Conservative 8th Dist. candidate Walsh talks about 'liberal' past

Updated 1/14/2010 12:05 PM
  • Dirk Beveridge

    Dirk Beveridge

As he's campaigned for the suburban 8th District congressional seat, Republican Joe Walsh has painted himself as a staunch conservative who opposes abortion and gun control, among other issues.

He's the only one of the six Republicans in the race who claims to have the backing of suburban tea party groups, the activists who gained attention last year with public protests about government spending.

But when he first ran for Congress in 1996, Walsh was a social liberal who supported abortion rights, gay rights and an assault-weapon ban while maintaining other traditional Republican stances.

Walsh, a 47-year-old venture capitalist from Winnetka, said he was "more of a libertarian" when he ran for Congress a decade ago.

His feelings about abortion changed in 2003 after spending several years on a spiritual journey, he said. And his views on gun control shifted after being "educated" on assault weapons.

"It did not take a long time for me to realize I was wrong about the ban. All it took was additional education and research on the issue," Walsh said. "Some pro-gun groups helped me to realize how unconstitutional a ban was and is."

As for gay rights, he took a liberal stance then "because I was running in Evanston, Ill.," Walsh said, referring to the largely left-leaning city where he lived at the time.

Walsh's shifting political views concern fellow Republican candidate Dirk Beveridge of Barrington. Voters in the 8th District want elected officials who act on convictions that are "clear and consistent," Beveridge said.

But Walsh's past political views don't bother Pat Conklin, president of the Illinois Federation for Right to Life, one of the groups that's endorsed him. Conklin sees Walsh's conversion on the abortion issue as a victory for her group.

"Our organization is all about changing people's minds and hearts," she said. "We are always very pleased when we see somebody who sees (abortion) is not the right way."

Walsh challenged the other candidates in the race to describe their political stances from 14 years ago.

"I'd love to know what my opponents thought about gay marriage 20 years ago," he said.

In addition to Walsh and Beveridge, the six Republicans running for the GOP nomination in the 8th District are: John Dawson of Barrington; Chris Geissler of Barrington; Greg Jacobs of Mundelein; and Maria Rodriguez of Long Grove.

Republican voters will decide Feb. 2 which of the six will face Democratic incumbent Melissa Bean and Green Party candidate Bill Scheurer in the November general election.

Walsh is the only Republican candidate who's run for Congress before. In 1996, he unsuccessfully challenged veteran Democrat Rep. Sidney Yates in the North Shore's 9th District. His campaign often focused on the octogenarian Yates' age; at one point, Walsh threw a birthday party for Yates.

Walsh also expressed liberal views on some social issues, telling one Chicago newspaper, "I'm not some right-wing conservative."

Fourteen years later, that tag applies to Walsh's current campaign.

He is critical of government spending, compared Medicare and Social Security to Ponzi schemes, opposes Congress' health care reform proposals and said people should be allowed to carry concealed weapons.

Walsh has celebrated the endorsement from the Illinois Federation for Right to Life and the backing he's received from two tea party groups - Tea Party Palatine and the Lake County Tea Party.

"To me, the tea party movement is the Republican base," Walsh told the Daily Herald last week during a group candidate interview. "I'm a tea party conservative first and a Republican second."

A representative with Tea Party Palatine did not respond to an interview request. Officials with the Lake County Tea Party group could not be reached.

Walsh, who also unsuccessfully ran for the state House in 1998, insists he leaned left in the 1990s only on those social issues.

"I was a hard-core fiscal conservative (then)," he recalled. "That hasn't changed at all."

Geissler, a manager with a consulting firm making his first bid for Congress, accused Walsh of not being forthcoming about the evolution of his views. Some members of the groups that have endorsed Walsh may be surprised to learn about his past, Geissler said.

Although he praised Walsh for undergoing a personal journey, Beveridge wondered how his rival's views might change in the future.

Other GOP candidates weren't as perturbed.

"He has every right (to say), 'This is what I was, and this is what I am now,'" said Jacobs, a retired Cook County sheriff's deputy.

"When you learn new information over time, sometimes that causes you to change your opinion," said Dawson, a business owner and former suburban school board member. "With new information, you make better decisions."

Rodriguez declined to comment.

The 8th District includes parts of Cook, Lake and McHenry counties. The seat carries a 2-year term.