Defiant Cohen poses threat to both Quinn, Brady in governor's race

  • Independent candidate for Illinois governor Scott Lee Cohen says support from voters ultimately pushed him to re-enter the governor's race.

      Independent candidate for Illinois governor Scott Lee Cohen says support from voters ultimately pushed him to re-enter the governor's race. Bill Zars | Staff Photographer

Updated 2/24/2011 4:52 PM

Having the messy details of one's personal life plastered all over the news is enough to send many political hopefuls packing.

And it did just that to Scott Lee Cohen - for a few weeks.


After holding a teary Super Bowl Sunday news conference announcing his withdrawal as a Democratic candidate for lieutenant governor at the urging of party leadership, he felt "absolutely detached from politics," Cohen said in an interview Friday.

"I was going to be like the other guys who got thrown under the bus and went back to their private business and their private lives," he said.

But then, he said, he was encouraged as "hundreds of people e-mailed me, called me, or came to my house."

Someone even stopped by one day to remind him that the state needed honesty more than perfection, Cohen said.

"I decided if they were going to support me, I'd go back up there and do it again," he said.

Six months later, the millionaire pawnbroker is back in the game, running on his own terms as an independent candidate for governor.

Using his personal war chest of millions of dollars on an aggressive campaign to net voters fed up with career politicians, Cohen is making his mark on the race, experts say, even if winning is a longshot.

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"It's one more oddity in a very weird political year," said Kent Redfield, political science professor at the University of Illinois Springfield. "You have a Democratic and Republican candidate that nobody's thrilled about."

Nobody, he says, is going to "run through a wall" for either Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn or Republican state Sen. Bill Brady.

While Cohen still has much to prove in the remaining stretch of the campaign season, "he could appeal to moderates and independents with 'I care' and 'it's about the economy,'" Redfield said. That's especially true if the Quinn/Brady race is about "Quinn's incompetence" and Brady's conservative leanings, Redfield said.

Cohen, a 45-year-old Chicago native, has never held political office. Yet in February, the dark horse won the Democratic lieutenant governor nomination, beating out five other candidates, including veteran lawmakers, spending $2 million of his own money on a campaign centered around creating jobs.

Shortly afterward, he was pressured to step aside after his controversial past garnered more and more media attention.

Cohen was arrested on assault charges in 2005, while he was going through a rough divorce. His former girlfriend said Cohen threatened her, holding a knife to her throat. The charges were later dropped. And Cohen admitted using steroids during this troubled time.


Cohen maintains he was honest and upfront about his past from the beginning, but things only got worse with Democratic leadership.

"You know, the Democratic Party said people didn't like me. People didn't want me to represent me," he said. "Of course I'm heartbroken. I spent my own money. I didn't take money from special interests, unions, lobbyists, because I wanted to represent the people. I go through all of this and to have the party come out against me was very hurtful."

After spending a short time thinking hard about his political future, he decided to launch a petition drive, collecting 133,170 signatures to get on the ballot as an independent for governor. He needed 25,000.

Cohen is relying on his own savings and individual contributions to pay for his campaign.

"I'll spend $3 million, $6 million, whatever is necessary," he said.

Cohen is wealthy, but bills himself as a "non-career politician" and a regular guy who knows how hard times feel.

At 18, the youngest of five boys dropped out of high school to run the family pawnshop, State Jewelry and Loans, after his father had a heart attack. Along with that business, which he touts as "the busiest pawnshop in the state," he works as a real estate speculator, buying and selling properties.

Cohen says he later went back to school to get his GED, and has been taking classes at DePaul University to earn his bachelor's degree.

He has four biological children, but counts his fiance's three as his own, he says.

As an independent, Cohen leans left on many issues, including health care reform and education.

However, unlike Gov. Pat Quinn, Cohen says he believes raising taxes isn't the way to solve the state's budget crisis.

As in the primary, much of Cohen's strategy has been to talk about jobs and restoring the state's economy.

He says he wants to institute incentives for businesses to come to the state, remove many fines, fees and penalties, and lend owners more support.

Newly launched radio ads bill him as the only governor candidate to host job fairs.

Cohen has said he has held four of those free fairs so far - all within Chicago city limits - drawing hundreds of people each time. He has planned three more - one in Rockford, one in East St. Louis, and one in Chicago - before the election.

Cohen also hopes to appeal to minority voters, who he says have been "taken for granted" by Democrats and "neglected altogether" by Republicans.

He hosted a recent breakfast with a coalition of black ministers, speaking to them about job growth. He also picked up the endorsement of the black-owned Kankakee City News, who called Cohen the candidate who "best reflects the interests of the Illinois African-American electorate."

His reaching out to minority groups in the suburbs, and the suburbs as a whole, hasn't been as great.

Temi Latinwo Jones, of the Elgin NAACP, said she had not seen any signs or evidence that Cohen had been working to gain black votes in the west suburbs. Neither has the Rev. Nathaniel Edmond, of Elgin's Second Baptist Church, a leader among black churches in the area.

"I've been in parades. I've been to fairs," Cohen said. "The problem when you get into the Northern suburbs and the collar counties, you are dealing with strictly a two-party system. It's hard for an independent to get a meeting with the Democratic or Republican chairmen of those communities. And I think their belief is that they feel threatened by an independent candidate."

Cohen's success in the race will depend on several interrelated factors, DePaul political science professor Michael Mezey and Redfield said - the tone of his upcoming ads, whether he's included in major debates, and how his opponents attack one another - and him.

"If the Democrat and Republican campaigns become negative noise, that's an opportunity for him to pick votes up from both sides," Redfield said. "It's really a question of is he splitting the protest vote with (Green party candidate) Rich Whitney or peeling off moderates and independents? If he's just splitting the protest votes, it doesn't advantage either candidate. If he's out there pulling moderates and independents, I would buy into that idea that it hurts Quinn more than it hurts Brady. "

As for his major-party opponents, Republican Brady has largely ignored Cohen's bid so far.

"We're going to continue on our message about jobs and lower spending and taxes and how Illinois is going to live within its means," Brady spokeswoman Patti Schuh said. "So we are continuing that no matter who's on the ballot."

But Gov. Pat Quinn last week attacked Cohen's radio ads, and the man who was ever so close to being his running mate, saying Cohen had taken advantage of the poor through his work running pawn shops.

Cohen responded to those comments Friday, saying "what Gov. Quinn needs to do is not focus on his opponents. He needs to sit down and figure out how he is going to spend his last few months as governor helping the people of Illinois. And if he was more focused on job creation, on fixing the budget, he wouldn't be worried about my campaign or anybody else's."

With Cohen's early efforts toward Chicago voters who traditionally lean Democratic, Quinn has more immediate reason to see him as a threat, Mezey said.

Cohen's focus on jobs could take votes from Brady as well.

Cohen says he's in the race to win it, not simply to stick it to Democratic leadership.

"I wouldn't be spending this kind of money on a vendetta. I wouldn't be wasting precious time and energy on a vendetta" he said. "I've put my heart and soul into this. My kids, my fiance have sacrificed their lives."

In the final weeks of the campaign, Cohen says he plans to increase his radio and TV ads and go to any debate or forum he's invited to.

"After what I went through in February," he said, "I've become a stronger candidate. A stronger human being. A stronger person. Though I wouldn't suggest anyone else go through it."