Could a Political Newcomer Unseat Illinois’s Most Conservative Democrat?

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Marie Newman has never run for anything, ever, in her 53 years. Not for village board in La Grange, where she lives. Not for the library board. Not even for class president when she was a student at Carl Sandburg High School in Orland Park. Nonetheless, she’s certain she can be the one to finally unseat Dan Lipinski, a seven-term incumbent in the 3rd Congressional District, in the March 20 Democratic primary.

She’s not totally nuts to think she can pull it off. Newman is basking in the endorsements of feminist icon Gloria Steinem, New York senator Kirsten Gillibrand, and groups advocating for women, such as NARAL Pro-Choice America and the Feminist Majority Foundation. She’s also running with the hurricane of #MeToo at her back. The businesswoman and mother of two wonders why women would vote for Lipinski, a “radical extremist … on a crusade against women” who’s voted to defund Planned Parenthood and cosponsored legislation that would allow businesses to discriminate against LGBT people.

As for Lipinski, 51, he seems slightly annoyed when I list Newman’s backers. “What really matters is what goes on in the district,” says the Western Springs resident, rattling off his support from most suburban mayors and city aldermen in the 3rd District. The congressman, often called the most conservative Democrat in the House, is not accustomed to competition. Thanks to backing from Illinois House speaker Mike Madigan and the unions that join him, Lipinski has skated through elections since 2004, facing realistic challengers in the Democratic primary only twice, in 2006 and 2008.

Newman is polling at just 18 percent to Lipinski’s 49 percent, according to numbers released in January by Normington, Petts & Associates. But that’s with 33 percent undecided. After those pollsters then gave respondents a rundown of Lipinski’s record on LGBT issues and immigration, Newman actually moved ahead, 39 percent to 34 percent. The message: Many voters don’t realize how conservative Lipinski is. Often referred to as a “Trump Democrat,” he voted with the president’s agenda more than 30 percent of the time last year, according to analysis by FiveThirtyEight.

Newman, who ran a home-based marketing consulting business until she launched her campaign, presents herself as a warrior for working families; she seeks a $15 minimum hourly wage, Medicare for all, and a pathway to citizenship for immigrants. Why run now? The current political climate made the race seem winnable, she says: “People are so desperate to get this guy out.” The majority white and largely working-class 3rd District covers parts of the Southwest Side, including Bridgeport and Beverly, before swinging out to the near west and southwest suburbs, among them Lockport, Orland Park, and La Grange. Whoever wins the primary is certain to be the next district representative. No viable Republican has filed.

Despite the low initial poll numbers, Democratic media strategist Terrie Pickerill insists that Newman “could be at the right place at the right time.” She cites “pushback against Trump” and the fact that women, energized by the #MeToo movement, could vote in higher numbers. “When they see the names Daniel and Marie on the ballot, they may decide, ‘I’m going to vote for the woman,’ ” she says.

Resistance is brewing in the district. Lipinski held two fiery town halls in 2017 that showed in nearly equal measure why constituents are frustrated and why they keep electing him. Reporter Jean Lotus, formerly of the Cook County Chronicle, told me that an anti-abortion campaigner at one thanked Lipinski for sticking to his beliefs on abortion, while another attendee, a man married to a man, derided him for opposing same-sex marriage. Yes, Lipinski admits, the events can get intense. “Some people in the audience were screaming,” he says. “They have always been lively, but they have gotten worse, to the point that constituents tell me that they don’t show up because they’re afraid if they ask a question, they’ll get yelled at.” But that high emotion might reflect the disillusionment.

Newman’s best shot at showing voters the difference between her agenda and Lipinski’s is through a debate, but he’s yet to agree to the series of five to which she’s challenged him. Lipinski says he has debated his opponents in the past and insists he’ll do so this time, as well. If the debates happen, he’ll likely present himself as quasi-progressive Dan 2.0, an image he began rolling out last year. Democratic consultant Tom Bowen, who briefly helped Newman launch her campaign, says the congressman has “clearly seen the light and understands that national progressive groups are trying to topple him.” Last year, Lipinski, one of three Democrats still in the House who rejected the Affordable Care Act in 2010, voted against repealing it. He’s also changed course on immigration, supporting Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, the successor to President Obama’s DREAM Act, which he voted against in 2010.

Nonetheless, Northwestern University political science professor Jaime Dominguez says Newman has a “tough climb” in the historically socially conservative district. It’s about one-third Hispanic, but, says Dominguez, white blue-collar voters are more likely to head to the polls. “Her challenge is to get new voters to the polls,” because the traditional voters are going to go for Lipinski, he says. Lipinski also has money in his favor—$1.5 million at the close of the third quarter last year, to Newman’s nearly $98,000. If Newman persuades Gillibrand and Steinem to rally voters at fundraisers in the district, that could be a game-changer, says Bowen: Their presence could help attract “both low-dollar and online givers” as well as “insiders and elites.” Yes, but they could also turn off some voters for being too progressive. Then again, Hillary Clinton won the district by 15.5 points.

Even with the #MeToo-stoked rage of women fed up with the status quo, Newman is a long shot. But if she’s able to reach more millennials, working women, and single moms, she could still send Lipinski a very strong message: Times are changing in the 3rd District.

I ask Newman what she’ll do if she loses. She momentarily contemplates the question, then snaps back: “Just for the record, I am going to win.”

Breaking Ranks

Democrat Dan Lipinski regularly votes against his party. Here, a few examples from last year.

Dan LipinskiPhoto: Antonio Perez/Chicago Tribune

Abortion: In January, he was one of only three Dems to vote for making the Hyde Amendment, which bans the use of federal funds for abortions, permanent. A month later, he voted to allow state and local governments to withhold federal funds from health care facilities that perform these procedures—like Planned Parenthood. And in October, he voted to prohibit abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy.

Drug testing: He was one of four Democrats to support a bill in February that allows states to require drug tests before paying out unemployment benefits.

Flood insurance: The bill, which withered in the Senate, would have cut federal costs for the National Flood Insurance Program—but would have significantly raised premiums.

Immigration: He supported bills that called for deporting immigrants with suspected gang ties and established mandatory minimum sentences for undocumented immigrants who reenter the United States after convictions for serious crimes.

This article appears in the February 2018 issue of Chicago magazine. Subscribe to Chicago magazine.

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