Illinois: Fifth District|
Rep. Rod R. Blagojevich (D)
Last Updated June 1, 1999
No place in America today has more variety--ethnic and cultural--than the North Side of Chicago. From the air, the geometric grid streets lit by high-sodium lamps seem monotonous; on the ground, on a winter's day with snow swirling, its brick buildings look stolid and forbidding. This has been the homeland of one immigrant group after another and the chosen neighborhoods of all manner of successful middle-class people. Wooden workingman's cottages from the late 19th Century give way to sturdy huge brick houses of the early 1900s and then to the prairie bungalows of the 1920s and white-shuttered, orange-brick colonials of the 1950s. Chicago was America's number one immigrant destination for Poles, Lithuanians, Czechs, Slovaks, Ukrainians and Romanians; something about the heavy dull clouds of the long winters, the short hot summers, a climate suited to potatoes and cabbage and other hardy vegetables, may have reminded them of central and eastern Europe. By the late 1980s, new upwardly mobile immigrants from Mexico and Guatemala, Korea and the Philippines, have moved in; the 1990s have seen immigrants from Poland and Ukraine, Pakistan and India. Family ties, webs of acquaintance that reach back to ancestral villages, have made the North Side of Chicago a natural port of entry for Eastern bloc migrants coming to America.
The 5th Congressional District of Illinois covers an oddly-shaped slice of Chicago's North Side, running from the Lakefront all the way to the suburbs directly south of O'Hare Airport. Its boundaries were carefully drawn to put most Hispanics in the 4th District just to the south, but otherwise it reflects the full variety of the North Side. It includes Chicago's most glamorous lakefront apartments facing the Oak Street beach and the gentrified neighborhoods of Old Town, where old houses and factories are being converted into upscale condominiums. It takes in the Polish-American and Ukrainian-American neighborhoods around Milwaukee Avenue, and the old Italian neighborhoods running west on Grand Avenue. It includes, a couple of blocks from the Chicago River, the old church of St. Stanislaus Kostka, a traditional center of the Polish community since the 19th Century, and the residence across Pulaski Park of Dan Rostenkowski, chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee from 1981 to 1995, for whom the district was originally designed.
The congressman from the 5th District now is Rod Blagojevich, a Democrat elected in 1996 over the Republican who upset Rostenkowski in 1994, Michael Flanagan. Blagojevich is of Serbian descent; he was a Golden Gloves boxer who graduated from Northwestern and Pepperdine Law School. He practiced law and worked two years in State's Attorney Richard M. Daley's office in the 1980s. In 1992 he was elected state Representative. Politics in Chicago is often a matter of genealogy, and it did not hurt that Blagojevich is the son-in-law of 33d Ward Alderman Dick Mell, one of the major powers in Chicago politics.
Blagojevich was surely as surprised as anyone when Flanagan beat Rostenkowski 54%-46%, and he immediately began eyeing this Democratic seat. Flanagan's record was mostly conservative, and he seemed to have few political skills and little institutional backing. Not surprisingly, Blagojevich had primary opposition, the strongest from state Representative Nancy Kaszak. They had similar records, except on the death penalty--Blagojevich blasted her for switching from opposition to endorsement. Blagojevich had Mell's organization, one of the more active ward operations in the city, and the backing of Mayor Daley; Kaszak had fundraising help from EMILY's List and roughly matched him in money. But Blagojevich had more votes, winning 50%-38%. In the general, Blagojevich focused on guns and tobacco, saying that Flanagan might as well be a lobbyist for the National Rifle Association and the American Tobacco Institute. To lakefront voters Blagojevich introduced himself as the pro-choice candidate; to others he promised to seek laws to help cities fight crime and gang violence. It was no contest: Clinton ran far ahead in this district, Blagojevich outspent and out-organized Flanagan, and the Democrat won by a 64%-36% margin.
In the House, Blagojevich has pushed for gun control legislation and made news by opposing napalm shipments through the Chicago area. He sponsored bills to require child-proof locks on handguns, to abolish the Civilian Marksmanship program and to require federal licenses for gun buyers at gun shows. He sponsored $10 million to get prosecutors to work in local neighborhoods on quality of life offenses, like graffiti. None of this passed the Republican Congress, but he was more successful on napalm. In December 1997 he heard of the Navy's plans to ship old napalm from San Diego to East Chicago, Indiana. He held a press conference at Canal Street and Roosevelt Road in January 1998, comparing napalm (which is less hazardous than many materials routinely shipped by rail) to Hiroshima-type nuclear bombs. The 3d District's William Lipinski got the shipping route changed so the train wouldn't go through his district; at the last minute, the train was turned back in Kansas and the napalm sent back to San Diego.
Blagojevich also serves on the Census Subcommittee, and has decried census undercounts and backed Census sampling. He opposed fast track and the B-2 stealth bomber. He remains a fine athlete, recruited for the Democratic team in the congressional baseball game. He continued to run marathons, even training during a congressional visit to 8,500-foot-high, heavily-air-polluted, narcoterrorist-threatened Bogota; a Coast Guard lieutenant detailed to accompany him on his run couldn't keep up. He said he was frustrated by having low seniority, but understands where he is in the Chicago political firmament: ''I'm just a Congressman. In Chicago, I'm not even [as high up] as an Alderman yet.'' His political rank was certainly heightened in May 1999, however, when he traveled to Serbia with Jesse Jackson to successfully secure the release of three American POWs. Blagojevich, who used his Serbian-American contacts to set up the historic meeting with Milosevic, is fluent in Serbian and served as chief negotiator.
Blagojevich will surely be re-elected in 2000, but he must worry about redistricting in 2000. Illinois will probably lose one seat, and the 5th District, with its attenuated shape, could be carved up among its neighbors. One possibility would be to put the lakefront wards into the 9th District and to push the 5th north and west inland, which would reduce its Democratic percentage, but probably not fatally.
Safe. The 1995-97 Republican hold on this reliably Democratic district was purely a fluke, and is unlikely to be replicated under these lines. Blagojevich should have no trouble holding onto this seat in 2000, but the district has been losing a lot of population and may be impacted by redistricting in 2001.
- Pop. 1990: 571,053
15.9% age 65+;
- 86.9% White,
0.2% Amer. Indian,
13.1% Hispanic origin;
42.5% married couple families;
18% married couple fams. w. children;
47.4% college educ.;
median household income: $33,262;
per capita income: $19,242;
median gross rent: $457;
median house value: $109,900.
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