Just when Illinois was starting to move on from the scandals of ousted Gov. Rod Blagojevich, along comes Scott Lee Cohen.
After the political unknown managed to win the Democratic nomination for lieutenant governor Tuesday, it became widely known that he was accused of abusing his ex-wife and holding a knife to the throat of an ex-girlfriend — a woman who was herself charged with prostitution. He also admits using steroids in the past.
Democratic leaders hadn't considered Cohen a threat to win and didn't highlight his past during the campaign. Now they're alarmed that Cohen could drag down the ticket he shares with Gov. Pat Quinn.
He is refusing demands that he step out of the race; if he doesn't, Quinn might have to change parties to sever Cohen's political aspirations from his own.
Quinn already was facing a tough Republican challenge, and with a similarly tight U.S. Senate race expected, the stakes could extend beyond the state offices for Illinois Democrats.
"It really puts all of us in jeopardy," said U.S. Rep. Danny Davis, D-Ill.
Cohen, a pawnbroker and owner of a cleaning supplies company, ran against several veteran politicians but spent $2 million — mostly his own money — on his campaign, more than twice as much as all his opponents combined.
He gained strong name recognition with a flurry of advertising featuring people who said they got jobs at employment fairs he held. He organized three in Chicago during the past eight months to a year, he said.
"Only one candidate for lieutenant governor is holding job fairs in Illinois," intoned a moderator in his ads.
Despite the money Cohen pumped into his ads, Democrats and political watchers didn't pay attention to his past because he was considered a longshot. Quinn said he knew nothing about the allegations against Cohen until after Tuesday's primary.
Cohen was arrested in 2005 on domestic battery charges for allegedly pushing his then-girlfriend's head against a wall and holding a knife to her throat. The charges were dropped when she failed to show up for a court date.
The Chicago Tribune reported police records show the woman had been arrested for prostitution. Cohen told Chicago's WTTW-TV that he met her at a "massage therapy place" and believed she was a masseuse.
Cohen has denied hitting the woman and called their relationship "tumultuous."
"I never tried to cut her throat," he said on WTTW.
Cohen also has denied ever abusing his ex-wife, Debbie Cohen York. When she filed for divorce in 2005, she sought an order of protection against him and has said his violence was fueled by anabolic steroids. Cohen admits the steroid use.
"I never touched any woman," he told Chicago's WLS-TV on Thursday. "That's not my style, that's not me."
Cohen's campaign did not respond to requests for interviews from The Associated Press.
Cohen points out that he disclosed his arrest before he announced his candidacy and it was written about by the Chicago Sun-Times in March 2009.
His win leaves Democrats with little public recourse except pleading with Cohen to give up the campaign.
"If I was to say anything I would go back to the Bible: Let us reason together or else we might all be destroyed by the edge of the sword," Davis said.
U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin said Cohen needs to step aside and the people he trusts politically need to make that clear to him.
"Mr. Cohen is not going to be the lieutenant governor," said Durbin, who chastised the party and the media for not doing a better job vetting candidates.
But as it currently stands, as Cohen goes, so goes Quinn. Illinois voters pick party nominees for governor and lieutenant governor separately, but they run on a single ticket in the general election.
Quinn, who inherited the job after Blagojevich's ouster following federal corruption charges, already is vulnerable after barely eking out a narrow primary victory and facing a tough challenge from Republicans in November.
Quinn had not talked to Cohen as of Friday and the campaign was "looking at every option," said Quinn spokeswoman Elizabeth Austin.
"Mr. Cohen has said publicly that if he is persuaded that the people think he should leave the ballot that he would leave voluntarily and that would certainly be the best option for all concerned," Austin said.
Durbin and Davis dismissed the idea of trying to get President Barack Obama's help in defusing yet another embarrassing political problem in his home state, after the Blagojevich scandal and the dustup over Blagojevich's nomination of Roland Burris for Obama's old Senate said.
"First and foremost we should take care of our own problems. We don't need to go to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue to find a solution here," Durbin said.
Cohen's brother Randy said his brother is being unfairly attacked.
"Scott Cohen is very smart and very underestimated. He wants to help people. Scott is a very honest person," he said.
If Cohen voluntarily resigns from the ticket, he would be replaced on the ballot by state party leaders. If he doesn't, Durbin and others say Quinn can consider the possibility of running without him by leaving the Democratic Party.
It's happened before. In 1986, Democrat Adlai Stevenson III created the Illinois Solidarity Party to avoid running with a lieutenant governor candidate who was a follower of frequent presidential candidate Lyndon LaRouche. Stevenson lost to Republican Gov. Jim Thompson.
Democratic state Rep. John Fritchey said the choices are bad ones for Quinn.
"Pat undeservedly finds himself in a situation where there's two options which both likely lead to a loss — one being running with Cohen and two being running on a new party," he said. "We've seen this movie before."
Associated Press writers Sophia Tareen in Chicago and John O'Connor in Springfield contributed to this report.
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