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The 1996 Illinois Senate Campaign And How Candidates Can Win On Gun Safety

By Robert Avruch, Guest Blogger on February 23, 2013 at 10:23 am

"The 1996 Illinois Senate Campaign And How Candidates Can Win On Gun Safety"

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A look at the 1996 United States Senate campaign between then Democratic U.S. Rep. Dick Durbin and Republican Illinois State Rep. Al Salvi sheds an all-too-familiar light on how the effort to prevent gun violence has become a make-or-break issue for Illinois voters in next Tuesday’s special election to fill former Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr’s seat.

After edging out the moderate Republican candidate Lt. Gov. Bob Kustra in the 1996 GOP primary, Al Salvi represented the most appealing, convincing candidate the Republican Party had presented in Illinois and was believed to have a legitimate chance at winning the Senate seat. The young NRA poster boy for Illinois spent his time on the campaign trail asserting the ’94 federal assault weapons ban was “silly,” calling the ’93 Brady Handgun Bill “cosmetic,” and offering to legalize concealed weapons in order to cut crime.

Meanwhile, Salvi’s opponent, then Representative Durbin was actively campaigning for sensible gun violence prevention measures. After co-sponsoring the ’93 Brady Handgun bill and supporting the ’94 assault weapons ban, he told Illinois voters, “We will not be a safer nation, a safer state, if people are carrying guns around shopping malls and restaurants.” Durbin joined forces with President Reagan’s former press secretary and gun-control activist Jim Brady to film a campaign ad that portrayed Salvi as an extremist on gun issues. In a Sunday radio interview just days before the election, Salvi responded by falsely charging that Jim Brady “used to sell” machine guns. Salvi later apologized and conceded, “Turns out that was a different Jim Brady.”

Salvi’s last-minute gaffe and extreme stance on guns proved to fracture the Illinois Republican party and rally Illinois voters around candidates who supported gun violence prevention. In one example, the Chicago Fraternal Order of Police opted to support Democratic House candidate Rod Blagojevich over the Republican incumbent, U.S. Rep Michael Flanagan, who earlier that year had supported an attempt to repeal the federal assault weapons ban. In his endorsement, the union’s president, Bill Nolan, said, “(It’s) almost a one-issue thing, and that is the guns.”

Salvi’s extreme stance on guns cost him the election. Durbin won the race by a landslide, leading Salvi 57 percent to 40 percent. Durbin acknowledged in his victory speech how important gun violence prevention was to Illinois voters: “I hope this victory tonight is a message that no political official in this state should ever, ever be cowered by the gun extremists.”

Salvi learned his lesson and two years later completely reversed his position, coming out in support of commonsense gun violence prevention measures, including the Brady law and the federal assault weapons ban. He wrote a guest editorial in the Chicago Sun Times making the about face in the hopes of positioning himself for another Senate run. Salvi explained: “I’m a solid conservative who recognizes I made a mistake on presenting my position on the gun issue. I lost the big picture. I was wrong.”

Seventeen years later, the gun debate, yet again, takes center stage in the Chicago-area congressional race to fill former Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr.’s vacated seat.

New York City mayor, Michael Bloomberg, a vocal advocate for commonsense gun violence prevention measures, has shown a considerable interest in the first election since the shooting in Newtown, Connecticut. His super PAC, Independence USA, has already spent $2.1 million in TV ad buys attacking former Congresswoman Halvorson and other candidates who refuse to take a stand on gun violence prevention measures. The Independence USA ad endorses former state Rep. Robin Kelly who released her own video highlighting her support for sensible gun measures, including bans on assault weapons and high capacity gun magazines.

While Halvorson was the expected frontrunner as a result of her previous time in Congress and earlier rise to state Senate majority leader, her extremist stance against commonsense gun laws and “A” rating from the gun-manufacturing sponsored NRA may cost her the election, much like it did Al Salvi. There is no doubt that the Independence USA spending has put Halvorson at a disadvantage and sets an example for NRA-backed candidates in future elections.

In a race to represent a district severely shaken by gun violence, the movement to prevent gun violence again proves to be a critical issue. If history is any indication of which candidate Illinois voters will elect, Debbie Halvorson’s extremism may cost her.

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