Congressman Dan Lipinski is not your usual congressman, and he did not gain office in 2004 the usual way. This year, running for reelection, the thin, cerebral, soft-spoken former college professor is facing the first real contested race of his brief political career.

Two challengers, John P. Sullivan and John T. Kelly, are opposing Lipinski in the March 21 Democratic primary in the U.S. 3rd Congressional, which includes all of Riverside and Brookfield and North Riverside east of the Des Plaines River.

Lipinski, of Western Springs, is the son of longtime Congressman William O. Lipinski, who arranged for his son to succeed him by announcing in August of 2004, five months after he was unopposed in the primary, that he would not run for another term. It was a move almost all political observers believe was orchestrated to give his son an easy path to Congress.

Party leaders selected Dan Lipinski, then an assistant professor of political science at the University of Tennessee, who had not lived in Illinois for more than a decade, to replace his father as the Democratic candidate for Congress. Lipinski was elected with 73 percent of the vote against a Republican candidate who hardly campaigned against him and a write-in candidate.

Lipinski’s strange route to office is a major issue in this year’s race, along with Lipinski’s stance on the war in Iraq. His prime opponent, John Sullivan of Chicago, a gang crimes prosecutor with the Cook County State’s Attorney’s office, emphasized both issues at a candidate’s forum Sunday in LaGrange sponsored by the LaGrange area League of Women voters.

“The people of this district deserve someone who has been living here and working here to fight for this district,” Sullivan said Sunday.

At the forum Sullivan called for a clear timetable to be set for the withdrawal of American troops from Iraq.

“I’ll fight for a specific timetable to withdraw from Iraq,” said Sullivan. “We need a specific timetable to withdraw from Iraq and we need it now. It’s time for our troops to come home. We can bring our troops home in one year.”

Lipinski said that laying out a timetable for withdrawal was a bad idea.

“We must make sure we do not leave an unstable Iraq that will turn into a Taliban dominated Afghanistan,” Lipinski said.

Lipinski added the withdrawal of American troops is tied to the readiness of Iraqi troops to defend their own country.

Kelly said that he supported a three- to five-year timetable to withdraw American troops from Iraq.

“We just can’t do a mass exodus,” said Kelly.

Sullivan also said he supports universal health care, though he gave no specifics as to how to achieve it.

“Health care in this country should be a right, not a luxury,” said Sullivan.

Sullivan’s campaign Web site lists four different ways to increase access to health care including adopting a publicly funded single-payer system that would be covered by a payroll tax on employees and employees and a 1-percent income tax surcharge on those making more than $100,000 ($300,000 for a married couple).

Lipinski said that a single-payer system would cost $8 trillion. Lipinski emphasized smaller steps to cut back on medical costs and to expand health insurance coverage. He said that he has introduced a bill to make hospitals disclose their prices and supports a refundable tax credit to those whose employers do not provide health insurance.

Kelly said he supports making long-term care costs fully tax deductible for seniors.

Sullivan backers have charged that Kelly is in the race at the behest of Lipinski forces simply to draw votes from Sullivan. Kelly, a financial planner and insurance broker from Chicago, filed to run in the Republican primary for Congress in 2004, but withdrew before the primary. Kelly and Sullivan both have Irish last names and have the same first name and middle initial.

However Kelly has denied this and said that he has lived in the district longer than either of his opponents.

Both Lipinski and Sullivan opposed the privatization of Social Security while Kelly advocated investing 25 percent of Social Security proceeds in government backed securities.

Sullivan also attacked the practice of earmarking, when one member of Congress inserts a provision in a bill to benefit his own district.

Lipinski however defended the practice.

“Everything earmarked is not bad,” said Lipinski. “Earmarks helped the IGO car sharing program and the 47th Street underpass.”

Sullivan also attacked Lipinski for voting with the Republicans too often.

“If you would like a true Democrat vote for me,” said Sullivan.

Lipinski said he usually voted with his fellow Democrats and defended the need to work across party lines.

“Sometimes compromise is essential,” said Lipinski.

The district covers much of the southwest side of Chicago and includes other suburban communities such as Burr Ridge, Countryside, Hodgkins, LaGrange, LaGrange Park, Indian Head Park, Western Springs and a portion of Forest Park.