When Jesse Jackson Jr. brought his campaign against Mayor Daley to the far northwest side, Frank Coconate stood beside him. Speaking to a cheering crowd of almost 200 in a VFW hall at Canfield and Higgins in Park Ridge, the congressman did what he's been doing for the last several weeks--he ripped into corruption at City Hall and lambasted the heavy-handed tactics used against city workers who dare to speak up.
"In our lifetime we have witnessed the impossible," Jackson thundered into the microphone July 15 as the crowd roared, interpreting his words as a sign that he intends to run against Daley in 2007. "Every single day of our lives, we are taught to believe in the impossible. And because we believe in the impossible, you've got to believe that in Chicago we can pay workers a living wage, that we can solve this city's labor disputes, and that we can provide equality for all Chicagoans."
Coconate is a true believer in Jackson--he says a big reason he was fired from a $62,000-a-year job in the Department of Water Management last month is that he publicly supports the congressman. He claims to represent a growing cadre of city workers who are enraged by the patronage abuses that have led to the indictment of some of Daley's top aides and are now ready to work to unseat the mayor. He talks about them as a small precinct army that might turn the tide in a close election. "Ten years ago would I have seen myself in this position? No way," says Coconate. "It's sort of funny how things are working out."
Coconate, 47, is a product of the same system of patronage and machine politics against which he's now rebelling. His father, Gabriel, worked for Streets and Sanitation more than 40 years. His great-uncles Buff and Johnny, his second cousin Tony, his brothers Louis and Gabe, and his cousin Louie were all city workers loyal to former alderman and City Council boss Thomas Keane. "It's not that we were big shots who knew Keane--we didn't," he explains. "My dad was a returning veteran from World War II. He needed a job. He went to Keane's organization. He got the job. He stayed loyal. We knocked on doors. He got us jobs. We knocked on doors. Get it? That's how the system worked."
In his earliest memories, his family was talking politics around the table in raw terms. "My dad really laid it on with the Irish--he said, 'You got to watch the Irish,'" says Coconate. "There was such a competition between Irish and Italians in those days. The funny thing is he liked old man Daley. He liked Daley 'cause he said Daley never messed with the working guy."
In 1978, when Coconate was only 19, he got his first city job. "My dad always said he made a bum out of me," he says, laughing. "He got me a job in the sewer department. I said, 'sewer?' He said, 'You're gonna get paid--$12 or $13 an hour.' That was good money back then. I said, 'I'm in.'"
They teamed him with three codgers--guys well past 60--and put him on a truck that went around the south side checking out complaints. "When I first got there I thought, man, I'm all gung ho. Then I saw what's really going on. You have to slow your pace down," he says; guys who work too hard make everyone else look bad. "The biggest conversation with these guys is lunch--where are we eating?"
He also worked the precincts. "You go up to houses, you knock on doors, you say, 'Hi, what do you need?' I never stole votes. My father always told me, 'Don't ever touch ballots 'cause you'll go to jail.' You didn't even have to do that really. In those days if you picked up their garbage, [voters] were thankful."
Over the years he learned the ropes. Ask no questions, buy tickets to fund-raisers, avoid reporters. "We were told reporters were fucking jagoffs. 'You don't talk to no press--they're liberal. They're looking for trouble.'"
According to Coconate, he got in trouble twice. There was a reprimand for taking too long for lunch. And in 1979 he mouthed off to a supervisor and was hauled before Ed Quigley, the west-side ward boss who was sewer commissioner. Coconate says the meeting was another lesson in how things work: "'What's his name?' Quigley says. Coconate. 'One of the Coconates? Check him out.' So his aide took out a list and looked me up. 'There's a mark by your name that says you paid all your tickets.'" In other words, Coconate had bought his quota of tickets to the fund-raisers. "I had the mark. So he said, 'You're suspended for one day, but come on Saturday to clean up the yards.' On paper it looked like they suspended you but you end up getting time and a half for working Saturday."
Coconate pushed the candidates his ward bosses told him to push. In 1979 he supported the mayor, Michael Bilandic, who lost to Jane Byrne in the primary. In 1983 he supported Byrne, who lost to Harold Washington in the primary. Coconate stayed neutral when Washington ran against Republican Bernard Epton even though many northwest-side Democrats turned against Washington. But "I voted for Washington," he says. "You know why? Because these guys [the Democrats who went Republican] had never been right. They were wrong about Bilandic. They were wrong about Byrne. And they were wrong about Washington. No one made me work for Epton. They told us, 'Do whatever you want.'"
After Washington died and Daley was elected mayor, Coconate joined Daley's political operation on the northwest side. He says he had no choice. "At the time I was doing house-draining inspections. As soon as Daley won, his guys came in and they told us, 'You're going to have to find another position--you're not a drainer.' They put me in the dispatch office. The next move was out to the street [as a laborer] if I didn't do precinct work."
By 1995 he'd dropped out of the Daley organization. He was pushing 40 and getting restless. He thought he had something to offer, but not enough clout to be promoted to an executive position or get slated for office. "I wanted to become involved in policy and decision making," he says.
So in 1998 he ran for state representative on his own. "After watching half these nitwits get elected, I figure I can do this--some of these guys are morons," says Coconate. "I said, 'I'm going to give it a try.'" But not only was he running in the Democratic primary without Daley's endorsement, he was campaigning against the mayor's plan to expand O'Hare. He got clobbered.
In 2000 he created his own organization--the Northwest Side Democratic Organization--and he ran for state rep two more times, in 2000 and 2002. The last loss--against incumbent Robert Bugielski--was devastating. "That election really shook me up," he says. "I was the front-runner. I got all the [newspaper] endorsements. They ripped out my signs. They flooded the area with Bugielski signs. There had to be 2,000 workers in the district. My wife and I, we walked up to vote and we see 20-some guys in a truck outside our voting place. I said, 'We lost.' She said no. I said, 'If they're doing this here, imagine what they're doing everywhere.'"
That night he had something of an epiphany. "I got home and I'm numb. I started crying. I say, 'Why is this happening? Why do they win?' It's not that God talked to me, but I realized there are two things you can do. You can quit and go away and then they really win. Or you learn from this and go on and utilize what you've learned. I came out firing."
Coconate went on to defy all the political rules he'd learned. He went public criticizing the mayor. He wrote letters to the editor slamming Daley for trying to balance the budget on the backs of city workers while throwing away millions of dollars on Millennium Park; he created a Web site; he called reporters and told them what he knew about inside deals and political hirings and firings, pointing to his family's decades of service to the Democratic organization to establish his bona fides.
In articles, in Mark Brown columns, and on TV, he described Chicago as a wasteland of corruption, cronyism, arrogance, and greed. He positioned himself as the friend of honest city workers. Last year he held a Halloween rally and invited workers who didn't want to be identified to come in masks. About 150 people showed up. In November he led about 25 people in a rally in front of Millennium Park's extravagant new Cloud Gate. If Chicago was too poor to give its workers raises, he knew what to do: "Sell the Bean!"
As he became more of a public figure, he says, he began to get calls from "hundreds" of city workers with tales of woe. Many wouldn't go on the record; some wouldn't even tell him their names. "It made me realize there's a huge force that can't stand this administration," he says. "People are scared. But they want to stand up."
He also attracted support from fellow political outsiders. One of his lawyers is Frank Avila, who's battling the Hispanic Democratic Organization, a Daley precinct operation. Another is Terry Brunner, the former head of the Better Government Association, who's fighting the mayor's O'Hare expansion plan. Coconate is a close friend of Patrick McDonough, the former water department employee who tipped off reporters and state and federal investigators about the multimillion-dollar Hired Truck scandal.
Daley's backers have dismissed Coconate as a bigmouthed loser. So Daley opposed him for state rep--big deal. They say it was naive of him to think that Daley would give him a pass, much less support him, given that he was opposing the O'Hare expansion plan. "My professional opinion is he's a nuisance," says 41st Ward alderman Brian Doherty, who supports and is supported by Daley even though he's the council's only Republican. "The same guys who get in trouble at work are the same guys who don't take care of their political obligations. Besides, the group he attracts are mostly malcontents. I don't think his organization has any oomph."
Despite his outspokenness, Coconate managed to keep his water department job until July 21, when acting commissioner Brian Murphy fired him. According to a press release the city issued to make its case, Coconate, among several other alleged acts of misconduct, "claimed to have inspected a worksite at 4800 South Kostner, and he submitted a report and photograph of 4800 South Kostner." But the photograph he submitted "was actually a photograph of 700 West 48th Street, a location he inspected" on a different day. In addition, on April 28 he asked "to be credited for working from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m." at the Jardine water department site, yet "security records show that Coconate never entered the Jardine plant that day."
Coconate says he never claimed the photos of 48th Street were photos of Kostner and never claimed to have reported to Jardine on April 28. He's appealed his dismissal to the city's new Personnel Board--which is appointed by Daley--and he can appeal the board's ruling to the circuit court. He says the city's allegations are simply meant to intimidate other workers.
"I can't believe how petty the city's being--I can't believe how hard they're coming after me," he says. "They threw their punch at me. They're fucking with me. I got three kids--7, 9, and 12--and a house. It's brutal. I won't lie--I have anxiety. But you know what, I'm fighting back. You know what's the kicker--there are guys who've done a lot worse than they said I did. I'm going to bring all of that out."
He thinks the last straw as far as City Hall was concerned was his July 8 interview with Fox's Walter Jacobson. Coconate was interviewed sitting in a city-owned truck and wearing a blue-and-white jr. button on his orange safety vest. Asked if he thought Jackson would run, he replied, "I sure hope he is. We're under the impression that he is. I have to say he's running."
He concedes that interview was "probably not one of my better moves."
It had only been a matter of time before Coconate met Jackson. Avila arranged the meeting last March in Jackson's 71st Street office. "He said, 'Mr. Caca-natty, what do you want?'" Coconate recalls, laughing at how Jackson butchered his name. "I said, 'I want you to run for mayor.' He said, 'Why do you think I should run?' I said, 'You're the only person right now who me and a lot of other people think can beat him.'"
Coconate told Jackson that there were city workers who'd vote for him, even white ones. "What I'm hearing out there is they don't look at you as a black man," he says he told the congressman. "They look at you as a leader. This isn't a black and white thing. It's not only the blacks who are being pushed out, it's the whites as well."
Jackson has been coy about his intentions--he talks like he's going to run but he never comes out and says it. According to Coconate, Jackson didn't say it to him either, though he left the meeting convinced he would. Whatever the case may be, Jackson clearly enjoys what Coconate brings him. He says, "One day, I'm sitting at Lou Mitchell's having breakfast--this guy drives by in a big city truck and yells out, 'Jesse Jr.! I'm one of Coconate's guys.' I'm like, you're like one of the Sopranos! What have I gotten into?"
As Jackson's strategists see it, black voters alone--roughly 40 percent of the city's electorate--can't elect him mayor. That's where the outsiders come in. Each represents a different pocket of voters--white liberals, independent Hispanics, airport expansion opponents, Meigs Field fans, etc. Added to a large black vote they could swing the election.
Coconate's role is to bring in votes from the northwest side. How much he can help Jackson or anyone else is hard to say. Publicly, Daley aldermanic allies like Doherty dismiss Coconate's backers as losers. Politicians outside of City Hall praise him. "I think the world of him," says state representative John Fritchey, a north-side Democrat. "I think Frank has a proven ability to tap into the frustration of a lot of people in the electorate, and that in and of itself can mobilize volunteers."
Privately, even some politicians who back Daley acknowledge that U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald's widening probe into City Hall patronage increases Coconate's value as a field operative. "We're seeing a sea change in electoral politics in Chicago thanks to Fitzgerald," says a state legislator. "If they can't make you work elections by firing you for not working elections a lot of people won't work. All of these organization guys, all these city workers, are saying, 'I'm not going to bust my ass for alderman so-and-so. I did it for my job, now I don't have to do it for my job.' The thing becomes, Who can put volunteers in the street? A guy like Coconate, who has his followers 'cause they believe in him, is very valuable, my friend."
If this is true then Coconate may have become even more valuable on Tuesday, when U.S. District Judge Wayne Andersen appointed an independent monitor to oversee all city hiring.
Jackson's not the only black candidate who's wanted Coconate on his side. He was courted for a time by long-shot William "Dock" Walls, a onetime aide to Harold Washington. "I know a lot of aldermen and local state representatives are concerned about him," says Walls. "They take him seriously. Some would try to give you an impression that he's just a loose cannon. But he's a loaded cannon, and he has people who believe in him."
But it's Junior's button that Coconate wears. "Jackson can do much better than people realize out here," he says of his home turf. The northwest side's changed since the 1980s elections, when it turned its back on Washington. The area's more gentrified now. It's more resistant to racist appeals.
The crowd in Edison Park chanted Jackson's name and interrupted his speech with their cheers. "I'm going to bring the south side to the Northwest Side Democratic Organization," Jackson proclaimed. "You bring the Northwest Side Democratic Organization to the south side. And we're going to make a difference for all Chicago."
Then he turned and hugged Coconate before addressing the crowd again. "I make this pledge to stand with the Coconut," said Jackson. "I want you to take the pledge to not abandon the Coconut." Coconate was ecstatic.
He's also realistic. If Jackson runs and wins, the potential payoff's huge--maybe a high-ranking job in the new administration. If Jackson loses or skips the race and Daley's reelected, Coconate will remain what he is: an unemployed political outcast in a hostile city.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Saverio Truglia, Patrick McDonough.