A key congressional Democratic primary in the suburbs here is playing out like an off-Broadway version of Hillary-Obama — with a Jewish twist.
The hopefuls, Daniel Seals and Jay Footlik, tangled in three debates as they vied for the chance to unseat U.S. Rep. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.), who has held the 10th District seat since 2000.
Campaign finance records show the scramble in the heavily Jewish district shaping up to be one of the country’s most expensive races.
Democratic insiders are closely monitoring the Seals-Footlik showdown, convinced the party can wrest the seat from Kirk in November, but also worried that a bitter and expensive fight could damage whomever is left standing after the Feb. 5 primary.
Their hope for victory is based largely on the 2006 campaign Seals waged against Kirk. Little known and underfunded, Seals still won 47 percent of the vote.
The ’08 race is interesting to Jewish political mavens on several levels.
Kirk is known as one of the staunchest supporters of Israel in the House of Representatives and has the financial backing of several pro-Israel political action committees, including the country’s largest, the New Jersey-based Norpac. In Illinois he has the support of Jacpac, a women’s pro-Israel PAC.
Among a class of single-issue pro-Israel political donors, many believe that unseating Kirk is bad for the Jews — especially since he could someday be in line for the secretary of defense job, according to Norpacâ€™s president, Dr. Ben Chouake.
Footlik, however, is also a familiar face to Jewish activists and communal leaders.
In the 1990s he was an aide to President Clinton focused on foreign policy and the Middle East peace process, and served as the White House’s liaison to the Jewish community. During the 2004 presidential campaign he played similar roles for Democratic candidate John Kerry.
It is likely that few congressional candidates have as many deep personal ties to Israel as the 42-year-old Footlik.
His wife, Grace, is an Israeli he met while living in Tel Aviv and working for a think tank started by current Israeli President Shimon Peres. His business partner is Yuval Rabin, the son of the slain prime minister Yitzhak Rabin.
Not to mention that he wears a red bendel — Footlik says his wife makes him wear the Kabbalah string.
Footlik tells of dining at a cafe in Haifa with his wifeâ€™s family two years ago and hearing the first two rockets Hezbollah fired into Israel during the Second Lebanon War.
His family experienced difficult times during Footlik’s childhood in Skokie, a heavily Jewish neighborhood.
Footlik’s father abandoned the family when his wife, Koreene, became pregnant with Footlik’s younger brother. Footlik is loath to utter his father’s name even today.
The boys and their mother struggled to live on the salary Koreene made working in a doctorâ€™s office. Footlik says he often did not have medical insurance and was forced to run up tremendous debt to pay for his education â€“ two reasons he cites for putting health care and Pell grants at the top on his domestic agenda.
As a child he helped the family make ends meet by working as an actor, nabbing roles in such early 1980s films as “Teen Wolf” and “Iron Eagle.” Footlik says he earned more than his mother and took some of that money to pay for his bar mitzvah.
Years later he is bringing money into his campaign from Jews across the country, using his relationships from the Clinton and Kerry years to raise more than $500,000.
As of Sept. 30, Footlik had raised about 80 percent of his campaign funds from out of state. In sharp contrast, 97 percent of Seals’ donations and 93 percent of Kirk’s are from in-state contributors.
Footlik has garnered the endorsement of a several high-profile Jewish figures, including Harvard Law professor Alan Dershowitz, media mogul Mort Zuckerman, former U.S. restitution negotiator Stuart Eizenstat and former U.S. diplomats Dennis Ross and Martin Indyk.
â€œI make no apologies for communicating with my own community, the Jewish community,â€ he said. â€œJust like I make no apologies for communicating with the Hispanic community in Waukegan or the Asian community in Northbrook.â€
â€œI was Bill Clintonâ€™s Jewish liaison. I lived and worked in Israel during a time when most people werenâ€™t visiting Israel because buses and cafes were blowing up. My wife is Israeli and served in the IDF,â€ the Israel Defense Forces.
If Footlik is the Hillary Clinton in this primary fight, noting his role in the Clinton administration and stressing experience, then Seals is the Barack Obama, an African American promising to change Washington. In fact, Seals is supporting and has been compared to the U.S. senator from Illinois and presidential hopeful.
Seals, a 36-year-old former director at GE Capital, is a business consultant and an adjunct professor at Northwestern University. He is the son of former Chicago Bears offensive lineman George Seals.
â€œHe is personable, articulate, smart,” said Stu Rothenberg, who publishes the national newsletter The Rothenberg Political Report. “He is the kind of guy who when you sit in a room with him, you go, â€˜Wow. He is thoughtful.â€™ He is Barak Obama without the Kenya connection.â€
Seals, who attended a JCC camp for several years as a child, fared well with Jewish voters in 2006, according to observers.
The Jewish vote will be significant in the 10th District, where nearly half of the Chicago areaâ€™s 270,000 Jews live. Both Seals and Footlik estimate that Jews could account for about 30 percent of the vote.
Still, is it possible that Footlik is overplaying his Jewish hand?
In endorsing Seals, the Highland Park News criticized a Footlik mailing that featured an obviously Jewish, late-middle-aged man holding up his arms and saying: â€œIâ€™d be meshuga not to support Jay Footlik.â€
In its editorial, the newspaper claimed that the “Footlik campaignâ€™s release of a flier to Jewish residents poking fun at Footlikâ€™s Jewish background raises questions about his judgment in the serious business of running for Congress against a strong incumbent in the fall.”
The back of the flier included six photos of the candidate with an obvious appeal to Jewish voters: at the Western Wall; with Yitzhak Rabin; with Shimon Peres; in the Gaza Strip in front of a tank; with his Israeli wife and their daughter, Yarden; and with President Clinton.
A Footlik campaign spokesman said the flier was sent to Jewish households in Highland Park, the most heavily Jewish area in the district.
Footlik also has angered many local Democratic leaders with his decision to challenge 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. A few Seals backers even suggested that Footlik may have been coerced into running by Kirk supporters with an eye toward weakening Seals.
Kirk’s camp has tried to paint both Democrats as weak on Jewish issues. Last summer, one Kirk supporter sent out an e-mail criticizing Seals and Footlik for attending the annual convention of the popular liberal blog Daily Kos, citing a handful of anti-Jewish posts that had appeared on the Web site.
The National Jewish Democratic Council defended Seals and Footlik, saying both were strong on Israel.
National political observers aren’t giving Footlik much of a shot. Seals said that recent polling conducted by his campaign, albeit with a sampling of fewer than 400 Democratic voters, showed him winning handily.
But Footlik’s campaign appears to be gaining momentum â€“ a fact that even Kirk acknowledged at a Norpac fund-raiser for him in New Jersey on Sunday night.
A number of Seals’ biggest Jewish backers in 2006 have moved over to the Footlik campaign, including his finance chair during the earlier run, Anne Wedner.
The primary is generating great interest in the district. An overflow crowd of hundreds attended a debate between the candidates at New Trier High School on Jan. 10 — the second of back-to-back faceoffs.
The event, in an area generally regarded as a Seals stronghold, was organized by the district’s League of Women Voters, which in ’06 struggled to fill even half the seats in the same room for the Democratic primary debate, according to organizers.
Many of the organizers, like Paul and Debbie Rubenstein, were Footlik supporters. The Rubensteins had met Footlik on the phone 15 years ago when they wanted to donate money to Bill Clintonâ€™s first presidential campaign.
Calling Clinton campaign headquarters in Little Rock, Ark., the couple ended up speaking with Footlik, who had dropped out of law school to volunteer for the campaign.
The Rubensteins crossed paths with Footlik several times over the years when he spoke at Jewish events. They supported Seals in ’06, but now are backing Footlik.
â€œWe were conflicted,â€ Debbie Rubenstein told JTA. â€œBut I feel that he has the experience. I feel that he can express himself beautifully, and is someone who can speak from the top of his head and come up with an intelligent answer. Jay is a firecracker, and you need someone like that to beat Mark Kirk.â€