By KIM JANSSEN AND LYNN SWEET Staff Reporters
CHICAGO--A tearful Scott Lee Cohen, the pawnbroker who won the Democratic lieutenant governor nomination, only to have his scandalized past surface and threaten the ticket, said Sunday he would step aside, giving Democratic Party leaders a chance to pick his replacement.
"For the good of the people of the state of Illinois and the Democratic Party, I will resign," Cohen said at the Hop Haus, a bar and restaurant at 7545 N. Clark, during the Super Bowl.
The choked-up Cohen, 44, a political neophyte who poured $2 million into his campaign, was flanked by his fiancee, Karen Reisman, and two of his sons, Zachery, 17, and Jacob, 11.
"It is my hope, and I pray with all my heart, that I didn't hurt the people that I love so much," Cohen said. "All I ever wanted to do was to run for office and to help the people, not cause chaos."
"There is uncertainty that if I continue to run that the Democrats will win November," Cohen said. "Many people came out to support me when I announced.
''The Democratic Party didn't, but many people did. This is the hardest thing that I have ever had to do in my life."
Only hours earlier, Cohen told the Chicago Sun-Times that he was not convinced that he was unelectable and was mapping strategy to test the reaction of Illinois voters in the wake of revelations about his personal life after his surprise win in the six-way Tuesday primary.
"I think there is a strong possibility that I am electable," Cohen said in an interview at a Starbucks at Jefferson and Lake, across the street from his campaign headquarters.
The Democratic primary for lieutenant governor received little attention. And while Cohen did not hide it, court records examined the day after the primary revealed that he was an admitted user of anabolic steroids. Cohen told the Sun-Times Sunday that he bought the steroids from a friend without a prescription.
There also were accusations hanging over him of putting a knife to the throat of a former live-in girlfriend -- who turned out to be a convicted prostitute. He also was allegedly behind in child support.
Under Illinois law, the winners of the primaries for governor and lieutenant governor automatically have to run together. Cohen's presence on the ticket endangered Gov. Quinn's chances of election and could have dragged down Democratic Senate nominee Alexi Giannoulias and other Democrats.
After Cohen said he would drop out -- he still needs to sign withdrawal papers -- Quinn said in a statement that "he made the right decision for the Democratic Party and the people of Illinois. Now we can continue to focus our efforts on putting our economy back on track and working to bring good jobs to Illinois."
A ballot vacancy is filled by the weighted vote of the 38 members of the Democratic State Central Committee.
About 90 minutes after telling the Sun-Times that he was not quitting the race Sunday, Cohen received an afternoon call from House Speaker Michael J. Madigan, the state Democratic Party chairman.
According to Madigan spokesman Steve Brown, Madigan called because he heard Cohen was dropping out of the race and wanted to confirm it.
Cohen spokesman Baxter Swilley said Madigan made it clear to Cohen that stepping aside was the best course of action for his personal life and his career and that if he did so, he would have a chance to rehabilitate his image.
During the primary, Cohen flooded the airwaves with ads that focused on jobs, while his five underfunded rivals were basically invisible.
A chorus of Democrats had been calling for Cohen to step aside, but Cohen started to dig in after his win. He may have resisted their calls because they never phoned to congratulate him on his victory.
Cohen told the Sun-Times on Sunday afternoon that Madigan was the only official to call him after the election.
"None of my opponents called to congratulate me, not a senator, not a congressman, not one person called to congratulate me," he said.
Asked if that hurt his feelings, Cohen said that lack of calls "showed me no respect. It absolutely hurt my feelings."
The respect issue -- which seemed to loom over Cohen's decisionmaking--came up Sunday night in Cohen's withdrawal announcement.
"I want to thank Mayor Daley for coming out, being a gentleman. I want to thank Speaker Madigan, who met with me on a personal level to give me advice, give me some reasons why it would be best for me not to be on the ballot," Cohen said.
Daley was alone among Democratic officials in declining to pressure Cohen out of the contest.
On Sunday, Madigan's camp disclosed that Cohen met with Madigan at his downtown Chicago law office on Friday. The meeting, which included Phil Molfese, who managed Cohen's primary campaign, was described to the Sun-Times as a "man-to-man meeting of a seasoned politician talking to a novice."
Cohen was originally planning to go to the East Rogers Park restaurant and bar for a Super Bowl photo op to tell reporters about his plans to test Illinois voter sentiment and to have reporters see him in a different light.
On Thursday, Cohen appeared on WTTW-Channel 11 with his former wife in a chaotic show in which he failed to put his political problems behind him.
Speaking Sunday night, Cohen said, "When I decided to run for lieutenant governor, I did it with my heart and my soul. I thought that by opening up my life, I could represent the people in a fair, honest, loving, caring way.
"On my election, it went crazy. The last thing I ever, ever wanted to do was to put the people of Illinois in jeopardy in any way."
Contributing: Dave McKinney