February 29, 2004
Blair Hull is the multimillionaire Democrat spending his own cash to campaign for the U.S. Senate in Illinois.
Hull must be wondering why the heck he burnt so much, especially now, with his campaign toasting up over old, yet damaging allegations.
And the surgical precision by which his campaign has been gutted--with the question of whether Hull beat his wife years ago--deserves some recognition.
Illinois politics means Chicago politics at its best, or worst, depending on whether you appreciate the fine art of delivering the shiv.
There is no "fair" in Chicago politics. It is not a card game like blackjack, where you can count cards to influence the outcome. It is not beanbag, as the late Mayor Harold Washington used to say.
I've seen the shiv sunk clumsily in past campaigns with other candidates, applied so ham-handedly that if it were a movie, the soundtrack would have been played by drunks with kazoos on a broken-bottle Saturday night.
But in Hull's recent descent, I'm hearing woodwinds, with a strong oboe.
Reporters now will begin speculating how much Hull will be hurt by the release of his once-sealed 1998 divorce file. It contains unproven allegations of spousal abuse made by his ex-wife and will be reported exhaustively, perhaps even breathlessly, because we're only weeks from the March 16 primary.
The ex-wife, Brenda Sexton, isn't talking. She has a nice political job in Gov. Rod Blagojevich's administration, trying to encourage Hollywood filmmakers to produce work in Illinois.
Putting movies in motion around here is a tough business. Sexton got the job after Hull dropped a fat campaign donation on the governor.
She could help Hull by coming forward to say something mitigating. But she's quiet, letting him twist alone for the crows.
Perhaps Hull deserves this. Or perhaps this is what happens to many people who go through divorce, in which people say and do hurtful things, but don't run for office with court files that become unsealed.
Folks get divorced all the time. If you know someone who has gone through a messy divorce, you've heard similar stories.
So whether he hit her shin in anger first or whether she kicked his first, whether he cursed at her or she at him, it's not new. Any divorce lawyer can tell you how these arguments are shaped or manufactured.
If Sexton goes public and says Hull does not belong in the U.S. Senate because of the way he treated her, that's different.
Then she'll be asked exactly what happened and she'll have to explain.
She has issued statements to say she likes Hull and thinks he should be a senator. But she's not talking, she's not giving quotes and the pressure builds.
And media pressure to release the file has accomplished--perhaps even unintentionally--a political purpose. It has taken votes from Hull.
Now, I've been covering politics for years now, and as a political reporter, I'd like to ask a favor.
For the next few paragraphs, don't think like a voter. In campaigns, voters are the objects of the exercise.
Instead, think like a political operative. And by this I don't mean some cartoon with a cigar and a pinky ring.
Operatives are the guys who do the feeding. The clever operatives can feed millions and never leave their fingerprints on the silverware.
In thinking like an operative, you wouldn't ask how the release of the Hull divorce papers hurts his candidacy because, as an operative, you'd have started polling on this question as the first stories appeared, if not before.
So ask what an operative would ask: Who does it help?
The common wisdom would suggest that State Sen. Barack Obama (D-Chicago) will benefit from Hull's troubles and that Obama will win support from women peeling away from Hull.
Yet the problem with common wisdom is that it's so common. And you're not common.
So you might figure that Hull's troubles also help Illinois Comptroller Dan Hynes.
Hynes, son of former Cook County Assessor Tom Hynes, is the candidate the Daleys of Chicago would like in the U.S. Senate.
Hynes is running a low-profile campaign by design. The strategy is that he'll have the ward bosses and organized labor churning out votes in Chicago, Cook County and far southern Illinois.
One lie about politics is that it's all about addition.
In a low-turnout party primary, it has never been about addition.
It has always been about subtraction.
The many Democratic candidates will take just enough from their demographic, leaving Hynes with the organization vote.
Hull, a card counter, didn't understand about subtraction. And he has spent millions to learn.
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