REP. Dan Rostenkowski of Illinois has defeated some tough opponents in 18 straight congressional elections, but next month he faces a ballot against perhaps his hardest adversary ever: himself.
Throughout the campaign for the March 15 Democratic primary, Representative Rostenkowski, chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, has been shadowed by a dogged, double-image rival.
His crude opponent has been pieced together from leaks to the media, comments by unnamed sources, and accusations by an official who admitted guilt in the House Post Office scandal.
The patchwork figure is Rostenkowski the unscrupulous dealmaker, a Capitol Hill kingpin who allegedly has used taxpayer dollars and campaign funds to reward cronies and plump up his own comforts.
In his campaign appearances, Rostenkowski has repeatedly declined to discuss the allegations stemming from a federal grand-jury investigation, saying his attorneys have advised strict silence.
The congressman's supporters say the silence is warranted because the grand jury has been investigating the accusations for nearly two years but has brought no charges against him.
Rostenkowski admitted responsibility for some wrongdoing in a statement released on Feb. 10. He said his office used several tens of thousands of dollars in official funds for purchases of House mementos. He says he has repaid the United States Treasury more than $82,000.
Judging from the initial weeks of the campaign, Rostenkowski hopes to sidestep the accusations against him, even though they overshadow such issues as health care, the budget deficit, and unemployment.
Rostenkowski apparently hopes to dilute the accusations by highlighting his political power, his record of bringing federal dollars to Illinois, and the reach of his vast political network that sprawls from ward offices to the White House. He has declined several opportunities to debate his opponents: a state senator, a Chicago alderman, and a former alderman.
The selective, high-risk strategy is apparently not working.
Polls indicate that a majority of voters views Rostenkowski in light of the accusations rather than his promises of continued national leadership and federal largess for the district.
During a political event at the Chicago Manufacturing Institute last Tuesday, Rostenkowski illustrated his campaign strategy of dodging the claims while flaunting his strengths.
Labor Secretary Robert Reich praised Rostenkowski for securing a $500,000 federal grant for the job-training institute. Chicago Mayor Richard Daley called the congressman vital for his district, Chicago, Illinois, and the US.
After the event Rostenkowski hurried away, skirting questions by reporters about the grand-jury investigation. The congressman generally avoids encounters with the news media; his campaign office declined to respond to repeated inquiries by a reporter.
Clinton to visit Chicago
Rostenkowski will roll out the biggest of political guns later this month. President Clinton is tentatively scheduled to visit Chicago, seemingly on behalf of his health-care plan but ostensibly on behalf of the beleaguered congressman.
The president knows that the power of Rostenkowski to muster votes in Congress will be vital for the passage of health-care legislation, just as it was for the ratification of the North American Free Trade Agreement.
The congressman has told the insurance and health industries to recognize the futility of resisting a shake-up of the health-care system and agree to work out acceptable legislation.
Although Rostenkowski flaunts his pivotal role in big-bill lawmaking, he apparently believes that his record in bringing federal dollars to Illinois is his ace in the hole. His campaign office frequently releases a long list outlining the federal programs that have benefited the district in the past several years.
The Chicago Tribune, in an endorsement, said voters should not let the image of Rostenkowski-the-Accused eclipse the record of a congressman who brings home the bacon of federal funds.