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Rostenkowski takes refuge behind the pork barrel

As Rep. Dan Rostenkowski spoke to the Democratic faithful of the 42nd Ward the other afternoon, a long sign stretched high across the wall behind him. It wasn't up there especially for him, but it could not have been more appropriate. It said: "Service is Our Chief Product."

That, in one way or another, has been the motto and the political salvation of the chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee whose tenure in Congress after 36 years is now in severe jeopardy in the March 15 primary. As he himself said rather inelegantly but accurately to the 42nd Warders, he has consistently brought home the "pork" _ federal largesse _ to his 5th Congressional District.

But the Justice Department's allegations that he has brought home a bit for himself on the side, in tapping his postal allowance and buying personal gifts with public money, has Rostenkowski's political foes asking whether, at long last, pork for the district is enough.

In his talk, Rostenkowski reminded his listeners that he is a man who gets big things done that affect the whole country, by virtue of his powerful committee chairmanship. He recounted how, with Republican Ronald Reagan in the White House in 1986, he engineered a tax reform bill that got 7-million low-income taxpayers off the rolls.

Then he cited how difficult it was going to be for President Clinton to enact his health care reforms, but predicted he would succeed "before the end of this Congress," adding, "I want to help."

After this high-minded appeal, however, it was back to pork. "I don't just like to think about bringing pork home," he said, "but when you're in competition with the rest of the country, you better try and get your share."

Clinton, here the other day ostensibly to push health care, gun control and education but giving Rostenkowski some high media visibility in the process, said he couldn't have put through his budget deal last year without Rosty, and needs him for health care and welfare reform. But even Clinton referred indirectly to the chairman's ability to bring home the pork.

"If you don't fix the health care system by the end of the decade," he said, "when you come to the federal government and you say, "We need another expressway like congressman Rostenkowski used to get us money for,' we'll say, "I'm sorry, there's no money for the expressway. We're spending it all on health care.' "

The Chicago Sun-Times, in endorsing state Sen. John Cullerton, one of Rostenkowski's Democratic challengers in the primary, argued that pork isn't everything. "To be sure, Chicago could lose some federal projects if Rostenkowski is replaced," the editorial said. ". . . But the carnage wouldn't be nearly as bad as Rostenkowski supporters say.

"Even with his clout, Illinois remains in the bottom 10 percent of states receiving federal funds. . . . Neither pork nor Bill Clinton's success is important enough to tolerate Rostenkowski's continued assault on public integrity."

Even before the investigation of Rostenkowski's finances, signs of voter discontent were apparent. In 1989, he outraged senior constituents by refusing to listen to their gripes about the 1988 catastrophic health care law that they argued was itself catastrophic to them. In 1992, his primary foe, Dick Simpson, got 43 percent of the vote. Simpson is running again, but polls indicate that Cullerton is Rostenkowski's chief threat.

Rostenkowski is counting on help from the Richard J. Daley machine, including the current mayor, Richard M., son of the city's late political patriarch. But political veterans here say the organization is probably not good for more than 25 percent of the vote. Rostenkowski's main hope may be that the vote will be sufficiently split in the five-man race to enable him to slip through.

Cullerton insists that the Daley operation can identify Democratic voters but will have trouble getting them out. "The enthusiasm is on our side," he says.

"Last year, when Michael Jordan retired," Cullerton says, "everybody thought that we (the NBA champion Chicago Bulls) would be in last place. Instead, we're in first place, because everybody else stepped up." Actually, the Bulls are in second, but the inference is clear: If the Bulls can get along without Jordan, Chicago can get along without Rostenkowski.

Tribune Media Services, Inc.