By: Mark Fitzgerald
On Monday, the day before Chicago and Illinois go to the polls for party primary elections, the Chicago Sun-Times published a re-endorsement of its favorite Democratic candidate for Cook County Board President, the independent-minded Toni Preckwinkle.
That followed by a few days a re-endorsement by the Chicago Tribune of its pick for the Democratic Party nomination for U.S. Senate, the similarly independent-minded David Hoffman.
At a time when more newspapers are dropping endorsements altogether, the separate decisions to reinforce endorsements made a few weeks ago points to the importance of endorsements to candidates — and to the papers.
The Tribune in particular has aggressively positioned its editorial page as a part of its watchdog branding. This Sunday, the paper ran a front-page editorial on the election, something that it has done so often now it can no longer be considered even unusual.
For the better part of two years, the Tribune editorial page has published nearly every day an item called “Your Sales Tax Calendar.” One number counts the days since the Cook County Board adopted a sales tax that pushed Chicago’s total sales tax to the highest in the nation — and the other counts down the days to the Feb. 2 primaries.
“I think we saw with the tax calendar that that kind of constant reinforcement gets through to people,” said Tribune Editorial Page Editor R. Bruce Dold. “In many ways we were stepping up with this election, with a number of front-page editorial. So we thought just in case people hadn’t seen it we would put an even greater emphasis on our key endorsements.”
Across town, Sun-Times Editorial Page Editor Tom McNamee was thinking the same thing. Monday’s re-endorsement of Preckwinkle was something the paper had never done before, but the Cook County Board race was particularly important, the paper concluded.
“We do think very highly of Toni Preckwinkle, but one of our biggest issues is that it’s a very early primary, Feb. 2, and with the holiday, we didn’t think anyone was really paying attention,” said McNamee.
Then, too, incompetence, waste and nepotism at the County Board under its very unpopular president — who was running in single digits in the four-person race on the eve of the Democratic primary — had been recurring subjects for Sun-Times in the two years McNamee has been its editorial page editor.
“We had also thought of revisiting our endorsement of Hoffman” as the Tribune did, McNamee said, “because we think he’s terrific. The difference in the Cook County Board President race is it’s for all the marbles. Whoever wins will be the board president. It’s been more than 40 years since a Republican held the office, so it’s not like you can go back in fall and look at the race again.”
One of the pleasant surprises of taking the editorial page post, McNamee said, was discovering how influential the paper’s endorsements were.
At the Tribune — where impeached Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich is alleged in a federal indictment to have tried to get certain members of the editorial board fired in exchange for signing off on tax breaks for parent Tribune Co.’s sale of Wrigley Field — even non-endorsements are turning out to be influential.
In their editorial on the Democratic candidates for governor, the paper refused to endorse either Gov. Pat Quinn, who has served since Blagojevich’s removal from office in January 2009, or his primary oppoenent Dan Hynes, the current state comptroller and the son of a long-time Chicago Democratic politician.
Yet at least one Hynes TV commercial on heavy rotation in the Chicago area quotes the Tribune so often — and ends with the claim that “nearly all” Ilinois newspapers have endorsed him — that it would be easy for a casual observer to conclude he won the paper’s endorsement.