Jim Dey: UI alum, entrepreneur, financial guru ready to run
With a solid Democratic electorate, access to substantial campaign funds and a history of easy re-election efforts, Illinois U.S. Sen. Richard Durbin is perceived as one of the safest incumbents in his party on the 2014 ballot.
Yet there Durbin was this past week at the White House, huddling with a group of nervous Senate Democrats who are up for re-election next year. Increasingly concerned over the fallout from the Obamacare fiasco, they met with President Obama, Vice President Biden and top administration officials to complain about the rollout of the Affordable Care Act and cajole the administration to bring a halt to what has been a technical and policy disaster.
It would be a tremendous exaggeration to say that Illinois Republicans smell blood, but they sense an opportunity to launch a credible challenge against Durbin if they can find the right candidate. If Obamacare runs completely off the rails and turns into the policy and political disaster some think possible, all bets could be off.
GOP officials speculate that even Durbin could fall victim to a voter revolt in this solid blue state.
That's how GOP state Sen. Jim Oberweis of Sugar Grove sees it, too.
While emphasizing that a U.S. Senate race against Durbin would be "a very, very, tough, difficult uphill battle," Oberweis said that "I think there is a chance to win if people are still concerned about Obamacare a year from now."
"I think it's important we have a recognizable name at the top of the ticket. I think it's important we have a conservative at the top of the ticket," he said.
Translated, that means Oberweis thinks he should be the GOP nominee. But that is not a universally held view among Republicans who fear that Oberweis' past campaigns would make it harder for him to win than easier.
Illinois Senate Republican Leader Christine Radogno is less than enthusiastic about Oberweis' candidacy, saying that she has urged him to "think long and hard" before throwing his hat into the ring. House Republican Leader Jim Durkin noted that in previous campaigns Oberweis stirred up controversies, particularly concerning illegal immigration, that "don't wash away after the election" but "will continue on as long as you're in the public eye."
Oberweis may perceive himself as a high-profile candidate, but that is unlikely considering the public's chronic inattention to candidates and issues. However, among those politically active, Oberweis is well known and somewhat controversial.
He's run twice for the U.S. Senate, once for governor and once for the U.S. House of Representatives and failed to win. Oberweis was, however, elected to the Illinois Senate in 2012.
Over those many campaigns, the 67-year-old Oberweis said, he learned much about the political process and how to work across the aisle with Democrats.
"I now have more Democratic friends than I ever had in the past," he said.
So far, just one other Republican, Doug Truax of Downers Grove, has announced his intention to run for the GOP Senate nomination.
Oberweis characterized Truax as an inexperienced candidate who has few financial resources. But Truax also has the kind of youthful Boy Scout qualities voters like and that would contrast well against a 68-year-old career politician like Durbin.
Married and the father of three, Truax is a West Point graduate, a former U.S. Army Ranger and a successful businessman who started Veritas Risk Services after leaving the military. He also is the past chairman of the board of Almost Home Kids, a charitable organization devoted to assisting children with medical needs and their families.
Like many former military officers, the 43-year-old Truax comes across as the kind of can-do guy who eschews political posturing and focuses on getting the job done.
But Oberweis also is a super-achiever, earning a fortune as an entrepreneur before turning his interest to politics.
A University of Illinois graduate, Oberweis turned a failing family dairy business around before starting an investment firm. The family-run Oberweis investment firm, which runs its own mutual funds, oversees roughly $1 billion for individuals and businesses.
More recently, his dairy business has turned in a new direction, building restaurants to go hand-in-hand with its Oberweis ice cream stores.
He points out that his approach to his "burger and fries" chain — called TBJ for That Burger Joint — shows he does not just bark out orders and expect them to be followed.
"That's not true at all. A good leader must get buy-in from his administrative team," Oberweis said.
Regarding the restaurant business, Oberweis wanted to make better use of his commercial real estate and thought partnering food sales with ice cream sales would be a good way to do it. Ice cream sales, he said, boom "from 7 p.m. to 10 p.m." and he wanted to make "use of that real estate at other times of the day."
Oberweis said he was pushing a restaurant featuring "salads and sandwiches" but his research team recommended "burgers and fries," a market trend reflected by such chains as Meatheads, Smashburger and Five Guys.
"Just saying what I want to do doesn't work," said Oberweis, who argued that what works in business is also what works in government.
"You need to, wherever possible, be working with the other side, even if it's not exactly what you want," he said.
Despite the concerns of some Republicans, Oberweis said he's "pretty much" in the race. He visited the University of Illinois campus this week in search of petition signatures and "got about 100 in an hour."
He also said he's the "No. 1 circulator" of petitions that seek to put a term limits constitutional amendment on the ballot next year, a proposal he said could draw many extra thousands of people to the polls.
Oberweis said he's taken no position on the four-way race for governor but will "strongly" back whoever wins the party nomination. He's enthusiastically backing himself for his party's Senate nomination.
"If we get the necessary petition signatures, I will run," he said, acknowledging that gathering them will not be a problem.
Jim Dey, a member of The News-Gazette staff, can be reached by email at email@example.com or by phone at 351-5369.