Blagojevich's secret weapon
BY STEVE NEAL SUN-TIMES COLUMNIST
April 19, 2002
The most valuable player in the Democratic gubernatorial primary is Rep. Jerry F. Costello of Belleville.
Without Costello's help, Rod Blagojevich could not have won the March 19 primary over Paul Vallas and Roland W. Burris. Costello, 52, who has been in Congress for 14 years, played a huge role in the Democratic gubernatorial primary.
Blagojevich wasn't his first choice. Costello supported former U.S. Commerce Secretary William M. Daley during his brief exploratory bid for the gubernatorial nomination. When Daley took himself out of the running, Costello tried to persuade Cook County State's Attorney Richard A. Devine to run for governor.
Rep. William O. Lipinski (D-Chicago), with whom Costello serves on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, was influential in Costello's decision to support Blagojevich, according to Democratic sources. Lipinski, a key Blagojevich ally, was in charge of drawing the map for Democratic congressional districts in reapportionment, and gave Costello an even safer district.
Costello returned the favor. Blagojevich finished third in Chicago and in Cook County, where nearly 60 percent of the Democratic primary vote was cast. Costello delivered his congressional district for Blagojevich by a plurality of more than 33, 000 votes. Blagojevich's statewide plurality over Vallas was just 25, 469 votes and 2.03 percent of the overall vote.
In the St. Louis area, Costello was particularly effective. Blagojevich took 69.2 percent in Madison County and 59.4 percent in St. Clair County, where Costello was formerly the county board chairman. In these two counties, Blagojevich's margin over Vallas was 24, 609 votes--almost equal to his statewide margin.
There are others deserving of honorable mention, including state AFL-CIO president Margaret Blackshere, state Sen. Larry D. Woolard (D-Carterville), Rock Island County Democratic Chairman John Gianulis and Laborers' union official Ed Smith of Cairo.
Blagojevich needed them all. The Northwest Side congressman got just 28.5 percent of the Cook County vote and only 30.6 percent of the vote in DuPage County. On election night, he came out of the Chicago area trailing Vallas by 80, 044 votes.
If Vallas had put together a credible Downstate campaign, he couldn't have been stopped. The former Chicago schools chief squeaked past Burris in Cook County by 2, 646 votes and led Blagojevich by 55, 486 votes in Cook County.
His margin over Blagojevich in the collar counties was 24, 558 votes.
Vallas has only himself to blame for his Downstate collapse. He relied on organizers with poor track records and got ripped off by consultants. Vallas spurned suggestions that he go up early on Downstate radio and television.
Blagojevich surged Downstate when he bought television and radio spots that were unanswered by his rivals.
Glenn Poshard, the 1998 Democratic nominee for governor, endorsed Vallas in January. If the Vallas campaign had taken full advantage of Poshard's endorsement, they could have moved significant numbers.
Costello lined up the endorsements of the productive Madison and St. Clair Democratic organizations. He also locked up the endorsement of popular former Sen. Alan J. Dixon (D-Ill.), who came through at a critical time for Blagojevich. If Blagojevich goes on to win the governorship, there is no doubt that Costello will have major influence in his administration.
Costello has statewide ambitions but dropped plans to run for secretary of state when a federal judge ruled in 1997 that he was an " unindicted co-conspirator " for his alleged role in trying to build an Indian casino.
Federal prosecutors alleged that Costello had a financial interest in the proposed casino. Costello has vehemently denied these allegations. But this controversy has put a cloud over his hopes to run for statewide office.
Blagojevich's victory in last month's primary is also a triumph for Costello. From now on, he's a force to be reckoned with in statewide Democratic politics.