Evanston Review: Schakowsky, Pollak Pose Stark Contrast

Evanston Review: Schakowsky, Pollak Pose Stark Contrast
September 9, 2010
By Karen Berkowitz

U.S. Rep. Janice Schakowsky and Joel Pollak, her Republican rival, differ sharply on most issues, but they share a certain character trait: A fighter's instinct for taking on larger forces against improbable odds.

As a 20-something in the late 1960s, Schakowsky took on some behemoths in a consumer fight for freshness dates on grocery products. During her 12 years in Congress, she's taken on banks, pharmaceutical firms and health insurers she perceived were reaping too much profit at consumers' expense. She's taken on manufacturers over consumer product safety.

At age 33, Pollak is taking on Schakowsky, a powerful Democratic incumbent, against the political odds in the 9th Congressional District, which in recent years has re-elected her by a 3-to-1 margin.

Pollak, who voted for Democrats Al Gore and John Kerry in 2000 and 2004, has embraced Republican themes about the need to rein in government expansion and spending with a sense of urgency.

Knowledgeable and articulate, the Skokie resident has gained more traction, and raised more money, than Schakowsky's earlier opponents in a year when voters could take their discontent over the economy with them to the polls.

Schakowsky portrays Pollak as a conservative blogger aligned with the Tea Party movement.

"I share what I think is the Tea Party's fundamental priority, which is getting government spending under control," said Pollak, who believes the $862 billion stimulus, which came on top of a $700 billion troubled-assets bailout for banks, was based on a flawed view that "any kind of spending was good spending" and would create jobs. "That became a political license for people to spend it on pork.

"What the government is doing now is unsustainable and beyond its capacity to function." The 9th Congressional District includes all or portions of Evanston, Skokie, Wilmette, Glenview, Norridge, Lincolnwood, Morton Grove, Niles, Park Ridge and Chicago's lake front.

Schakowsky was instrumental in passing the landmark health care reform bill earlier this year as a member of the Energy and Commerce Committee. More recently, she has co-sponsored a bill to restore a publicly run insurance option that was scrubbed from the final bill.

The 67-year-old Evanston resident was appointed by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to the House Select Committee on Intelligence in 2007 and chairs the panel's Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations.

This spring, Pelosi named her to President Obama's 18-member "debt commission", officially known as the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform.

Schakowsky, who served eight years in the Illinois House before serving in Congress, believes Pollak's stands on many hot-button issues are not in synch with the district. "He is for off-shore drilling. He supported the war in Iraq. He is in favor of conceal-and-carry when it comes to guns."

But she bristles at Pollak's use of Israel as a campaign issue. "He is trying to say that I am not somehow supportive of the state of Israel, which is a very damaging thing, making Israel into a partisan issue. It is bad for the state of Israel."

Pollak points to Schakowsky's support of J Street, an organization he says "attacks Israel for defending itself" and is critical of supporters like Alan Dershowitz, Eli Wiesel and U.S. Sen. Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn.

Pollak, a 2009 graduate of Harvard Law School, wasn't contemplating a run for Congress until his exchange with U.S. Rep. Barney Frank at a Town Hall meeting at Harvard in 2009 took on a life of its own via the Internet.

A third-year law student at the time, Pollak stepped to the microphone and asked the Massachusetts Congressman, chairman of the House Financial Services Committee, "How much responsibility, if any, do you have for the financial crisis?", which led to an exchange that was quickly circulated on You Tube and picked up by the Fox News Network and MSNBC.

Pollak received calls asking if he'd ever considered a run for public office. But what clinched his decision, he says, was observing that tactics used by paid organizers to suppress criticism of the health care overhaul during Schakowsky's Town Hall meeting in late August of 2009.

Pollak was born in South Africa but shortly thereafter immigrated with his family to the United States in 1977. After completing his undergraduate studies at Harvard College in 1999, he returned to South Africa on a Rotary Foundation scholarship and stayed on to work as a freelance journalist and volunteer tutor. While in South African, he worked for Tony Leon, leader of the opposition in the South African parliament.