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Thursday, July 21, 2005 07:01 pm

Gidwitz’s problem

The level of arrogance and political stupidity exhibited by wealthy office-seekers never ceases to amaze me.

Long before the media got wind of it last year, much of Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Blair Hull’s top staff knew about the police report alleging that Hull struck his then-wife during a late-night argument. Some of those staffers, particularly the high-paid D.C. consultants, were dead-set against going public early about the charges. If an early revelation had killed off Hull’s candidacy, it would have meant the end of their boffo monthly paychecks. Hull, a political novice without a whole lot of common sense, listened to the vultures and paid a heavy price — both monetarily and electorally.

Jack Ryan sought out reporters as long ago as the 2000 Republican National Convention to ask, without revealing too much, what they thought about a potential skeleton in his closet. He also asked the advice of top Republicans in 2000 — four years before the GOP U.S. Senate primary — about whether the media would try to delve into partially locked secrets in his past.

Ryan decided to lie and spend a fortune. But the damaging info about his sex-club jaunts came out anyway and exposed Ryan as someone who couldn’t bring himself to tell the truth. Like Hull, Ryan couldn’t buy his way out of trouble, and he was forced to resign from the ticket in disgrace.

Almost exactly one year after the Jack Ryan debacle, we have yet another millionaire candidate on the verge of self-immolation: Ron Gidwitz, a Republican candidate for governor.

A Gidwitz-family company manages a hellhole of an apartment complex in downtown Joliet. Gidwitz also partially owns the building. Congressman Jerry Weller, a fellow Republican, recently told the Daily Southtown that the property is an “unsafe, unhealthy, crime- and drug-ridden, outdated public-housing project.” Weller has been working with Joliet to shut the place down and turn it into a mixed-income development.

Gidwitz is a well-known philanthropist, and he seems defensive when questioned by the media about the project, claiming that he is trying to do good for the poor of Joliet. But the place is obviously a mess, and Gidwitz admitted to the Daily Southtown recently that he hasn’t even bothered to visit the apartment complex “in a long time.”

With the Joliet paper, local ministers and prominent civic leaders condemning the building as a rathole — enough to fill hours of negative TV ads with amazingly frank and damaging quotes — you would have thought that Gidwitz would have dumped the dump long before deciding to run for governor. But that would have been the easy way out, not to mention the politically smart thing to do.

Instead, Gidwitz, like Hull and Ryan before him, believes that he can go his own way. Perhaps he’s hoping that his money will extricate him from this mess. Money solves a lot of problems in this life, but, as Hull and Ryan discovered just last year, all the money in the world can’t buy an unknown candidate’s way out of big-time media trouble.

If many voters already knew who he was and had a high opinion of him, this Joliet situation might not be such a big deal. But Gidwitz was at 1 percent in the most recent Republican primary poll. Despite chairing the Illinois State Board of Education and all of his other philanthropic work, there is no well of goodwill out there for Gidwitz to draw from.

Gidwitz probably should have waited before he started running television ads across the state this week. It doesn’t make any sense for a candidate to hand over a bunch of cash to an ad-placement consultant if he won’t first deal with reality. And the harsh political reality is that if Ron Gidwitz doesn’t fix this very real Joliet problem, he has virtually no chance of winning next year, no matter how many TV ads he buys. It’s as simple as that.

Politics is not a terribly difficult game. But if a candidate won’t come to the realization that part of his existence is potentially repugnant to voters and then refuses to take the necessary steps to change the reality on the ground, that candidate is hopeless — useful only as a pigeon to be plucked clean by the consultant class.

Just ask Blair Hull and Jack Ryan.

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