News & Politics » Feature

Running Against Rosty

Michael Flanagan has no money, no experience, and no connections, but that doesn't stop him from running against Rosty

by

comment

If you're a liberal, Michael Patrick Flanagan is the sort of guy who ought to scare you. Not because he's some raving ideologue with a slate of neo-fascist proposals. But because he's not. The Democrats need Oliver Norths and Pat Buchanans to make them look better by comparison. They need David Duke to point at and say, "That's what all Republicans really think anyway. Come on over to our side where it's safe and caring and happy." Flanagan seems just too, well, normal.

A mildly tubby fellow with a slight resemblance to Teddy Roosevelt and a penchant for wool sweaters, the 31-year-old Flanagan is the kind of guy who'll strike up a conversation with you in Wrigley Field, then pop for a round of beers. He's the kind of guy who would have told the ruffians in your high school locker room to tone down their language. He's the guy you'd want your kid sister to go to the prom with. You might even hope the two of them would get married, if you were Catholic.

Set his picture next to that of the guy he's running against for Congress, Dan Rostenkowski, and who would you want to vote for? The soft-spoken, mild-mannered, inoffensive lawyer, or the deal-making career politician and dark prince of pork-barrel politics? The guy who's never been tainted by holding public office, or the putz indicted on 17 counts of corruption, including conspiracy, embezzlement, and fraud. Flanagan seems like such a swell guy that even if you're a knee-jerk, bleeding-heart liberal you'd have to be tempted to punch his number. The only trouble you might have--if you could study his candidacy--is, oh, just about everything he stands for.

Flanagan's campaign office, 4200 N. Milwaukee, is in the heart of pierogi country. It's probably about a third the size of Rostenkowski's, but at least it's open. Rosty's headquarters, at Lincoln and Fullerton, has never opened. Since the primary, when Rosty nabbed 46,000 votes and defeated his two Democratic opponents, he has remained noticeably silent. Calls to his congressional office are handled curtly. If your calendar didn't tell you otherwise you might get the idea that he isn't even running for reelection this year. He has turned down invitations to appear at candidates' forums. And you can't find the usual Rostenkowski placards and posters on the front lawns of northwest-side homes, though to be fair, you don't see many Flanagan posters around either. But that's not because Flanagan's trying to keep a low profile--he just doesn't have the money.

Flanagan's is a mom-and-pop operation in one of the truest senses of the term. He drives to campaign functions in his dad's beat-up chocolate Nissan Sentra, the one with an NRA sticker in the back. In his dingy storefront campaign office his aunt Marion (Cannon) handles the phone calls. A friend of the family, Jon Calder, a 23-year-old grad student at Central Michigan University, plans Flanagan's day-to-day activities. Another friend, Ida Jablanovec, nurse and poet, serves boisterously as press secretary.

Flanagan won the March primary with an investment of about $5,000 and almost 4,000 votes. For the general election he's raised a little more than $30,000, a sum that pales considerably when placed next to Rostenkowski's war chest, which has been reported to contain near half a million even though he's also had to raise hundreds of thousands for his legal defense fund. Flanagan, who gave up a private law practice to work full-time on his campaign and has been living off a small loan from his aunt, gets his money primarily from small individual contributions.

Strangely, the national Republican Party has been slow in supplying Flanagan with financial support. While conservatives like Newt Gingrich have been running campaigns using Rosty as a symbol of Democratic congressional corruption, Rosty's opponent is waiting patiently for the Republicans to help him out with his mailings. He's heard through the political grapevine that the national party has "targeted" him for funding--perhaps $5,000--but the check hasn't arrived yet. Theories have been thrown around Flanagan's offices--conservatives in power have binding ties to Rostenkowski, who was first elected in 1958, or the national party has something to gain by keeping Rosty in power and using him as a symbol to run against in the 1996 elections.

Flanagan says he has no clue why he hasn't received financial assistance. "I'm shrugging right now. I do not know. I am at a loss to explain it. I will tell you something. It has nothing to do with me. I believe it has something to do with Rosty. You've been there 36 years, you know the guy, you play golf with the guy--I don't know. Who cares? I do not indulge in the bitter vituperativeness of trying to figure out why. I know the reality of it right now, and I have to move on."

Flanagan was born in 1962, the second of five brothers and the son of an electrician who fought in the navy during World War II. Flanagan says he comes from "good working-class stock. My uncle Jim is a contractor, my uncle Jack is a carpenter, my uncle Bob worked for Illinois Bell. We're regular folks." His grammar school was Saint Gregory, his high school was Lane. He also worked part-time ushering at Wrigley Field and Orchestra Hall during high school. Asked if he was into sports in high school, Flanagan says, "No. Not a sportsman too much."

"Cars?"

"No. No cars. Used to borrow my mother's car."

"Student politics?"

"Nooo. I was in the ROTC. Shot on the rifle team there."

"What got you interested in the ROTC?"

"Well, when I was younger my parents taught us that everybody owes something to the state, and the army was a nice way to be able to repay."

Flanagan got a BA in political science from Loyola University; he was the first in his family to graduate from college. Then he served in the armed forces as a field artillery officer in Greece. He's reticent about what he did there, suggesting that some of it's confidential, though it had something to do with nuclear warheads.

Flanagan came back to Chicago and studied law at Loyola, and after passing the bar practiced contract and personal-injury law. He never worked for a political campaign, never really thought about getting involved.

His Fifth District campaign was the result of a conversation with some buddies who encouraged him to run. "I was sitting with some friends, and they had really had all the fun they cared to have in this district. And it motivated me to do it. They said they would help me get on the ballot, and I said, 'Well terrific.' We talked about it, and we did it."

Jon Calder, Flanagan's administrative director, says, "When Mike told my dad he was running for Congress, I said, "Mike? No way!' He struck me as the perfect guy to run, but the kind of guy who you didn't think would ever want to get into it."

There was a time early last summer when it looked like Rostenkowski and Flanagan would be facing a third-party challenge in the person of Dr. Kim Ladien, a north-side psychiatrist with a long record of community service. Ladien, a member of the United Independents Party, a strange coalition of members of the Harold Washington Party and supporters of Ross Perot, launched a campaign with a vast community-service project as part of his platform--a "safe haven" program that would use federal welfare money to support job programs, creating a national-service work force in the tradition of Franklin Roosevelt's CCC and WPA.

Unfortunately for Ladien, and for Democrats who want a serious alternative, the United Independents Party botched its petition drive. Flanagan's office called for an investigation of the signatures collected by Ladien, who was unceremoniously booted off the ticket. "Dr. Ladien is a right sort of guy--there's not much wrong with him," Flanagan concedes. "He had a few thousand valid signatures, but the vast majority were acknowledged as being circulated improperly."

Ladien, who calls Flanagan an unqualified candidate who "doesn't have the experience, doesn't have the background" and "the last thing this country needs: another personal-injury lawyer," has made noises about getting back into the race. He continues to fight his ballot challenges in court and has offered to organize a poll and let voters decide who should run against Rosty, with the loser of the poll agreeing to support the winner. Flanagan hasn't accepted this proposal, and Ladien is thinking about starting a write-in campaign.

"He doesn't have much understanding of how the system works," Flanagan says. "He thought I'd be willing to run in two, maybe three, maybe eight primaries until somebody beat me--and it just wasn't going to happen."

I've joined a reporter from Crain's Chicago Business who's tagging along with Flanagan as he canvasses in the Fifth Congressional District, which includes the northwest side of the city, a section of Leyden township, and part of Lincoln Park. We get out of Flanagan's crappy Nissan on McVicker at Sunnyside, a tidy little neighborhood of single-family homes and well-maintained lawns, occupied mostly by ethnic whites and a few Latinos.

Being tailed by a couple of reporters isn't sitting too well with Flanagan, who thinks people won't open their doors because we look like we're tax collectors (well at least the guy from Crain's does). He suggests that we go down the block separately. I remind him that he's the one running for Congress.

Flanagan is an affable campaigner, with a big smiley face, a warm handshake, and an ability to convey compassion with only a word or two. He's no phony, though he does have a tendency to lapse into hackneyed campaign patter.

We ring a doorbell, and a little girl answers.

"Hi," Flanagan says, beaming. "Is your mom home?"

"Mom!" the girl shrieks, and a woman comes to the door.

"How are you today? I'm Mike Flanagan. I'm running for Congress in this district."

"Yes," the woman says impatiently.

"How are you today?"

"Fine."

"I'm the guy running against Rosty."

"OK."

"I was wondering if I could give you some literature."

"OK."

"I was wondering, do you think Congress is doing a good job for you?"

"That's a funny question," she says, grimacing.

"Let me ask you an easier one. Do you pay enough in taxes?"

"Yes, of course."

"What would you like to see your congressman do more or less of?"

She crinkles her brow. "I don't know. What kind of a question is that?"

"Yeah, I know," Flanagan smiles winningly. "That's a hard question. That's kind of an unfair one. Well, if you think Congress spends enough and they tax you too much, they must be spending it on stuff you don't like. And if you'd like me to go to Congress for you--and I hope you do--I'd like to do what you want done and that way I can hear it now. Do you often write your congressman?"

"No."

"Do you not do that because you feel it's not worth your time?"

"No. I've just never done it."

"Is there something you'd like your congressman to do for you?"

"I can't think of anything off the top of my head."

"How about cut your taxes?"

"How about come into my house and do my cleaning?"

We leave her with the literature and continue tromping door-to-door. It's the middle of the day on a Wednesday, so a lot of people aren't home. Flanagan scrawls a little note at each empty house and leaves it by the door. Dropping such notes in the mailbox is against regulations, so he tries not to do it.

"This sort of campaigning is very underrated," Flanagan says as he walks. "You catch one person. They tell the hubby, they tell the wife, they tell the kids. They make a call: 'He was at my door!' Every vote I get at the door, it means five more. There is no precinct captain who will tell you that mailing or TV is more effective than shaking their hand. The only candidate I ever remember coming to my door was John Cullerton. My mother still remembers this 20 years later. That was an object lesson to me in how valuable this is. And for somebody who stays home all day and gets their hair done to go shopping, this is the thrill of the week. I come from a very old Catholic-Irish block, and I know what that's like. I used to take Mrs. McNally next door to the hairdresser so she could get her blue rinse because she was going shopping on Saturday. She'll tell her friends, 'He was at my door!' and that's just fine."

If you're beginning to think Flanagan is something of a throwback, you're right. Although he's the right age, he's about the furthest thing from a slacker you could imagine. Talking to him is like talking to someone who just stepped out of the 50s. His sentences are littered with words like "swell" and "neat." When the name of Dr. Herb Sohn, the eternally unsuccessful Republican candidate, comes up, Flanagan calls him "A corker! A neat guy! A neat guy!" Flanagan is big into bowling, darts, and golf. He tells bad G-rated jokes ("What music do I like? I like the three Bs: 'The Beatles, the Bangles, and the B-52's.' Oh, I'm just joking"). He chain-smokes Salems and has a mustache. His idea of a good time is unwinding at home in front of the tube and maybe reading up on astronomy: "Surface temperatures of other planets, that sort of thing. When that thing hit Jupiter, that held my interest. I read about that. Space travel captures my imagination too. I think that's fascinating stuff."

"Hi, I'm Mike Flanagan. I'm running for Congress in this district."

A man in his 60s wearing a red bandanna is smoothing the cement near his side door. He doesn't look up.

"Laying in a new sidewalk?" Flanagan says, beaming.

"Yeah."

"Yeah," Flanagan says smoothly. "It looks like hard work."

"It's not easy," the man says, pausing to dab his brow with a rag.

"Well, can I leave this little bit of literature for you up at the door?"

"Leave it in the mailbox."

"OK." Flanagan drops his material in the box. "Tell me, do you think Congress is doing a good job for you?"

"Do I?"

"Yeah."

"Well, that depends."

"Do you think you pay enough in taxes?"

"Pay too much. Everybody says that."

"Yeah." Flanagan nods. "I'll tell ya that's true. Well, I won't keep you from your work. We'll just leave this for you."

"What are you?" the man asks uneasily. "Democrat or Republican?"

"I'm a Republican," Flanagan says proudly.

"I'm a registered Democrat," the man says, laughing. "But I usually vote Republican."

According to Flanagan, that sort of remark isn't unusual in Chicago, particularly in Rostenkowski's district. He maintains that people are afraid to vote in Republican primaries for fear that somehow city politicians will find out and withhold services from them. He points out that his parents are registered Democrats even though his mother hasn't voted for a national Democrat since Truman. "I asked my mother why she still pulls a Democratic ballot in the primary. She said, 'Mickey, I enjoy having my garbage collected.' And she was deadly serious. I don't think that goes on so much anymore, but at one time that was true. Old habits die hard. You've walked the earth for 50, 60 years. You're not worried about what's happened in the last five. You have a longer memory. Precinct captain comes by. And you like having your garbage collected, you like having your trees cut down. You need to supply the precinct captain with a Democratic ballot and vote for his guy. You like having your streets swept or having a new sidewalk. You need these things, you want these things, you want to keep the local pols happy, and to keep them happy, you have to do what they say. And they want Rosty."

Flanagan continues, "It doesn't work by threat. You will contact a ward office and say, 'I need this tree cut. I need this garbage collected,' and then someone will remind you that you didn't pull a Democratic ballot. All of a sudden after the election after you pull a Democratic ballot, it's done. Nothing said. Nothing done. It just happens. It's the grand way this city works. And in the defense of the Democrats I will tell you before Franklin Roosevelt this city was just as Republican then as it is Democratic now. Nobody voted Democratic. Bill Thompson was a Republican and every mayor before him was a Republican. The city voted Republican, and it worked exactly the same way then as it does now. The Republican Party had a stranglehold on us. And big parties do what they do to propagate themselves. Republicans have refused to make an inroad into Cook County, and there are a lot of us now who are really tired of that."

To Flanagan, party labels at the local level are rather artificial, and he's voted for his share of Democrats over the years, including the present Mayor Daley. He wasn't old enough to vote for Michael Bilandic, but he thinks he was the best mayor we've had. "I guess I was one of the few rare, bizarre people who thought he was good. He was a fiscal genius. He kept Chicago on a nice even cash keel. Unfortunately, he had the personality of a wet sponge and he was plagued by snow. Had it not snowed that time Bilandic would still be mayor. He was a good administrator."

Surprisingly--which is probably one of the reasons he tells me--Paul Simon is one of Flanagan's favorite politicians. "I think Paul Simon is a neat guy. I think he's got great integrity. He is a warm, personable man. I think he genuinely cares about the people in this state. I think he is someone I would want to be my representative. He has all the qualities I would want a representative to have, save for his politics. I don't much care for his politics, but insofar as he represents the people and has the people's interests at heart as he sees it, I think he's a swell guy."

But this warm, fuzzy attitude toward Bilandic and Simon does not betray a deep, hidden affection for liberalism. Flanagan's progressive tendencies stop just about there. Nearly everything else he utters is the standard Republican line.

The fundamental difference between the parties, he says, lies in "the size and scope of government. The Democrats' attitude is 'You are incapable of providing yourself day care. You're incapable of providing yourself health care. We will do this for you because you're just too stupid and lazy to do it.'" He endorses congressional term limits and opposes any increase in income-tax rates for individuals and businesses as well as any reduction of tax deductions and credits. He supports a health-care system that's "affordable, portable, and private." And he likes guns a lot better than abortions. "I want to see more people with more control of their lives, with more money in their pockets. I'd like to see government get out of their way. That's why I'm running."

Here's a brief sample of Flanagan's remarks on a variety of issues:

"It's the government taking over the finest health-care industry in the world and putting it on the model of a post office, and I don't think it's going to work. And it is socialism--100 percent unemployment insurance run by the government is socialism. That is socialism. That is its definition. . . . We need to make coverage more affordable, and I think we need to make it more portable. . . . You should own it in the same way you own house insurance or car insurance or anything else. It should be yours as opposed to something that comes with your job."

"I'm pro Second Amendment. Anti gun control. I don't believe in the government of the United States indulging in gun bans that affect my Second Amendment rights any more than they should be engaging in speech bans or instituting a national religion or anything like that. It's not that I want everyone to own a gun and use it regularly. It's just I don't want to see my rights taken away should I choose to use one."

"I don't think we can live in a good and caring society and sanction the killing of another for reasons of convenience."

So you'd oppose it even in situations where a mother's life is threatened?

"In those one-in-a-million chances when that happens a woman and her doctor make that choice. That choice has to be made, and it will be made. You can't let them both die. That's apart from the discussion of abortion."

"The logical difference between capital punishment and abortion is that when you have someone who has behaved a certain way and through his own actions has ostracized himself from society and made it impossible for himself to be part of any society anymore, society has the right to remove him in the most specific way: capital punishment. Killing an unborn is the killing of an innocent who has done nothing to incur such enmity."

"I think I'm one of those facile morons who still thinks the media cast more votes in that election than anyone else. I think they went after Bush with hammer and tongs. I mean, I was watching TV the other night. I watched Murphy Brown, and there they were trashing Bush and Quayle throughout the program. It dipped in everywhere. It was purposeful and it was plotted and it was brutal--and Mr. Bush didn't help himself out too much either. So that combination spelled defeat."

"Baseball. There isn't another sport."

"Cubs. Sox are the junior circuit. Give me a break."

If you want to see Flanagan get pissed, you'll probably have the most success by bringing up President Clinton. Though a personable enough fellow, Flanagan can be something of a dullard, and his words are predictable, even if they're not rehearsed. But mentioning Clinton gets his dander up, and you get the feeling he's trying to hold in his anger.

When I ask, "What do you think of President Clinton?" Flanagan says tightly, "How do you mean?"

"Do you respect him?"

"How so?"

"As a person."

"I don't know him as a person," Flanagan snorts.

"As a politician?"

"He's a brilliant politician."

"How about as a president?"

"I think he's unqualified," Flanagan snaps. "He lacks the basic requirement, one of the basic requirements to be commander in chief, and that is to have an understanding of what it is to serve. You don't have to have served yourself. I don't mean to suggest that you do. But anyone who has hated the army for as long as he has and worked so hard against it and now commands it and has these facetious pictures taken on the White House lawn where he has marines walking behind him and army officers waiting tables in the White House, I feel, lacks some basic understanding of what the military does. And I would have a problem if I were in the service now, a moral quandary, because this man has the power to commit me to a cause and I'm not sure if he's going to use me sparingly."

"Do you endorse what Oliver North said: 'He's not my commander in chief'?" I ask.

"No. He is the commander in chief," says Flanagan, who by now is red-faced, though still relatively quiet. "Period. No, there is no discussion about that. No. Absolutely not. You asked me about Bill, not the institution of the presidency. No, there is no discussion. No, he is the commander in chief. Period. There is no question on that front. He absolutely is. He is everybody's commander in chief. The army's not capable of picking and choosing its civilian leaders. That's up to the electorate to do. I just regret the choice we've made as a nation, that's all."

"Do you think the nation's suffering for it now?"

"I don't know," he says sharply. "We've tried to do a little bit of nation building in Somalia. Lost a lot of lives there. Granted, Bush got us in. There's no denying that, but Bush would have had us out sooner than Clinton did. We stuck around and tried to be an army of occupation, and we don't do that very well. Never have. Never will. I think it's just a matter of time before we lose some lives in Haiti, unless we get out of there. And I pray the president sees the light and gets us out of there. And as for what's going on in Kuwait, there's probably a good reason to be there. It just remains to be seen what that is."

If elected, Flanagan hopes to serve on the Judiciary Committee and, naturally, the Armed Services Committee. Asked what kind of programs he has in mind, he says vaguely that he would like to see the "federal government take a leading role as opposed to a support role in crime--prisons, tough laws, good things like that." He also wants to reverse the military cutbacks that have been instituted by the current administration.

"I deeply resent the teardown of our services," he says, bristling. "Mr. Bush had the drawdown that had to happen after the cold war, and I have no problem with that. But the military cuts that Mr. Clinton is putting through I view as harmful to our national security, and I'd like to see that built back up. The army is quickly losing its ability to do its job. The naval reserve for the last entire month of the fiscal year was unfunded and shut down. This is not good for national security. We can't keep mothballing ship after ship after ship. Mr. Clinton does not view national security as a prime way to spend money, but I'd rather have a ship afloat than midnight basketball."

Someone's home at about one out of every three houses on McVicker Street. We interrupt one woman in the middle of a doughnut and wake up a man taking his afternoon nap. Not quite the same impact as a blitz of TV commercials. Along the way I'm trying to get a sense of what Flanagan is really like, but trying to get a spark of personality from him isn't exactly easy.

"What do you read to keep up on politics?" I ask, trying to segue into more personal questions. "Subscribe to a lot of magazines? Newspapers?"

"Nope." It's one of his favorite words. "I used to read the newsmagazines, but the Republican Party buries me alive in paper. I get an inch of paper a day. They keep me reasonably abreast when I have time to read it, and it is aptly called 'bed-stand reading.' If you'd come to my house, you'd find a stack somewhat more than a month old that I will get through eventually."

"What else is on your bed-stand reading list?"

"I like murder mysteries. I do. I was an Agatha Christie book-club member. I finally got all 86 of them. It took years and years, but I finally got them all."

"What appeals to you about them?"

"It's a little mind puzzle, and it's good writing. It's written in an English that's not often used in literature anymore. Whole sentences. Verbs. Things like that. It's kind of nice to read."

"You go out a lot in the city? Nightclubbing kind of guy?"

"Look at me. I'm not one of the beautiful people."

"But who knows about you in off-hours?"

"I used to have several clients who were bar owners. So I'd sit at a bar from time to time and do business and imbibe an adult beverage or two, but I'm primarily a homebody."

"Just rather stay home, read a murder mystery . . ."

"And watch TV." He smiles. "I admit it. Watch TV."

"Murphy Brown?"

"If I can avoid that, I avoid it. She's very funny sometimes though."

"Got a favorite show?"

"No."

"The Simpsons?"

"You know, The Simpsons has gotten much better over the years. It started out very abusive, and it's kind of toned down and it's become more funny than shocking. I like the reruns."

"Are you married?"

"No."

"Children?"

"No, no children either. No divorced wife. No trail of brokenhearted women."

"What will you do first thing after you're elected?"

"Well, I'll probably want to sleep for a while. Then I'll go to Congress, get sworn in, and work."

"No vacation in Tahiti?"

"No. I might go to Georgia or somewhere else and rest up for a week or two. Nothing exciting or thrilling."

We come across a woman in her 60s raking her leaves. She has a kindly face that looks as though she's worked hard for decades. "Oh, you're out collecting the votes, are you?" she asks.

"You bet," Flanagan says, smiling. "I'm Mike Flanagan. I'm the guy running against Rosty."

"Wonderful."

"Do you think Congress is doing a good job for you?"

The woman stops raking and rests her arm on her rake. "You know, it's hard to tell."

"Well, do you think you pay enough in taxes?"

She sighs. "I think I pay more than I should."

"You like the way Congress spends your money?"

"No, not exactly. I could spend it better."

"You sure can." Flanagan smiles. "That's where I want to put it. Right back in your pocket."

"You do?" the woman asks suspiciously.

"That's right."

"That's what they all say," she sighs wearily.

"Ahhh, but I believe it. And I know that they all say that too. But I'll tell you, I'm new at this and I don't plan on making a lifetime out of it. I just want to represent you and do a good job for you."

"Is that what you want to do?" the woman asks, eyeing him as if he were a lovable but foolish nephew.

"I tell you what," he says. "I pay enough in taxes, and I pay taxes just like you--and I'm tired of paying taxes."

"I don't know," she says, and shakes her head. "I just don't know. I don't know what to think anymore. They used to sweep all this stuff under the carpet, and now you see it on the news every day. I guess it's been going on forever. People get happy when they stick money in their pockets."

"Yeah. Well, not this kid."

"Well, you know how it is. When you belong to a club, you're in the club. That's it."

"Well the Democrats won't give me a membership. So maybe you'll have somebody better this time."

"You know," the woman says contemplatively, "we don't vote all the time just because somebody's a Democrat or a Republican. Rosty's our friend, but he's in big trouble. I know that. I know."

"Well, we have a chance to beat him this time."

"You've got a nice face," the woman says, smiling. "You do. You have a nice smile. I'll see you at the polls."

"Good luck with the leaf sweeping." Flanagan turns to go, then stops. "You lived here long enough to remember when they burned leaves?"

"Oh yes, " the woman says and smiles.

"When I was little we used to burn leaves. It was kind of fun. I enjoyed that."

"You know, I don't know that much about you," she says, warily pointing a finger at him. "But I do know somebody's running against you. Rosty. Rosty. Everything's Rosty."

"Well, it's been 36 years. How many times have you met your representative in Congress?"

"Never," she says, looking slightly stunned by her admission.

"Well, you have now."

"That's right," she says, smiling. "That's right, I have. But I just don't know what to think anymore. Everything's just so out of hand. Your mind won't accept it. My mind can't comprehend all of it."

"You think government is too big?"

"I don't know what to think," she sighs. "I can't comprehend it all."

"I'll tell you what. In that paper there's a little phone number, and when you cogitate on it a little longer why don't you call me and tell me what it is, and maybe I can do a better job representing you."

"Yeah, but it's not just one person that can do a better job. You all have to work together."

"I know," he says confidently. "We will."

"That's the whole problem. More than the people working there, I think the problem is everybody lobbying out there and the money being put forth, and you have to go along with that. There's a lot of pressure. You'll see when you get there."

"Yeah," Flanagan acknowledges.

When we're out of earshot, he says, "She's a nice lady."

"Yeah. I think she'll vote for you too."

"Yes," he says with a touch of pride. "Yes, I think she will."

Flanagan has pledged that if elected he'll spend a maximum of ten years in Washington. "I believe that city could corrupt Saint Francis, and I have no desire to expose myself to such temptation. I'm sure in ten years someone will have to remind me that I took this pledge, because that's just the inertia of this kind of work. That's why I'm doing that now, to make sure that somebody will remind me and make sure I don't do that."

Besides, he's not crazy about Washington. He thinks the city lacks flavor and its people are "obnoxious." He doesn't plan to lose the election, but if he does he'll go back to private law practice and "send sympathy cards to everyone in the district."

We knock on another door. Out pops an elderly leprechaun of a man with white hair and a lumberjack shirt. "So," he says gleefully, "you are the guy running against Rrrosty!"

"That's right. I'm the guy."

"So, you are a Rrreeepublican!"

"I am indeed, sir. Are you, sir?"

"I," the man says with mock profundity, "am an independent!"

"Good for you," Flanagan says, laughing.

"Yes, I have no affiliation to either party."

Flanagan goes into his spiel. "Well, let me ask you, do you think your representation is what you want out of it?"

"Well, I'm not sure. I'm gonna think about it, see? And I'm going to be thinking about it right up until the election, see?"

"Good for you," Flanagan says. "Get all the information you can." He hands him some literature.

"That's what I am trying to do, see?" the man says, Cagney fashion.

"Nice to meet you, sir," says Flanagan, smiling.

"Nice to meet you, Mr. Flannery."

"Mr. Flanagan."

"Flanagan!" The man shouts and slaps his knees. "Doggone! That was a slip of the tongue."

And that's Flanagan's major problem. Rostenkowski's stony silence has cost Flanagan name recognition in the district. He says he grows more confident every day, but plenty of folks in the district still don't even know he's running. He says the Tribune, which endorsed Rostenkowski in the Democratic primary, hasn't even printed his name since then. The Sun-Times has been more attentive, but it just endorsed Rosty in the general election. A recent New York Times Magazine piece on Rostenkowski mentioned Flanagan only in passing. His one major appearance on ABC's World News Tonight, after Rosty's indictment, amounted to a sound bite that was taken out of context: "I'm not sure if I have enough votes to win." Flanagan says, "They cut off the meaning of the sentence and just cut the phrase down to what they wanted to have. And I thought that was manifestly unfair and pretty brutal. They haven't bothered me since."

While he waits, perhaps in vain, for party funding, he has to settle for an occasional interview on WBEZ or a short profile piece in the neighborhood press. Even so, the attitude of his campaign workers is not only confident but slightly cocky. Of course she's paid to say things like this, but Ida Jablanovec, Flanagan's press secretary, thinks rumors of support for Rosty throughout the district have been blown way out of proportion and the old-line politician is in for the biggest surprise of his career come election day. "People talk about his popularity," Jablanovec says, cringing. "What popularity? Not only is he nationally portrayed as the prince of darkness, the Polish people in this district are saddened by what he has become. His reign is over. He is going to lose."

Curiously, Flanagan rarely attacks Rostenkowski's character. Flanagan's campaign has been marked by a gentlemanly decency and integrity, if also a certain toothlessness. "I don't want to tear up Rosty, and I don't want to tear up Clinton. I have things to offer over and above not being named Rostenkowski. I haven't really attacked him much. People ask me why I'm not giving the 17-indictment speech every day. Maybe I should. It might be effective, but I don't view it as right. I'd rather go out and talk to people."

I'm riding shotgun in the Nissan, and the reporter from Crain's is sitting in the backseat, firing questions at the candidate. Flanagan may never have been accused of any crimes, but he's probably amassed his share of traffic violations. He smokes as he drives and doesn't wear his seat belt. He heads the wrong way down a one-way street, then spins in a cockamamy U-turn.

"What do you think qualifies you to be elected to Congress, Mike?" the Crain's reporter asks.

Flanagan's answer is simplistic but intriguing. "I believe most people are qualified to be a representative in Congress. Maybe not most people, but an awful lot. I believe if you have the desire to do well for the people, are reasonably smart, have the interests of the people at heart, are well-grounded philosophically, and you're not the consummate politician willing to say yes to anyone, and you're willing to stand for something, and you have a unique sense of ombudsmanship--a real desire to do good and make people's lives better in addition to whatever other qualities you can bring--you can be an excellent representative." It's an answer that rather refreshingly gets to the heart of what representative democracy is supposed to be all about and dispels the air of sanctity that surrounds the business of government.

Flanagan has such an appealingly unpretentious attitude that it's no wonder Rostenkowski is ignoring him--any small glimpse of this earnest fellow who genuinely believes in working for the people in his district could well persuade voters to give him a shot. Of course if they got a long look at his dogmatic positions they'd have a much harder choice: they'd either have to vote against their convictions or vote for the guy who'll probably be convicted.

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

Add a comment