Jerry Davich: GOP challenger convinced he has a shot to beat Visclosky
Jerry Davich email@example.com October 14, 2012 10:32PM
Jerry Davich. | Jeffrey D. Nicholls~Sun-Times Media
Updated: October 15, 2012 10:06AM
On Oct. 16, 2011, Joel Phelps had the realization to push the pause button on his successful life and do what very few region residents would dare to even consider.
That day, he decided to run against U.S. Rep. Pete Visclosky, the long-time Democrat who’s been serving the First District’s 710,000 residents for nearly 30 years. Most political insiders, and even novices such as me, would call it a suicide mission. Phelps, Visclosky’s Republican challenger in the Nov. 6 election, disagrees.
“I’ve done things my entire life that people told me can’t be done,” the 35-year-old industrial engineer told me over breakfast last week. “People say you can’t run against Pete Visclosky and get any traction,” Phelps said, echoing his critics. “Well, guess what? We’re getting traction. My campaign is going incredibly well. In fact, we’ve reached a critical mass this past month.”
Phelps, a married father of three (two adopted) from Portage, is eager, energetic and impressively intelligent. The Purdue University graduate didn’t stop talking for nearly 45 minutes straight, and he didn’t hesitate to outline his plan or to challenge his opponent.
“Some Northwest Indiana politicians benefit from our region’s inferiority complex,” he said. “I want to give citizens here a new horizon in their lives, a new vision, a reason to think tomorrow can be better, not the same situation that we’ve had for so long.”
How does he plan to do that if elected into office in Washington, D.C.?
“My main goal is to make Northwest Indiana the center of air and mobile transportation distribution,” he said flatly. “There’s no reason why imports and exports have to go through Chicago, and not through this region.”
First, by establishing a clearinghouse for freight, and then by consolidating the dozens of economic development groups across the region that wrongly offer differing messages and fragmented marketing campaigns to potential out-of-state customers.
“I understand that it will be like herding cats at first, but otherwise we’ll always be considered the red-haired stepchild of the state,” Phelps said. “With our strategic location, there is no reason that we should not be the absolute center of the transportation modes in this country.”
Did I mention that Phelps is also idealistic?
Not as easy at it seems
Visclosky, who I met at his campaign headquarters in Merrillville, agrees that this region has those capabilities. But making it a reality is a slow, steady progression, not a pie-in-the-sky political promise.
“If these things were all easy, someone would have already done it by now,” said the 63-year-old father of two adult sons and Notre Dame Law School graduate.
Since his first day in Congress, he has “accumulated leverage,” a hard-earned and valuable tool that he uses in D.C. for the people of Northwest Indiana.
Most region residents, I say, automatically associate Visclosky’s name with bringing federal dollars to Northwest Indiana for various projects, programs and initiatives.
“It’s incumbent of me to bring back our fair share,” Visclosky told me, tapping his finger against the table for effect. “That’s my responsibility to my constituents. I always wish there was more money. I’m never satisfied.”
Phelps says Visclosky’s reputation as this region’s D.C. sugar-daddy (my phrase, not his) is overblown, if not outright exaggerated. Visclosky brings in only “gimmicky money,” he said.
“Plus, roughly 60 percent of those announcements in the newspapers have nothing to do with Pete Visclosky,” Phelps said. “But he puts his name on them, bless his heart. He’s a good politician, no doubt.”
Visclosky said it’s not as easy as it may seem to secure so much federal funding year in and year out.
“You have to get everything through two bodies of Congress, and signed into law by the president,” he said. “As well as working with the public sector, the private sector and finding a non-federal match of dollars.”
Visclosky still says we, as a region, are moving in the right direction, and he still champions his pet causes — expansion of the Gary/Chicago International Airport, expansion of the South Shore railroad and expanded lakeshore development through the broad-scoped “Marquette Plan.”
He cites the Portage Lakefront Riverwalk as a shining example of what can be done if multiple groups work together for a common good.
“We’re getting closer, and I see absolute progress,” he said. “Perception is lagging the reality, however, in regard to local public officials and their job in office.”
Will there be a debate?
Phelps said our misperception of incumbent public officials with very familiar names, such as Visclosky, is what’s keeping us on the proverbial runway without taking off to our true potential.
“I want to remind people of what’s great about this region. I think too many of us have forgotten, or never knew to begin with,” said Phelps, who views each meeting with a new voter as a job interview. “Nobody is challenging Pete Visclosky or his methods.”
How does Visclosky counter repeated allegations from critics that he’s a “career politician”?
“I’ve dedicated my life to public service and I feel it’s still a noble profession,” he replied. “However, I also understand it’s a contact sport.”
If elected into office, Phelps sees himself as the “bright shiny new penny from Northwest Indiana,” not outdated currency for another term of stagnation.
“To be honest, I’m the best chance this district has for the new few years,” he said pointedly. “We can make this area an economic engine for generations to come.”
On average on any given year, Visclosky is in D.C. about three-fourths of the time, and in this region the other time, including 24 town hall forums for constituents to talk with him. If anything, Visclosky is very accessible to voters, and so is his staff, a top-notch, well-oiled ensemble. I know first-hand because they routinely keep me updated on Visclosky’s whereabouts and his many media opportunities.
Phelps, who took a leave of absence from work to focus on his campaign, said Visclosky is a good man, a nice guy and an able politician.
“But people mistake activity for achievement,” he said. “He’s the kind of friend who calls you on your birthday. He’s not the kind of friend who helps you move.”
Visclosky said he knows very little about Phelps except, politely, that he’s serious about running for public office.
One odd aspect of this race involves an upcoming possible debate between the two candidates. Phelps says it’s on the table, and I’ve even received a press release stating a “town hall style” debate will take place later this month, on either Oct. 18 or Oct. 25 at a location to be determined.
Visclosky told me he knows nothing about it.
“Not that I’m aware of,” Visclosky said with raised eyebrows.
“Time is short and my schedule is filled up until the election,” he added.
Stay tuned on that issue.
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