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Aging Machine Gets in Gear for 'Rosty' : Politics: The powerful House panel chairman heads into a Chicago primary today too close to call. A rival says voters are ready for a change.

March 15, 1994|WILLIAM J. EATON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

CHICAGO — The remnants of the once all-powerful Chicago Democratic organization prepared to mobilize today in a final effort to win the party primary for Dan Rostenkowski, chairman of the House Ways and Means committee.

The five-way contest is considered too close to call. On election eve, polls indicated one-fifth of potential voters were still undecided.

The 66-year-old "Rosty" normally would be a shoo-in, but his reelection chances are endangered by unresolved allegations that he misused public funds in the House post office scandal. A federal prosecutor says a two-year-old investigation is now in its "final stages."

President Clinton and congressional Democratic leaders have taken the rare step of intervening in a party primary to endorse Rostenkowski, claiming that his skills are essential to passage of health care and welfare reform bills.

Rostenkowski's major challenger, State Sen. John Cullerton, predicts an anti-incumbent mood will carry him to an upset victory. "People are ready for a change," he contends. "If he (Rostenkowski) is indicted, he will lose all his power. Let's decide who has the best future."

Former alderman Dick Simpson, who pulled 43% of the vote in 1992 in his one-on-one race against Rostenkowski, is considered to be trailing the leaders, with two other minor candidates bringing up the rear.

Billy Banks, the boss of the 36th ward on the Northwest side that includes a large slice of Rostenkowski's 5th District, said he would assign more than 1,000 precinct workers from his ward to get out the vote for Rostenkowski, sending some to the western suburbs. Other regular Democratic leaders were expected to add hundreds more to the small army of volunteers to bring party stalwarts to the polls.

"This is the toughest race in the city, but we think we can swing it," said Banks.

Rostenkowski, who has served 35 years in Congress and reigned over the influential Ways and Means committee ever since 1981, has brought home federal largess in recent days. The Fire Department's rescue squad received a surplus Army helicopter. The city also got a $4-million Social Security building and a Job Corps Center to train 500 youngsters a year.

Rostenkowski bristled at the suggestion that he was trying to swing the election with delivery of pork barrel projects, saying that if he made a mistake it was in not saying more about what he had done for the city and the state.

"You almost get as red as a Mott's tomato when you talk about yourself," he grumbled at one event.

Despite some defections by ward leaders, Rostenkowski has the backing of the regular Democratic organizations and Mayor Richard M. Daley. Even Republican Gov. Jim Edgar came about as close as he could to an endorsement last week by declaring that Rostenkowski had been "helpful" to the state by his connections in Washington.

The battleground is a slice of Chicago's North Side, starting with high-rises on the lakefront and stretching across miles of bungalows to the DuPage County line west of the city.

Its residents are overwhelmingly whites of European background, with about 13% Latinos and 6% Asians. Many of the neighborhoods, particularly the western suburbs, were added to Rostenkowski's turf as a result of redistricting.

The drumbeat of stories about investigations into the trading of postage stamps for cash, putting "ghost" employees on the payroll and buying costly gifts for friends with public funds clearly has tarnished Rostenkowski's image.

"I'm not going to vote for him this time--no, no, no," said a Chicago business woman who asked not to be named. "The post office stuff turned me off."

But another voter, Dave Moss of suburban Schiller Park, said: "I'm disheartened, but he has done good for us--he keeps everything stable. I'll probably vote for Rostenkowski."

Turnout was expected to be light despite forecasts for a mild spring day, with temperatures in the mid-40s. Voter registration in Chicago overall has hit a 74-year-low.

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