Weller Retirement Opens Up Another GOP Seat for the Taking

For years, Republicans could count on Rep. Jerry Weller winning the 11th Congressional District that meanders from the suburban sprawl south of Chicago to the farmland of central Illinois.

But then questions began mounting about Weller — from land deals in Nicaragua to whether he should have reported the finances of his wife, the daughter of a former Guatemalan dictator. A citizen's watchdog group labeled him one of the most corrupt members of Congress.

In September, Weller announced he wouldn't seek an eighth term — and the battle for his seat was suddenly wide open.

It remains to be seen whether Weller's troubles will affect voters' attitudes.

One voter, Jeff Whitmarsh, said he still wants another Republican to replace Weller and deliver money for road expansion projects.

He's looking for something else, too. "Just strict conservative values," said Whitmarsh, a truck driver from Morris.

However, Democrats have made gains in the district. Weller had won by shrinking margins in the last few elections, the district backed Democratic Gov. Rod Blagojevich in 2006 and some of its county boards are dominated by Democrats.

Republicans must hang on to the seat, one of three open in Illinois because of GOP retirements, to keep their numbers in Congress from further eroding.

Three Republicans are competing in their party's Feb. 5 primary: former White House official Jimmy Lee, airline pilot Terry Heenan, and Timothy Baldermann, who is both mayor of New Lenox and police chief in nearby Chicago Ridge.

The winner will take on Illinois Senate Majority Leader Debbie Halvorson, a well-known Democrat from Crete, and Green Party newcomer Jason Wallace, a student at Illinois State University in Normal — neither of whom has primary competition.

The Republican candidates say questions that have dogged Weller won't hurt their own chances. But Lee said Weller's support for Baldermann is "baggage" that could hurt the candidate.

"A lot of people were tired of Congressman Weller," said Lee, a former executive director of the White House Initiative for Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders. He moved to Utica in the fall to run for Weller's seat.

Last year, a Chicago Tribune investigation found that Weller did not report several Nicaraguan land deals in congressional ethics statements, and that he had reported higher purchase prices on other transactions in the U.S. than were reported in Nicaragua.

The newspaper then reported that Weller's wife, Zury Rios de Weller, had set up a nonprofit corporation in Illinois whose board included Weller's mother, brother and business associate, but the congressman did not report his wife's finances to Congress. He claimed an exemption from the rule, saying he knows nothing about her economic situation and doesn't contribute to or benefit from it.

Zury Rios de Weller is a daughter of and political adviser to former Guatemalan dictator Efrain Rios Montt, a retired general who seized control of Guatemala for 18 months in 1982-83. He is accused of leading one of the bloodiest campaigns in the nation's 36-year civil war, which killed 200,000 people.

Weller spokesman Andy Fuller did not comment on the primary race to replace Weller, beyond an e-mailed statement saying it would "focus on the future, not the past."

Balderman says he's working to convince voters the seat should stay in GOP hands by telling them all they have to do is look to Springfield, where Blagojevich and the Democrat-controlled Legislature have been tied in knots over key issues.

"I say ... 'You see what happens when the Democrats control everything?"' he said.

Halvorson says the legislative gridlock was caused by other leaders who didn't get along, Republicans who didn't deliver votes and an atmosphere polluted by personal feelings.

"My job is basically ... to keep things from getting even worse. I can only imagine how bad they would have been," she said.

Wallace hopes to build on the third-party support that emerged in the district in the last gubernatorial election. In 2006, a Green Party candidate for governor got 11 percent of the vote in Weller's congressional district compared to 46 percent for Blagojevich and 43 percent for the Republican, said Glenn Hodas, whose political consulting firm does research for the Almanac of Illinois Politics, published by the University of Illinois at Springfield. Hodas also has worked for Republicans in Illinois.

All the candidates have at least one thing going for them, said Wayne Steger, an associate political science professor at DePaul University.

"None of them are the incumbent so they don't have to take responsibility for any of the negative stuff that has gone on in Washington," he said.