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CHICAGO (AP) – Illinois voters groused their way to the polls Tuesday in the nation’s first primary of the year, to determine which Democrats will defend both the governor’s office and a U.S. Senate seat against Republicans eyeing the party’s infighting and scandals.
Voters from both parties said they were frustrated by corruption, taxes and the state’s budget woes.
“I’m tired of what’s going on, from the top to the bottom,” said Richard Saunders, 83, who cast a Republican ballot in the southwestern Illinois city of Troy. “I hope we can do something with our one little vote.”
The Republicans were pinning their hopes on the Democratic disarray that followed the ouster of Gov. Rod Blagojevich, who was kicked out of office over a long list of corruption charges, including the allegation he tried to sell President Barack Obama’s former Senate seat.
Losing that seat in a state that has leaned more and more Democratic would be a bigger personal embarrassment for Obama than Republican Scott Brown’s upset victory last month in Massachusetts, which took away the late Edward M. Kennedy’s Senate seat.
The nominees who emerge from the bruising primary will fight for the chance to run a state so deep in debt it can’t pay bills on time and must consider painful service cuts, higher taxes or both.
“I don’t trust any of them,” said John Rogers of Chicago, a 62-year-old salesman, referring to a history of corruption among Illinois politicians. “Is anybody honest? No. You’re voting for the lesser of two evils, as always.”
In the governor’s race, incumbent Pat Quinn is seeking a full term after being thrust into office a year ago when Blagojevich was expelled. After walking to vote near his home, Quinn sounded prepared for victory or defeat.
“There’s an old saying, ‘One day a peacock, the next day a feather duster,'” he said. “I have to be ready for anything.”
It initially appeared Quinn would easily win the Democratic nomination. But that was before the disclosure that a secret early release program for prison inmates included some violent offenders. It also was before his opponent, Comptroller Dan Hynes, introduced an ad featuring footage of the late Chicago Mayor Harold Washington – a revered figure to many black voters – harshly criticizing Quinn.
Quinn responded by linking Hynes, whose office regulates cemetery finances, to the scandal at a historic black cemetery outside Chicago where bodies were double-stacked in graves or dumped in weeds. He alleged Hynes ignored the atrocities at Burr Oak Cemetery, the resting place of civil rights-era lynching victim Emmett Till and other prominent African-Americans, because he lacks “human decency.”
Democratic voter Rich Hammer, 58, said he wasn’t excited about either candidate. But the unemployed Chicago resident decided against voting for Quinn because he served as lieutenant governor when Blagojevich was in power. Hammer said that association, “albeit innocent,” tainted Quinn.
After casting his vote in Collinsville, just east of St. Louis, 73-year-retiree Wayne Huff said he voted Republican as he generally does and said a laundry list of issues facing the cash-strapped state could open the door for a GOP gubernatorial victory in November.
“The budget is all messed up. The state parks are in bad shape, as is nearly every school district in the state. Where’s the money going?” Huff said. He credits Quinn with salving some of the state’s wounds since Blagojevich was bounced from office – but doesn’t care for Quinn’s push to raise taxes.
“If the working man is in bad shape now, he can’t stand no more taxes. My gosh, we can’t afford any more taxes,” Huff said.
Republicans believe they have a strong shot at the governor’s mansion because both Democratic candidates are proposing income tax increases and because Democrats have been so tainted by Blagojevich.
The Republican candidates for governor also have attacked each other at times, but most of their exchanges focused on who was most adamantly opposed to raising taxes. Polls suggested the top contenders were state Sen. Kirk Dillard, businessman Andy McKenna and former Attorney General Jim Ryan.
In the Senate race, the Blagojevich scandal could play a role as well. The incumbent, Roland Burris, chose not to run because the former governor had appointed him to the seat – sullying his reputation so badly that he could find little political support.
Obama, who cast an absentee ballot, tried to recruit some big-name Democrats to run for Senate, including popular Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan, but came up empty.
The Democrats who did get in the race have their own troubles. Alexi Giannoulias, the leader in the polls, has limited experience – a single term as state treasurer and a job at a family bank now in financial trouble. Chicago Urban League President Cheryle Jackson is a former Blagojevich aide. David Hoffman, former Chicago inspector general, is an unknown to most voters.
Republican leaders rallied around Mark Kirk, a five-term member of Congress and an officer in the Naval Reserve, as their choice for the party nomination.
Associated Press Writers Carla K. Johnson in Chicago and Jim Suhr in Troy, and AP Photographer M. Spencer Green in Chicago contributed to this report.