The big story at the League of Women Voters candidate forum for Democratic candidates in the 3rd Congressional District on Feb. 20 wasn’t who was there, it was who wasn’t’ there. 

The two leading candidates in the race, incumbent Dan Lipinski (D-Western Springs) and second-time challenger Marie Newman skipped the forum. Lipinski’s campaign said the congressman was meeting with the Orland Park Law Enforcement Organization last and Newman decided not to attend because Lipinski wouldn’t be there. 

The two candidates who did show up, video production company owner Rush Darwish and Nicor mechanic and former Chicago 23rd Ward precinct captain Charles Hughes, slammed Lipinski and Newman for not attending the forum.

“I think it’s giving the bird to a very prestigious organization like the League of Women Voters,” said Darwish after the forum. “I really think these candidates, Marie Newman and Dan Lipinski, should be ashamed of themselves because they’re not talking to people any more. It’s become personal between them two to the point that they can’t even be in the same room with each other.”

Hughes also criticized Lipinski and Newman for skipping the forum. He said voters in the 3rd District should take note of who respected them enough to show up.

“People matter and, to them, they don’t, so I hope they vote properly,” Hughes said.

The forum at the Performing Arts Center at the Lyons Township High School South Campus drew a sparse crowd of about 35 people, a far cry from the nearly 600 who packed at room at Moraine Valley Community College two years ago to hear Lipinski and Newman debate at a forum also sponsored by the League of Women Voters.

Melissa Lieb, the voters services chair for LaGrange Area League of Women Voters chapter also criticized Lipinski and Newman for skipping the forum.

“I feel it’s a disservice to the constituents,” Lieb said. “This is the only forum that is not only be held in district, but the constituents are able to see the candidates live and ask questions that they feel need to be answered to make an educated decision.”

Newman’s campaign manager, Ben Hardin, said that Newman was meeting with voters in the Garfield Ridge neighborhood of Chicago while the forum was occurring. Hardin said that Newman is anxious to debate Lipinski.

“Our ultimate goal here is to have an opportunity to debate Congressman Lipinski in public,” Hardin said. “We have sent certified letters to all of his offices here in the 3rd District and have not a response to any of them,” Hardin said.

Two years ago Lipinski edged Newman by just over 2,000 votes in a bitter primary battle. Newman again is waging a strong challenge to Lipinski, and some political prognosticators believe she has a good chance of defeating the veteran congressman. 

The 3rd District ranges from the Bridgeport neighborhood of Chicago southwest to near Joliet and includes a small portion of Riverside and the southern half of Brookfield.

Newman’s campaign, which had raised nearly $1.2 million as of Dec. 31 and had about $628,000 cash on hand at the end of the year, has recently begun airing a television ad. 

She has been endorsed by a host of progressive luminaries, including presidential candidates Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, former presidential candidates Cory Booker and Julian Castro, Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot and a host of progressive organizations and progressive leaders. 

Lipinski, who is one of three Democrats in the House of Representatives who oppose abortion rights, is backed by Michael Madigan, the speaker of the Illinois House of Representatives and chairman of the Illinois Democratic Party and a host of local governmental officials in the 3rd District.

Lipinski had raised just over $1 million by Dec. 31 and had about $868,000 cash on hand at that time.

Darwish, whose parents were born in Palestine, is running an energetic campaign. He had raised $656,448 by Dec. 31, including $80,750 in personal loans to the campaign.

Hughes, who has not reported any campaign contributions, says that he is running a grassroots campaign.

Darwish said at the forum that Lipinski votes like a Republican and that Newman is too far left to be an effective legislator, placing himself between the two ideologically.

“We have to get away from extremism,” Darwish said.

There were no major disagreements on the issues between Darwish and Hughes during the approximately 50-minute forum.

Both candidates said they support abortion rights, although Hughes said all abortions should be done at major hospitals and that more should be done to encourage adoption and provide counseling to pregnant women.

“I want to bring pro-life and pro-choice together,” Hughes said. “I believe women need rights and they also need choices and they have to make their own choice.”

Hughes said that he favored public works projects.

“I’m conservative financially and I’m for public works,” Hughes said. “I believe in big projects that make big impact. I care about the middle class.”

Video of the candidate can be found at the League of Women Voters of the LaGrange Area Facebook page.