Politics

Are the Blue Dog Days Over?

Progressives vie to oust a Democratic family dynasty in the 3rd congressional district

Ellen Hao & Lizzie Smith

A year ago, Marie Newman was a nonprofit executive, a mother, and a successful business owner. Now, she is also candidate for the United States House of Representatives. She sat across from me at a downtown Starbucks facing Trump Tower which, on this afternoon, is glistening in the sun. With only a short time to talk before she had a speaking engagement, I asked her how she got to this point and where she wants to go from here.

More than anything else, Newman said that she sensed a call to action after the 2016 election and felt that “all rights were under assault,” so she went about studying the possibility of a run for Congress. A resident of southwest suburban La Grange, her district—Illinois’s 3rd congressional district—begins in the northeast in Bridgeport, then dances a jagged line southwest to the Midway area, swoops to the southeast to pick up parts of Beverly and Mt. Greenwood, and then expands deep into Chicago’s southwest suburbs, extending nearly to Joliet.

The current Representative, Dan Lipinski, has held the seat since 2005, when he became the Democratic candidate in a controversial political move. His father, Bill Lipinski, served twenty-two years as the area’s congressional representative, but retired after winning the 2004 primary election. With some maneuvering, the elder Lipinski convinced local Democratic Party officials, including Illinois Speaker of the House Michael Madigan and Cook County Commissioner John Daley, to appoint his son—at the time a professor at the University of Tennessee—as his replacement. Despite being criticized for “inheriting” the candidacy, Lipinski—who didn’t respond to requests for comment for this story—easily won the election in a majority-Democrat district, and hasn’t faced a serious challenger since.

Bill Lipinski went on to start a one-man Washington lobbying firm that focuses on transportation, but he had to give up federal lobbying due to political pressure. Specifically, critics pointed out that Bill Lipinski was getting paid hundreds of thousands of dollars by the Chicago Transit Authority, Metra, and others to lobby the House Committee on Transportation, a committee on which his son actively serves.

Marie Newman (Luke Sironski-White)

Marie Newman (Luke Sironski-White)

Lipinski, like his father, has long been known as a conservative Democrat, which Newman is attempting to use to her advantage—after all, the district went to Bernie Sanders in the recent Democratic primary. “[Third district residents] deserve a Democratic representative,” Newman said. Indeed, Lipinski was one of the few Democrats to vote against the Affordable Care Act in 2010, opposes same-sex marriage, and was one of just three Democrats to support a GOP anti-abortion bill in January. Still, the district has a history of social conservatism, and Lipinski has deeply rooted support among some unions and trade associations (two of the top contributors to his 2016 run were the Air Line Pilots Association and the National Electrical Contractors Association).  To defeat him in next year’s primary, Newman will need all the help she can get, and it seems like she is getting a lot. Aside from having a staff, connections to the grassroots-based Indivisible protest network that sprang up in the wake of Trump’s election, and thousands of small donors, Newman has also received help from former advisors to Mayor Rahm Emanuel such as John Kupper, a consultant who has been criticized in the past for attempting to plant negative stories about Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle to the Tribune.

After Newman and Lipinski face off in the Democratic primary, however, another progressive candidate will have been waiting on the sidelines. Thirty-one-year-old Mateusz Tomkowiak, who goes by Mat, is running as an independent. If elected, he will become the youngest member of the U.S. House of Representatives.

Tomkowiak has been researching healthcare policy for years at Princeton University and wrote his dissertation on the structure of healthcare debates in American society. A self-described introvert, he had never imagined that he would run for office and instead planned on studying hard, doing research, and advising our elected leaders. Then, his brother was diagnosed with schizophrenia, had to drop out of college, and lost his health insurance, and Tomkowiak became obsessed with fixing America’s healthcare system. After advising the writers of the Affordable Care Act, however, he realized that the policy wonks and healthcare experts were largely being ignored—to fix the healthcare system, he had to leave his comfort zone and run for office.

When asked why he decided to run as an independent and not as a Democrat, Tomkowiak said, “I’ve been an independent most of my life. Growing up as a gay Polish immigrant, I don’t feel an ounce of loyalty to either one of the political parties.” Instead, realizing that there are more than two sides to every debate, he believes that the U.S.’s polarized political system is in dire need of an independent wave.

Still, running as an independent presents serious obstacles for Tomkowiak, who has not aligned himself with any particular third party. First of all, to formally get on the ballot, he’ll need to collect twenty times the number of petition signatures than somebody running on one of the two party tickets would need—in his case, almost 15,000. Then, like all third party candidates, he will face an uphill battle just to be taken seriously during the campaign. But Tomkowiak is optimistic and cites the fact that nearly half the country did not vote in the 2016 election as evidence that there are people who feel alienated enough from the entire political system to potentially  support an independent.

Unsurprisingly, Tomkowiak (like Newman) is a strong supporter of universal healthcare and has made it a central focus of his campaign. As he put it, healthcare is “a special sphere of life…you’ll pay any price to cure someone you love, but these institutions are designed to think in terms of profit.” Going further, Tomkowiak frames all policies, from climate change policy to civil rights, in terms of their public health consequences.

Of course, this race is not just about healthcare, and both Newman and Tomkowiak support the flagship policies of the Democratic Party’s energized progressive flank: a fifteen-dollar minimum wage, progressive income tax, free tuition (or path to) at colleges and universities, immigration reform, and strong action on climate change. But, whereas Newman’s other main rhetorical focus is to support small business, Tomkowiak proposes more radical policies, such as a university endowment tax, a cap on CEO pay, and fair pay for online content creators.

Newman, as a retired businessperson, may lack the progressive flair of someone like Bernie Sanders, but she supports many of the same policies and replaces that flair with practicality. On the one hand, this practicality, perhaps left over from her business days, allows her to think analytically and realistically about policy. On the other hand, it seems to distinguish her from other progressive Democrats. For example, when speaking about the issues of youth unemployment and student debt, Newman said that not everybody should go to college, arguing that “many kids are passionate about things like carpentry or being an electrician.” As simplistic as that statement is, it sums up her rhetoric fairly well; in an era of stifling partisanship, Newman offers a commitment to compromise that may serve the Democratic minority in Congress well. It does, however, provide a striking contrast to Tomkowiak, who endorses Sanders’s College For All Act, which would make all public colleges and universities free and significantly restructure the student loan system. Newman supports maintaining incremental Obama-era policies designed to ease student debt—not do away with it entirely.

Tomkowiak shares a similar commitment to collaboration rather than partisanship. Among his pitches is a dedication to problem-solving that would enable him to work with everyone in Congress. Moreover, Tomkowiak believes he is better suited to represent the 3rd district and its young population specifically—he is a millennial, LGBTQ, an immigrant, and has experienced the effects of health policy firsthand—and his Polish background could give him an edge in a district with a substantial Polish population.

Regardless, it is clear that Newman’s campaign is more developed as both prepare for the upcoming March primary. Whereas she has developed PR and grassroots plans and held dozens of events where she has met potential constituents, Tomkowiak does not have a staff, has not started fundraising, and is a bit harder to reach. Though Tomkowiak’s election is farther away, given his campaign’s progress so far, it is hard to imagine him defeating Lipinski, a powerful incumbent with the backing of the Democratic establishment and nearly $1.4 million to fund his campaign.

When comparing Newman and Tomkowiak, however, it is fair to point out that the former has had access to personal funds that have helped her jumpstart her campaign, having donated over $72,000 to her campaign since April. As Tomkowiak noted, “Ms. Newman in one month spent more on her campaign than my parents make in a year.” But since May, Newman has also raised over $120,000 from individual contributions.

At the end of the day, Newman and Tomkowiak are two candidates with varying degrees of political and progressive cred who wish to challenge what they see as a frustratingly conservative dynastic Lipinski brand, and change the political landscape of the 3rd district. In March, the winner of the Democratic primary, either Newman or Lipinski, will move on to face Tomkowiak in the general election (no Republicans have declared candidacy). There are certainly differences to be considered between Tomkowiak and Newman, but given the power of the Lipinski name, securing a Newman victory in the Democratic primary will be crucial for the district’s progressives. If and when Newman defeats Lipinski, those differences between Tomkowiak and Newman can be properly fleshed out.

Correction 10/10/17: A previous version of this story reported that Mateusz Tomkowiak is twenty-eight years old. He is in fact thirty-one. If he is elected, this would still make him the youngest member of Congress.

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