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"I Guess I'm the Skunk at the Garden Party"

State rep long shot Claude Walker breaks up what might have been a slick power play.

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By Ben Joravsky

They had it choreographed just right, one of those classic backroom two-steps for which the city's big-time Democrats are famous.

In late September, veteran state senator Art Berman stepped down to take a job with the Board of Education; a few weeks later state representative Carol Ronen was advanced to take his place; and last week her vacancy was filled by Harry Osterman, the 32-year-old scion of one of Mayor Daley's favorite north-side political families.

If any voters were watching in Ronen's 17th district (which roughly runs from Foster to Touhy between the lake and Western Avenue), nobody seemed to care. And nothing seemed to be blocking Osterman's permanent ascension to the seat--nothing, that is, but an independent activist named Claude Walker.

"I guess I'm the skunk at the garden party," says Walker, who's bucking the party bosses by running against Osterman in the March 21 Democratic primary. "You could say I'm the classic underdog. But then, I've never been afraid to back a long-shot cause."

Indeed, Walker's been walking door-to-door on behalf of populist campaigns and causes since the early 1970s, when he was living in a funky one-room apartment next to the el, attending Loyola University, and driving a cab to make a living. "The funny thing is that my parents and grandparents were Republicans," says Walker. "It was around 1968 that I started to change my worldview. Bobby Kennedy's assassination had a big impact on me. I got involved in the antiwar movement. That's when I started to develop the values I have."

In the 70s he backed a steady stream of losing candidates. "One of my first campaigns was on behalf of an independent candidate in Humboldt Park running against Tom Keane's 31st Ward organization. Of course we were clobbered," he says. "In 1977 I worked for Harold Washington's first campaign for mayor. Yeah, Harold got clobbered in that one. But it was a good fight. It paved the way for 1983. You never know when the seeds you plant will take hold."

In the late 70s he went to work for Common Cause, the good government group. "They gave me 12,000 index cards to keep track of all the people I enlisted and said, 'Go to it, kid. Organize a state chapter.'"

In 1984, at age 32, he challenged incumbent state representative Lee Preston, who ran a formidable organization in Rogers Park. "This was right after Harold's victory and a lot of us on the north side were feeling pretty good about ourselves," he remembers. "Lee beat me pretty good--though for the record, I won the parts of the district that were in the 48th and 49th wards. I got clobbered in the 50th. Lee had precincts in the Winston Towers high-rises where I lost by margins of 200 to 6. I didn't have access to those buildings. You can't win the votes if you can't meet your voters."

Since then he's worked in the trenches for a wide range of candidates, some of whom won, such as Paul Simon, Carol Moseley-Braun, and Pat Quinn. After Quinn was elected state treasurer, he had a job with the state for a few years. But more recently he's made a living as a freelance writer (specializing in baseball) and freelance campaign strategist. "Usually I'm the guy in the back room overseeing the field operation," says Walker. "I wasn't out front."

Until now. "When Carol stepped down to fill Berman's vacancy, I decided to run. Why not? I've lived in the district for a long time. I know the area. I figure after all these years I have something to offer--I have something to say. There's changes I want to see happen."

His biggest issues are campaign finance reform and public transportation. "Big money stomps the voice of the little guy," says Walker. "I support public financing of campaigns and I definitely believe there should be limits on campaign spending. I don't think the system we have now is healthy. It discourages competition. It guarantees that only a handful of voices get heard. It keeps the powerful in power. The little guy gets clobbered.

"Regarding public transportation, I've always had a love-hate relationship with the CTA. On the one hand, I'm dependent on it. I figured I've traveled 75,000 miles on the Red Line alone. But on the other hand, I think it's unfair how the state formula shortchanges the CTA riders. If Mayor Daley wants a pit bull to go down to Springfield and go toe-to-toe with Du Page or McHenry County Republicans over CTA funding, I'm the guy."

Harry Osterman learned the tricks of the political trade from one of the north side's sharpest politicians--his mother. Kathy Osterman (who died a few years ago) was a community activist in Edgewater, and with her good friend Marion Volini she put together a formidable political organization that's been running the show in the 48th Ward for over 20 years. In 1987, when Volini decided not to run for reelection after two terms as alderman, Kathy Osterman ran and won. Two years later Osterman left office to become Mayor Daley's director of special events and was replaced by her former aide, Mary Ann Smith. Mike Volini--Marion's son--is now 48th Ward Democratic committeeman, and Harry Osterman is trying to perpetuate his family name in politics.

Like his mother, Osterman is easy to like. He grew up in Edgewater, prepped at Gordon Tech, plays 16-inch softball in local parks, was president of the Edgewater Community Council, and went to work for the Department of Streets and Sanitation, where he's now a top aide making about $83,000 a year.

"I think it's an honor to serve the people," he says. "And it's an honor to carry on my mother's name in this area. My mother was loved. She was an incredible woman who taught me a lot about life and getting involved in the community. She worked very hard for Edgewater. I feel the same way. I've stayed in my community even though other people my age have left. I look forward to being state representative because I want to serve the people of my community."

There was, he says, no inside deal to set him up in office. "I didn't know Art Berman was stepping down until after it happened," says Osterman. "I got a call one Friday morning with the news and I was surprised. Art's been a great leader. I'm proud to have his support. I'm proud to have Carol Ronen's support. When Carol said she wanted to replace Art, I decided to run. It was not an inside deal."

Nonetheless, there was little debate last Monday when north-side committeemen Patrick O'Connor (40th), Ed Kelly (47th), David Fagus (49th), Sandra Reed (46th), and Volini got together to determine who would finish Ronen's term. "Mike Volini opened the proceedings," says Walker. "I said, 'Why the rush to fill the vacancy?' He said, 'That's because we chose to.' I suggested they appoint an interim representative so Harry and I could have an even playing field in the election. But O'Connor said something about not wanting a caretaker in office and that was about it for debate."

Only Fagus, an ally of Alderman Joe Moore (49th), voted for Walker. "Other than that I didn't get a thing," says Walker. "Well, Sandra Reed gave me a hug and said good luck. She's very nice."

Osterman says he'll soon move into his new Edgewater legislative office, which adjoins an office shared by Alderman Smith and state senator Ronen. He says he's not sure if there's a need for debates, and he rejects Walker's call for a voluntary limit on campaign spending. "My take on campaign limits is this--this is my first race and I've got to get my name out," says Osterman. "I hope to raise between 125 and 150 thousand dollars, which would allow me to get my message to the voters."

If Osterman has an advantage it's that he has a bigger campaign bankroll (Walker will be lucky to raise $90,000) and big-name endorsements (Mayor Daley's is expected soon). The money will help defray the cost of mailing brochures to voters in the hard-to-enter high-rises along the lake. On election day he can expect to have a few boys from Streets and San working the precincts to bring out the vote.

In the face of such clout, Walker's only chance is to hustle. He says he's up early every weekday morning to greet voters at el platforms and bus stops. On weekends he walks door-to-door passing out flyers.

Last Sunday, for instance, found him driving his battered red Honda Civic into the far southwest end of the district, near Western and Berwyn. He parked his car, shuffled through the rubble in back (including a baseball bat and a 16-inch softball--"Hey, Harry's not the only one who plays"), and rustled up his flyers.

His main piece of literature is a humorous flyer headlined: "Who is Claude Walker and why will he stand up for you in Springfield? Take a peek at his background..."

What follows is a series of pictures of Walker over the years, including a shot of him as a bucktoothed kid in a bow tie meeting his hero, Ernie Banks. The caption reads: "Claude gives Ernie Banks some batting tips. Ernie went on to hit many homers and Claude got braces."

The last photo shows Walker, in a Cubs hat, posing with his terrier, Perro. "A watchdog for consumers!" reads the caption.

"I figure Perro will help me win the dog-lover vote," Walker says.

He explains that over the years he's developed a system for door-to-door campaigning. In the margins of a polling sheet he scribbles tiny notes about each voter he meets, such as "has a dog" or "likes the Cubs."

"I try to follow up with a personal note to everyone I meet," he says.

On this dreary day he tries to keep each pitch short, so as not to keep voters standing in the cold. Most of the people take his flyers and wish him good luck. One woman has an unusual request. "Could you get my newspaper?" she asks. "It's in the shrubs."

Walker brightens. Here's a chance to make a personal connection. He scoots off the porch, rustles around in the bushes, and comes up with the newspaper. "Thank you, that's so sweet of you," says the woman. "What did you say your name was?"

"Walker--Claude Walker," he replies.

"Well, thank you very much, Mr. Walker," she says.

After she closes the door, he pauses on the sidewalk. "I think I'll put her down as a plus. When I send her a note, I'll mention the newspaper. Hey, every vote counts."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Nathan Mandell.

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