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posted: 5/11/2010 12:01 AM

How a Cohen run could do more harm than good

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Illinois politics has, in the past, had some amazing twists and turns. We have seen Election Day backstabbing or knifing, strange political coalitions form and then disappear and, of course, the U.S. attorney acting as the state's ethics czar. But in 2010, Illinois has broken new ground with three little words: Scott Lee Cohen. Why?

Unlike the other major party candidates for the 2010 gubernatorial and lieutenant governor nominations, Cohen had a significant win over his primary rivals for the No. 2 post. In fact Cohen's winning margin over his nearest opponent was more than two times greater than Pat Quinn's, Bill Brady's and Jason Plummer's victory margin over their top rivals - combined.

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There is no need to revisit the sensational factors that led Cohen to drop his lieutenant governor candidacy - a nomination he fairly won. However, now he is back trying to run for governor as an independent for reasons known probably only to him and a few others.

Here is what's ahead for him:

First, he needs 25,000 clean signatures by mid-June to get on the ballot as an independent. It will not be easy, and it will take big bucks. Questions like who will pass the petitions, who will sign the petitions and what arguments can Cohen use to persuade voters to do either of these tasks remain a puzzle.

Second. even if he clears hurdle one he will need to fight to stay on the ballot. Undoubtedly, his petitions will be legally challenged, and once again it will cost big bucks to defend his signatures.

Third, if he clears hurdle two - we are probably talking late summer at this point - he will need a campaign organization, a platform based on "some" substance and once again big bucks for media, etc.

Even greater than the above three political obstacles is the man himself - Scott Lee Cohen. His lieutenant governor nomination victory was based on anonymity. It was a multicandidate primary made up of fellow "statewide" unknowns who received little to no publicity. To be sure, Cohen recognized this scenario and 1) pieced together a highly effective radio media campaign and 2) for reasons unexplained won over some potent Democratic pols to support his candidacy. However, this type of game plan will be unworkable in the gubernatorial general election campaign this fall. Why?

The answer, again, is Scott Lee Cohen. His campaign presence will guarantee enormous statewide publicity - if not national or international as well. He will be unable to hide. He will have to offer policy answers to policy questions on how to deal with the state's horrific financial situation. Cutesy anecdotal comments will not cut it. He will need substance, and the media - stung by post primary criticism and seeing an easy story - will not play gentle with his candidacy.

In sum, Cohen will be running to become Illinois' chief executive, the person in charge of a huge budget that directly affects peoples' lives rather than seeking an office, as he did in the primary, that has no real function, purpose or duties.

Snickers and guffaws aside, the real impact of a Cohen gubernatorial run could be that it takes away coverage and analysis of the issues that matter most and the arguments of the candidates who can actually win.

The late Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley was often asked whether a particular potential candidate should run for office. Hizzoner's reply was always that "it's a free country." Cohen has every right to run for governor. It will be up to the voters to see whether he can be a realistic candidate for the job. One thing is for sure: His run for office will not be "free."

• Paul Green is Director of the Institute for Politics at Roosevelt University in Chicago and Schaumburg.

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