U.S. Senate candidate Jim Oberweis said Friday he’s back in Illinois after a controversial pre-election visit to Florida, and explained that he took the trip south for his wife’s birthday because “family comes first” and he wanted to support his marriage.
The Florida trip, which Oberweis first acknowledged Tuesday just hours before a snowstorm hit the Chicago area, has prompted opponent Doug Truax to criticize him as a “snowbird” trying to avoid debates.
Truax said Friday that Oberweis decided “to skip out on the voters of Illinois,” and would be a poor challenger to Democratic incumbent Sen. Dick Durbin.
“I’m welcoming him home by saying what I’ve always said at the beginning of the campaign: I don’t think he’s committed enough to take on Durbin,” Truax said.
In a radio interview Friday with Tribune columnist John Kass and Lauren Cohn on WLS-AM, Oberweis said that one of the problems that ended his first marriage was that his then-wife thought he worked too much. He said he didn’t want to make that mistake again in his second marriage.
“I felt that it was important to show that I care, that my wife considers her birthday important, and I wanted to be sure that I honored that,” Oberweis said.
Oberweis has not responded to Tribune questions about when his trip to Florida began, and he declined to answer that question in the WLS interview. NBC-Channel 5 has reported that Oberweis left for Florida on Saturday. That was her birthday, according to her Florida voter registration application.
Tribune/WGN-TV polling has shown Oberweis far ahead as Tuesday’s primary approaches.
But Truax said his campaign has seen some late momentum due to his opponent’s late vacation.
“We were already moving up rapidly, money was coming in at a good clip,” Truax said. “Now it’s accelerating as we get closer to Tuesday, because I think the choice is clear. Who’s tough enough to take on Durbin?”
The Oberweises bought a $1.3 million penthouse condominium in Bonita Springs, Fla., in 2010. Oberweis’ wife, Julie, voted in Florida in 2012. She has a homestead exemption to lower property taxes on the Florida condo; they do not have a homestead exemption for their home in west suburban Sugar Grove, Ill.
Oberweis, who said he also conducted fundraising while in Florida, emphasized that his marriage was his priority in leaving Illinois during the home stretch of the campaign.
“This is something that I have been reluctant to discuss,” he said. “It’s very personal. ... I was married to my first wife for 35 years, have five kids, and as far as I was concerned, it was a very happy marriage, I was very pleased, and I was stunned about – I don’t know -- 10-11 years ago when one day she left. My children were equally stunned. I couldn’t sleep, I couldn’t eat for months. I lost 60 pounds. It was by far the worst thing that has ever happened to me in my life, and I don’t want to repeat it.
“Julie and I have been married now about six and a half years, almost seven years, and if I made a mistake – my first wife indicated that one of the things that concerned her was that I worked too much, that I got focused on something and poured all of my time and energy into it and there wasn’t enough for her.”
Elaine Pearson, Oberweis’ first wife, largely declined to respond about the candidate’s comments when reached Friday by the Tribune, citing concerns for her family’s privacy.
“I’m a private person,” she said. “His problems are his problems and we don’t have anything to do with each other anymore. This is between Jim and the public.”
As for Oberweis citing his work as one cause of the end of their marriage, Pearson said: “It didn’t just have to do with work. Jim was more focused on that which he wanted to do, rather than family.”
Although Oberweis’ current wife Julie wanted him in Florida for her birthday, she backs his bid for the Senate, he said.
“My wife said she is 100 percent supportive of the campaign, and is happy that I’m doing what I’m doing,” he said. “But it does place some stress on your family, there’s no question about that.”
Referring to a Tribune column by Kass about the Florida trip, Oberweis said: “There were no – whatever you called it – umbrellas and drinks. I never saw the beach. Was not there. I did play golf with my wife, though.”