07/02/2006 07:08 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Battle for America's Soul in Rural Illinois -- John Laesch Takes On Goliath

It's never easy to take down a Speaker of the House. As John Laesch, the humble, brash, salt-of-the-earth young man who's trying right now, mentioned this morning at a live chat on firedoglake "Party support dwindles when Democrats need pork too. Funny thing that pork..." And no one understands pork better than Speaker of the House Denny Hastert.

Last week the CHICAGO TRIBUNE laid out in great detail how Dennis Hastert was able to use his elected position to gobble up a cool $1,000,000 on some land speculation, the price of which he was able to manipulate. Hastert, who has been protecting arch Republicrook Jerry Lewis, Chairman of the Republican Criminal Operation known as the House Appropriations Committee, was able to surrepticiously earmark a nice fat $200 million bit of federal tax dollar pork to increase the value of land he sat on for just over 2 years.

Within a few days the WASHINGTON POST reported that the secretive deal actually netted Hastert a $2 million profit. But something else caught my attention. A few weeks ago I stumbled upon a little-heard-from California congressloon, Gary Miller, by far the furthest right of all the nutcases who make up the California GOP congressional caucus, when I noticed people in his district were buzzing about large sums of money he was raking in by manipulative real estate speculation. And ditto for close Randy "Duke" Cunningham associate, Ken Calvert.

Using earmarks, Hastert, explains WAPO, "made a $2 million profit last year on the sale of land 5 1/2 miles from a highway project that he helped to finance with targeted federal funds. [Il Roots Project member Tony Tyner actually measured the distance and it is 1.7 miles, not 5.5] A Republican House member from California, meanwhile, received nearly double what he paid for a four-acre parcel near an Air Force base after securing $8 million for a planned freeway interchange 16 miles away. And another California GOP congressman obtained funding in last year's highway bill for street improvements near a planned residential and commercial development that he co-owns." These 3 crooked dealers are close with Jerry Lewis and his Republican earmark queen, Letitia White (both currently subjects of an intense FBI investigation).

"For more than a year, the congressional corruption scandal triggered by former lobbyist Jack Abramoff has focused attention on earmarks secured by lawmakers on lobbyists' and government contractors' behalf. Now watchdog groups are combing through lawmakers' land holdings and legislative activities, searching for earmarks that may have boosted the value of those investments.
'The sound bites from politicians have always been that they're doing what's best for their districts, but we're starting to see a pattern that looks like they might be doing what's best for their pocketbooks,' said Keith Ashdown, vice president of the group Taxpayers for Common Sense. The allegation that Hastert used a home-district 'earmark' for his personal enrichment is now at the center of a tussle between the most powerful man in Congress and a new watchdog organization that uncovered the land deal this month."

Hastert, of course, hysterically denies any and all wrongdoing-- he is a Republican politician and "deny, deny, deny" is what they teach them in their version of ethics school-- and he is demanding retractions and apologies and everything else that Cunningham said and did (before he broke down and weeped and begged for mercy and wore a wire to help the Feds rat out his crooked associates).

Hastert, of course, has a long history of shady dealings and making vast sums of money through bribes and kickbacks. VANITY FAIR exposed him last year after he took a $500,000 bribe from Turkish agents to prevent the adoption of bipartisan legislation recognizing the Armenian holocaust. With Tom DeLay forced to resign in disgrace, and getting his affairs in order before his inevitable prison sentence, Hastert has become the titular head of the Republican Culture of Corruption. And what everyone in DC and back home in Illinois' 14th CD is wondering is, can he be swept out of office by the son of a preacher man?

The high school ex-wrestling coach-turned-multimillionaire (feeding, greedily, at the public trough for over 20 years), represents a north-central district due west of Chicago stretching nearly to Iowa. (Actually, Hastert represents multi-national corporations and the lobbyists who whore for them but his power derives from his political base in IL-14.) Electorally, Hastert has run far ahead of the GOP ticket, although his vote percentage slipped significantly in the last two cycles (from 74% to 69%) In 2004 Hastert spent $5 million on his campaign while his unknown opponent spent $18,028. Caught up in a more public corruption scandal than in the past-- and facing a far more formidable opponent-- Hastert is in for the battle of his political life this November.

It is rare-- very rare-- for constituents to defeat someone whose national power has brought the district so much pork and until 1994, when Republicans started a whispering campaign falsely accusing Speaker Tom Foley of being gay, no Speaker had been defeated for re-election since the Civil War! If John Laesch doesn't succeed in dislodging Hastert it won't be through lack of the personal qualities that define worthy leadership. And it won't be through lack of motivation. John's younger brother, Sgt. Pete Laesch, currently stationed in Iraq, asked John to run against the gargantuan rubber stamp who represents their district in Congress.

John is 32 years old and grew up in West Africa where his missionary parents were stationed. They moved to a farm in Newark, Illinois when John was 12. He enlisted in the Navy when he was 21 and served as an intelligence analyst in Bahrain, monitoring terrorist activity and analyzing foreign political and military structures, winning numerous citations and meritoriously rising 5 ranks within 3 years. After leaving the military he earned a degree in History from Illinois State University. He volunteered for Dennis Kucinich's campaign and in 2004 worked as campaign manager for progressive Democrat Dr. David Gill. (I was impressed yesterday to see Laesch make an impressive pitch for Gill on Daily Kos, at a time when non-DCCC candidates are scrambling, some desperately, for attention, endorsements and campaign cash. Read his Kos dairy; it shows what kind of a man he is.)

John has embraced the netroots enthusiastically and has run an open, grassroots campaign. I like it when candidates start off reporting to interested citizens rather than to party bosses Inside-the-Beltway. Laesch's outspoken criticism of Bush's war and his public embrace of progressive values-driven solutions to controversial issues hasn't made him a darling on D.C. Democratic Party bosses. But with yard signs sprouting up all over DeKalb, Kane, Kendall, Lee, DuPage, Henry, and Whiteside Counties, John"s independent approach might well be exactly the right prescription for victory in a district where Democrats are heavily outnumbered by Republicans.

But even in a Republican-leaning district, like the 14th, Laesch's commonsense approach to the crucial issues of the day are far more in sync with voters' concerns than Hastert's, whose voting record defines rubber stamp support for Bush's catastrophic agenda. On health care, local development (and resultant skyrocketing property taxes), education, a realistic national energy, etc, Hastert has become more and more completely out of touch with Main Street as he has utterly embraced Wall Street. Laesch's positions grow out of his Main Street values and out of his sturdy, straight-arrow all-American character.

In his dignified, almost self-effacingly modest manner John explained to me why he's running. "Like the other 50 fighting Dems, I am just a guy that can't stand the direction our country is being led. I wanted to do something about it... and that road started in 2002 with the signing of the 'Blank check for Iraq.' My younger brother, Sgt. Pete Laesch, is serving in Iraq and asked me to defeat Denny back in 2003. When he received his orders for Iraq (2005), I stepped up to run."

John already won his primary and now Democrats are united behind his race to replace an out-of-touch, entrenched, corrupt Speaker of the House with a fresh, energetic young man with integrity, strength and vision. John needs help to get out his message. I can't imagine a candidate as forthright and independent as John is going to get sufficient help from Rahm Emanuel's DCCC. It"s up to us.

In response to a question at the firedoglake chat today, John told us the three things he wants to tackle as soon as he gets to Congress: "1) Energy/gas prices (to define Democratic Leadership from the U.S. House); 2) Healthcare (people want it); and 3) Economy/trade/immigration (they are all tied together)." He also told us the single most important issue to him personally is Iraq.