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The Simpson Strategy

Without knowing who his opponent will be--Rostenkowski or Annunzio--the poli-sci prof and former independent alderman readies his run for Congress.



On the wall of the dim, book-cluttered office of Professor Dick Simpson on the campus of the University of Illinois at Chicago hangs a framed black-and-white photo of an outraged Alderman Dick Simpson on the floor of the City Council being restrained by two squat men, one a policeman. Simpson was demanding the disclosure of details of city insurance contracts given to the sons of Mayor Richard J. Daley. Daley ordered Simpson to sit down and shut up, and when Simpson didn't obey, his microphone was turned off, as was customary when Simpson wouldn't shut up. But this time Simpson kept standing and shouting and Daley sent this little round policeman and a sergeant at arms to sit him down. They couldn't budge him and Simpson sat down when he had had his say.

That was 1971. Simpson is heavier in the picture than he is now, and he has more hair. The quickest way to make Daley rabid was to accuse him of nepotism, especially when the accusation was true. Simpson, the upstart independent who'd defeated the machine in the 44th Ward just months earlier, committed such heresy not once in his rookie year but twice. When the son of Daley's floor leader Alderman Thomas Keane was appointed by Daley to the Zoning Board of Appeals, Simpson gave a not particularly long or impassioned speech to the council opposing the appointment. Young Keane was confirmed easily, and afterward Daley recited a poem about fathers and sons. Then, his blood boiling, the mayor shook his gavel at Simpson and said, "He's typical of the people in universities polluting the minds. . . . If you are a teacher, God help the students in your class!"

An unrepentant Simpson later said, "There's no sense using weaselly words when in fact it is nepotism . . . I have never been concerned with what is [politically] safe and what is not safe. . . . As soon as that becomes a concern it's a subtle form of castration. You cease being a man and allow someone else to make the decisions."

In 1972, Simpson wrote a guide to reform politics, Winning Elections: A Handbook in Participatory Politics. Simpson himself has run twice and won twice, but the last time was when he was reelected alderman back in 1975. And that race was run along the lakefront, at a time when the politics of reform was still reaching its peak.

Today he plans to try to unseat a congressional fixture, either Dan Rostenkowski or Frank Annunzio. This time he's talking about the bungalow-laden northwest side, where voters haven't changed a congressman for 27 years.

"I think the northwest side is in the stage of transformation that the lakefront was when we did what we did in the 1960s," Simpson says. "The general conception of the people of the northwest side is that they are reactionary, racist, that sort of thing. They're open to much more change than that and the people who represent them, the Neanderthals in the City Council like Cullerton and Laurino, the congressmen, are no longer decent representatives of their point of view. At some juncture, people are going to recognize that."

Simpson doesn't pretend that the northwest side offers a solid base of independent voters searching for someone like him to free them from the old political ways. But he says there are enough pockets of voters who dislike Rostenkowski and Annunzio for their own reasons. "Our job is to see if all those people can be united under one banner." Witness the senior citizens, irate over additional medicare charges threatened by the Catastrophic Coverage Act of '89, who blocked Rostenkowski's car, forcing him to lumber down Milwaukee Avenue on foot to escape them. Witness the scare that Annunzio got last year from his opponent state senator Walter Dudycz. "That's like Attila the Hun beating you," Simpson says.

Annunzio became suddenly vulnerable, Simpson says, because serious questions arose as the election neared about Annunzio's responsibility for the savings and loan crisis. Annunzio is chairman of the House Subcommittee on Financial Institutions.

Even so, Annunzio prevailed, as he has since 1964, as Rostenkowski has for 16 consecutive elections since 1958. But what they haven't had to face, Simpson says, is the kind of serious challenge he can give them. He thinks incumbents keep getting returned to Congress because "good candidates aren't running--the odds are fixed in such a way." It's a lot easier to drown out the crusading populist than it was the last time Simpson ran. Elections are decided more and more by commercials and sound bites. You can't beat incumbents with million-dollar campaign chests by standing on the corner with a bullhorn.

So Simpson will run in a manner that should give him volumes of practical tips should he decide to write a book on winning independent reform campaigns in the 1990s. He will run a "populist campaign using the latest in modern technology."

A Simpson prerequisite for winning an independent campaign is to start early. It takes about a year of pounding away. So Simpson didn't wait for the courts to decide how the long-overdue Illinois congressional map will be drawn. Simpson lives in West Rogers Park, in what is now Annunzio's district, and his campaign proceeds on the assumption that Annunzio's and Rostenkowski's districts will be largely combined. (Illinois loses two House seats to reapportionment.) This would require the two incumbents to face each other as well as Simpson, unless, as Simpson expects, one or the other drops out. Simpson believes the dropout will be Annunzio. It's clear from the way Simpson's face lights up when he discusses him that Rostenkowski's the opponent he's counting on.

Simpson announced his candidacy May 20 in front of Presidential Towers, the tainted complex he called a "multimillion-dollar symbol of what's wrong with the United States Congress." (Rostenkowski helped the politically connected developers obtain federal money to build the high rises without having to provide the low- income housing units these funds are usually contingent on.) Simpson intends to overwhelm his voters with evidence of how either Rostenkowski or Annunzio or both are "imperial congressmen. They're old, they're fat, they're both riddled with conflicts of interest that are close to direct bribery. I'm gonna have a field day.

"We're going to have an investigative unit as part of the campaign, a group of people just to keep track of the scandals. We've got so many. It takes a long time to sort out the truth. We have to be able to prove it. If we're ever wrong about one, all the claims will be brought into question."

Simpson will run on a theme of congressional reform based on term limitations and the elimination of political action committee contributions. He would also re-create as congressman a form of the old 44th Ward Assembly, a council of community leaders he created to mandate how he would vote on issues.

"I'm hoping to put together a political movement that will affect the aldermanic and state legislative elections for the next decade. If I can win, I think it will be seen as a bellwether throughout the country because they are thought to be powerful congressmen and all that stuff. If I lose badly, people will assume that Congress is going to be made up of these impervious lords forever. There will be no attempt to break through on the northwest side for the next decade."

Simpson still seems to enjoy an icon status among local progressives. Although I heard some private doubts about his chances, about whether his reform theme will matter much to the voters on the northwest side, it was hard to find anyone who'd say so publicly.

Rich Means, state chair of the Independent Voters of Illinois-Independent Precinct Organization, says his group won't make an endorsement until it's clear who's running. But he thinks Simpson is exactly right in his analysis of how he can win. "Population shifts show the liberal voters moving west. There's also the new immigrants, especially those from Puerto Rico who are already citizens, who might be more sensitive to issues of discrimination, poverty, civil liberties.

"Maybe it [Rostenkowski or Annunzio losing] won't happen the first time. Maybe it will be the second time. Maybe it won't be Dick the second time."

Simpson's name is Dick. Not Richard. He was born in Houston in 1940. He was an only child whose father fought in World War II and then began a business renting tools for oil drilling. It was a middle-class and apolitical household. His parents voted but that was about it.

Dick Simpson didn't think much about politics until he was an undergraduate at the University of Texas in 1960. "I was listening to the Kennedy-Nixon debates while I was driving to a conference. I decided I was a lot more like Kennedy than I was like Nixon."

He graduated from Texas in 1963 and spent some time in Africa doing research for his doctoral dissertation. While in Africa, he wrote his adviser asking him to help him find a job in a big city with racial strife. It was at a time when cities were boiling over with racial problems and Simpson wanted to be a part of the progressive political transformation of a city.

He joined the political science department at UIC in 1967, and a year later became Illinois coordinator of Eugene McCarthy's presidential campaign. After the bedlam of convention week, Simpson became part of a small group of activists who met to discuss the future of independent politics in Chicago. Their conclusion was that independent candidates could win, but only if a permanent political organization could be built. Each of them pitched in $25 to open an office, and the result was the Independent Precinct Organization (since merged with the Independent Voters of Illinois).

At a council meeting his rookie year, Simpson stood to be recognized. In the chair was Daley's president pro tem, Alderman Claude W.B. Holman, who called Daley "the greatest mayor in the country, the world, the universe, the stars, and outer space." Simpson stood for seven hours and Holman never did recognize him.

"It did get attention but it didn't pass the legislation," Simpson says. That was usually the case in Simpson's eight years in the council. The independents were a lot of fun to watch, especially when they made smoke come out of Daley's ears. But they didn't get much passed. Once in a while, though, Simpson succeeded. The council passed an ordinance of his to prevent banks and insurance companies that do city business from redlining.

And Simpson successfully ran the Ward Assembly for eight years, despite some problems getting it off the ground. His staffers would schedule elections to choose representatives and sometimes only two or three people would show up.

After leaving the council in 1979, Simpson involved himself in several campaigns during the 80s, like those of Ron Sable for Simpson's old City Council seat and Woods Bowman for comptroller. When it came time for Simpson to contemplate Congress, his first two decisions were to run as a Democrat rather than as an independent, and to move if he had to in order to enter the right race.

As a freshman alderman, Simpson said he was an independent because he didn't trust political parties. This time around, he says, it's probably impossible to win on the congressional level as an independent. "The problems of getting on the ballot, the problems of explaining what an independent campaign is are virtually insurmountable. Running in the Democratic primary can at least be easily explained to constituents."

Moving for the sake of running goes against his precepts. But, he says, sometimes conditions demand it. It's possible the new congressional map will put him in Sidney Yates's Ninth District. He has few political differences with Yates and no interest in opposing him. So he'd move. It wouldn't be the first time. He moved to run for alderman. "If I were coming from Chicago to Peoria, that would be different," says Simpson.

Simpson worked in the 1990 state's attorney campaigns of Jack O'Malley and Ray Smith. O'Malley won, but Smith was clobbered in the Democratic primary, getting only 5 percent of the vote. The race was a great lesson for Simpson on how not to run as an independent in the 1990s. He wrote a 60-page analysis of why Smith lost.

Smith was a former assistant U.S. attorney who'd given Burton Natarus a decent fight in the 42nd Ward aldermanic race of 1987. He spelled out in detail his positions on such complex matters as prison overcrowding and the merit selection of judges. He courted the media. And he was almost totally ignored. What little coverage Smith got usually pictured him as an attractive candidate without the remotest chance of winning.

This told Simpson that having a message isn't enough. You have to get the media as interested in you as they are in the big boys. And since you usually can't outspend the big boys, you have to be more creative.

Otherwise you end up waging what Simpson calls an educational campaign, one where you lead yourself to the slaughter to prove a point. In Winning Elections Simpson wrote, "In theory, the candidate will make beautiful speeches and slowly begin the political education process in your district. The sad thing is that educational campaign enthusiasts are right about the campaign being educational, but fail to understand what it teaches. When a candidate gets only five or ten or twenty percent of the vote, the electorate concludes that it is stupid ever to back an independent candidate because it would just be throwing away votes [Simpson's emphasis]. . . . Never run a campaign with the intent of losing. Run to win."

The first thing Simpson wants to get across is that Rostenkowski is not as omnipotent as he seems. Simpson is confident that any map that emerges will combine about half of Rostenkowski's current district with a large part of Annunzio's and a small part of Yates's. "When I was talking to people at a grocery store at Central and Lawrence, I think people knew Annunzio was their congressman. But the thought that Rostenkowski might become their congressman was horrifying to them.

"I was at City Council and one of the aldermen-committeemen who's going to clearly remain in the district said Frank was a nice guy, he'd known him for 300 years or whatever. He said, "I'd have to be with Frank. But you know if Rostenkowski runs, I can't help you but I certainly won't help Rostenkowski.' He wasn't going to send his precinct captains out to kill themselves to elect a Rostenkowski."

Simpson plans an extensive discussion of 600 subtle transition rules written into the Tax Reform Act of 1986, which was crafted by Rostenkowski's House Ways and Means Committee. Transition rules exempt certain projects from additional tax liabilities for specific periods of time should tax laws change. Simpson gives the example of a transition rule that may have resulted in a $12 million tax break for the developers of North Pier Terminal. A 1988 Pulitzer Prize-winning series in the Philadelphia Inquirer devoted a lot of space to this rule, which exempted "property placed in service before January 1, 1994, if such property is placed in service as part of the rehabilitation of 10 warehouse buildings built between 1906 and 1910 . . . " The Inquirer said, "Not by chance, 10 warehouse buildings erected between 1906 and 1910 formed an exhibition complex located near Chicago's lakefront. The facility was converted to a warehouse and is now known as the North Pier Terminal."

(A Rostenkowski spokesman who didn't want his name used says of the '86 tax bill, "You can't find a more populist piece of legislation." He says a lot of people probably asked for and received transition rules tailored for them and that it was only fair that they should not have to worry about future tax changes ruining their projects. He also says that Rostenkowski raised benefit levels for seniors and is working on lowering the age for social security eligibility, something Simpson would never be able to do. "He'd be a freshman congressman with no clout.")

Simpson's case against Annunzio would focus on the incumbent's connections with the savings and loan industry, which his committee was supposed to regulate. Common Cause ranks Annunzio eighth highest in the House in contributions received from S and L interests during the 1980s--$51,620. And Simpson would point out that Annunzio backed the federal bill allowing higher-risk investments, which arguably opened the door for the S and L collapse.

(Jack Morgan of Annunzio's office responds that his boss opposed the original deregulation legislation when it first came up in 1980, proving he foresaw the consequences. As for Annunzio's PAC money, he doesn't think eighth place is so bad considering Annunzio's position of influence. "Time has shown that Mr. Annunzio took a bum rap on the S and L issue. All he's tried to do was clean up the mess made by the Republicans. All that was dredged up again and again and again. It's another Dick Simpson cheap shot.")

Though the 77-year-old Annunzio is less likely to be his opponent, Simpson thinks he'd be easier to beat than Rostenkowski. He says Annunzio is vehemently antiabortion and has "a particular phobia when it comes to women's issues." But Annunzio might threaten Simpson's progressive base more than Rostenkowski would. The Illinois Public Action Council gives Annunzio a correct voting rating in the 80th percentile and has told Simpson it might have a hard time forsaking Annunzio to support someone else, even him.

Simpson says his task will be to make it clear to the voters and media not only that Rostenkowski or Annunzio can lose, but that he can win. The Smith campaign showed that just trashing the other guy isn't enough. Simpson observed that about the time that Smith began airing radio commercials depicting incumbent Cecil Partee as a hack, Partee began slipping in the polls. But Smith didn't rise. Partee's loss did not translate into Smith's gain.

Simpson is miles ahead of Smith in name recognition. His reputation as a political giant killer precedes him. In Winning Elections, he said an independent candidate should pick two or three points that separate him from the other guys and make them over and over. In this case, the points will fall under the heading of congressional reform. Simpson spends a lot of time these days in front of grocery stores circulating a petition for a county-wide referendum next March on the question of whether the congressional careers of representatives and senators should be limited to 12 years.

Simpson says he'd serve no more than 12 years himself. He'd accept no PAC money, and he'd push for both the total elimination of PAC funding and a House campaign spending limit of $500,000. Such reforms have usually been strangled in the cradle by incumbents. But as issues, they'd go a long way toward helping Simpson distinguish himself from the "impervious lords."

So then it would become a matter of getting the message heard--which is where Simpson concluded the Smith campaign met its doom. An important difference between politics today and 20 years ago is the role of television ads. Simpson says, "They're an absolutely integral component of a major campaign." He thinks of them as a necessary evil that add little of substance to the debate. "It's like toothpaste. All you need is a smiling face and a name."

But television ads make a candidate seem viable, Simpson says, because they show he can afford television ads. The media take notice, he rises in the polls, and raising money becomes easier. The lack of TV money, Simpson concluded, threw the Smith campaign into a death spiral. He couldn't raise money for ads to give him legitimacy because he didn't have the legitimacy that ads create.

Again, Simpson's celebrity puts him way ahead of Smith. Not needing to spend all of his 30 seconds explaining who he is, Simpson will be able to make ads that talk about the things he wants the issues to be. And he will have ads. He has no choice. He says it's impossible to win without them.

Not having TV ads, Smith had to depend on getting the word out through volunteers. But Simpson concluded it was impossible for Smith to recruit the vast army he needed. Again, he lacked the credibility to attract workers.

There's no independent political organization on the northwest side that will enable Simpson to field a volunteer army the size of the big boys'. "It's not humanly possible. One of my purposes is to form a standing organization. But there isn't one now."

To win regardless, he'll have to disprove his book. In Winning Elections Simpson wrote, "To start to build a campaign organization from scratch every time an election rolls around . . . is a hopeless task. . . . A permanent political organization is essential."

He says today, "It's very hard. We're inventing a whole new approach to campaigning since we can't run a straight door-to-door operation. We're going to have to depend much more heavily on media. We're going to have to do a mail-phone campaign to replace what we don't have in precinct workers."

Beginning in October Simpson will make at least one personal appearance in each of the 600 precincts. He'll have a little over five months to do it. If he did ten a week, it would take more than a year.

He figures the campaign will cost about $345,000. And when it's all over, when Annunzio or Rostenkowski is put out to pasture, Simpson's sure he'll have to do it all again against a Republican in the general election.

Dick Simpson thought about running for Congress for a long time. He thought the 82-year-old Yates might retire in the Ninth District and he could step in as successor. It hasn't happened and Yates tells Simpson it's not about to.

Simpson didn't have a deep longing to return to the action. "It was exciting being on TV shows and being involved in floor fights and all, but I had other interests." During the 1980s he was content to write, teach, contemplate, help others get elected. He went to McCormick Theological Seminary and obtained a master's degree in divinity. For two years he was director of Clergy and Laity Concerned. He also had to deal with a lot of personal problems. He went through two divorces, and saw the chairmanship of UIC's political science department denied him by the dean after his coworkers had elected him.

It also hasn't been the easiest time to be a progressive, especially since the death of Harold Washington, whom Simpson supported early on, and on whose transition team he worked. If Simpson's talk of building an independent political movement in Illinois that could transform the nation sounds familiar, that's only because he's been saying it for such a long time. In Winning Elections he wrote, "It is still my undiminished hope . . . that a concerted political reform movement will be born in the years ahead from participatory local campaigns . . . as the first step in reinventing and revitalizing our democracy in America."

It hasn't happened. Dick Simpson runs in large measure out of a sense of unfinished business.

"We succeeded in about half of what we were trying to do. We pretty much destroyed the Machine. It will never be the same. We instituted changes that made things better. We initiated reforms that were picked up in other parts of the country. But we never built the national political organization or the political party to make these changes. We may not as yet have stumbled upon the right way to do it. The challenge of the 60s is still upon us."

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

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