On a cold, windy morning, Democrat Melissa Bean stands outside a Hoffman Estates grocery store, shaking hands and searching for the votes she needs to defeat Republican Congressman Phil Crane, a conservative icon and one-time presidential candidate who has served in Congress for 35 years.
She doesn’t have to wait long before she finds a supporter.
“I’ll vote for you; we’ve got to get rid of that guy,” promises Marvin Allen, a Hoffman Estates retiree who stops to chat with Bean for a moment, despite weather. “It’s time for him to go and give the younger people a chance to run things.”
That type of reaction is music to Bean’s ears — and the theme of her uphill campaign to unseat the 73-year-old Crane, who is seeking his 19th term in the House of Representatives.
Crane, Bean argues, has been in Congress so long that he has lost touch with the voters in the northwest suburban 8th District.
“I think people feel this guy’s time is up,” said Bean, 42, a technology consultant and married mother of two from Barrington, who is making her second run for the seat Crane has held since 1969.
In 2002, she got 43 percent of the vote, the best Democratic showing ever against Crane, despite being little known and heavily outspent. She didn’t hesitate long before deciding last year to challenge Crane again.
“I knew the first time I ran it could take two times to win,” Bean said during a recent interview in her Lake Zurich campaign headquarters, a former muffler shop on Rand Road.
This time, their rematch has attracted national attention and become one of the most watched — and nasty — congressional races in the country, with GOP and Democratic organizations funneling money and campaign help.
Seat cushions vs. flip-flops
Bean’s campaign has handed out seat cushions labeled with Crane’s name, suggesting he has done little over the last 3-1/2 decades besides warm a chair in Congress. She’s blasted him for taking frequent trips — with expenses usually picked up by special interest groups — to vacation resorts in the United States and overseas. A series of postcards sent by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee label Crane the “junket king” and feature caricatures of him in Scotland, Antigua and Costa Rica.
Crane has returned fire, with his campaign recently handing out flip-flops to highlight what Crane says is Bean’s waffling on her support for tax cuts. He has blasted her for living just outside the district — thanks to the 2000 remap that changed the district’s boundaries — suggesting “that’s why she’s out of touch with the voters here.”
During campaign stops, Crane touts his long history as a legislator as a source of clout and federal dollars for the district, which sprawls across parts of Lake, McHenry and Cook counties.
“I’ve done my job, I’ve done my job very well,” Crane insisted after he toured a small Schaumburg manufacturing plant with U.S. House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert and fellow Rep. Don Manzullo. “I am conscientiously seeking to represent the people of this district.”
While Hastert and other House leaders passed over Crane in 2001 for head of the powerful House Ways and Means committee, the House leader has praised Crane’s job performance in Washington and blasted Bean for being too liberal.
“I don’t think she represents the heart and soul of this district,” Hastert said. “Phil Crane has served this district for a long time. He’s in Washington working every day.”
Over the weekend, Crane appeared with former Republican congressman Jack Kemp.
Bean has turned to outside help, receiving fund-raising assistance from former Vice President Al Gore and House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.). Over the weekend, she spoke at a rally with perhaps the brightest new Democratic star, Senate hopeful Barack Obama.
Democrat gets surprise help
On Sunday, she was endorsed by Crane’s GOP primary opponent, David Phelps of far northwest suburban Crystal Lake.
But Bean, running in a district considered solidly GOP, insists the contest is less about politics than about competence.
“This is not a partisan district,” Bean said. “People want to know, is this person working hard for me or not?”
That’s an issue where even some Republicans acknowledge Crane is vulnerable.
Some suburban Republican leaders said they think Crane has spent less time and effort in the district in the last several years, particularly since he spent 30 days in rehab for alcoholism in 2000.
“He’s probably a little more disengaged than he once was,” said a Lake County GOP official, who asked not to be identified. “I see him periodically. I guess I see him a lot more around election time.”
Crane as recently as Monday bristled at the criticism that he is often absent from the district.
“That’s totally absurd,” he said in Chicago before a Republican fund-raiser. “I’ve spent more than six months of this year in the district, and that’s when we’re in session. I’ve done work in the district consistently.”
But some Republicans are nervous about the race. While most insist they expect Crane to win, they concede it may be by a narrower margin than in previous years.
One reason is that Bean has been much more competitive in her fund-raising. Between July and September, she collected nearly $410,000, not far behind the $460,000 Crane raised during the same time.
Last week, she launched a $350,000 TV ad campaign attacking Crane and touting a series of endorsements. Crane is spending about $400,000 for TV ads that will run until election day.
Another reason is that the district is changing. Redistricting added some Democratic-leaning areas along the eastern edge of Lake County, and newcomers to the district are more diverse and independent, some local officials and political strategists say.
Contributing: Scott Fornek