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Wednesday, Oct. 18, 2006 02:02 pm

Bellwether

Political climate will dictate who wins in the 99th

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One way to measure the difference between the candidates for Illinois’ 99th House District is paperwork.

Let me explain:

When Republican state Rep. Raymond Poe, R-99th District, visited the offices of Illinois Times, he brought along an assistant and a few sheets’ worth of talking points outlining his legislative accomplishments.

By contrast, his Democratic opponent, first-term Sangamon County Board member Sam Cahnman, goes into interviews armed with documents he’s authored over the years — everything from newspaper op-eds to white papers he’s delivered — and he’s eager to make additional copies.

Poe is a farmer by trade (he considers himself a full-time legislator), Cahnman an attorney.

Cahnman’s mountain of paperwork perhaps represents the uphill battle he faces to unseat a popular incumbent.

The 99th is a swing district (before Poe won in 1994, Vickie Moseley, a Democrat, held the seat), located wholly within the boundaries of the steadfastly Republican Sangamon County in a Democratic-leaning state.

Right now, the Democrats control the General Assembly, which includes a 65-53-seat majority over Republicans in the House.

Poe is in that minority, and conventional thinking suggests that a Democrat might be better suited to make sure that the 99th, which includes a large portion of Springfield, receives its fair share.

Poe, however, doesn’t see it that way.

“This governor don’t work with Democratic legislators, either,” he says.

On that note, Cahnman can sympathize with his foe, although he believes that the odds against Poe in the Legislature aren’t nearly as long as those Cahnman faces as one of four Democrats on the 28-member Sangamon County Board.

Cahnman says that Poe has never been in a real race, and he calls his opponent’s election in 1994, when the GOP took control of both chambers of the U.S. Congress and the Illinois General Assembly, a fluke.

“His bus ads say ‘proven leadership,’ but what has he led on? I can’t think of one thing that he’s been a leader on in the Illinois Legislature,” Cahnman says.

Among his accomplishments Poe lists work on domestic-violence issues, including increased funding for women’s shelters, and medical-malpractice reform in which the amount that can be awarded for pain and suffering has been capped.

Poe has also donated his per diem — about $40,000, by his count — to various local charities and says he’s especially proud of the fact that he’s known for his accessibility to constituents.

With Election Day just three Tuesdays away, Poe and Cahnman both hope that the election becomes a referendum on the current political climate — but that depends on which climate you’re talking about.

Poe says he believes that the election will be a referendum on Gov. Rod Blagojevich, whose administration is under investigation for allegations of endemic hiring fraud.

With the recent indictment of Blagojevich associate Tony Rezko and the impending trial of millionaire political contributor Stuart Levine, Poe may get his wish.

Meanwhile, Cahnman is banking on a ’94-style landslide — this time in the Dems’ favor — and the fact that, historically, the sixth year of a presidency is a bad year for incumbents.

Helping Cahnman’s cause is the recent scandal involving former U.S. Rep. Mark Foley, R-Fla., which Democrats are painting as a GOP cover-up.

In 1996, Cahnman sought the Democratic nomination for a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives. He lost that bid to state Rep. Jay Hoffman, who in turn was defeated in the general election by Republican John Shimkus, who’s now ensnared in the Foley scandal.

Cahnman’s also been a candidate for the Springfield Park District board, the Sangamon County Board (to which he was elected in 2002), and twice for the Illinois General Assembly, in the 100th District and now the 99th.

But as Cahnman has changed, Poe has remained the same.

Poe, who briefly considered running for lieutenant governor, has used the same campaign slogan — “Think Poe” — since 1994, when he was first elected.

For Cahnman’s part, he switched up the pronunciation of his surname from “CON-man” to “CAN-mun,” he says, because he’s “the man who can.”

Recently he also replaced the green-and-white campaign signs he used during the primary with new Illini-themed signage with orange and navy blue lettering.

As he did in the Democratic primary, in which he delivered a surprising defeat to Springfield Ward 4 Ald. Chuck Redpath, Cahnman is staking his race on the institution of a secret open primary to replace the current closed system.

A referendum on the idea, which Cahnman helped put on the ballot in the most recent primary, received overwhelming support from Springfield voters.

Cahnman accuses Poe of doing nothing on the open primary for 14 years.

“If there’s a mandate, I’ll support it,” Poe says, “but [Cahnman] isn’t reinventing water here.”

Cahnman has challenged Poe to a series of public debates, but Poe says he’d be more amenable to a radio debate.

No such meeting between the candidates has been scheduled.

Contact R.L. Nave at rnave@illinoistimes.com.

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