Politics & Policy

Trashing the Speaker

Heated rhetoric ahead of possible early election.

Dennis “Hastert joined with and enabled all those insiders who collectively destroyed the Republican Party in Illinois,” reads a lengthy missive dated August 17. “Other embarrassments followed under Hastert’s watch, including the Abramoff lobbyist scandal, the House Intern debacle involving Mark Foley that was so badly handled, and the infiltration of homosexual staffers into the Speaker’s office and political operation….Hastert remains today a core figure among Illinois’ discredited old guard….The maneuverings from Hastert’s circle to get rid of [former Sen. Peter Fitzgerald and U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald] speaks loudly against Hastert and describes just how extensive the web of political corruption is in Illinois.”

Rep. Hastert, the former Speaker of the U.S. House, has already announced he will not seek reelection. Republican sources say that he is actually planning on an early retirement in November that will trigger a special election early next year. So why this extraordinary and angry two-and-a-half page letter, which spends its first page and a half just trashing the former Speaker?

The letter is actually a piece of election literature intended to help a Republican candidate for his seat. It was sent to every precinct committeeman in Hastert’s district by Jack Roeser, a wealthy conservative activist who runs the Family Taxpayers’ Network. Roeser is known for his outspokenness, but he is also an established political figure who has been around forever.

After his letter finishes settling 20 years of scores with Hastert (from his selection as the district’s nominee in 1988 to his ouster of former state chairman Gary McDougal), Roeser writes that he is endorsing state Sen. Chris Lauzen (R), one of two conservatives running to represent the district. Asked about Roeser’s missive, Lauzen said he appreciated Roeser’s support but that he had nothing to do with the letter and wasn’t very happy about its contents. “I’m glad you asked Jack that question, because it means I don’t have to,” he said.

Roeser, on the other hand, was unapologetic. “It’s absolutely necessary,” he said in an interview. “[Hastert] doesn’t deserve any credit for what he did. He did a lousy job…He blew it in many ways. He didn’t do a damned thing to stop all this crazy spending and pork, and it’s ruined the Republican name.”

In the twilight of his career, Hastert unquestionably inspires mixed feelings among conservatives. But the situation is very different in the 14th district of Illinois. At the height of his Mark Foley problem, and the troubles with the scandal-ridden Congress in 2006, Hastert won reelection with 60 percent of the vote. The former high school wrestling coach’s approval rating in his district was 63 percent last month, and that was in a Democratic poll taken when it appeared he might still run again. Roeser disagreed with the idea that his efforts on Lauzen’s behalf could backfire.

Lauzen faces a primary against wealthy businessman Jim Oberweis (R.), who has lost three statewide GOP primaries but carried Hastert’s district each time. Roeser actually gave $500,000 for Oberweis’s unsuccessful gubernatorial campaign last year. But Oberweis should get out of this race, Roeser writes in his letter, because “if Lauzen and Oberweis both remain in the race, the Hastert designee will almost certainly walk away with the nomination.”

This implies that there will be a third person, a “Hastert designee” in the race, but this appears unlikely. Hastert’s favorite will probably be Oberweis, if for no other reason than that Hastert and Lauzen are really not on friendly terms.

Hastert is still a popular man. Lauzen likes to say “I don’t take my orders from Denny,” but he also says he respects for former Speaker. At least he knows that no one is going to win a House primary in the 14th by tearing him down.

— David Freddoso is a National Review Online staff reporter.

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