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And now for something completely different

Bill Foster

Yes, in the aftermath of March 4, Barack Obama got decisive wins in Wyoming and Mississippi, and loads of fur flew when Geraldine Ferraro said that Obama would not be where he is today if he were white (to which some answered, you’re right, he’d have wrapped up the nomination already), and then it was revealed that Obama’s pastor had said some not-so-nice things about white America.

But since Ferraro stepped down, refusing to apologize, and Obama gave a significant speech on race and politics just today, I’m not going any further into these controversies. See, I’m funny like that, I think that the election should be about the candidates’ policies, not their skin color or gender.

But something else happened in electoral politics in the past couple of weeks that got a little bit less attention than the gaffes by campaign supporters.

Former Republican Speaker of the House of Representatives Dennis Hastert, who lost his position to Nancy Pelosi when the Democrats cleaned up in 2006, retired mid-term, forcing his Illinois district to hold a special election to replace him.

The 14th district was traditionally Republican–you don’t want your Speaker to be in an unsafe seat, after all. But the special election was won by a Democrat, Bill Foster, a physicist and businessman who ran a largely self-funded campaign and was endorsed by Barack Obama. Foster has a Ph.D. in physics from Harvard and worked for the Fermi Lab for 22 years before deciding to volunteer in 2006 to help Iraq War veteran Patrick Murphy win his Congressional race–also in a traditionally Republican area, Bucks County, Pennsylvania.

Foster then decided to run for Congress in his own home district, and achieved a Democratic dream–taking over the seat of the former Speaker of the House. It’s a huge symbolic win, and one that shows what the Democrats are hoping to achieve in November, if they can get the press to stop talking about racial divides long enough to pay attention.

I don’t know much about Illinois politics, so I found someone who did. Hiram Wurf ran was the Democratic candidate for the DuPage County Board District 5 in 2004, earning the Chicago Tribune’s endorsement in the general election.

He now leads the DuPage section of Democracy for Illinois, a state group embracing socially progressive and fiscally conservative policies that was inspired by Democracy for America, a group dedicated to similar ideals. Hiram also serves as Secretary of the Naperville Township Democratic Organization. He works as a non-profit development and marketing consultant and blogs at

He was an early supporter of Bill Foster, largely because of Foster’s positions on health care, getting out of Iraq, and, importantly, Foster’s support for the reinstatement of the estate tax–despite the fact that as a wealthy man, he will owe it himself.

Hiram gave me better information on the Foster campaign and the political scene in the area, which I’m passing on to you.

Kaffeine Buzz: Can you tell me more about the campaign? From the point of view of someone from the area?

Hiram Wurf: The campaign started out with Democrat Jotham Stein announcing while Dennis Hastert was rumored (but only rumored) to be considering retiring, perhaps before the end of his term. Jotham was new to the district, Jewish in an area that isn’t particularly Jewish and had little to recommend him (no organization, Democratic history, etc) other than being a business lawyer and having academically taught American policy.

At the time it was thought John Laesch (2006 Democratic nominee) would run again and that one of the few Democratic State Representatives in the area, Linda Chapa LaVia from Aurora, would run (she’s considered a very up and coming Latina who won a few terms ago by busting her butt going door to door in a district that was thought unwinnable and long held by GOP).

Linda was making the rounds of the district (places like DeKalb that are out of her state rep district) but made the strategic mistake of saying she wouldn’t run against Hastert – so she and her campaign (even with a congressional campaign website) waited, and waited and waited but Hastert waited too.

Meanwhile Bill Foster, who had lived for decades in the area (worked at Fermi Lab as a research scientist) and in 2006 helped Pennsylvania’s Patrick Murphy become Congressman, decided to run. John Laesch then finally jumped in late – and a week later (end of second quarter of fundraising) went off for a week to get married to Jen, a campaign worker from 2006. It meant in political terms that he was starting out late in a race that was going to be expensive when Laesch hadn’t raised all that much the last time (around 300K or so for the general in 2006).

Assumption at this point was that if Linda is in she’s the favorite and will raise a ton, that Foster who can self-finance will raise a ton and might be competitive, Stein may or may not be able to raise some money and may or may not be competitive (he’s at least visibly working hard, if not always smart), Laesch has to raise more than he ever has but should have one of the better independent political organizations plus backing of some national blogger types – and two other candidates both may run but will be very marginal. Linda dropped out. Stein showed he can’t/won’t raise much, and Foster became the favorite.

Increasingly the race was between Foster and Laesch. In the primary and special election (both held normal primary day in IL) Foster wins – but only by under 400 or so in the primary (few thousand for special election). John Laesch considered challenging with recount on the primary which, if he won, would have meant Foster was the Dem nominee to finish Hastert term and Laesch nominee for 2008 election (normal one).

In the end Laesch declined the recount. Foster beat Jim Oberweis, GOP candidate who fought a nasty fight with another conservative, State Senator Chris Lauzen. Lauzen still has not endorsed Oberweis – and says Oberweis owes him (Lauzen) an apology for suggesting Lauzen was unethical.

KB: I know Barack Obama did commercials for Foster and has endorsed him. How much of an effect do you think that had on his vote?

HW: Certainly it helped – probably by helping sway the alienated Republicans in the area plus independents. U.S. Senator Durbin was also helpful towards the end with fundraising among other things.

KB: NPR mentioned demographic changes in the district that led to a Democratic victory. Do you see that as the biggest part of his win, or do you think people who may have voted for Hastert actually voted for Foster? In other words, do you see this as a sign that former Republicans are frustrated with their party?

HW: Former (and current) Republicans are frustrated with their party and with Jim Oberweis. Take a look at what Chris Lauzen (Oberweis opponent losing in the primary) sent out post-primary defeat (read the fundraising letter I write about here)

Here’s what I’ve written about the demographic changes:

“DuPage has turned increasingly Democratic as people from around the country move here and people from Chicago move to the suburbs. As DuPage loses older residents it tends to lose more Republicans. While demographics alone likely would produce competitive races over time, political considerations accelerate the trend.” (From

KB: Can you tell me a little more about Foster’s Republican opponent? I know he’d run losing campaigns in the past, but not much else.

HW: Oberweis inherited a successful dairy operation (ice cream shops, home milk and grocery delivery) and became an investor. He’s spent 9 million now running the following campaigns: 2002 U.S. Senate, 2004 U.S. Senate, 2006 Governor and then this congressional race – lost all of them so far.

He has varied from pro-choice to pro-life conservative and has a nasty reputation when it comes to immigration (infamous ad of him in this post).

Also known for violating campaign finance laws pretty much every campaign, at times being a bit loose with the truth and at times being vicious in his campaign tactics. He’s alienated a lot of Republicans, not just Democrats and independents. Because he’s a self-funder the GOP has a hard time saying no to him – it’s not like they can withhold money from him.

Bill Foster got to participate in a key House ethics vote in his first hours in Congress. He was the deciding vote in a procedural roll call that would have allowed House members to kill the ethics reform without having to go on record as voting against it. The bill ended up passing, 229-182.

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