If you can take your eyes off of the presidential race for a few minutes … JTA’s Jacob Berkman is on the road in Chicago to provide some coverage for a very interesting, little noticed congressional primary. The Democratic race pits Dan Seals, a local up-and-comer, against Jay Footlik, a veteran of the Clinton administration and the Kerry campaign who focused on Middle East issues and outreach to the Jewish community.
To boot, the incumbent, Mark Kirk, commands support from many pro-Israel donors across the country who view his a staunch ally of Jerusalem.
Seals almost beat him in 2006, so people assumed there would be a rematch this year. But Footlik decided to head back to his home state and challenge Seals in the Dem primary. He boasts big-name endorsements and financial support from out-of-state Jews.
Here’s Jacob’s first dispatch (more to come after his interview with Footlik today and a second debate tonight) …
Just outside Chicago, Lincolnshire, Ill., is a long way from the political spotlight in Iowa and New Hampshire, but a key Congressional race for democrats heated up here last night as two wannabe lawmakers sparred in what is shaping up as an off Broadway version of the Hillary-Obama fight.
Democratic hopefuls Daniel Seals and Jay Footlik went at each other in the auditorium of Adlai E. Stevenson High School. It was their first lengthy debate as they vie in a primary election to see who gets the chance to try to knock off U.S. Rep. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.), who has held the 10th District seat since 2000.
Most of the country is focused on the presidential primaries, but Democratic insiders are keeping an eye on the Seals-Footlik showdown, convinced that the party can wrest the seat from Kirk in November, strengthening its grip on the U.S. House of Representatives.
That hope is based largely on the 2006 campaign Seals ran against Kirk. Under-funded and under exposed, Seals surprisingly took 47 percent of the vote against Kirk last time around. That showing has also made him the resounding early favorite in the primary and has given him almost across the board backing from the state’s elected democrats and higher levels of financial support than he received in his first go-round.
The race is interesting to Jewish political mavens on several levels.
First, the incumbent, Kirk, is known as one of the House’s strongest supporters of Israel. He has the financial backing of several pro-Israel political action committees, including the country’s largest, the New Jersey based-Norpac. In Illinois, Jacpac, a women’s pro-Israel PAC, is in his corner. Norpac’s president, Dr. Ben Chouake, ranks Kirk in his top five Israel supporters in the House and is organizing a fund-raiser for him on Sunday in Jersey. In short, among a certain class of single-issue pro-Israel political donors, many believe that unseating Kirk is bad for the Jews.
Footlik, who is Jewish, is well-known to the politically aware Jewish community for his work in national politics. He was a longtime Clinton aid, focused on foreign policy and the Middle East peace process.
Then, during the 2004 presidential campaign, he was a special adviser to John Kerry, responsible for devising Kerry’s Middle East policy and served as Kerry’s liaison to the Jewish community.
A former childhood actor, who had roles in such flicks as Teen Wolf and Iron Eagle, Footlik is married to a former Israeli model. He has used his relationships from his Clinton and Kerry years to raise more than $400,000, much of it from Jews.
Footlik has been criticized early on for what some see as his over-the-top efforts to target the Jewish vote. One recent mailing to residents of the 10th district –- which is home to nearly half of the Chicago area’s 270,000 Jews –- declared that one would have to be “meshuga” not to vote for Footlik.
On the national level, the wonks watching this race are not giving Footlik much of a shot, as polls in October showed Seals winning big.
“He is personable, articulate, smart. He is the kind of guy, who when you sit in a room with him, you go, ‘Wow. He is thoughtful,'” Stu Rothenberg, who publishes the national newsletter The Rothenberg Report, told JTA. “He is Barak Obama without the Kenya connection.”
And in a sit down with JTA on Wednesday at his campaign headquarters in a strip mall in Deerfield, Seals lived up to that reputation.
Seals, whose father played pro-football for the Chicago Bears, spoke warmly about his childhood experience as a non-Jew attending a JCC camp. “Until then, I thought a dreidel was just a top,” he said.
Seals deftly threw out Jewish political keywords such as “tikun Olam.” And he said that Jews tend to get “short shrift” because they are so often viewed as a one-issue demographic, that issue being Israel.
Sounding like Obama, he said that he would not engage in any bashing of Footlik, though he was dismissive of his rival’s chances.
One resident of the district told JTA before the debate at Stevenson that he heard that Seals has refused to spend any money so far in his race against Footlik because he does not view him as a challenger.
Some Democrats are angry at Footlik for challenging Seals, according to a local party activist who wished to remain anonymous. The fear, according to the activist, is that in comparison to Footlik, Seals will look weak on Israel –- a potential problem down the road against Kirk, in a district where Jews could end up accounting for an estimated 30 percent of the votes cast.
A few Seals backers even suggest that Footlik may have been coerced into running by Kirk supporters, whose real goal was to weaken Seals.
“There are all kinds of conspiracy theories out there,” David Robin, a former Seals supporter, who is now backing Footlik, said after the debate.
Footlik did well at the debate. While Seals is personable and does well in a small setting, Footlik was clearly the more polished debater. He repeatedly seemed to have the upper hand, often supplying more in depth answers with a crisper delivery.
And he also seemed to do a better job working the crowd, made up primarily of seniors at Stevenson High.
Standing behind a podium, with a campaign banner that read “Jay Footlik: Funny Name. Serious Candidate,” Footlik caught their ear with his reason for running for Congress.
“Some childhood stars crash their cars. Others shave their heads,” he
said, playing on his childhood acting days. “I am running for Congress.”