IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

The Democrat who displeases Democrats

Rep. Melissa Bean, a Democrat representing a conservative-leaning district north of Chicago, faces a tough reelection battle.

No one makes a more compelling case for the tax cut that President Bush recently signed into law than Melissa Bean, the first-term Democrat who represents the Eighth Congressional District of Illinois.

Thanks to Bean and others who voted for the law, people who derive income from dividends and capital gains will enjoy low rates through 2010, and at least some upper-income people will be protected from the alternative minimum tax.

Most of Bean’s fellow Democrats were disgusted by the bill. “Another windfall for the wealthy while everybody else gets to work for a living,” griped Rep. Rahm Emanuel, chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and a fellow Illinois congressman.

But Bean says the tax cut made sense for her district which runs northwest from Chicago up to the Wisconsin border.

“It’s an investor-class district, an upper-middle income district that I represent,” Bean explained. “Most people have investments. Obviously, wealthy folks have larger portfolios and are going to benefit to a greater degree," she said, "but if you look at the bill itself, it also benefited your lowest income individuals and eliminated the taxes they would have paid on dividends and capital gains."

The bill, Bean said, "very much represents the investor-class district I represent, particularly seniors.”

Bean in the cross-hairsA brisk, no-nonsense former business executive, Bean is the Republicans’ number one target in this fall’s campaign. She won her seat two years ago by upsetting veteran Republican Rep. Phil Crane.

Because Bean’s district has such a Republican tilt, Republicans argue that she’ll have a hard time holding her seat. Bush carried the district with 56 percent in the 2004 presidential election.

By the beginning of April Bean had raised a total of $2.3 million, the most of any House member.

Her Republican opponent, former Bank of America investment banker David McSweeney, who prevailed in a tough primary, had only $146,000 in cash on hand.

About three-quarters of McSweeney’s campaign funds have come from his own deep pockets.

But he’s getting celebrity help from former New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, who will be starring at a fund-raising event for him next week in Chicago, as well as from House Speaker Dennis Hastert and Vice President Cheney, who are also doing fund-raisers for him.

McSweeney argued that Bean votes against some of the bills she ultimately votes for, casting doubt on her credibility. “Even in the case of the tax bill, this is a good example: she voted against the enabling legislation (the rule) to bring this bill to the floor. If she had her way, this legislation would have never been brought to the floor.”

He added, “She’s trying to be all things to all people.”

A conservative/liberal dichotomy
Bean voted for the Central America Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) and for the bill to make it harder for consumers to declare bankruptcy and escape their debts. Both votes displeased members of her party.

But don’t those votes also help her make the case she’s independent and not a clone of House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi? We asked that question of Rep. Tom Reynolds, R-N.Y., who as chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, leads his party’s efforts to hold on to its House majority.

In reply, Reynolds wise-cracked, “You mean (she’d) become a Republican?”

Then he added, “I appreciate that once in a while she sees the wisdom of our actions and joins our votes and I hope she will continue.”

Despite her tax cut fervor, Bean isn’t a conservative Bush Democrat.

On roll call votes in 2005 on which Bush took a position, Bean voted in support of him 48 percent of the time. That compares with 16 percent for Pelosi and 24 percent for Emmanuel.

Bean is a liberal on social issues such as abortion. She opposes a constitutional amendment to outlaw same-sex marriage; she supports traditional marriage, but says it is an issue for the states. She has been endorsed by the gay rights advocacy group, the Human Rights Campaign.

McSweeney supports a constitutional amendment to define marriage as the traditional man-woman relationship.

He opposes abortion except in cases of rape and incest or when needed to save the life of the mother.

McSweeney calls for means testing of the Medicare prescription drug entitlement which Congress created two years ago. He says the program should be targeted only to low-income and middle-income people

“It doesn’t make any sense to me that the richest people in this country are getting the benefit of subsidized drugs,” he said.

Which way on spending?
McSweeney isn’t shy about assailing his own party on federal spending (up 8 percent so far this year, compared to last): “We’ve lost our way as a party on spending,” he said.

As for Bean, even though she’s concerned by the federal deficit, she says she would not support an increase in income tax rates for the top one percent of households (those with incomes above $300,000) in order to help reduce the deficit. “I don’t know that’s even being proposed,” she said. “I’m not looking at that at all right now.”

She added: “I do support stimulative (tax) cuts. I’ve supported every tax cut that’s come before me since I’ve been in Congress.”

Immigration: A dividing issue
On immigration Bean said she opposes “a blanket amnesty,” but also opposes “mass deportation” and suggests that “somewhere in the middle ground” there ought to be penalties against illegal immigrants, but also ought to be “a way to integrate folks that are here and bring them out of the shadows.”

McSweeney says he opposes the Senate bill’s provision of giving a pathway to legal status for illegal immigrants.

Bean’s vote for the tough House border control bill, championed by Rep. James Sensenbrenner, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, has alienated some in organized labor.

“We represent a lot of people in the meatpacking and processing industry,” said Kenneth Boyd, the president of Local 1546 of the United Food and Commercial Workers union. “A lot of those people are immigrant workers. Her vote on the Sensenbrenner bill really turned us off.”

Boyd said about 3,000 UFCW members live in his Bean’s district. (Bean’s margin of victory in 2004 was about 9,000 votes.)

Boyd, who lives in Bean’s district, said her vote for the Sensenbrenner bill “was a vote against our members. We have a very large Hispanic membership and Polish membership and that vote goes against all immigrants.”

How will this affect the Bean campaign?

“We’re not going to work against her, but I also can’t go to my members and say ‘We need to support somebody who voted against you and your families.’”

Despite this, the UFCW political action committee has chipped in $10,000 to Bean’s campaign, with most recent installment coming in April.

Several other unions contributed to her campaign before her vote last July for CAFTA.

Bean faces an independent challenge
Three unions, the Teamsters, the Machinists, and UNITE, which represents garment workers and hotel and casino employees, have funded independent Bill Scheurer, who is trying to muster the nearly 14,000 signatures by June 26 that he needs to get on the ballot as a third-party candidate.

“She’s essentially a corporate candidate,” Scheurer said of Bean, adding that “her voting record on progressive values is horrendous.”

Scheurer, a lawyer, lay minister and self-described “peace activist” is a political eclectic: he opposes both the Iraq war and “abortion as a method of birth control.” He also says, “We should bring our troops home from around the world and deploy them to protect our borders.”

One of his daughters is a captain in the Army; one of his sons just got back from a year tour of duty in Iraq.

“The vast majority of people out here don’t give a **** about the political parties,” Scheurer said. “People understand that these parties cannot address the problems that we face as a nation.”

And with part of this, Bean agrees: “I represent a district which is very independent by nature…. They don’t wear hard ‘R’s’ or hard ‘D’s.’ They’re proud of their independence and they vote for the person they think represents them best.”

If enough voters in her district are independent enough to put Scheurer on the ballot, it will make this race a more complicated one.