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Which politicians are cozying up to the tea party?
By Joseph Ryan | Daily Herald Staff

Politician Joe Walsh speaks at Palatine Tea Party's Taxed Enough Already rally at Volunteer Plaza in Palatine on Thursday.


George LeClaire | Staff Photographer

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Published: 4/19/2010 12:01 AM

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Last spring, few would show up to rally behind Illinois politicians Adam Andrzejewski, Joe Walsh or Joel Pollak - or even state senators like Bill Brady and Randy Hultgren for that matter.

Yet, there they were on stage last week, hitting tea parties across the Chicago area, eliciting cheers from hundreds of sign- and flag-waving attendees who want the country to pivot right and cut a clear conservative path.

"Chicago Democrats are the modern-day red coats," bellowed Andrzejewski, a GOP candidate for governor from Hinsdale who lost in the primary, before tea party ralliers in Palatine last week.

But while some politicians are embracing tea partyers, and are being embraced in return, others couldn't be found at the key events. One excuse could be that Congress and the Illinois General Assembly were in session.

Even so, "none were invited," said Gerard Schilling, a tea party organizer of a rally in his hometown of Naperville.

"The tea party group is trying to be autonomous and independent of political parties," he said.

This is the delicate dance between local tea partyers and the establishment Republican Party in Illinois.

You won't find a Democrat on the stage at a tea party rally, but you also aren't likely to find some of the better-known Republicans, like U.S. Rep. Mark Kirk of Highland Park, former GOP Gov. Jim Edgar or even the head of the state party.

Tea partyers are quick to point out they are not partisan, but they are ideological. They are lifting a new batch of Republicans into the spotlight while openly shunning some of those in the establishment.

Meanwhile, politicians run the risk of being marginalized as "tea party" candidates, casting their lot with the ever-evolving public perception of a grass-roots effort propelled by conservative pundits and organized, in part, by like-minded think tanks.

Take Hultgren.

The Winfield state senator has long been an advocate of conservative ideals in the statehouse. With the backing of many tea party activists, he defeated Ethan Hastert in the Feb. 2 GOP primary for the 14th District congressional race against Democrat Bill Foster.

Hastert is the son of former Republican House Speaker Dennis Hastert, who has been criticized by tea party groups for overspending on his watch.

Even though the state Senate was in session Thursday, Hultgren was sure to make it to tea parties in Geneva and Oswego, covering parts of Foster's far west district.

Still, Hultgren adds that he is trying to draw appeal from across the spectrum to defeat the freshman Foster.

"The key is that I'm running to represent everybody," Hultgren said Friday.

Hultgren also praises the tea party, saying the members could make a difference come the Nov. 2 election.

"I know they will have an influence," he said.

The gamble for some politicians is whether that influence will be enough to overcome any potential backlash from being seen as coming exclusively from the tea party element.

Walsh, who is running in the 8th District against U.S. Rep. Melissa Bean, and Brady, the Republican candidate for governor from Bloomington, appear to be doubling down. Brady has attended a slew of tea party events in the suburbs over the last several weeks. Before hitting a Geneva tea party Thursday, Brady said he saw himself as a natural ally of the group because his "philosophy is much in tune with what they support: Limited government, more efficient government, lower taxes, creating jobs for the benefit of families, not politicians."

Walsh hit three events Thursday, including the one in downtown Chicago.

"They are not going to support Republicans if Republicans don't limit what government is doing," Walsh said Friday. "To me, the movement is absolutely nonpartisan."

Another congressional candidate to be embraced by organizers Thursday is Pollak, a Skokie Republican running against U.S. Rep. Jan Schakowsky of Evanston. Schakowsky accused tea parties last year of being a "shameful political stunt" and called them "despicable."

Republican state Sen. Matt Murphy of Palatine is another to look to the tea partyers for support. He was invited to speak at the Palatine rally Thursday.

Murphy sees the group as a watchdog on the Republican Party's platform of limited government.

"It is a calling to the Republicans to come back to their core principals," he said. "And in that regard it may make us stronger."

At the same time, there are Republicans the public is not likely to see at tea party rallies, including Kirk, who has been vilified by some conservative groups for supporting gun control, stem cell research and previously voting for the Democrats' cap-and-trade legislation.

Kirk is leading Illinois' Republican ticket in his Senate bid against Democrat Treasurer Alexi Giannoulias.

Kirk's campaign said he couldn't attend any rallies Thursday because the House was in session. He did issue a video over the Internet.

"The coming election presents a clear choice when it comes to your future tax bill," he told viewers.

That Kirk says he will be more conservative than Giannoulias is not enough for some tea partyers to cheer him on.

"He is not exactly on my top list," said Ralph Sprovier, a top organizer from Woodridge for the Illinois tea party.

So, in seeking to keep their current sense of independence from the GOP, top tea party activists are likely to remain careful about who they let on stage even as some politicians may be even more careful about getting on that stage if invited.

"We are not trying to help the candidates that are already supported well by the party," said Steve Stevlic of Berwyn, who organized the tea party event in Chicago. "We look at who agrees with our principals."