By Harold Henderson

State comptroller and Republican U.S. Senate hopeful Loleta Didrickson was in her element at the Union League Club January 30. The club members who’d assembled for lunch in the well-upholstered seventh-floor dining room wanted to know what she would do about taxes if she succeeded in replacing Carol Moseley-Braun in Washington. Would she replace the federal income tax with a sales tax, as Congressman Bill Archer of Texas has proposed? “I would prefer a flatter income tax, like what we have in Illinois,” Didrickson replied. “I believe a sales tax is more regressive.” How about eliminating the Internal Revenue Service? That suggestion made Didrickson laugh. “I don’t think you get rid of anything at the federal level. But we can make it smarter and smaller.”

Didrickson really is who you think she is–a moderate Republican–though she avoids the phrase. No 90s conservative would use the word “regressive” to describe a fellow Republican’s tax proposal. (Not only is it a semitechnical term–a regressive tax falls more heavily on those less able to pay it–but it also could imply that taxes should to some extent be designed with poor and working people in mind.) Nor would any 90s conservative acknowledge that you can’t “get rid of anything at the federal level.”

But to get the Republican nomination and then take on Senator Moseley-Braun this fall, Didrickson must run a gauntlet of 90s conservatives. So she has to be careful not to look too much like a moderate. As a consequence she’s been careful about labels. When she declared her candidacy in November she said, “I believe in individual rights and freedoms” and referred to herself as a “Lincoln Republican.” I wondered what that meant. Was the phrase redundant? Are all Republicans Lincoln Republicans? If there are other kinds, do they advocate secession? Slavery?

“She is in the mold of Abraham Lincoln,” press secretary Edward Marshall explained. “It’s how she thinks of herself. In Illinois she thinks most mainstream Republicans are in the mold of Abraham Lincoln. If you want to read it as excluding somebody, that’s your conclusion.” (As comptroller, Didrickson did strike a blow for “individual rights and freedoms” by instituting an employment policy of not discriminating on the basis of sexual orientation.) Lately she’s taken to calling herself a “mainstream conservative.”

Didrickson’s primary opponent, state senator Peter Fitzgerald, calls her a liberal Republican and says her voting record is indistinguishable from Moseley-Braun’s. Didrickson and Moseley-Braun served together in the state house of representatives from 1983 to 1988, and in that time they voted for a number of tax and fee increases (Moseley-Braun voted for more) and took a pro-choice stance on abortion. But Didrickson is no liberal.

9 She has opposed laws that tell employers how much to pay their employees. Back in 1985 she took the lead in arguing that the state shouldn’t guarantee a minimum salary of $13,000 for teachers–in opposition to the Illinois Education Association, both houses of the state legislature, and her own governor and party leader, Jim Thompson. She believed salaries should be negotiated at the local level. At about the same time and for similar reasons, Didrickson (an ERA supporter) opposed the feminist push for “comparable worth,” or pay equity. Once thought to be the obvious next step beyond “equal pay for equal work,” pay equity would have mandated that jobs held mostly by women be paid the same as jobs dominated by men if the jobs were somehow determined to be “comparable.”

Stands like these endeared her to the Illinois State Chamber of Commerce. It rated legislators’ votes 11 times during her eight-year stint in the legislature; she never fell below a 78 percent favorable rating and was usually over 90.

9 Didrickson’s press secretary says she would “exempt families making less than $30,000” from a new flatter income tax “and do away with loopholes for the rich.” All sources of income would be treated alike. (One of her best lines is that it should take only 20 minutes to fill out your tax form, and that would include driving it to the post office.) Yet Didrickson would leave one deduction in place–the deduction for home mortgage interest. Speaking of loopholes for the rich, I wondered, would she put any ceiling on that deduction so that it would no longer provide tax windfalls for owners of million-dollar homes? Marshall: “You’re the only reporter who has asked that question.”

9 Facing an opponent with a bottomless wallet (Fitzgerald has already spent more than $6 million), Didrickson nevertheless hasn’t endorsed any of the nostrums liberals have devised to force money out of politics. The only campaign finance reforms she supports are to raise or eliminate the $1,000 ceiling on individual campaign contributions–a limit established in 1974, when you could buy a new car for $3,000–and to have all contributions disclosed promptly on the Internet. (Fitzgerald’s position is the same, even though his proposals to take competitive bids on riverboat casino licenses have gone nowhere, arguably because they threaten the big campaign contributors who now hold them.)

9 Didrickson spent over two hours late last year consulting with the Heartland Institute, a libertarian-conservative think tank in northwest suburban Palatine. It’s safe to say that Moseley-Braun will join the United Daughters of the Confederacy before she seeks advice from such quarters.

Yet as a moderate Didrickson has been vague or noncommittal on issues that Fitzgerald has definite opinions on. Should insurance companies deny coverage based on genetic testing? “We have many tough decisions to make, and I will bring my experience and insights to work on them.” (No, says Fitzgerald.) Should moderate Republican William Weld have been confirmed as ambassador to Mexico over conservative Republican Jesse Helms’s objections? Her press secretary, Marshall: “That was a long time ago–what? Last summer?” (Weld should at least have had a committee hearing, says Fitzgerald.) Should the independent-counsel law under which Kenneth Starr operates be continued? “I’d have to step back and analyze.” (Yes, says Fitzgerald.)

When Didrickson says something that has a liberal bent, she qualifies it and puts it in fiscal terms. In the candidates’ two joint televised appearances–a total of two hours’ intense talk about issues–Didrickson made the only mention of a government program to help the needy. “The federal government has a role in education, but it’s a small role. I would highlight the Head Start program. For every dollar spent at the front end we know we can save seven dollars on the out end. But education is truly a local issue.”

And when she says something of a conservative bent, she fuzzes that up too. Didrickson has described school choice as “the ultimate civil right of our day.” But school choice can mean many things, from moderate to radical–charter schools, freedom to choose which public school to attend, freedom to take your education voucher to any school, public or private (which Fitzgerald supports). Which of these very different alternatives does she have in mind as the goal of a crusade she portrays as comparable to that for civil rights? “She would like to use Washington, D.C., as a laboratory to begin experiments with charter schools and other approaches,” says her press secretary.

In fairness, Didrickson may have something more substantial to say on these issues, but she seems determined to play it safe. She didn’t make herself available for an interview, nor would she respond to written questions. In my 18 years of covering Illinois political races for cloutless alternative weeklies, the only other politician so sequestered was downstate Republican Dan Crane, who was embroiled in a sex scandal when he ran for reelection to Congress in 1984.

Most revealing of her moderation was Didrickson’s response to the last question during the candidates’ debate on February 23. “Is there a moral crisis in America?” moderator Bruce DuMont asked. Fitzgerald said yes, because high taxes have forced parents to work extra hours when they might otherwise be instilling values in their children.

No, said Didrickson. “I’d like to think that there isn’t a moral crisis in this country. As I look at my children, I like to hope and believe that I’ve instilled the same moral barometer in my children that my parents instilled in me….And I just hope that each and every one of the parents across this great country are doing the same thing. And you know what? I believe they are.”

It was a safe answer, and a soothing one. Carol Moseley-Braun might see moral crisis arising out of welfare reform and growing income inequality. Fitzgerald might see evidence of a moral crisis of another kind in an X-rated presidency and an entrenched system of favoritism to political insiders. But Didrickson doesn’t see one at all. It was the answer you might expect from a suburbanite to whom business as usual has been pretty good.

Peter Fitzgerald isn’t bedeviled by moderation or caution. On the February 25 Chicago Tonight he got in a historical mini-lecture, much to moderator John Callaway’s displeasure. Fitzgerald said, “I’m very struck by the similarities between the pro-choice arguments on abortion and the arguments made by Stephen Douglas” on the issue of slavery before the Civil War. “Douglas said he didn’t know whether black people were persons or property. Therefore he would give his friends the right to choose. I say, if there is any doubt [whether life begins at conception and therefore abortion is murder] we should err on the side of humanity, lest we make a terrible mistake.”

This analogy has power–it drew a rare round of applause from the studio audience–and it does suggest that a Lincoln Republican might not be pro-choice. But it’s hard to believe Fitzgerald’s stand will change any votes. Abortion is too personal; it’s not amenable to logic in the way an issue like free trade might be. And as Didrickson says, Fitzgerald’s view is outside the mainstream. According to the General Social Survey conducted by the University of Chicago’s National Opinion Research Center, only about one American in six agrees with Fitzgerald that a rape victim should not have access to abortion–a figure that has changed little in 25 years.

Fitzgerald also insists on judging judicial nominees and fellow Republicans on their antiabortion stance. That’s consistent. Anyone who believes that human life begins at the moment of conception would be, at the very least, hypocritical if he believed anything else. Most people–Tribune editorial writers included–aren’t willing to be that consistent, and they don’t always trust those who are. They want to make the issue of abortion more like other, more compromisable, political issues.

If Fitzgerald has painted himself into a political corner on abortion, Didrickson has done the same thing on the tax issue. She’s running because many Republicans think Fitzgerald is too conservative to win in the fall general election–that he will play Al Salvi to Carol Moseley-Braun’s Dick Durbin. But in her commercials Didrickson accuses Fitzgerald of voting “for taxes over 60 times in five years”–implying that he’s too liberal to be the Republican standard-bearer.

Needless to say, that’s not Fitzgerald’s problem. He really is who you think he is–a very conservative Republican. No moderate would rely, as he does, on the legislative rankings of National Taxpayers United of Illinois (NTUI), which are based on a mind-bogglingly simple principle (stated in their “Special Tax Survey”): “a vote against a tax or spending increase, or for a tax or spending cut, is recorded as a plus.” No moderate would call, as he has, for government regulators to keep “pornography” off the Internet.

No moderate–and few conservatives who aren’t independently wealthy–would repeatedly offend the Republican establishment by proposing that Illinois’ lucrative riverboat licenses be auctioned off rather than doled out to political favorites. No moderate would make a frontal attack on Republican kingmaker William Cellini of Springfield for failing to pay back state “loans” to his luxury hotel or Republican state treasurer Judy Baar Topinka for allegedly letting Cellini get away with it.

“I believe you choose, soon after you’re elected, just whose team you’re on,” Fitzgerald said when he announced his candidacy in October. “You either play for the insiders, or you play for the people back home. And if you play for the insiders there are plenty of rewards. They’ll give you money for your campaigns, they’ll talk you up to their pals–and, gee, maybe someday they’ll even support your Senate bid,” a none-too-gentle reference to Didrickson. “But there’s a price, you know, and it’s a bitter one: you must cede your independence, submit to their control, and look the other way when they start carving up the pie.” This populist streak will stand Fitzgerald in good stead if he makes it to the fall campaign.

The fact that he has a consistent point of view shows up in Fitzgerald’s style as well as in his substance. In the February 23 debate he opened with a straightforward argument devoid of political jargon, saying that parents can’t spend enough time with their kids these days because the parents are overtaxed and overworked–they have to put in extra hours to pay the alleged 40 percent of their income that goes to local, state, and federal governments. True or not, this point enabled Fitzgerald to link seemingly remote political decisions to how people live every day.

By contrast, Didrickson opened with a standard “political” mini-speech, listing other pols who’ve endorsed her and identifying herself as a “strong fiscal conservative for smarter, smaller government.” It was perfectly competent, but it didn’t make the same connection–though that fits with her moderation. Moderate Republicanism, or “mainstream conservatism,” is rarely about making big changes that alter everyone’s lives. It’s about making pragmatic adjustments at the margins. That may sometimes make for better government, but it doesn’t make for exciting politics.

It’s easy to dwell too much on the candidates’ differences. After all, Didrickson and Fitzgerald are both policy wonks at heart. Whatever their larger views, they’re good at making the machinery of government run better in ways that most voters don’t understand and wouldn’t care much about if they did.

Didrickson first ran for state representative in 1982, she told the Union League Club in January, because she wanted to reform the state’s unemployment insurance systems–a goal that was finally reached in a landmark business-labor compromise in 1987. (“Would I run on that platform again?” she said, laughing. “I think I’m more sophisticated now.”) Her former legislative colleague Jeff Mays, now executive vice president of the state chamber of commerce, assigned her to monitor the budget requests of employment-related state agencies in the early 1980s. He describes her as “great to work with” and “a quick study.”

Fitzgerald friend and state senate colleague Dave Syverson of Rockford credits Fitzgerald with getting state pension funds back on the way to being fully funded, a legal obligation that legislators have notoriously evaded for years. “That issue wouldn’t have been addressed without his leadership and financial knowledge.”

Of course neither Fitzgerald nor Didrickson would be in the race if the first-string candidate, Governor Jim Edgar, had chosen to run. And Fitzgerald wouldn’t be running if he weren’t rich, and Didrickson wouldn’t be running if Republican insiders hadn’t begged her to. But neither one is an ignorant empty suit trying to start at the top.

You could never learn this by watching their TV commercials. Each candidate is spending millions just to say how often the other has voted in favor of increasing taxes. “More than 60 times,” says Didrickson of Fitzgerald; “108 tax increases and 250 fee increases,” says Fitzgerald of Didrickson.

Fitzgerald started it, but both candidates know better. This antitax ritual is trivial, misleading, and philosophically bankrupt. The State Journal-Register’s Bernard Schoenberg and the Tribune’s Eric Zorn have pointed out that many of the votes being counted are minor and mandate nothing. In the 1995-’96 session of the General Assembly, for instance, Fitzgerald voted to allow non-home-rule municipalities to hold a referendum in which local residents could vote on a proposal to increase their ambulance tax rate from 0.25 percent to as much as 0.39 percent. Both National Taxpayers United of Illinois and Didrickson list this as a “tax increase.” NTUI is a lobbying group and can call donkeys elephants if it chooses. But it’s surprising that Didrickson, whose semiofficial motto has been “If you fundamentally want to change government, you do it through the fiscal process,” would choose to cheapen the public understanding of the fiscal process in this way.

The count is not only inflated but bogus. It implies that a good legislator would never vote for taxes, when in fact even the most conservative legislators vote yes on at least a third of the tax bills they see. When Illinois Politics tallied tax votes in the Illinois house from 1983 through 1990, it selected state representative Margaret Parcells as its baseline conservative–and she voted “pro-tax” 45 percent of the time. (Didrickson scored 67 percent and Moseley-Braun 93 percent in that tabulation, which the magazine nevertheless headlined as showing that Didrickson and Moseley-Braun were “allied on fiscal policy.”) Fitzgerald was NTUI’s favorite state senator during the 1995-’96 legislative session–yet even NTUI considered eight of his votes (32 percent) during that time to be “pro-tax.”

Last and worst, this denunciatory ritual assumes that every tax–and even the chance to vote on taxation–is evil. That assumption goes way beyond conservative or libertarian. It’s nihilistic. Even conservatives believe in taxation for their causes–in Fitzgerald’s case, to pay federal censors to police the Internet; in Didrickson’s case, to pay Head Start teachers. Even libertarians believe in taxation for national defense and a few other public goods that can’t easily be divided up and privatized.

Didrickson is a moderate conservative and an expert in government fiscal matters; she held the early lead in the polls. She could have given Republican primary voters a cold shower of common sense and straight talk on this subject. Instead she joined Fitzgerald in the mud.

Having slid so far to the right as to call Didrickson’s moderate record liberal, how will Fitzgerald attract middle-of-the-road voters away from Moseley-Braun? Having slid so far to the right as to insinuate that Fitzgerald is a tax-and-spend kind of guy, how will Didrickson regain the moderate image that is supposed to be her weapon against Moseley-Braun?

In other words, can whoever wins the primary get out of the mud by November? It’s not going to be easy. Moseley-Braun has been widely viewed as a vulnerable incumbent. After Didrickson and Fitzgerald have spent the primary pandering to the nihilistic right, she has to look better.

Accordingly, a word of financial advice. Don’t bet on the Bulls to win a sixth title. Don’t try to win the office poll on the NCAA Final Four. If you must gamble, put your money on Moseley-Braun for a second term in the U.S. Senate. Better a Nigerian dictator wrapped around your leg than the intellectual detritus of a Republican primary.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration by Kurt Mitchell;.