Jim Dey | UI student balancing campus life, campaign trail

Jim Dey | UI student balancing campus life, campaign trail

Marko Sukovic, a University of Illinois senior, was supposed to be in his public-relations writing class Wednesday morning at Gregory Hall.

But readers know how things sometimes go with college students and morning classes.

"Unfortunately, I was not able to make it," Sukovic said. "But I will be in class Thursday. I promise."

In his defense, Sukovic contends that he had more pressing concerns, and he has a point.

As a Republican candidate for his party's nomination for a 59th Illinois House District seat, the 22-year-old faces an endless round of campaign commitments and duties that, as the March 20 primary election gets closer, require multiple trips to his Lake County home in Lincolnshire.

He has to knock on doors, distribute campaign materials, speak to groups of voters, raise money and do all the other things that go into the back-breaking business of running for public office.

In addition to getting his college education in a UI classroom, Sukovic is also benefiting from a seminar on the real world of election-year politics.

It has its highs — he was endorsed by the Chicago Tribune. And lows — Republicans backing his primary opponent sent out a mailing labeling Sukovic a puppet of Democratic House Speaker Michael Madigan.

That charge "doesn't even pass the laugh test," Sukovic said.

Perhaps that's why Sukovic isn't laughing. He calls suggestions that he's linked to Madigan in any way both "defamatory" and an "insult to the intelligence of Republican voters here."

But no one promised Sukovic a rose garden. So he keeps plugging along, trying to persuade voters — sometimes one at a time — that, despite his youth, he's the best candidate.

Sukovic said voters "perk up" when they come across a candidate of his age.

"I think people are eager for change," he said. "They'd like to see a fresh perspective and some energy."

Sukovic has nothing if not energy. While wrapping up his degree, he also started a public-relations firm that is small "right now" but growing. He's also worked as both an intern for former Republican U.S. Rep. Robert Dold and as a paid field director of Dold campaigns.

Sukovic didn't come by his interest in politics through family connections.

He said grandparents on both sides immigrated to the United States from Yugoslavia in the 1970s. No one in his family (his father is a lawyer, and his mother is a dentist) has been active in politics.

With three younger siblings, Sukovic said he was a typical high school kid excited about sports, particularly hockey, when his parents encouraged him to get "off the couch" and get involved in something.

Sukovic ended up applying for an internship in Dold's office. After a slightly rocky start, he found both a calling and a cause.

"On the first day, I walked in the campaign office in a full suit, and there were people dressed in khakis," he recalls.

Now his calling is helping to fix state government in Illinois, and his cause is free-market economics, what he describes as the best method of building a strong economy and restoring a strong middle class.

"I think about choice in any marketplace," he said. "That's built a lot of wealth."

Sukovic is running against Lincolnshire Village Board member Karen Feldman in the GOP primary.

The winner will face one of two Democrats, lawyer Susan Malter or Daniel Didich, a township official and Madigan's preferred candidate, in the November general election.

It should be a competitive contest because Democratic incumbent state Rep. Carol Sente opted not to run again for the post she has held since 2009.

Sukovic's campaign questionnaires reveal a broad familiarity with the state's problems and recipe for ameliorating them by focusing on making Illinois' economic climate more attractive to job creators.

Like other politicians, he knows what voters like to hear from candidates. He has pledged not to enroll in the legislative pension system, if elected.

He has also mastered the art of the snappy quote, like when he explained why young people need to become more active in politics.

"If you don't have a seat at the table, you're going to be on the menu," Sukovic said.

Feldman, Sukovic's opponent, is the favored candidate of the House Republican Organization, which Sukovic said has already given her more than $40,000 in campaign funds.

He said he expects to spend about $20,000 to $25,000 in the primary and has no feel for how things will turn out.

"This campaign is certainly unconventional. I don't know what to expect," he said. "But I'm confident in the work I've done. Regardless of the result, we will have sent a message."

Jim Dey, a member of The News-Gazette staff, can be reached at jdey@news-gazette.com or 217-351-5369.

Sections (2):Columns, Opinion
Tags (1):election 2018