It's closing in on midnight, the candidate's been up since dawn, and his staffers want him to go home. But Pete Dagher can't stop talking.
He's sitting in a north-side bar, yelling with already strained vocal cords to be heard above a television's blare, trying to explain why the Democrats lost control of Congress in the 1994 elections. "We were arrogant," he says. "We were foolish. We lost our connection to the people!"
He bangs the table. He makes self-effacing wisecracks. He laughs at his own jokes and loosens his tie as if he's ready to go on like this for hours. His aides eye their watches and sigh. It's been like this all day. It'll be like this tomorrow. Dagher, a Democratic candidate for Congress in the Fifth District, just can't stop talking. "I think it's my strength--my energy, not my talking," he says. "I'm tenacious. I won't give up."
His plan for victory--and he says he's absolutely certain he will win--is a blast from the past. He intends to campaign day and night, concentrating on the Fifth District's far western precincts, where the front-runners, Rahm Emanuel and Nancy Kaszak, are weak. "Here's how you do it--you outwork them," he says. "I've got, what? Four hundred or so volunteers. We put them out in the district, we find our voters, and we get them to the polls. It's simple."
As appealing as this may sound, his tactics seem destined to fail. Unlike Emanuel or Kaszak, Dagher has no money for TV ads, slick brochures, or massive mailings. He has no major endorsements and rarely gets covered by the mainstream press. He spent most of the 90s working as an aide to President Clinton, but the former president wound up endorsing Emanuel, another former aide.
Emanuel and Dagher are striking contrasts. Emanuel projects the smooth image of a well-connected centrist with no deep-rooted political philosophy. Dagher calls himself a "raging populist" and is prone to give-'em-hell attacks on wasteful spending, tax breaks for the rich, and big-business bailouts. His condemnation of the Enron scandal--"Where were the regulators? Where was the oversight? Where was Congress? They were all bought off!"--sounds like Ralph Nader's.
Like Nader, Dagher is lousy at all the things that seem to matter most in modern politics. He's not smooth, he's not focused, he wanders off track. He's always a little late--probably because he talks so much. He never shows the slightest inclination to network with powerful players. Most of his friends are people he met years ago--"Just a bunch of gearheads, like me." He has an almost pathological unwillingness to ask for money or endorsements, which may be why he didn't get Clinton's: "I never told him I was running."
He's managed to raise about $120,000, which is more than some of the race's other Democratic candidates--Stanley Niziolek, Paul Rauner, Mark Fredrickson, Joseph Slovinec, and Ray "the Angel" Lear--but far less than Emanuel or Kaszak. With that money he's managed to rent a storefront at 6855 W. Addison, on the far western edge of the district. He says he pays five or six staffers "something, but not much--though I make sure they've got health care. I'm adamant about that."
"We live on nothing," says Omar Villafranca, Dagher's 24-year-old press secretary. He laughs. "I'm losing weight--tell Pete to feed me." Along with five other aides, Villafranca is crashing at Dagher's hopelessly cluttered house on the far northwest side.
The best thing he has going for him, says Dagher, is his affinity for middle- and working-class voters. "I understand them," he says, "and they can understand me." His father was French Lebanese, his mother Assyrian. They came to Chicago in 1957, and Dagher was born eight years later. For nine years they lived in Albany Park, then they moved to a bungalow in Skokie. "We were like hundreds of other immigrants," he says. "You start in Albany Park, and you move to Skokie. We thought we had found the American dream."
They were wrong. "When I was 14 my father left and never came back," says Dagher. "He ran a small electrical-engineering company, and it went bust. I don't know much more than that. All I know is that one day he was here, and the next day he was gone--just like that. And I haven't seen him since."
According to Dagher, his father left behind a wife, two sons, and "a mountain of debt. We went on welfare. We almost lost the house. My brother and I had to help out." So at 14, Dagher went to work. "Guess where? McDonald's, man--Mickey D's! No offense to all the Mickey D workers of the world--'cause I love you, man, I feel your pain--but it was awful. When I die they'll say, 'Heaven or hell?' 'Give him heaven, 'cause he's already served his time in hell.'"
After a few months he got himself a job as a bagger at Dominick's. "Hey, I'm not complaining, I'm not singing a sad song," he says. "I have always worked, and I will always work--and I loved working at Dominick's."
The affection he feels for Dominick's is deep, almost obsessive. He talks about the 14 stores he's worked at like a sailor bragging about the ports he's seen. "I started at the old Evanston store--at Church, near Foster. Great store--great, great, great store. God, I loved that store. I was a bagger for 14 months before they promoted me to cashier. I worked at Dominick's throughout high school and college. I worked at stores all over the city--black neighborhoods, white neighborhoods, Hispanic neighborhoods, changing neighborhoods. I saw it all at Dominick's."
In 1983 he graduated from Niles North High School and enrolled at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Five years later he graduated with a degree in political science and history. He took a construction job building bathrooms and kitchens. "I didn't know exactly what I was going to do, but I knew that it wasn't going to be about making money," he says. "That was never a factor in my life--or my brother's life. He went into the air force. For us, it was all about public service. I figured I'd go into politics one way or another. I was always a Democrat. To me, the Republicans--and I'm generalizing here--were the party of 'I've got mine, now I'm locking the gate.' The Democrats were more the party of hope and inclusion and using government as a tool for people like me and my mother and my brother who are trying to get ahead."
In the summer of 1991 Dagher, then 26, happened to hear Bill Clinton give a speech. "I thought, 'This is the man who can beat George Bush,'" he says. A few months later he quit his job, cleaned out his bank account, bought a used Chevy Blazer, and took off for Little Rock. "I walked into Clinton's campaign office at eight in the morning and said, 'I want a job.' You know what they say in Chicago politics--'We don't want nobody that nobody sent.' Well, I was the guy that nobody sent. I think they took me on 'cause I was the only guy there who knew how to fix things--they were always asking me to fix the copy machine. I worked for nothing for four weeks before they put me on salary at $200 a month."
After Clinton won, Dagher went to work for the Democratic National Committee, trying to help the party maintain its hold on Congress in the 1994 midterm elections. The result was a disaster. The Republicans seized control of both houses, and Clinton lost what meager mandate he'd had--and with it the opportunity to enact any ambitious programs, such as national health care.
"I know, I know," says Dagher. "We sucked. It was horrible. We blew it. Come on, say it--I can take it. When I think of all the blown opportunities it makes me sick. Particularly on health care. God, I can't believe we lost health care. How did we lose health care? You know why? I know why. Because we were arrogant. OK. We were young and smug and we thought we knew it all. We didn't consult Congress. We tried to do it all by ourselves. We made it too complicated. We should have reduced our plan to one page. Instead we came in with a book that was 1,432 pages--that's right, 1,432 pages--and dropped it, thump, on the desk of each member of Congress and said, 'Here's your health care.'"
Still, he stayed on. After Clinton's reelection in 1996--Dagher was chief of staff for the campaign--he went to work as a special assistant to Rodney Slater, secretary of transportation. "Then I worked on the transition team," he says. "I'm a 'FILO'--first in, last out. I was one of the last to leave the White House on January 20, 2001. At 11:59 AM a secret service man said, 'That's it--time to go. Your security clearance has expired.' As I left I could see all the Republicans lined up waiting to come in."
He took a few months off. "I just rode around the country a bit, taking the back roads on my Harley. I had time to think over things--what went wrong, what we could have done different. I decided I wanted to keep up the fight."
He returned to Chicago, sold his Harley--"That's how you know I'm serious, 'cause I loved that bike"--cashed out his savings, bought a house out by O'Hare, and announced that he was running for Congress. "I met with a few local officials," he says. "They looked at me like I was crazy. 'How can you run against Daley's guy [Emanuel]?' What can I say? Nothing against Daley, but I've never been anyone's guy. I work for the people. I don't work for the boss. I've never been handed anything in my life. I've worked hard for everything--I'll work hard for this."
A typical day finds him up early working the el stops, senior citizen centers, and Dominick's stores. "I love campaigning at Dominick's," he says. He gets lunch at a diner on Foster: "I hope they have oatmeal--God, I love oatmeal." Then it's off to another senior center, then a church, then a neighborhood forum, and then the north-side bar, where he meets with friends.
The barroom chatter, noise, and smells seem to energize him and he bounces from one topic to another. He quotes John Belushi--his favorite movie is The Blues Brothers--then Teddy Roosevelt. He talks about the first of the 18 cars he's taken apart and put back together, including "a beat-up old police car--I bought it for a buck." About why his brother the air force pilot is his hero: "'Cause when my dad left he stepped up to the plate." About why he's running: "I want to change the world!" About why he won't take money from lobbyists: "Once they pay you they own you; it's corruption, man, it's a racket." About what he'll do if he loses: "Ugh. You want fries with that burger?" About how he'll get to and from Washington if he wins: "I'll take public transportation to the airport, and I'll fly coach." About what he'll do for Chicago's firefighters: "I'll go to Washington and demand that they hold up on block grants until the city gives the firefighters the collective-bargaining contract they deserve." About what he'll do for public school teachers: "I'll withdraw federal funds from any city that tries to spend money on sports stadiums before they give it to the teachers!"
You won't get that through Congress, someone suggests.
"At least you try, damn it!" he says, pounding the table. "You work, you work, you work--then you work a little harder. That's the secret to life. You don't believe I can do it? You say the other guy's got more money and endorsements? Fine. I won't hold it against you when I win. You can come to my victory party and dance all night. Then get up early and fly with me to Washington!"
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jon Randolph.