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Wednesday, Dec. 20, 2006 01:01 am

Where was Watson?

GOP Legislative leader was in Italy just before the election

Losing five state Senate seats, ending up on the wrong end of a veto-proof majority, is bound to be the source of a lot of second-guessing and finger-pointing. But Senate Republican Leader Frank Watson probably did himself no favors by going to Europe for 10 days just a month before the November election.

Watson spokeswoman Patti Schuh did her level best to tamp down this story last week, and she made a few good points. Watson, she stressed, called in every day from Europe to check up on things, much as he would have done if he had been in his Decatur or Greenville district offices. “He was in constant communication by telephone, by e-mail.”

Watson, Schuh said, is “the head of the campaign committee, not the head of the any particular campaign. . . . He doesn’t micromanage every decision.” There was, she said, “never any lack of communication.”

Schuh claimed that Watson was attending a National Conference of State Legislatures event in Italy with NCSL president and fellow state Sen. Steve Rauschenberger. Schuh said last week that her boss was out of the country for “10 days or so.”

The trip has been rumored for weeks, but some of Watson’s members apparently didn’t know for sure about the out-of-country experience before voting to reelect him as Senate GOP Leader during the second week of the fall veto session. Watson faced no opposition in that race and was unanimously reelected.

Schuh said she was “positive” that a caucus leader’s leaving the state so soon before an election has “happened before,” but spokespersons for the other legislative leaders said they could not think of a time when it has occurred. One high-level staffer, who asked not to be named because of the sensitivity of the matter, said his boss “felt guilty about taking a day off” during the campaign season. Schuh stressed that Watson’s trip wasn’t a vacation, though.

Some lobbyists and former staff members have been quietly grumbling about the trip since they first heard about it, but most have conceded that it probably didn’t make a lot of difference in the election’s outcome.

Watson’s organization was swamped by a national Democratic wave in a year when national issues prevailed and the top of his Republican Party’s state ticket was blown out of the water. His direct-mail program was inferior to the Senate Democratic program, his candidates weren’t as strong as the other side’s, his polling was deficient (Watson was reportedly confident until the very end that former GOP Sen. Judy Myers would win handily in her Champaign-Danville district, but she lost), and he got outspent by Senate President Emil Jones, who pulled out all the fundraising stops.

Schuh pointed out that Watson had visited every one of the targeted districts at least once during the campaign, something that not every caucus leader does. House Speaker Michael Madigan, for instance, is not exactly known for getting out and about in the hinterlands. “Frank makes the rounds,” Schuh stressed. Before he left for Europe, she noted, Watson transferred “over a million dollars” from his personal campaign fund to the Senate Republican’s campaign committee.

Still, I’ve talked to some of Watson’s members who are just furious about his trip. What bothers them the most is that they and their volunteers were in some of the more hotly contested districts, walking precincts and doing other work, while Watson was in Europe. Important meetings or not, a legislative leader’s top job — perhaps his only job — during campaign season is making sure his caucus does well at the polls.

So even if he ran all his traps before he left and checked in every day, Watson nevertheless left the field of battle, and that fact has most definitely rankled some of his members. If he was in one of his downstate offices and crisis struck, he could have been in Springfield or in the district in question within a few hours at most. He couldn’t have done that from Europe.

Considering all the backstage fussing about this right now, I doubt Watson will ever leave the country again a month before an election.

Rich Miller publishes Capitol Fax, a daily political newsletter. He can be reached at thecapitolfaxblog.com.

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