UTICA -- When U.S. Rep. Jerry Weller announced this past fall that he had decided not to seek re-election in 2008, Republicans in the 11th CD scrambled to find a successor. Just before the December petition filing deadline passed, three GOP candidates emerged: Utica resident Jimmy Lee, New Lenox Mayor Tim Baldermann and Terry Heenan, also of New Lenox.
The 11th CD race has almost been totally ignored by the district's mainstream media until just this week, when a call for debates among primary candidates was sent out by a new name and face on Illinois' political landscape: LaSalle County's Jimmy Lee.
While some say New Lenox Mayor Tim Baldermann is coasting to a Will County GOP machine-provided primary victory, others resent what they see as political overconfidence and want an alternative, a choice for their new representative to DC. Those folks seem to be taking note of Jimmy Lee.
Who is this Jimmy Lee?
Up until just before Lee's announcement last fall to run for Congress, the 30 year old was focused on becoming a youth pastor at Chicago’s Park Community Church. Just prior to coming back to Illinois, his boss had changed jobs, and Lee had decided it was time to make a change as well.
Lee’s former boss was someone of whom you've probably heard: Karl Rove, a close political advisor to President George W. Bush. Lee worked in the White House on Rove’s staff until his departure last year. When Rove left, Lee decided to come back home and endeavor on a career working with youth.
Of course we asked, “How does the son of a Chinese immigrants land a job with the world’s most powerful and influential staff at the White House?”
Lee’s answer was simple: “You offer to drive for them when they visit Illinois.”
Lee went on to explain that while studying at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana, he became an intern at the governor’s office. As time went by, he had the opportunity to drive for White House confidantes such as Karen Hughes and Karl Rove's staff when they visited Illinois.
Lee made an impression on those he hauled around, and when he was offered a job at the White House a couple of years ago, he jumped on it. He stayed on for eighteen months, and when Rove decided it was time to close up shop, Lee decided to return home to Illinois, and took an offer to serve as a church youth pastor.
So when Congressman Weller announced his retirement and the scramble to find a replacement broke out, Washington insiders contacted Lee and encouraged him to get in the race.
The power-heavy Will County GOP organization, of course, has been skeptical. Lee’s not been around their district much and hasn’t worked his way up through local Republican ranks. LaSalle County GOP hasn’t decided what they think, but they don’t know New Lenox Mayor Baldermann or Terry Heenan either. The 11th CD Republican primary is wide open.
But there’s three things Lee offers that’s very appealing to 11th District voters: He’s incredibly conservative on all the issues, he’s young and energetic and he adds an image of diversity to a bland Republican brand. To keep the 11th District in Republican hands during an anti-Republican election year, the GOP will need to spruce up its faltering, tired and somewhat arrogant persona.
The Democrats are chomping at the bit to make the 11th CD theirs, and its fresh new face in the General Election will be that of State Senator Debbie Halvorson, a powerful voice in Senate President Emil Jones’ inner circle. The 11th CD’s Democratic machine is preparing to take advantage of the vulnerable now 55-45 district.
So, what’s Lee’s plan to win the primary and take on Halvorson in the General?
“We’re out knocking on doors, and we’re finding that people are surprised to have someone running for Congress at their doors,” Lee said. "Many have said it’s the first time anyone has ever come to their door to ask for their vote.”
Lee said he’s been to Bloomington in the southernmost part of the 11th, as well as Ottawa, Peru and Princeton in the western part, and then Will County’s Frankfort and Mokena as well as Monee and Peotone to the east.
The topic of the third airport in the Peotone region is an especially important one for area residents. Lee recently opposed Congressman Jesse Jackson Jr’s plan to oust local residents from having a voice in the airport plans.
“He’s making plans for an airport outside of his own district,” Lee said.
"And his deputy district administrator is overseeing the $260 million in federal funds. The people directly affected should be the ones involved in the planning.”
Lee said the Federal Aviation Authority should be consulted about any future plans for an airport in the area.
Lee’s website explains clearly his positions on issues Republican voters care most about: He’s pro-life, supports all Amendments, “including the right of all law-abiding Americans to bear arms”; he's for stronger enforcement of immigration laws and opposes universal health care. He’s concerned about the environment and supports alternative energy fuels.
How serious is his bid? He’s hired three fulltime staffers and has several part-timers on board. He says he gets lots of help and encouragement from his twin brother who is Moody Bible Institute President Joseph Stowell’s assistant and a younger sister who works for Morgan Stanley in New York. He’s also been energized by a recent email blast that harvested 600 volunteers who he’s in the process of rounding up and organizing.
But those pesky rumors about the “new kid on the block” remain. Lee admitted it’s true that he’s written personal checks to two Democrats: Mayor Daley and Governor Blagojevich.
“As the director of the Chinatown Chamber of Commerce, I was asked by the State Chamber to financially contribute to their campaigns,” he said. Because the Chamber is a charitable organization, campaign checks must be written by individuals, so Lee’s name shows up on the Illinois State Board of Elections’ database as having donated to those two Democrats. At the time, Lee says, he wasn’t’ thinking about running for office and didn’t realize how such a contribution would affect this GOP primary bid.
“I’m not a Democrat plant, like my opponent would like others to believe,” Lee said. “I just left the White House. How could I be a Democrat plant?”
Lee said he’ll just continue knocking on doors and pushing for debates between the February 5 candidates. He’ll be starting an 11-city tour to talk about transportation, agriculture, health care and other issues as he travels from area to area. The issues facing this district range from agricultural concerns to fighting urban sprawl.
“The 11th is one of the most diverse districts in Illinois,” he said, smiling. “The people want to know who’s representing them in D.C. I’m going to do my best to meet as many in the district as possible between now and February 5.”