Less than a week before Tuesday’s midterm elections, Illinois conservatives welcomed an unlikely ally. Legendary Polish Solidarity leader, Lech Walesa, appeared in downtown Chicago last Thursday at a fundraising event organized by citizen watchdog group For the Good of Illinois. The former Polish president, trade-union organizer, and Nobel Prize laureate came rhetorically armed with a new Solidarity rallying-cry for Illinoisans yearning for new leadership.
Before 300 conservative leaders and activists on Thursday, Walesa dourly remarked that while the U.S. leads the world militarily and economically, in many ways it no longer leads the world “morally and politically.” “Sometimes when we look up to the only superpower in the world,“ Walesa lamented, “we have some doubt whether the United States really wants to continue being the superpower.” He still referred to the stars and stripes, however, as the “last best hope for the world.” Walesa should know.
He endured years of persecution at the hands of Poland’s communist capo, and was a founder of the trade-union movement Solidarity in the early 1980s. The movement (“Solidarność” in Polish) swelled to become a broad-based anti-Soviet social crusade in Poland, ultimately propelling the Iron Curtain’s collapse and Poland’s first free elections since before World War II (Walesa subsequently became Poland’s president in the newly re-established office).
Given that history, the old freedom fighter didn’t mince words when it came to criticizing America’s current course. Through a translator, Walesa’s remarks were decidedly grim at times, and at other times surprisingly self-deprecating. In a comprehensive, seemingly stream-of-conscious address, Walesa shared his freedom-fighting experience while also providing warnings of the absence of American leadership on the world stage. He also cautioned against China’s political and economic expansion. Responding to the notion that the U.S. was no longer interested in retaining its superpower status, he jokingly offered that Poland was ready to take the baton.
Republican gubernatorial candidate Bill Brady sat next to Welesa during the lunch-in fundraiser (though buffered by a translator), and addressed the naturally friendly audience. Arguing that the current state government is “ruled” by “secrecy,” and marked by wastefulness and corruption, Brady tied Welesa’s struggle in the 80s to that of conservatives today. Without notes, the state senator from Bloomington (Illinois) appeared confident and optimistic days before the election. Brady is currently four points ahead of his Democratic opponent, Governor Pat Quinn, in a recent Chicago Tribune poll.
Governor Quinn, who had accepted an invitation to speak, notified event coordinators hours before that he was unable to appear. Alas, he had surprised organizers when he accepted their invitation in the first place. It would have been an awkward scene had the governor honored his commitment. Due to the event organizers’ conservative bona fides (and because the group exclusively supports GOP candidates this cycle), Quinn’s appearance may have validated the notion that Walesa’s struggles in the 80s were comparable to that of conservatives in Illinois. The event’s strong rhetorical connection between the two was not lost on the audience.
During a question and answer session, Walesa was predictably asked to provide his opinion as to Illinois’s reputation for corruption and government expansion by Democrats. Ever the statesman, Walesa refused to take the political bait, and his answer reflected his unwillingness to verbally jump into the fray.
Walesa is not a regular fixture on the American political circuit. In fact, his vocal endorsement for Adam Andrzejewski in the gubernatorial Republican primary was the first for an American office-seeker (Andrzejewski is now founder and CEO of For the Good of Illinois). During a January 2009 trip to Chicago for Andrzejewski, Walesa surprised onlookers in an interview when he decried that the U.S. was moving in the direction of socialism with its bank bailouts and bulging social welfare programs.
Walesa’s visit underscores the weight that Illinois conservatives are placing on these midterm elections. Analogizing Soviet tyranny to the current onslaught of liberal big-governance was no stretch for the conservative crowd. Walesa — whose name is mentioned alongside Thatcher, Reagan, and Pope John Paul II as delivering the knockout punch to Soviet communism — departed by urging the crowd to “elect well,” a thinly veiled offer of good tidings to an audience hoping for change this election season. Never known for outwardly taking partisan sides in the U.S., Walesa’s very presence at the decidedly conservative fundraiser told the story.