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GOP 'David' Knocks Off 'Goliath' Rostenkowski

November 09, 1994|JUDY PASTERNAK and STEPHEN BRAUN | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

CHICAGO — As his machine sputtered out and his foot soldiers stood by helplessly, embattled Democratic Rep. Dan Rostenkowski suffered a veteran ward heeler's ultimate indignity Tuesday, turned out of office by a novice Republican challenger.

Facing a federal trial on misuse of government funds and forced to give up his coveted post as chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee after he was indicted in May, the 18-term congressman had depended, as always, on his vaunted north Chicago political organization to deliver the goods.

But on a rain-swept night in a northwest storefront, Rostenkowski's precinct captains and ward walkers came back empty-handed.

With 99% of the 5th District's vote counted late Tuesday, Michael Patrick Flanagan defeated Rostenkowski 55% to 45%. Four hours after the polls closed, Rostenkowski conceded.

"I'm going to go back to Washington and clean out my desk," Rostenkowski, 66, told a roomful of stunned campaign workers.

He smiled grimly as he entered and tugged at his ear as he spoke. "I've stood for election in primaries and November elections almost 45 times. This is the first time I've had to concede defeat."

Flanagan, a 31-year-old contract lawyer almost unknown in Republican circles, had waged a lonely campaign for months, knocking on doors in Rostenkowski's strongholds and in suburban bedroom communities more friendly to his quixotic campaign.

Rostenkowski's political surrogates--the aldermen and precinct captains who had served him well for decades--boasted that they would carry the ball for him as they had always done. But "our boys and girls," as 36th Ward Alderman William (Billy) Banks called his troops, could not stem the voters' disillusionment.

"For 34 years, he did so much for the city," said Thomas McDarrah, one of the congressman's inner circle. "These voters are stupid."

Flanagan said Tuesday night that voters' concerns over taxes and weariness with pork-barrel politics were the most decisive factors in his victory. He did not mention Rostenkowski's legal troubles. Within weeks of winning the Democratic primary in April, Rostenkowski was indicted on 17 counts of embezzlement, fraud and witness-tampering.

Flanagan's campaign had seemed to generate little enthusiasm until recent weeks, when an internal poll by the Republican National Committee indicated Rostenkowski was in trouble. The RNC infused Flanagan's cash-poor campaign with a $55,000 donation.

Last weekend, Rostenkowski, who had not campaigned and whose headquarters did not even answer its telephone, rushed back to Chicago to announce a last-minute federal grant to stem erosion at the Chicago lakefront.

But it was that very ability to dispense the goods that seemed to prove Rostenkowski's undoing.

"Pork has not served this district well," Flanagan said recently, motioning to a campaign sign that showed a photograph of Rostenkowski over a caption that read: "1994 Term Limits Poster Child."

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