Small talk ends when GOP boss' name comes up

Illinois Republicans campaigning to replace outgoing U.S. Sen. Peter Fitzgerald (R-Ill.) got a bit testy with each other during a Tribune editorial board meeting Wednesday.

There were accusations of arrogance, party disloyalty, unwillingness to reform and one terrible allegation of ostentatious nose-lifting.

Please let me first explain that the outburst was all my fault. I started it.

I'm not a member of the editorial board, but its editors let me hang out on occasion. And so I sat in to hear how the candidates would reform the party after the sleazy George Ryan years.

Just about the time one candidate was proving he went to college by offering a fascinating aside on the Treaty of Westphalia and Europe of the 1600s, I got bored and asked a question.

Should Illinois GOP boss Bob Kjellander stay or should he go?

Kjellander is the Republican national committeeman in Illinois and is in charge of President Bush's re-election campaign in the Midwest.

But he's also a top lobbyist and a puppet master of the bipartisan Illinois combine that has run Illinois for years, an inside player and creature of former Govs. Jim Thompson and Ryan.

Kjellander (pronounced "sha-lander") moved to undercut Fitzgerald, who brought independent federal prosecutors to Illinois.

Kjellander also received a curious $800,000 consulting fee from bond underwriter Bear Stearns after Democratic Gov. Rod Blagojevich got a $10 billion borrowing package through Springfield.

With Illinois Republicans trying to live down the Ryan years and reform the party, it seemed to me that the ostentatiously reform-minded U.S. Senate candidates would approve the suggestion that Kjellander be driven off. I was wrong.

A few weeks ago, I interviewed one candidate, state Sen. Steve Rauschenberger, a conservative who said Kjellander should be dumped.

Rauschenberger said as much again Wednesday, questioning whether a lobbyist receiving $800,000 in a bond deal for a Democratic governor should lead the Illinois GOP.

"When Bob Kjellander was appointed Republican national committeeman, Republicans controlled the governor's mansion, the House and the Senate," Rauschenberger said. "Today, we're the minority in the House and the Senate, and we've lost the governor's mansion."

Rauschenberger bothered the other Republicans, who want to be seen as reformers but don't want to anger Kjellander.

Chief among these was candidate Andrew McKenna, the Glenview businessman.

"I think it's a culture, I don't think it's a person. I think that the first thing incumbent on us as Senate candidates is to lead by example," McKenna said, adding that the state party will make that decision without his help.

"I'm talking to delegates about my outrage about where the party went to," McKenna said. "We ought to have outrage about the scandals. You know, let those delegates make their own decisions."

Aurora ice cream king Jim Oberweis declined to take a position, except to say that the $800,000 fee was exceptionally large.

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