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Good Humor Man / The Art of Survival

State Rep Candidate Tom O'Donnell's Light Touch Livens Up the Race



By Ben Joravsky

If by chance Thomas O'Donnell beats the front-runners for state rep in the March 19 Democratic primary, he'll owe it in part to the King.

In a refreshing attempt to gain name recognition through humor, O'Donnell has done what few politicians dare: poke fun at himself. Last month O'Donnell mailed 20,000 flyers to voters in the 34th District featuring some hilarious and audacious shots involving himself, a dog, a bucket of water, and Elvis.

If it works--and so far his flyer is the talk of the race--it may encourage candidates in other races to add some spice to city politics, which has been joylessly dull since most elected officials, after Harold Washington died, pledged their allegiance to Mayor Daley.

"This is my first campaign. A lot of voters are just meeting me," says O'Donnell, an official with the city's Department of Streets and Sanitation. "Sometimes the best way to grab someone's attention is to make them laugh. Once you have their attention, they'll listen to what you have to say."

The district is a zigzagging concoction that roughly runs north and south from Foster to Addison and west and east from the Chicago River to the lake. For years it was controlled by former Park District general superintendent Ed Kelly and his 47th Ward Democratic organization. Kelly needed no funny flyers to win elections--he simply sent hundreds of Park District employees into the field to ply voters with garbage cans. "Don't forget who got you this," the captains would say as they distributed garbage cans emblazoned with Kelly's name.

Kelly's still the organization's committeeman, but he lost most of his patronage and power when Mayor Washington ousted him from the Park District. (And no one needs him for garbage cans anymore, now that City Hall gives each household a "supercart"--one of those black plastic trash cans on wheels). Four years ago Nancy Kaszak, an independent of liberal persuasion, rode to victory in the district by appealing to women and distancing herself from machine politicians.

When Kaszak announced last fall that she'd run for Congress, her seat was left open, and O'Donnell thought: Why not me?

As O'Donnell saw it, he was as qualified as anyone else in the district. He had worked in campaigns for years, and had even run Iowa field operations for Paul Simon's 1988 presidential race. A lifelong Democrat from a south-side family of 11, he had connections all over the city; his kids went to the local public school, and he was a member of several community organizations. "I understand the way state spending in Springfield dictates how much money we have for Chicago," he says. "I can't stand the way we have to continuously raise property taxes in Chicago because we don't get our fair share in Springfield. State leaders are driven by the need to dole out contracts to special interests; they want to build a casino or an airport in Peotone--how does that help the people in my district?"

In December he prepared for the race by building a network of friends and allies, raising several thousand dollars, opening a campaign office, and going door-to-door throughout the district.

And yet there were two other candidates in the race who seemed to be scooping up all the high-profile endorsements: Larry McKeon, Daley's liaison to the lesbian and gay community, had the support of aldermen Helen Shiller, Bernie Hansen, and Mary Ann Smith, among others.

As for Kelly, he was running his own candidate, a Park District employee named Luke Howe. Flushed with big money, Howe and McKeon plastered the district with billboards, signs, and flyers, vowing to get tough on crime and cut taxes.

For his part O'Donnell knew he had to be extra creative to lift his name recognition. "I wanted to get across the idea that I've gone door-to-door through the district meeting people," he says. "My campaign manager, Bill Cosentini, came up with the idea of showing people some of the things I've seen."

And so he created the flyer headlined "Tom O'Donnell finds knocking on doors interesting." On the front it features three photos: O'Donnell on the floor of a porch, a big dog at his throat (the caption reads "He has made new friends"); O'Donnell standing at the front entrance of an apartment building as a woman pours a bucket of water on his head ("He has been served refreshments by some of the voters"); and the topper--O'Donnell, in bug-eyed, mouth-open astonishment, being greeted in a doorway by Elvis ("He has met lawyers, doctors, teachers, retirees, and even the 'King'").

To his credit, O'Donnell, who bears a slight resemblance to John Candy, is an unabashed ham who eagerly mugs for the camera. "I paid a price for that flyer," says O'Donnell. "We stuck a biscuit under my collar to get that dog to go for my neck, and I got drenched by that water." But, he says, the pictures were based on things that really happened when he went door-to-door. "Dogs are always running at you. And once a lady throwing water out of her window almost drenched me."

And Elvis?

"Well, I didn't really meet Elvis. We had someone dress like him, then we superimposed a picture of Elvis's head."

Inside the flyer O'Donnell delivers his take on issues: more funding for Chicago's schools, longer prison sentences for repeat offenders, bans on automatic weapons, reproductive rights for women, and property-tax relief for seniors.

O'Donnell's opponents predict the flyers will win few votes. "It's a little thin on substance," says Stuart Paul, McKeon's field-operations manager.

Oh, come on, didn't it make you laugh?

"A little. I did sort of chuckle at that picture with Elvis."

O'Donnell says the response to the flyer has been overwhelming. "I was going door-to-door the other day and a guy said, 'Watch out you don't get hit with water.' I'm a serious candidate, but that doesn't mean I take myself too seriously."

The Art of Survival

For better or worse Roberta Lieberman is partially responsible for transforming River North from factory row into a high-price tourist district.

In 1976 she and her former partner Bob Zolla were among the first to open an art gallery there, helping to ignite the ensuing real estate explosion. On March 21 the Zolla/Lieberman Gallery will hold a 20th-anniversary celebration with an opening featuring sculptor Deborah Butterfield--a tribute to their perseverance in the face of soaring rents, fires, and fluctuations in the art market. "I can't believe all the changes I've seen," says Lieberman, who took control of the gallery at 325 W. Huron after Zolla retired. "The neighborhood's changed, but we're still here. And this is where we plan to stay."

Lieberman and Zolla came to River North because the rent was cheap--less than $2 a square foot. "This was a deserted area," says Lieberman. "I figured the way to draw people was to feed them. In the early days we had monthly lunches; I made the egg-salad sandwiches myself."

Their breakthrough show featured Butterfield, a young unknown specializing in life-size sculptures of horses. In 1981 they moved to a converted factory on Orleans between Superior and Huron. By then there was no need to lure collectors with lunches; it seemed every up-and-coming yuppie was looking to buy. "In 1982 there were 16 galleries in River North; within a few years there were at least 65," says Natalie van Straaten, publisher of Chicago Gallery News. "They came because it's close to Michigan Avenue and the rents were reasonable."

The galleries gave River North flair, and by the mid-1980s rents soared to nearly $20 a square foot, as new apartments, health clubs, and businesses were built to accommodate the people who wanted to live, play, and work there. "Suddenly, it was a happening neighborhood," says William Lieberman, Roberta's son and the director of the gallery. "On the night of an opening we'd have people lined up out on the street."

In 1989 the building that housed Zolla/Lieberman and many other galleries burned to the ground. "The new owner was converting the top floors into luxury housing and a fire broke out," says Lieberman. The fire destroyed roughly $10 million worth of art. "We lost about 2,000 paintings; it was horrible; I had to tell artists that their work was destroyed. I couldn't track down one artist, Chema Cobo. One morning some time later the phone rang and it's Chema. He had heard about the fire and he said, 'Roberta, I love you. I know it wasn't your fault.' I'll never forget that call as long as I live. Financially, we recovered through insurance. But you'll never replace the art that was lost."

Lieberman rebuilt her collection, but other galleries destroyed in the blaze went out of business or moved away. In general the art world was socked by plummeting prices; the lines at openings aren't nearly as long as they used to be. "Still, there are as many galleries in River North as there ever were," says van Straaten. "A place like Bucktown is where young artists go to get their start, but River North's where they sell their work. It's a tradition started by those 16 original galleries, like Zolla/Lieberman."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Randy Tunnell.

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