By Ewa Kern-Jedrychowska, Polish Daily News and FI2W reporter
Rod Blagojevich, the Illinois governor under investigation, may have had the power to pick a replacement to fill President Barack Obama’s vacated Senate seat. But the governor does not get to choose a new representative from the 5th Congressional District, a position he once held, and which was left vacant in early January when Rahm Emanuel resigned from his congressional seat to become the new White House Chief of Staff.
A special election will be held on April 7 to fill the seat, after a primary on March 3. One of the 15 Democrats in the race is a Polish immigrant: Dr. Victor Forys, a political newcomer who believes he has a serious chance due to the area’s large Polish-American population.
Numerous Polish-Americans held the seat in the past, including disgraced congressman Dan Rostenkowski who, prior to his conviction on corruption charges, served as chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, and Martin Gorski, who, like Mr. Forys, was born in Poland and came to the U.S. as a child.
Out of approximately 650,000 residents in the district, more than 111,000 (17%) are of Polish descent.
“All we need is 30,000 Polish-Americans to come out and vote and we’ll win,” Forys claimed in a phone interview. The candidate is counting on a very low turnout by the area’s non-Polish residents.
Other candidates in the Democratic primary race include some long-time Chicago politicians, such as Cook County Commissioner Mike Quigley and State Representatives Sara Feigenholtz and John Fritchey. There are also some newcomers, including former commercial pilot Jan Donatelli, lawyer Tom Geoghegan, and another doctor, Paul Bryar.
Forys’ candidacy has ignited a lot of excitement in the Polish community in Chicago, especially since many of its members knew him prior to his Congressional bid. In part, this is because of his successful medical practice which, according to his campaign website, serves more than 10,000 patients who live in the 5th Congressional District.
Forys has also appeared frequently on Polish radio stations in Chicago where, speaking fluent Polish, he discussed health issues.
“I grew up in this country and I was proud of the Polish officials that we had,” Forys said. “And I hope other people of our ethnic group will be proud when I’m going to be elected, just like African-Americans were very proud that Barack Obama was elected.”
Many Polish organizations in Chicago support his candidacy. Stanislaw Zagata, president of the Chicago-based Polish Highlanders Alliance of America, said he got to know Mr. Forys when he came to one of the organization’s meetings. Mr. Zagata is sure that Poles from the 5th Congressional District will vote for the Polish candidate.
However, according to Monika Mysliwiec, Polish coordinator at the Chicago Board of Elections, there is no data on how many Poles residing in the district are registered and how many of them participate in elections.
Forys admits that in recent decades Poles in America have not been very active in politics, both in terms of voting and offering financial support to candidates. This attitude is reflected in the low number of federal, state, and local officials who are Polish-American.
“But we’re educating people right now, and we’re getting the message out,” he said. “Even before the presidential election there have been a lot of efforts to register Polish voters in churches. Other organizations have also registered hundreds of Polish voters, even in this district.”
According to the Chicago Sun-Times, in early January the Forys campaign reported having raised $160,000, which made him number two in fundraising among the 5th District candidates, following State Rep. Sara Feigenholtz, who at that time had raised $300,000.
Nevertheless, Frank Spula, president of the Polish American Congress, was skeptical about a strategy based mostly on the Polish vote. Spula stopped short of making a prediction about Forys’ chances, especially considering the large number of candidates.
“At this point, I think he has just as much of a chance as anybody else running for office,” Mr. Spula said.
“But the Polish community would certainly like to see a Polish congressman in that particular district,” Spula acknowledged. “It would be very encouraging for us to have a voice in Washington.”
Forys, who graduated from Lane Tech, the University of Illinois at Chicago, and medical school, says politics would be simply another form of public service for him. He vows that if elected he’ll fight for universal healthcare, which he describes as a basic human right. He also supports tax cuts for the middle class, helping small businesses get access credit, and protecting Social Security from being privatized.
He is a strong supporter of giving undocumented immigrants a pathway to permanent residency and later to citizenship.
Forys also promises to focus on some Polish-related issues. Specifically, he wants Poland admitted into the Visa Waiver Program, so that Polish citizens would not have to obtain tourist visas to visit the U.S. for up to 90 days, a privilege enjoyed by most European Union member countries.