Blagojevich Defeats Vallas in Tight Illinois Primary Win

By Joetta L. Sack — March 27, 2002 3 min read
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U.S. Rep. Rod R. Blagojevich edged out former Chicago schools chief Paul G. Vallas last week in the Democratic primary race to become the next governor of Illinois.

Mr. Blagojevich, who won with 37 percent of the vote, will face Republican Jim Ryan, the state attorney general, in November in what is expected to be one of the nation’s most closely contested state races.

Mr. Vallas received 34 percent of the Democratic primary vote March 19, with a former Illinois attorney general, Roland Burris, garnering 29 percent.

During his six years as Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley’s appointee to run the nation’s third-largest school district, Mr. Vallas gained widespread attention from educators and school policymakers around the country. He had been in third place in the Democratic field, according to polls, but enjoyed a surge in the campaign’s home stretch, as he began television ads and was endorsed by most of the state’s major newspapers, including the Chicago Tribune. (“Former Chicago Schools Chief in Tight Race for Governor,” March 13, 2002.)

But Mr. Vallas was never able to secure a majority of voters in Chicago, where Mr. Burris had the strongest showing after winning the endorsements of the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson and his son, U.S. Rep. Jesse L. Jackson Jr., D-Ill.

In the downstate areas, meanwhile, Rep. Blagojevich had what analysts called a surprisingly strong showing, attributed to heavy spending on TV advertising. Mr. Vallas gathered a majority of Democratic votes in suburban areas.

“It’s been a great, great campaign,” Mr. Vallas said in his concession speech. “We got beat because we just didn’t have the numbers downstate.”

Mr. Vallas called on Democrats to unite and support his former opponent to oust Republicans from the governor’s office, which they have held for more than two decades. “For 25 years, the Republicans in Springfield have sold us out. ... I say it’s time for a change,” he said.

Mr. Blagojevich, who had won the endorsement of the Illinois Federation of Teachers, the state’s main teachers’ union, said during his campaign that there was too much disparity in achievement between Chicago’s inner-city schools and nearby suburban schools. He called for more funding, early-childhood-education programs, the recruitment of more teachers, and stronger accountability to address the problem.

“We can increase accountability now with schools without a mindless rush to testing, and we will,” the Democratic nominee said in his victory speech.

He attacked Attorney General Ryan as too conservative and “out of step with mainstream values,” themes Mr. Blagojevich will likely continue to use in the campaign.

Republican Winner

Although the Democratic hopefuls sparred on education and other issues, the Republicans had a far more contentious race. Leading up to the primary, Lt. Gov. Corinne Wood and state Sen. Patrick J. O’Malley had pounded Attorney General Ryan in their commercials. In the end, however, Mr. Ryan easily won the GOP primary with 45 percent of the vote.

Mr. Ryan, like Mr. Blagojevich, has called for more funding for education. Political observers suggest he has focused on education, in part, to deflect attention from parts of his socially conservative platform that may not play well with moderate voters.

In his victory speech last week, Mr. Ryan thanked his family and volunteers, but did not discuss any issues or his opponents.

Although he always held a significant lead in the polls, Mr. Ryan had a tougher primary race because his two opponents ganged up on him with aggressive attack campaigns.

Although Attorney General Ryan is no relation to Gov. George Ryan, the embattled and unpopular retiring chief executive, Mr. O’Malley ran television ads that compared the two and morphed their faces together. Ms. Wood, a moderate, homed in on the attorney general’s opposition to abortion.

A week before the primary election, Mr. Ryan said his opponents had sent the GOP race “into the toilet now” with their attacks.

In other Illinois races, Democrats are hoping to take control of the state Senate, after two longtime Republican senators were defeated because of redistricting.

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A version of this article appeared in the March 27, 2002 edition of Education Week as Blagojevich Defeats Vallas in Tight Illinois Primary Win


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