Alexi Giannoulias

[Plus: Ben Joravsky on the Cook County Board President race.]

The three most important figures in the Democratic primary for U.S. Senate aren’t actually in the race.

The first, of course, is Barack Obama, whose trajectory to the White House began when he won the Senate seat in a huge upset over better-connected, better-funded foes in 2004.

Then there’s Roland Burris, whom Rod Blagojevich tapped to replace Obama last winter after he was caught on tape venting about how the president-elect’s aides thought he was dumb enough to fill the office without getting a cabinet appointment, high-paying job, or campaign contribution in return. Picking Burris, who’d served in several state offices without scandal or distinction, was Blago’s way of demonstrating that he wasn’t selling the seat to the highest bidder—though it was later revealed that Burris had spoken with the governor’s aides about the Senate seat and promised he’d try to raise him some money.

The third critical player is Illinois attorney general Lisa Madigan, widely viewed as the most popular, least beatable politician in Illinois. The White House courted her to succeed Burris, but Madigan said she’d stick with AG.

With Burris stepping aside, Madigan sitting tight, and the Republicans licking their chops, the Democrats began to fear they’d lose the president’s old seat, which is critical to any chance they have of regaining a filibuster-proof Senate majority. The party needed somebody to step up and run. Somebody well known. Dynamic, smart, and moneyed wouldn’t hurt; public policy experience, political acumen, and scandal-free past preferred but not essential.

That somebody didn’t show up—at least not in the form top party leaders had hoped. A couple big names—the mayor’s brother Bill, Bobby Kennedy’s son Chris—flirted with the idea and then moved on. Congressmen Jesse Jackson Jr. and Danny Davis had talked to Blagojevich too much to be politically viable and wisely took a pass. Sheriff Tom Dart and Congresswoman Jan Schakowsky both pulled a Madigan. And in the meantime Mark Kirk, a veteran congressman from the North Shore, announced that he would vie for the Republican nomination. Even with a record of flip-flopping on issues like cap-and-trade legislation, Kirk could be a serious obstacle to Democratic hopes of holding the seat.

By last fall seven Democratic candidates had filed the paperwork to get on the ballot. One long shot dropped out and another was kicked off after his petitions were successfully challenged for not complying with election rules. The five who remain have launched a wave of TV ads, but riveting as most of them are, voters appear to be preoccupied with other things, like the economy, the weather, and the Jay-Conan battle.

Four of the five have never run for office before and are largely unknown to voters. The fifth, Alexi Giannoulias, is still in his first term as state treasurer, a job whose responsibilities aren’t well understood by most of the public.

While Giannoulias is winning the primary race in both the polls and in fund-raising, he’s had to spend much of his time dealing with questions about his office’s Bright Start college savings program, which lost millions of dollars over the last couple years, and his family’s business, Broadway Bank. Giannoulias’s only jobs before he was elected treasurer were playing professional basketball in Greece and overseeing loans at the bank, which during his tenure lent money to alleged mobsters, notorious Blagojevich fund-raiser Tony Rezko, and high-risk borrowers who’ve since been unable to make payments.

Giannoulias’s chief rivals, Chicago Urban League president Cheryle Jackson and former Chicago inspector general David Hoffman, have their own problems: Jackson worked as a spokeswoman for Blagojevich and has to keep explaining why, and Hoffman’s law-and-order, good-government resumé, which he’ll detail for you if you ask him about the price of copper on the black market or anything else, just hasn’t stirred voters.

The remaining two contenders have an even harder row to hoe. Attorney Jacob Meister has pumped a million bucks into his own campaign but still struggles with low name recognition and focus; in recent weeks he’s detoured from talking about job creation to accusing other candidates of making an issue of his homosexuality. Physician Robert Marshall, who became a Democrat just three years ago after running for various other offices as a Republican, won the state election board’s lottery for the top spot on the ballot, but he’s trailing in every other respect.

This race could determine whether the Obama administration can push environmental protection, financial reform, and economic stimulus through Congress—or whether the Republicans can derail its whole agenda. But Illinois voters appear to be snoozing through it. Campaign insiders are expecting a turnout up to 50 percent lower than in 2004, and “undecided” or “uncommitted” has led in most polls. As the leader of a public policy advocacy group recently lamented to me, “I can’t believe I’m going to have to vote for one of these guys.”

My sophisticated analysis of voting trends tells me that someone’s got to win. Here’s a closer look at each of the contenders:

Alexi Giannoulias

Alexi Giannoulias, whom I profiled at length in December, likes to point out that he was the first candidate to get into the race. He officially announced he was running in July. But he started campaigning much earlier: he courted potential supporters by hosting a party at the Democratic Convention in Denver in August 2008, and critics say that he’s run the treasurer’s office with an eye toward good press and political advancement.

During his 2006 campaign for treasurer, as concerns grew about Blagojevich’s fund-raising methods, Giannoulias vowed not to take political contributions from banks since the treasurer’s office does business with them. Then, on January 9, 2007, his first day as treasurer, he prohibited both his employees and firms doing work with the office from donating to his campaign fund. He’s stuck to these rules ever since, though he’s more or less wiggled around the first one—his state and federal campaign funds have collected more than $90,000 from bank employees and banking-industry political action committees.

Running for treasurer, Giannoulias touted his banking experience. But running for Senate, he’s tried to keep as far away from Broadway Bank as possible, and when he mentions the financial industry at all it’s to proclaim that he’s “stood up to big banks” such as Wells Fargo—a reference to his threat last year to pull state money from the bank if it moved to liquidate the bankrupt local suit-maker Hartmarx.

Instead, Giannoulias has portrayed himself as an advocate for working people, intent on finding ways to create jobs. And it’s true that his campaign has generated the most detailed, liberal economic proposals of any in the race, including tax credits for home buyers, federal assistance for community banks that lend to small businesses, and the cancellation of NAFTA.

But his populism has its limits. While the other candidates try to maximize their public appearances, hitting nearly every community forum or editorial endorsement session they’re invited to, Giannoulias has been a frequent no-show, relying primarily on TV commercials and press releases to get his message out. That’s an indication of either his campaign’s confidence, its reluctance to expose him to discomfiting questions, or both.

Giannoulias attended a debate at the Union League Club in mid-December, but when it was his turn to speak at the press conference afterward—which he’d previously agreed to attend—an organizer announced, “We have been informed that Alexi Giannoulias has left the building.” His campaign manager explained that Giannoulias had a schedule to keep, though he couldn’t recall what was on it at that time. While that was happening, the campaign issued four e-mail press releases criticizing Hoffman.

The Giannoulias campaign frequently points out that since he’s been treasurer, Bright Start has become one of the nation’s top-rated college savings programs. His opponents, led by Hoffman, note that in 2008 one of the program’s funds fell in value by $150 million—or more than a third—because the firm hired to manage it, OppenheimerFunds, invested the money in high-risk securities. They say Giannoulias should have kept better tabs on the fund or at least let families know what kind of trouble it was in.

In December Giannoulias and attorney general Madigan announced that they’d negotiated a settlement with Oppenheimer that would recoup $77 million of the lost money—which is clearly better than a total wash, and arguably not a bad deal by litigation standards. Still, it means that more than half the money is gone for good. Yet in one of the most brilliant and brazen political moves of this election season, Giannoulias promptly released an ad highlighting the settlement as a great service to Illinois families: “When Wall Street made improper investments, he recovered millions for kids to go to college.”

For months both the campaign and the treasurer’s office refused to release details of what Giannoulias knew about the Bright Start losses. Last fall the Hoffman campaign submitted a Freedom of Information Act request for copies of correspondence between the office and Oppenheimer from the beginning of 2007 through the end of 2009, but a Giannoulias aide denied it, on the grounds that the request covered a huge number of records and was too burdensome. In January, after the settlement was reached, the Hoffman campaign submitted another request, for correspondence about the money-losing fund from March 2008 to December 2009. The treasurer’s office denied that one too, saying it was still part of a “litigation matter.”

When I followed up with the campaign last week, a spokeswoman told me it was a state issue. When I got in touch with treasurer’s office spokesman Scott Burnham, he said they’d just talked with the attorney general’s staff about the documents. “It was our understanding that we were legally prohibited from releasing the information,” he said. “Having clarified the matter with them, we will begin reviewing the documents so we can release the information in full accordance with state and federal law.” He said it could happen as soon as this week.

Meanwhile, I’ve engaged in my own struggle for access to Giannoulias. Early in the fall I asked his staff for the opportunity to spend time with him on the stump; I was told he was busy, he was sick, maybe in a couple of weeks. When I heard he was traveling to an event in Rockford, I asked if I could tag along. I was told they hadn’t provided anyone that kind of access (which I guess meant they didn’t intend to start now). I asked for a copy of Giannoulias’s campaign schedule and was told they didn’t have one. I asked Burnham for a copy of Giannoulias’s public schedule as treasurer; he said they didn’t keep one. A couple sources close to the campaign told me straight up that they didn’t think the Reader would say anything nice about Alexi so there wasn’t much interest in making time for me.

Finally I told the campaign I was doing a story on Broadway Bank regardless of whether they participated. Within minutes I got a call from Giannoulias himself assuring me that he would be happy to sit down and talk.

A campaign spokeswoman arranged for us to meet for half an hour in a crowded cafe in the Loop. Giannoulias arrived a couple minutes late but full of energy and confidence. He told me he was running for Senate because he wanted to help put people back to work.

“This campaign is about ideas,” he said, and not about the performance of Broadway Bank. “Economic issues, the next generation of jobs, social issues, who’s going to stand up and be a fighter for our constituents. I’ve seen the impact that government can have on people’s lives.”

He dismissed the idea that his resumé might be too thin for the job: “It’s up to voters to decide whether my experience is enough to get things done for them.”

We’d barely started before we were out of time, but Giannoulias unleashed a charm offensive. He gave me his cell phone number and said we could get a beer that weekend—then texted me a few minutes later asking if I’d ever considered getting involved in politics myself.

Giannoulias did meet me for another coffee a couple days later. Again, he was friendly and fun to hang out with. We talked NCAA basketball, a mutual passion. He recalled that his father, who died in 2006, had been impressed when he’d met Blagojevich. “But I always thought he was slick,” Giannoulias said. He enjoyed telling stories about Obama, whose endorsement catapulted him into the treasurer’s office; he smiled as he recalled how happy his mother had been to get a birthday call from the president. While acknowledging that he wouldn’t have a chance at being a senator without connections and money (“I’ve been lucky”), he also seemed to think he deserved it because he works hard. He sometimes looked around as if to see whether anyone in the place recognized him. He struck me as smart, with a sincere interest in both the prestige of elected office and trying to help people.

But I never did get a chance to see Giannoulias campaigning among voters. In the month after our rendezvous, his campaign repeatedly told me they didn’t have anything like that going on.

David Hoffman

David Hoffman

David Hoffman has clerked for former Supreme Court chief justice William Rehnquist, worked as a foreign policy aide for former Oklahoma senator David Boren, and served as a federal prosecutor under U.S. attorney Patrick Fitzgerald. But it was his four-year stint as the Chicago’s inspector general that made his Senate candidacy possible.

For years the IG’s office reported directly to the mayor and, to no one’s surprise, uncovered little evidence of mismanagement in city government. But in 2005, in the wake of a federal investigation into city hiring fraud, Mayor Richard M. Daley backed legislation giving the office more independence and tapped Hoffman to head it. Hoffman vowed to launch a serious attack on corruption and waste—and then actually did it.

Some of the investigations conducted under Hoffman were less than revealing—one determined that sanitation workers sometimes loaf on the job, another that building inspectors sometimes pocket bribes—but others provided a powerful check on the mayor, including last summer’s report on parking meter privatization. Hoffman slammed the administration and the City Council for rushing into the 75-year meter deal and leaving perhaps a billion dollars on the table—findings that confirmed what the Reader had reported several weeks earlier.

Rumors floated around City Hall, some of them advanced by Daley aides, that Hoffman was grandstanding because he was preparing for his own mayoral run. In fact, he says, he started thinking seriously about running for attorney general last year after serving on a commission formed by Governor Pat Quinn to propose state ethics reforms. But then Madigan opted to run for re-election. Not long after that, Hoffman says, “a pair of mutual friends” put him in touch with leaders of AKPD, the political consulting firm founded by Obama adviser David Axelrod, and last summer they urged him to think about running for the Senate.

“They said, ‘We’re motivated to keep the seat, we don’t think we can win with the other candidates, and we think you can win,'” he says.

Axelrod no longer has a formal association with the firm, and Hoffman emphasizes that he wasn’t endorsed or sent by the White House. He also rejects the suggestion that his Senate bid is a way to improve his name recognition so he can run for mayor in 2011. “No!” he says. “The idea I would upset my life, leave my job, and spend all this time running all over the state—it’s just not me. . . . I’m running to win this election.”

Hoffman’s chief campaign pitch is that he’s got a history of integrity and that he’s not Alexi Giannoulias—a point he hammers home even when he doesn’t mention his rival by name. “People are hurting—they need help,” he said at a candidates’ debate on Channel Seven last week. “But they’re sick of the system that’s stacked in favor of the powerful. . . . We need honest, experienced, independent leadership in Washington.”

The strategy hadn’t borne much fruit by December, when polls still had Hoffman in the single digits and trailing Giannoulias by 20 percentage points or more. But he’s hoping endorsements last week from the Tribune, Sun-Times, and Daily Herald will give him a boost—along with his willingness to accept invitations to as many public events as he can.

Last month Hoffman traveled to Sycamore, Illinois, right outside of DeKalb, to make his case to a group of local Dems. Hoffman isn’t the most laid-back guy around—he was running late, and he informed his driver, campaign staffer Mike Hardy, that the car’s GPS hadn’t mapped out the best route. “I just don’t trust it,” he said, instructing Hardy to get off the highway and take a right.

Several dozen activists were assembled in the back room of a restaurant called Johnny’s Charhouse, along with candidates for state treasurer, lieutenant governor, and judge. Hoffman was the only Senate candidate there.

He told the group that if he were elected he’d push for legislation to get banks lending to spur the economy. But he spent most of his time highlighting his credentials as a reformer. “I have never been a politician before,” he said. “I’m up here telling you what I want to do, and you’ll hear from others. But what I’d like you to do is look at our records.”

The audience was receptive, nodding as he answered questions and laughing at his jokes about the lack of independence at Chicago’s City Hall, and several groups clustered around him afterward to shake his hand and get his thoughts on a few more things. It took him another half hour to get out the door.

T. Jordan Gallagher, a local judge listening from the back of the room, said Hoffman made an impression just by showing up: “We haven’t heard from the others.” But he seemed less excited about Hoffman than about the Democrats’ last nominee for this Senate seat. He recalled how Obama had paid them a visit when he was still considered a long shot in the 2004 primary. “We said, ‘It’s too bad he can’t win,'” Gallagher said. “He was just so dynamic.”

Cheryle Jackson

Cheryle Jackson

Cheryle Jackson became the Chicago Urban League’s first female president and CEO in 2006, and in the time since she’s been praised for energizing the venerable civil rights organization by focusing its work on economic development. She claims she’s the only candidate in the race who’s seen and confronted the recession firsthand.

“What’s shocking about this is really how perilous the middle class is,” she says. “A year ago this month we held a job fair for 50 part-time CTA positions. A thousand people showed up, and the shocking part of it was that so many of them were double-degreed—so now you have professional people with double degrees competing for jobs that were traditionally held by laborers.”

Jackson says she wanted her prospective senator to speak from experience about the issues everyday people are grappling with—and when she didn’t hear anyone doing it, she decided she needed to run. She announced in August.

“I looked at the field of candidates, and there were none on the battlefield, so to speak, who’d been in the trenches with families,” she says. “It’s one thing to give a speech saying how you’re going to take on the financial industry; it’s another thing to actually pick up the phone and fight with banks to try to help a family stay in their home and fight foreclosure.”

As the only woman in the race, Jackson and her campaign are hoping for an Anita Alvarez-style win. In the 2008 Democratic primary for Cook County state’s attorney, Alvarez, a political novice, watched her male rivals tear each other down, coolly laid out her plans for the office, and used last-minute ad buys to pull an upset. Jackson has courted and won the endorsement of Emily’s List, the national political organization dedicated to electing progressive women, and often makes direct appeals to female voters—in debates she’s vowed to fight any health care reform legislation that includes the Stupak-Pitts Amendment, which bans the use of federal funds for abortion.

Jackson is also the lone black candidate for an office that’s been held by blacks for 12 of the last 18 years—only one other Senate seat has been occupied by an African-American since Reconstruction. And she’s had to pull the balancing act required of every African-American running to represent a majority-white constituency: rallying her base in the black community while not defining herself as merely a black candidate. She”s been endorsed by congressmen Bobby Rush and Danny Davis as well as a number of black clergy, but she’s careful to emphasize her wider appeal. “I don’t think that this seat belongs to any one particular race or gender,” she says. “But I do think Illinois seems to have a pattern of sending people to Washington they believe will represent everyday people.”

After trailing badly in early polls, Jackson gained more ground than anyone late last year. But she’s still dogged by her four-year stint as Blagojevich’s press secretary—a line on her resumé that her opponents allude to frequently, though almost always in a gentle tone or accompanied by a smile. (Apparently none of the boys wants to be seen as beating up on the girl.) And when pressed to explain why voters should trust someone who served as Blago’s mouthpiece, Jackson offers only an incomplete explanation.

Jackson says she signed on with the former governor because, like all of her Senate competitors and millions of other voters, she believed his campaign vows to clean up state government and expand health care. She says she left just before the end of Blago’s first term because she sensed that politics and fund-raising had trumped his interest in progressive public policy.

While she insists she never saw anything untoward, she also won’t say what specifically moved her to leave. “I, like the Illinoisians who voted for him, had no way of knowing whether the allegations about him were true or not,” she says. But “I didn’t sign up to have my entire time consumed with fighting allegations I had no way of knowing the truth of.”

And what “allegations” is she speaking of? “I don’t know—most of what has been levied against him happened after I left.”

But not all of it—charges that Blagojevich was engaging in pay-to-play politics surfaced well before Jackson resigned. “Right, but I had no way of knowing that,” she says. “I was no different than Joe Citizen. I had no way of knowing whether those allegations were true.”

Jackson argues that voters aren’t worried about her work for Blagojevich. “What my opponents might say about my former role has nothing to do with whether there’s food on the table, a roof over their head, whether or not they can afford to put their child through school, or whether or not their savings has been wiped out.”

Jacob Meister

Jacob Meister

Not even political insiders had heard of Jacob Meister when he threw his hat in the ring last September. A successful business and real estate attorney, Meister had worked as an aide to former Wisconsin congressman Jim Moody in the 1980s but hadn’t been formally involved in politics since. The announcement of his Senate bid attracted a little attention because he’s openly gay, but his chances were rightly viewed as nil—until he dropped a million dollars of his own money into his war chest last fall. Since then he’s put up the campaign’s first television ads and set up offices across the state.

Meister has been careful to say he’s not running to make a statement about his sexuality. “I am not the gay candidate in this race,” he says. “I am the jobs and economy candidate.”

But he’s also pointed out that if elected he would break a barrier, since there are no openly gay senators. “We need diversity in the Senate,” he says. At a recent meeting I attended at his campaign headquarters, he and his staff discussed the importance of getting the gay and lesbian community to the polls; they speculated that if they did so and increased Meister’s presence on television, they could eke out a shocking victory in a low-turnout election.

Over the past few weeks Meister’s rhetoric has sharpened considerably. At the press conference after the Union League Club debate in December, he calmly stepped to the podium and accused Hoffman of making homophobic slurs. Hoffman, he reminded reporters, has been saying that he’s the only candidate who’s married and has a child.

“David has been subtly making a point that I think is highly inappropriate,” Meister said. “I can’t get married. I think David Hoffman in an insidious way has made swipes at me.”

A couple weeks later Andy Martin, a perennial Republican candidate who’s made anti-Semitic remarks in the past and spread rumors that Obama was secretly Muslim, ran a radio ad accusing Mark Kirk of being a closeted homosexual. Meister was outraged. “The type of McCarthy-era tactics that are being used in this race have no place in American society,” he said.

When we sat down for an interview earlier this month, Meister ripped on Martin but went even further in attacking Hoffman. “At least Martin had the tact to be direct about it,” he said. “David Hoffman is putting out that message and it’s a deliberate strategy. . . . What if he’d said, ‘I’m the only white man in the race’? What does this have to do with anything?”

Hoffman says Meister’s charges are ridiculous and points out that he supports gay marriage. And Meister says he doesn’t know why Hoffman would attack his sexual orientation unless it’s because he’s lagging in the polls and wants to kill Meister’s momentum—which, he adds, isn’t working. Meister notes that his campaign’s polling shows that his name recognition is growing and his experience gives voters confidence.

“I’m the best situated to beat Mark Kirk because of my real-world background,” he says. “And the fact that I’m gay is probably a plus, because Illinois has a proud history of breaking barriers. Certainly in the U.S. Senate there’s a need for the LGBT perspective to be heard. There’s nobody in the Senate who will even introduce pro-gay-and-lesbian legislation without having their arms seriously twisted.”

Robert Marshall

Robert Marshall

At the debate on Channel Seven last week, Robert Marshall, a Burr Ridge radiologist, was the most interesting candidate of the bunch—unrehearsed, unpretentious, straightforward, and quirky.

Of course he hasn’t got a chance. A Vietnam veteran, he argued that the country is spending too much on the military and too little at home. He argued for gun rights and against climate change legislation. He said he supports both health care reform and a smaller government. “Paying taxes makes you conservative,” he said.

After listening to Hoffman talk about how his work as IG qualified him for the Senate, Marshall told him, “If you really want to clean up corruption you should stay in Illinois, because that’s where it is.” When the others took shots at Jackson’s time in the Blagojevich administration, he said, “I’ve met Ms. Jackson and I think she’s a fine person—better than some of the other people on this stage.”

Marshall said his opponents are too liberal to beat Mark Kirk and keep the seat Democratic. But in a presser after the debate, he admitted he’s only a recent convert to the party. Years ago, he said, he voted for JFK, Lyndon Johnson, and George McGovern, but then he voted for the GOP for much of the following three decades. He even ran (and lost) as a Republican for governor, state senator, and state rep.

But then, he said, he heard the speech Obama gave in Springfield three years ago announcing that he was running for president.

“That’s what converted me,” he said. “His philosophy of change.”

Find more election coverage at chicagoreader.com/politics.