton changed his mind in the wake of a poll taken earlier this month . . .
“Cullerton’s poll showed Rostenkowski losing to Simpson. But in a three-way race, Rostenkowski leads with 28 percent, Simpson and Cullerton are statistically tied for second; 26 percent are undecided.”
(Neal also wrote: “Far from a stalking horse, Cullerton is Rosty’s most credible challenger.”)
Feb. 8, 1994: “U.S. Rep. Dan Rostenkowski is mad at his Dem primary opponent, state Sen. John Cullerton , for opting to run against him,” Sneed reported. “( Cullerton’s alter ego feels Rosty should be happy because his candidacy cuts votes from another Dem primary opponent, Dick Simpson.)”
March 7, 1994: “Cullerton started soliciting campaign funds last year, telling party elders he would not run against Rostenkowski but would be a strong Democratic fallback candidate in case the incumbent retired or was indicted.”
March 9, 1994: “Cullerton has gained support at Simpson’s expense,” Neal reported. “In the 1992 5th District primary, Simpson got 43 percent of the vote against Rostenkowski. Early 1994 polls in the 5th District showed Simpson as the runner-up to Rostenkowski in a five-way primary. It wasn’t long ago that Cullerton was being tagged as the spoiler by Simpson’s allies . . .
“’If the bottom doesn’t fall out on Simpson, I think we can do it,’ said a Rostenkowski organizer. Rostenkowski’s camp is hoping Simpson gets 20 percent of the vote.”
March 16, 1994: “Asked if Cullerton had been a ‘stalking horse’ all along – as some have charged – whose real purpose in running was to split the anti-Rostenkowski vote, a spokesman for the congressman, David Axelrod, said:
“’If he was a strawman, he forgot his lines. He ran a very strong and vigorous campaign. John Cullerton threw everything he had at us and it just wasn’t enough.’
“Cullerton said the voters simply liked Rostenkowski ‘s message.
“’I think they listened to his message, that he is good for Chicago,’ he said. ‘He brings home the bacon. They were impressed by that, more than I thought they would be.’
“Asked why Rosty’s legal problems did not hurt him more, Cullerton said, ‘Obviously, they wish him the best, and so do I’.”
March 16, 1994: “Mr. Cullerton, who is 45, initially said he would run only if Mr. Rostenkowski did not,” Don Terry reported for the New York Times. “Then he announced that he was running because if he did not, Mr. Simpson would win – something the Chicago machine did not want to happen. Today, the machine dispatched hundreds of precinct captains to push and pull every last vote for Mr. Rostenkowski and the clout he has in Washington.
“Mr. Cullerton said everyone knew about Mr. Rostenkowski’s troubles but apparently overlooked them because ‘he brings home the bacon.’
“‘It’s a great victory for him,’ he said.”