State Treasurer and Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Alexi Giannoulias took a page from the underdog's book this morning, slamming a lesser-known candidate for the "hypocrisy" of his statements.
According to a recent poll, Giannoulias is the Democratic front runner in the race for Barack Obama's old seat.
At a candidate forum this morning, he accused rival candidate David Hoffman of funding his campaign by selling the stocks of big banks while also claiming independence from them.
The attack was preemptive and unrelated to a question about the national health care bill. It gave Hoffman, trailing both Giannoulias and Chicago Urban League President Cheryle Robinson Jackson, a moment on center stage.
Hoffman briefly agreed that he supported the health care bill, then said that he felt compelled to respond to Giannoulias' strike. When Hoffman attacked Giannoulias' involvement with the ailing Broadway Bank, the audience burst into applause.
Giannoulias' attack was a baffling move, especially for a candidate known for his suavity.
Typically, the losing candidates are those who strike against their opponents in an effort to cut down leading rivals and draw attention to themselves. That Giannoulias would make such a move suggests he views Hoffman as his main threat — and enough of a force in the race to try to forestall Hoffman's advance.
The tactic raises predictable questions about Giannoulias' campaign strategy. But he declined to address them after the debate, by skipping a press conference following the forum at Chicago's Union League Club.
Union League officials say all four of the debating candidates — Giannoulias, Hoffman, Jackson and attorney Jacob Meister — agreed to make themselves available to the press after the forum, and Giannoulias was the only one who did not attend.
Tom Bowen, Giannoulias' campaign manager, told media that the candidate was pressed for time with another event, but when I asked him which, he did not specify. He told me he would send me Giannoulias' schedule, which I have not yet received.
Bowen denied that Giannoulias' comment was an attack.
"I think pointing out that Mr. Hoffman" has railed against banks while using them to fund his race "is merely stating a record," he said. "His record is just as relevant to this" race as Giannoulias'.
During the debate, Giannoulias tried to tie Hoffman's investments in major banks that have received stimulus funds to a cozy relationship with powerful financial institutions.
Hoffman did not deny that he had made the investments, but he turned the tables on his opponent, questioning his ties to a family bank that dealt with convicted fraudster and political fund raiser Tony Rezko. Broadway Bank is also reported to have made loans to a brothel operator and bookie.
Giannoulias suggested that he was personally offended.
"Since he’s been in this campaign," Giannoulias said of Hoffman, "he has been falsely attacking me and my family."
Yet Hoffman pushed beyond criticisms of Giannoulias' ties to shady dealings, arguing that his statements reflect not on Giannoulias' family, but on his own job performance.
"When you’re 33 years old and you’ve only held two jobs, it’s worth talking about," Hoffman said of Giannoulias. "It’s nothing to do with his family. It’s about his job performance at the bank."
Before entering politics and winning election as state treasurer in 2006, Giannoulias was vice president at his family's now-beleague red Broadway Bank, in Chicago's Edgewater community. He also played basketball in Greece and earned a law degree from Tulane University.
The sparring between Giannoulias and Hoffman made clear that they view Jackson and Meister as secondary concerns in their race.
An attack on Jackson, formerly Rod Blagojevich's spokeswoman, would have been at least as easy as the one Giannoulias sprung on Hoffman — and yet Jackson needed address her old job only during a press conference after the debate.
"I worked for the governor in the first term and left before the end of the first term," she said, noting that she later criticized some of Blagojevich's policies on education.
While Jackson has a larger percentage of supporters than Hoffman, and a recent Tribune/WGN poll shows she has expanded her reach, it is unclear how her advantages among Chicago residents and women would translate to a broader victory in Illinois, and especially in some conservative downstate districts.
Meister, an openly gay candidate, faces a similar challenge with conservative voters in the state, and he suffers from the added disadvantage of little name recognition. The Tribune poll did not even measure his support separately from other candidates.
During his press conference, Meister accused Hoffman of attacking his sexual orientation by pointing out how he is the only Democratic U.S. Senate candidate who is a parent.
"David Hoffman has insidiously slurred me," Meister said. "It's something that has been coming up on the campaign trail repeatedly, and I think it's a subtle swipe — and to some people not so subtle."
Hoffman said that he supports gay marriage and has simply tried to emphasize that his perspective as a parent helps him relate to everyday people.