With little more than a month until the Feb. 5 primary the race for the 3rd Congressional District is entering its final stretch. In the Democratic primary three candidates are challenging incumbent U.S. Representative Dan Lipinski (D-Western Springs). Lyons Township High School Board President Mark Pera has been joined by two other challengers to Lipinski, longtime Palos Hills Mayor Jerry Bennett and attorney and self-proclaimed “neighborhood guy” Jim Capparelli.

Pera started earlier than the other challengers. In the third quarter of the year Pera raised approximately $100,000 compared to Lipinski’s $75,000.

Pera has campaigned as a “real Democrat” and attracted the support of Internet activists who oppose Democrats viewed as too supportive of President George Bush.

Pera’s campaign is spending more than $100,000 to run ads on cable television stations and has five full-time staffers working on the campaign. Pera claims he is the only credible challenger to Lipinski.

“We’re the only campaign that has raised enough money to go on TV, to get our direct mail out, to get our message out,” Pera said. “We’re the only real option to Lipinski.”

Pera was recently endorsed by Cook County Commissioner Forest Claypool, Water Reclamation District Commissioner Debra Shore and three independent-minded Chicago aldermen. None of those endorsements comes from within the 3rd Congressional District.

Bennett has been the mayor of Palos Hills for 27 years and said Lipinski has been unresponsive to the concerns of local government officials.

Bennett criticized Lipinski for voting like a “Bush Republican.” He also said Lipinski has been unresponsive to local concerns.

“I’m tired of having elected officials, especially in a position of a congressman, to be out of touch with what is going on in the district,” Bennett said. “This congressman is quite vulnerable. I’ve got the credentials to beat him in this race.”

Bennett’s campaign recently distributed a list of 66 suburban mayors, most from outside the district, which he said have endorsed him.

Bennett is the only candidate in the race who has a record of proven leadership, according to his campaign manager Alex Behrend.

“There is no candidate in this race, challenger or incumbent, that can match Jerry’s leadership,” Behrend said.

However, Lipinski has the backing of Brookfield Village President Michael Garvey, Riverside Village President Jack Wiaduck and North Riverside Mayor Richard Scheck.

“Dan Lipinski has been very supportive of North Riverside,” Scheck said. “He gives us the personal touch. …Dan Lipinski being on the Transportation Committee has brought back a lot of positive results for North Riverside.”

Lipinski campaign spokesman Matthew Mayer rejected opponents’ claims that Lipinski is not a real Democrat.

“I think that the congressman’s record fighting for the very values that makes the Democratic Party what it is, that record speaks for itself,” Mayer said. “He really is a principled leader who is quietly effective and doesn’t seek out the press.”

Mayer said he is not too concerned about Pera’s television advertising.

“The congressman doesn’t define campaign activity as relying on television buys to get his message out,” Mayer said. “The congressman is relying on a grass-roots campaign that is relying upon people communicating with voters at a grass-roots level.”

Capparelli has only raised about $30,000, he said. But he claims that he is the best-qualified candidate in the race and angrily rejects suggestions that he is in the race to siphon off votes from Lipinski’s challengers.

“I think those are spurious allegations,” Capparelli said.

Capparelli has lived his entire life on the southwest side of Chicago. He served as an Army officer after graduating from college and is currently a lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army Reserve.

He criticized Pera for raising most of his money from outside the district.

“They’re raising money from California,” Capparelli said. “Well, I’m not interested in what the people of California say about the 3rd Congressional District. I’m interested in the working men and women here.”

Capparelli said three union locals have endorsed him, and their support will make up for his lack of money.

“I’ve been fortunate that the unions have provided people to work for me in terms of getting my message out, and that’s something money can’t buy,” Capparelli said.