The sleepy northwest suburbs of Skokie, Morton Grove, and Niles seem unlikely sites for the hottest political race in the November 6 election. But that’s exactly what voters have got in the 56th legislative district, where the race for state representative is up for grabs.

The Republican candidate, Eunice Conn, opposes abortion in almost every instance (the exception is when the mother’s life is in danger), calls for the abolition of burdensome state business regulations, and counts right-to-life activists Phyllis Schlafly and Penny Pullen among her political supporters.

Her Democratic opponent is Jeff Schoenberg, a 31-year-old protege of Abner Mikva, once a congressman, now something of a legend among North Shore liberals. Schoenberg advocates stringent environmental-protection laws, increased state funding for schools, and a woman’s right to choose.

They’re running for a seat being vacated by the incumbent Cal Sutker. Most experts say the race is too close to call, although almost everyone agrees that a victory by Conn would be a major triumph for the Republican Party and a devastating setback to the prochoice cause: prolifers would use it as evidence that public opinion is antiabortion.

“If Conn wins, you’re putting a long-standing liberal seat into the conservative column, and that would be dramatic change,” says Charlotte Jaffe, whose husband, Aaron, held the seat for over a decade, until he resigned in 1985 to become a Cook County circuit court judge. “I think that most voters side with Schoenberg on the issues. But it comes down to organization. He’s got to get his people to the polls. If they don’t vote, he can’t win.”

Few people can remember the last time the district had a Republican representative. There are pockets of Republicans, particularly in Morton Grove and Niles (the bulk of the district is bounded by Central on the north and Dempster on the south and is centered around the Edens Expressway). But many voters in the district are Jews whose familial roots in liberal Democratic politics date back to the New Deal days of FDR.

In some respects, Conn is the beneficiary of a 20-year-old intraparty struggle between independent and regular Democrats. In his first few campaigns, in the early 70s, Jaffe had to beat politicians loyal to Mayor Richard J. Daley’s Democratic organization.

“The rivalry and tension between regular and independent Democrats out here is not unlike what you see in the city,” says Schoenberg, who has worked as an aide to several liberal Democrats, including State Representative Ellis Levin. “Despite that, no one really took the Republicans too seriously.”

That attitude changed in 1985 when Jaffe, who often won as much as 60 percent of the vote, resigned his seat. A few days later, Democratic committeemen from the four townships within the 56th’s borders selected Sutker to fill out the remainder of Jaffe’s term.

“Sutker was selected because, as committeeman of Niles Township, he had the most weighted votes of all the committeemen,” says Schoenberg. “In essence, he elected himself. It looked a little strange, and it didn’t sit well with a lot of people.”

Many angered Democrats decided to back Republican Sheldon Marcus against Sutker in the 1986 and 1988 general elections.

“Marcus had the best of both worlds,” says Schoenberg. “He got the traditional Republican votes and was liberal enough–he’s prochoice–to win the votes of dissatisfied Democrats. He won about 49 percent of the vote in each election, and the Republicans realized that they could win in this district.”

Schoenberg, who grew up in Skokie and has been a Mikva campaign coordinator, ran against Sutker in the 1988 Democratic primary. He lost that election, gaining only 41 percent of the vote, but hiked his name recognition and put together a network of volunteers.

Backed by several wealthy patrons–Schoenberg is a political aide to Richard Dennis, the multimillionaire commodities trader and champion of liberal causes–he was in a good position to run once Sutker announced he would not run for reelection. (Sutker launched an unsuccessful bid for Cook County Clerk in April’s Democratic primary.)

“I wasn’t ready to run against Sutker again because, quite frankly, I didn’t think I could beat him,” says Schoenberg. “But I’ve always wanted to serve in the state legislature. It’s a dream job that I’d like to have for many years. All the important decisions on education, environment, taxes, and right to choose are being made on the state level.”

In April’s Democratic primary, Schoenberg defeated George Van Dusen, an aide to U.S. Representative Sidney Yates. Marcus decided not to run again, and Conn beat two lesser-known opponents to win the Republican nomination. Thus the stage was set for a major ideological struggle.

“Conn is part of the far right wing of the Republican Party,” says Schoenberg. “She’s totally out of touch with the voters of this district.”

Counters Conn: “Jeff is so ultraliberal, he thinks that a moderate Republican is ultraright-wing.” This is Conn’s first run for political office. A 52-year-old mother of four, she and her husband own and operate Conn Vending, a vending-machine company.

“I’m the candidate with the most experience,” she says. “I know what it’s like to manage a company; I know what it’s like to raise a family; and I know what it’s like to work with politicians from both parties to win better legislation. In 1980 I was part of the White House conference on small business that helped relax some of the federal regulations that were strangling small businesses.”

The candidates differ on almost every issue. Conn, for instance, supports the tax-accountability amendment, which would increase the number of state legislators needed to approve a tax hike from 50 to 60 percent.

Schoenberg opposes that proposal, which he believes would increase local property taxes.

“If the accountability amendment were passed, it would be harder to raise state revenues and we would be even more dependent on property taxes,” says Schoenberg. “The property tax is regressive, and our local property owners already are overtaxed. Besides, the accountability amendment would give too much power to conservative Republicans like [State Representative] Lee Daniels. And I don’t want Lee Daniels running state government.”

When it comes to education, Schoenberg supports a proposal that would use state moneys to diminish inequities between wealthy and impoverished school districts in per-pupil expenditures.

Conn opposes that measure; she contends the state already exercises too much control over public education.

“Not every district needs the same amount of money,” says Conn. “Teachers in Schaumburg make about $50,000; teachers downstate make about $30,000. Should they make the same salaries? I think that’s an issue for those teachers and their local boards to decide. State mandates only raise the cost of education. For example, the state requires that every school has to have so many hours for gym. That’s fair for the inner city, but maybe kids who live on a farm don’t need gym. They get a lot of exercise working in the fields.

“We’re not communists here; we’re Americans. I’ve been in communist countries. I’ve been in mainland China. I was in East Berlin–everything there was equal. But that’s not the way America is. Everything can’t be the same. There are differences, that’s the way free enterprise is built. If I’m willing to pay ten bucks for fillet, then fine. If my neighbor wants a hot dog, fine. But who am I to say that government should pay my neighbor the extra money to get the fillet? I believe in local control. Get the state out of the schools and let each district control its own budget.”

Perhaps the most telling and potentially decisive difference between the candidates is over the issue of abortion.

“I believe that life begins at conception,” says Conn. “Abortion is murder, and unless the woman’s life is in danger I can’t support it.”

Schoenberg disagrees: “Abortion is a very personal decision that belongs to the woman, and the government should not intrude. I don’t believe abortion is murder; if Eunice Conn does, that’s her belief. But I don’t think she should use the government to force her beliefs on others.”

Most observers believe that a majority of the district’s voters are prochoice. Not surprisingly, Conn tries to downplay the matter. “I don’t try to hide from my beliefs, but I don’t think abortion is such a big issue,” she says. “Both candidates for governor are on the opposite side from me. They would veto any bills I support. Jeff’s just being a single-issue candidate by making a big deal out of this.”

But neither Schoenberg nor prochoice groups like Personal PAC buy Conn’s argument. The issue, they say, is urgent because of recent U.S. Supreme Court rulings that give state government almost unlimited leeway in regulating abortions.

“The right of women to choose depends on our ability to elect state representatives who defend that right,” says Terry Cosgrove, executive director of Personal PAC. “We take the Schoenberg-Conn race very seriously.”

As a result, Personal PAC plans to pump money into Schoenberg’s campaign, and Conn has already received contributions from the Eagle Forum, a right-to-life organization affiliated with Schlafly.

“Yes, Phyllis Schlafly is known for being prolife,” says Conn. “But the Eagle Forum is really about education and what gets taught to our children, not just abortion. There have been textbooks that say, ‘If you were going to commit suicide, how would you do it?’ That’s the kind of thing the Eagle Forum looks for in textbooks and tries to take out.”

Most likely the outcome will be decided by Schoenberg’s ability to win back independent Democrats, who jumped ship for Marcus.

“We have to show that the differences between me and Conn are fundamental,” says Schoenberg. “Abortion is just one example. The district has always elected prochoice representatives. I’d hate to imagine a change.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Steven D. Arazmus.