David Axelrod recalls a client losing to Dennis Hastert after she was the target of a last-minute anonymous mailing
Hastert, elected to Congress, eventually became speaker of the House
Editor’s Note: David Axelrod is CNN’s senior political commentator and host of the podcast “The Axe Files.” He was senior adviser to President Barack Obama and chief strategist for the 2008 and 2012 Obama campaigns. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.
Throughout his years in Illinois and national politics, Dennis Hastert was known affectionately as “The Coach,” in recognition of his years as a beloved and genial high school teacher and wrestling instructor.
That was the wholesome image he carried into his first campaign for Congress in 1986. I can attest to its appeal, as I was the strategist for Hastert’s opponent in the race, which took place in the exurbs west of Chicago.
Although the district was reliably Republican and my client was a Democrat, she was the most popular elected official in its most populous county.
The race, which was to fill the seat of a retiring Republican incumbent, at first garnered little attention. The assumption in Washington and Illinois was that Hastert, a favorite of the state’s powerful Republican governor, James R. Thompson, would win easily.
But Hastert had helped rewrite state regulatory laws in Springfield that triggered higher electric rates, an irritant to constituents of both parties at a time of soaring energy costs. With scant resources, we directed all of our attention and advertising to the rate hike issue, which caught on with a vengeance.
Buoyed by this fight, my client surprisingly was running neck-and-neck with Hastert into the fall, causing a panic in Republican circles. Their attitude of bemused indifference suddenly gave way to an aggressive and energetic counterattack, which was helped by a bizarre incident late in the campaign.
She was campaigning at Northern Illinois University when she took a question from a student in the back of the auditorium whose face she could not see.
“Do you believe in morality in public officials?” the student asked. Of course, she responded, with some elaboration.
“Then why did you break up my parents’ marriage?” the young man demanded in reply. When he stepped forward, she could identify him as her stepson.
The incident, a deeply personal family conflict that had spilled out in public, was written up in the student newspaper, but there were no other reporters on hand and the story at first garnered little attention, save for a minor item in the Chicago Tribune.
All signs leading up to Election Day pointed to a dead heat; perhaps even an upset.
On the final weekend of the campaign, however, an unmarked envelope arrived in mailboxes throughout the candidate’s home base containing the student newspaper account of the confrontation with her stepson. When the votes were counted, she would badly underperform our target number in her county, enabling Hastert to claim a seat in the Congress where he would go on to lead as speaker of the House.
The mailing was plainly illegal, lacking any campaign or independent committee disclaimer, but she didn’t have the wherewithal or interest to pursue the matter. Hastert had won, and nothing we could do would change that fact. Besides, though he was the clear beneficiary of the mailings, we had no direct evidence linking him to it.
I thought about this episode the other day when I read about the U.S. Attorney’s sentencing memo detailing the squalid acts “The Coach” had committed years ago. In lurid detail, it described several cases in which he had taken advantage of his students, one of whom decades later demanded hush money.
Though the statute of limitations has long since run on his misconduct as a teacher and coach, his attempts to cover up the payments to his victim led Hastert, now 74 and ailing, to violate federal banking laws, a charge to which he pleaded guilty earlier in the year.
The accounts of molestation of students were sad and sickening, a tragedy for everyone involved. But as I read them, my mind also raced back to that heated campaign for Congress 30 years ago – and how it ended.
In his 2013 autobiography, “Speaker: Lessons from Forty Years in Coaching and Politics,” Hastert cited the confrontation at Northern Illinois as the turning point in the campaign, writing that my client appeared “rattled” by a student’s questions. Hastert didn’t include the nature of the questions or questioner, nor did he mention the subterranean mailing amplifying on the incident that may well have saved his career.
I guess he thought that was one more secret he could keep.
What a bitter irony that “The Coach,” whose tragic history of sexual abuse has finally come to light, was first elected to Congress partly on the strength of a sleazy, 11th-hour mailer sullying the morality of his opponent.