The departure of Scott Lee Cohen from the lieutenant governor race has dealt a real blow to the political punditry profession. For all the unsavory facts that have emerged since the primary, I can’t help but feel he was snatched away from us too soon, just when we were getting to know him. So now we must content ourselves looking into the secret life of his Republican counterpart Jason Plummer, the 27-year-old son of an Edwardsville lumber baron who spent $1.45 million of his own money winning their nomination.
What is it about the lieutenant governor job that I’m missing? The only official task is to chair the Illinois Rivers and Waterways Commission and, unofficially, wait around for the governor to get indicted or die in office. And yet 12 people, six Democrats and six Republicans, eagerly stepped up to run for the office and some, like Cohen and Plummer, spent lavishly to get it.
I never doubted Cohen’s credentials for the post. I even voted for him. A pawnbroker/businessman who can size up a Democratic race as astutely as he did, cadge endorsements off aldermen who claim they never met him, and win in spite of a TV commercial that looked like an ad for a truck driving school seemed like a perfect fit in Springfield. Too bad we’ll never see him in action.
I wasn’t around for the flurry of media attention that accompanied his victory, but being Scott Lee Cohen must have been quite an adventure last week. Here he thought he had put his stormy divorce, his steroid rages, his live-in prostitute girlfriend days behind him, when wham, every fluff head TV reporter with an Internet connection starts digging through court records for his delinquent child support ($54,000), unpaid rent ($40,000) and federal and state tax liens ($324,000 going back to 2001) like there’s something wrong with that.
Didn’t he offer to discuss all this with Sun-Times columnist Mark Brown when he first opened his campaign? And didn’t Brown write about him? Three times? Reporters who wouldn’t give him the time of day during the campaign now were camped out at his doorstep pushing court records in his face. Where were they when he was asking to set the record straight –– before people even knew he had a record?
I don’t blame Cohen for feeling like the Rodney Dangerfield of politics. He didn’t get no respect. He had to spend $2 million of his own money just to get his name out there. He sponsored a job fair nobody covered. Put billboards on the Kennedy. Bought airtime on all the networks. No one worked harder to get his name in front of the voters. And what kind of coverage did he get in the media? Nothing. Nada. Not a peep, pro or con.
Scott Lee Cohen won the democratic nomination for lieutenant governor with 213,000 votes –– in a primary where 7.5 million Illinois citizens were eligible to vote. Only 1.7 million of them went to the polls and 913,000 took Democratic ballots. Cohen won with 30,000 more votes than his nearest rival, but 93,000 of the Democratic voters––even as they stood with the ballot staring them in the face––never bothered to cast a vote in the lieutenant governor contest.
You want to look for someone to blame for this fiasco, dear citizens, blame yourselves. Sure, you can also blame a lackluster field of candidates, an office that has no meaning, and a media too decimated by budget cuts to serve an informed electorate. There is plenty of blame to go around. But if you are among the 78 percent of registered voters who did not even go to the polls, it might be better to keep your mouth shut altogether.
So Democratic state chairman Michael Madigan has decreed that Cohen must leave the ticket––for the good of the party––and a new candidate will be chosen by the party committeemen who will be worthy of running for that high office alongside a constitutional amendment Madigan is sponsoring to abolish it. Oh what a wondrous life it must be down that rabbit hole in Springfield.
The question that will not go away as fast as Cohen is where did he get the $2 million. Is the pawn business that lucrative? Did he borrow it? With that credit history? Find it stuffed in a mattress? Two million dollars doesn’t just grow on trees. (Unless you are a Plummer where that is precisely where it grows.) And there’s no record Cohen got substantial campaign contributions from anyone except himself.
What the Scott Cohen affair vividly demonstrates is that if you’ve got the money, you can shoot right to the front of the pack in Illinois politics. And that is precisely the problem. I don’t think we’ve heard the end of this little episode in democracy, nor should we.
* Photo courtesy of Marshall Rosenthal.