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Thursday, Feb. 23, 2006 03:29 pm

Punching Judy

Gidwitz goes negative — and the GOP leadership rallies around Topinka

The Ron Gidwitz campaign had a stark warning for Judy Baar Topinka last week: “If you think this ad is tough, just wait.” Gidwitz, who is running for governor as a Republican, aired the first negative ad of the campaign last week, then dismissed Topinka’s rebuttals as mere whining and vowed that he would ignore any attempt by the Illinois Republican Party to browbeat his campaign into pulling the spot. The Gidwitz ad claims that Topinka “doubled spending” in her office, approved billions in new borrowing, and proposed a sales-tax increase. Only one of the charges is completely true. The doubled-spending claim is particularly onerous and one that can’t possibly be made with a straight face. The Gidwitz campaign claims that payroll costs for the treasurer’s office have doubled since Topinka took office in 1995, an assertion that is technically true but doesn’t take into account the facts that two state programs were transferred to the treasurer’s office during that time and that she drastically reduced headcount and administrative costs after taking control. Topinka is also required by law to sign off on long-term-borrowing plans when both chambers approve and the governor signs them into law. And she did back a sales-tax increase when she was in the state Senate, but that was a compromise floated to reduce the “granny tax” on nursing-home beds. More negative ads are planned, however, and the Gidwitz campaign has broadly hinted last that the current spot is tame by comparison. During one recent conversation with the campaign, an analogy was made between the Gidwitz advertising plan and the House Republicans’ 2004 assault on former Democratic state Rep. Bill Grunloh. Grunloh, an appointed legislator, was repeatedly battered and beaten during the ’04 campaign. His brief voting record was picked apart and distorted, his family business ties were vilified, and his integrity was just about wiped out. By the end, Grunloh was reduced to publicly pleading that the negative attacks cease — pretty please. He was clobbered at the polls. But a couple of months ago, state Republican Party chairman Andy McKenna asked that all the candidates play fair and avoid negative assaults. He also indicated that he would try to referee disputes between candidates. A couple of days after the Gidwitz ad appeared, the Republican State Central Committee held an emergency meeting to discuss the Gidwitz attack. Topinka had requested the meeting. The meeting resulted in the first-ever rebuke by the committee of a GOP gubernatorial candidate, but it was immediately met with a defiant response. Gidwitz refused to pull or alter the ad. “In our opinion, questions exist about the accuracy of the charges in your current advertisement that need to be resolved,” McKenna wrote on behalf of the committee. The diplomatically worded but nonetheless unprecedented letter urged Gidwitz to produce documentation to defend his charges; if he can’t, the committee wrote, “We respectfully request that you edit the content of the message to accurately and truthfully reflect your opponent’s record.” Gidwitz eventually released a statement that accused Topinka of hiding behind “Republican Party insiders” instead of defending her record, adding, “If she can’t stand on her own two feet, she certainly can’t clean up the mess in Springfield.” Whatever happens, the reality is that far more people will see the Gidwitz ad than will hear or read about the party’s rebuke, so the conflict will stay mostly among political wonks. A political-strategist friend points out that the negative attacks will undoubtedly hurt Topinka but also doubts that Gidwitz can win. Negative ads tend to send voters flocking to other candidates, away from both the attacker and the attackee. A strong, consistently positive campaign by conservative Republican candidate Jim Oberweis, my friend says, could drive voters to him. I’m not so sure about that last part; Oberweis’ negatives are high because of his antics in previous campaigns. But unless Bill Brady, the fourth candidate in the race, can raise a whole lot of money fast, Oberweis will likely drive his numbers up with his new positive ad. Other voters may just head to the “undecided” column to wait and see what happens next. The Gidwitz campaign has been making a big deal of alleged ethics issues with Topinka, so that may be the next TV assault. Stay tuned.
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