This being that crucial time of year when candidates across the state hire staff, raise money, and otherwise gear up for the primaries in March–the Democrats are busy committing political hara-kiri. There’s no rational explanation. That’s just the way it is in Illinois. Republicans almost never have a contested primary; when they do, the candidates quickly reconcile once the voting’s done.

But the Democrats. Consider the case of Woody Bowman and Dawn Clark Netsch, two lakefront politicians likely to face each other in the March 20 primary for state comptroller. Both are well respected: he’s a state representative from Evanston; she’s the state senator from Lincoln Park. Both have impressive legislative records and years of commitment to issues such as health, education, budget reform, and ethics. They’re friends. They share many of the same loyal followers. They’ve supported each other in the past.

And yet–with each standing in the other’s way–they are now preparing for a fight that could make enemies of friends, ruin reputations, and, by splitting their base of lakefront voters, see to it that some candidate from outside the Chicago area wins. All this for the office of comptroller–an important but low-profile position that involves watching over the state government’s finances.

“We share constituents. If Dawn runs against me, she’d be forcing people to make a choice they don’t want to make,” says Bowman. “It would strain the party and turn people offand then who knows? Lakefront voters are very independent. It may make them angry enough to vote Republican.”

“There’s a lot of people in the party who want a strong prochoice woman like me on the ticket,” counters Netsch. “I don’t want to say anything bad about Woody, but let’s face it. He’s another white male from Evanston. I’m not exactly a household name around the state, but I’m a heck of a lot more known than Woody.”

As this article is being written, Netsch is not an official candidate for comptroller. Instead, she is a candidate for attorney general, the office that will be vacated by gubernatorial candidate Nell Hartigan. Netsch, a professor at Northwestern University’s law school, has been running for that office since early summer and would seem a logical choice to replace Hartigan.

But in late summer Roland Burris–the current comptroller–announced that he was running for attorney general. That was a shock, since most observers had assumed Burris would run against Hartigan in the Democratic primary for governor. “In the early days, Roland had his heels dug in–wild horses couldn’t drag him from the governor’s race,” says Jeff Smith, state Democratic committeeman of the Ninth Congressional District. “He told a lot of us straight, ‘I’m not getting out–no way.’ He must have told Dawn the same thing. But it’s very difficult to beat Hartigan without a lot of money. And some of Roland’s money sources were tapped out after the mayoral race. Others were drying up under pressure not to give.”

After Burris changed his mind, Netsch was in a bind. She could stay in the race for attorney general, and she might even win. But if she did it would look bad. Without Burris, the Democrats would have no prominent black candidate on the statewide ticket in November. “The Democrats are damned if they do and damned if they don’t with Roland,” says a party insider. “For some God-only-knows reason no other black candidate stepped forward to run statewide. Now if a white candidate runs against Burris and beats him, we have an all-white ticket and the party is open to charges of racism. On the other hand, if Roland gets the nomination, he might not win.”

At some point and place–no one will say when or where–party leaders began asking Netsch to forgo attorney general and run for comptroller. Some–like state senate president Phil Rock and state party chairman Vince Demuzio–made public their pleas, endorsing her for comptroller long before she’d even announced that she might run.

Apparently they were persuasive. Netsch has all but agreed to run for comptroller (a formal announcement should come soon). Everything seems perfect, except that Bowman was already in that race. “I announced on March 23rd, but I had been rounding up support and telling friends and colleagues of my plans to run since last Thanksgiving,” says Bowman. “The first people I talked to were Dawn Clark Netsch and Roland Burris. I wanted to make sure that Roland wasn’t going to run for reelection. He told me he wasn’t. I know that Dawn had previously expressed interest in the job, and I wanted to know her plans. She told me that she was definitely going to go for attorney general.”

When Bowman first heard rumors of Netsch’s pending switch, he requested another meeting with her. It came in late September. “I asked Dawn if she was going to run for comptroller, and she told me that there had been some discussion about that. I said, ‘But you told me you were going to run for attorney general.’ And she said ‘Yes, but that was before Roland changed his mind.’ She was doing to me what Roland had done to her. I was taken aback. I didn’t know what to say. I think I changed the subject.”

Naturally, Bowman was upset. He’d been campaigning for months and had raised about $150,000, hired a campaign staff of four, and enlisted the support of hundreds of people, including socialite Sugar Rautbord, former state supreme court justice Seymour Simon, and 31 legislators. This was no game to him; he was giving up his house seat to run for comptroller. The stakes were high–certainly higher than they are for Netsch, who is not up for reelection this year. “I can’t back out now–I’ve made too many commitments,” he says. “I think I’m the most qualified for the job. I have a PhD in economics. I am chairman of the house appropriations committee. Besides, I truly want the job. I am not running for comptroller because I couldn’t get some other slot–this is what I want to do.”

Of course, Netsch also feels she knows a lot about state finances. She’s chair of the senate’s revenue committee and cochair of the Illinois Economic and Fiscal Commission, a bipartisan legislative group. She also says she’s interested in the job of comptroller. She wanted to run for it back in 1986, and dropped out only because party leaders had asked her to avoid a run against Burris. “Attorney general is the logical place for me, but it’s increasingly clear that I cannot remain in that race,” she says. “My party consists of a lot of diversity–unlike the Republicans. Roland Burris is the only black running for statewide office, and I recognize the importance of that fact. I realize that there are a lot of people who told Woody that they support him. But I went through a similar thing four years ago when I withdrew to make sure that there was a black on the ticket. You have to be patient.”

Bowman’s gone on the attack. He’s called almost all of his major supporters to reaffirm their support. He’s held several press conferences to keep his name in the news. He even had his publicist write–and distribute to the press–a letter on his behalf to Mayor Richard Daley, who so far has not publicly expressed a preference in the race. “We are troubled by rumors that Dawn Clark Netsch . . . might be slated for comptroller,” reads the letter, which was signed by ten Bowman backers, including businessman Irving Harris, a major contributor to the mayor’s campaign. “Surely there is an alternative, and we would like to discuss that with you further. We are committed to Woody’s candidacy for comptroller and he is committed to run for the office. We are seeking your help in making that happen.”

One solution–naive though it sounds–is for the candidates to forget about party bosses and run for the offices of their choice. If Burris wants to be governor, he should run for it, and not waste his time running for an office he doesn’t really want. The same goes for Netsch.

In some ways it’s too bad for the party that Burris or Netsch does not challenge Hartigan. He’s more vulnerable than they think and will probably be a weak candidate in November because he’s wishy-washy on abortion, the biggest issue Democrats have going for them. (Even his most committed believers cannot concisely report his current stance on the issue.)

The last time so many Democratic candidates tailored their ambitions for the sake of the party was in 1986. In that year Adlai Stevenson jumped into the race for governor at the last minute, forcing Hartigan to back out and run for reelection, which forced Burris not to run for attorney general, Netsch not to run for comptroller, and several other candidates not to seek the offices of their choice.

The outcome was disaster. Without contested primaries, candidates and party leaders stopped campaigning. On primary day turnout plunged, and, as a gesture of protest, many of those who voted cast their ballots for unknown candidates for lieutenant governor and secretary of state. As a result, the party was stuck with a couple of LaRouchies on the ticket in November.

The outcome of next year’s comptroller primary can’t possibly be so awful. At most, Netsch and Bowman will offset each other–and give the office to Shawn Collins, a lawyer from Joliet, or Kane County Democratic Party chair William Sarto, or whoever else jumps into the race before December’s filing deadline.

“I think the best solution would be for Dawn to run for state treasurer,” says Bowman. “Other than that I can only say that I’m definitely in the race to stay.”

Not surprisingly, his suggestion only seems to have irritated Netsch. “Treasurer is not an option, because that’s not my choice of office. And at some time I’d like to have some control over my life,” says Netsch. “Maybe some people think that I should just disappear. But that’s not something I’m going to do.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Bruce Powell, Jon Randolph.