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Mr. Lamm goes to Springfield: a new independent squares off against the machine



The day may come years from now when Kevin Lamm, his legacy in politics secure, will look back on what happened last Thursday and laugh.

That was when the Logan Square activist launched his political career. He had planned to gather 35 backers on the front steps of a local public school and announce his candidacy for the 33rd State Representative District. But a rainstorm swept in, keeping many supporters at home, and Lamm had to retreat to the school auditorium, where ten friends stood around an old battered piano and heard him annouce.

Have faith, he told the handful; from such humble harbors great ships are launched. "If the rain is all we have to worry about, I'm happy," Lamm said.

Actually, rain's the least worry for Lamm, who's trying to convert eight years on the front lines of community and school activism into a political victory. The odds against him are staggering. He has no political sponsor--he dangles from no committeeman's string. The district's incumbent, Rod Blagojevich, is stepping down to run for Congress and staying neutral. But the area's two most powerful Democrats, aldermen Richard Mell and Terry Gabinski, are certain to slate a more obedient loyalist from one of their organizations.

On his side Lamm has state senator Miguel del Valle, a politician so independent he refuses patronage, and the usual collection of hardworking and well-intended activists and reformers who usually get bashed.

Nonetheless, Lamm and his backers remain confident. "We know the machine's alive and well these days, but I think Kevin can do it," says del Valle. "I think people understand that we need an independent. He's a fresh voice."

He certainly has an unusual background for Chicago politics--our own Mr. Deeds come to the big city. He was raised in Rock City, a small town in northwestern Illinois. His father was a truck driver and chief of the volunteer fire department; his mother was a sales rep for Avon. He graduated from Dakota High School, where he wrestled (losing in his senior year to the eventual state champ) and played football. "We had 14 guys on the team," says Lamm. "In one game we only had 11 healthy guys and none of us could come off the field no matter what."

From an early age he was a Democrat, mostly because of his mother's influence ("she liked Hubert Humphrey and hated Nixon"), though he might easily have swung the other way. "One of my best high school friends, David Shockey, is now the chairman of the Republican Party of Stephenson County," says Lamm. "We argue politics, but we don't take it personal. Out there people are pretty much the same. The politics just falls one way or another."

After high school Lamm and a friend, Bob Reeter, enlisted in the navy. Lamm wound up sailing around the world under the water as a sonar technician on a submarine. In 1981, when their six years were up, Reeter went back home and became a hog farmer; Lamm moved to Chicago. "Growing up in the boonies, everything I learned about Chicago I learned from [rock disc jockey] Larry Lujack," he says. "I didn't know the difference between Lombard and the Loop. I really wanted to learn about Chicago. I'd heard about Lane Tech playing St. Rita in the prep ball--now I wanted to see it."

So Lamm enrolled at the University of Illinois at Chicago, married Sandra Mylander, had two children, and moved to Logan Square, where he's been living ever since. "At the university I got involved in student politics in a big way," says Lamm. "I spent two years as a student member of the board of trustees. I won by only two votes in the first campaign. My issues were tuition and student fees; I said they were too high. We raised hell. That's when I first learned about the power vested in Springfield--that's where the state's money's controlled."

By the late 80s he was getting involved in local campaigns, going door to door for del Valle, Luis Gutierrez, and other independent candidates. In 1989 he won election to the local school council at the Brentano Math & Science Academy; his children now attend that school and he's chair of the LSC.

"The thing about Kevin is that he's very even tempered," says Lafayette Ford, who served with Lamm on the old school board nominating commission, which was abolished in the latest round of school reforms. "He managed to stand his ground without offending anyone or getting caught up in any of the various factions."

Then as now, Lamm's major issue was local control over state antipoverty funds. "When I first got elected to the LSC the board controlled how that money was spent," says Lamm. "I was one of the LSC activists demanding that the local schools have control. For a while we got it. Now, with the new school board, it looks like we're going to have to fight that fight all over.

"I suppose if I had gone to the regulars from the start, I'd be sitting fat today. The difference is that I came to local politics in the purest way. I just jumped in and fought around certain issues. I was following bills that improved education and it was people like del Valle leading the fight. You didn't see him bringing someone into a backroom and saying if you scratch my back, I'll scratch yours. He was always doing stuff for the whole community. And that's the way I plan to be."

The district runs along the Chicago River from Halsted and Division past Lawrence and Kimball. It includes portions of Logan Square, Avondale, Albany Park, and Bucktown. No other candidate has announced (the election's not until February). But Lamm has to start early because he's such an underdog.

"Whoever Mell runs his captains in to support, that's who will win," says Victor Crown, editor of Illinois Politics, echoing the sentiments of most political observers. "That's how Blagojevich won; remember, he's Mell's son-in-law. If Lamm can't get Mell or Gabinski's endorsement, he's got an uphill climb."

To compensate, Lamm hopes to build from his present support among public school activists, with whom he worked to force the school board to relieve overcrowding by building annexes at five local schools. "I support Kevin 'cause he's such a doer," says Idida Perez, chair of the LSC at Monroe elementary. "It was because of him that we got those annexes."

If Lamm does win, he'll be perhaps the first school council member to move on to higher office. "I know I'm coming from a different base," he says. "I put in my courtesy calls to Mell and Gabinski--just to tell them I was running. Gabinski never got back to me. Mell said, "Thanks for the call, but I can't help you.' He said he'll either be running someone himself or backing Gabinski's guy. Hey, at least he's up-front."

Tom Slawson may not be the best-known businessman in Chicago, but he's certainly among the more outspoken.

Once a month or so Slawson, a vice president for the C.J. Vitner Company, a south-side snack food manufacturer, writes a two-page commentary that he sends to newspapers all over town.

The commentaries are not part of his official duties; the opinions, he makes clear, are his and not Vitner's, which he thanks for letting him speak his mind.

And he is a free-thinking fellow, at least for a businessman in this day and age. He's a white man born in the Back of the Yards. Yet he remains, for instance, a supporter of affirmative action; he says businesses should not be so quick to flee to the suburbs; and he believes Craig Hodges and B.J. Armstrong were dropped by the Bulls because they were "outspoken black men who burned pretty deep."

But perhaps his most provocative commentary is the one he distributed earlier this summer--it reads like Ross Perot with a spin of Saul Alinsky. In uppercase letters, so no one can miss the point, he admonishes consumers to "SUPPORT THOSE COMPANIES THAT SUPPORT THEM."

In other words, buy local or pay the consequences. "When our customers do well, so do we, and when we do well, so too do our employees, their families, the businesses they patronize and the communities in which they live," he wrote. "Seen this way, the cycle from company to customer is not a straight line, but a closed loop."

The commentary came out of a speech he gave to a south-side association of black merchants and civic leaders. "Frito-Lay does $200 million worth of business here [in the Chicago area]," says Slawson. "Twenty-eight percent comes from Doritos alone. That $60 million is more than my company does coast to coast. And yet when a community asks Frito-Lay for donations, it's always "talk to Dallas [the national headquarters].' Now Frito's does its part; they donate to the heart association. But I'm talking local. I'm a Chicagoan--I want this city to prosper. I sit on the boards of community groups. I work with Misericordia and the Lydia Home Association and Clara's House for battered women and the Cabrini-Green gardening project. I do these things because I want to and because Vitner's lets me. They allow me to be socially responsible. That should not be ignored by local consumers."

With that in mind, Slawson ended his commentary with one final call for action: "DO NOT HESITATE TO CALL THE HEADQUARTERS OF A CHAIN NOT SUPPORTING YOUR "COMMUNITY LOYAL' COMPANIES, AND DEMAND THAT THEY DO!"

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

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