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I never met or covered former U.S. Senator Charles Percy (I was still in junior high school when his political career ended) but I've always found him fascinating—evidence of a once-vibrant species that's now essentially extinct.
Percy died over the weekend at 91, and while the Tribune's obit referred to him somewhat wistfully as a "moderate," the Washington Post was more precise: he was a "liberal Republican" from a time when such things still existed.
Percy also occupied an unusual place in Chicago politics—a Republican with appeal in the black wards that provided the Daley machine its most consistent support.
"In today’s polarized political climate, Sen. Percy would be described as a rare breed—an unabashed liberal and skeptic about military spending and war," writes the Post's Emily Langer. "He repeatedly clashed with President Richard M. Nixon on foreign and domestic issues."
Of course, Nixon—the man who teamed with Strom Thurmond to turn the South to the GOP and the GOP to the South—would also be considered a liberal today, having created the EPA, expanded affirmative action, and worked with Congress to make the tax code more "fair"—that is, to ensure that wealthier people were paying more.
Percy was younger, lefter, and of course more honest than Nixon. He was actually closer politically to another liberal Republican—the governor of Michigan at the time, George Romney. That would be Mitt's old man. And now Mitt Romney is considered a moderate because he hasn't called Social Security a ponzi scheme.
To get to the Senate Percy defeated Paul Douglas, a former University of Chicago economics professor who skillfully managed to become a national liberal icon while staying mum about the Daley regime at home—a maneuver clearly studied and practiced by Barack Obama, among others.
Interestingly, though, the speed of Obama's ascent was similar to Percy's. As Langer writes, Percy was a young business executive when he burst onto the political scene:
His rags-to-riches backstory, telegenic looks, resonant voice and prodigious Republican fundraising led many admirers, including Dwight D. Eisenhower, to conclude that he was of presidential timber.
He landed on the cover of Time magazine in 1964—two years before he launched a successful Senate bid. Three years later, New York Times political columnist James Reston called Sen. Percy “the hottest political article in the Republican Party,” citing his industriousness on progressive causes such as housing for the poor.
She also notes that Percy's "meteoric political rise as a liberal Republican was later eclipsed by the sense that his potential went unfulfilled." Obama's got 14 months to try to avoid a similar epitaph for his political career.
Percy never found the right time to run for president, but he did log 18 years in the Senate before losing to Paul Simon, who became another liberal icon with unfulfilled presidential aspirations.
I've come across two stories about Percy that seem to say a lot about his career and the nature of Chicago politics. One's about his courageous support of an ally; the other's about his rather pathetic avoidance of a foe.
The first came in 1968, the year after the federal government issued a $957,000 grant to The Woodlawn Organization to set up a job training program for gang members. This excellent 1997 Reader story gets into all the details of the controversies that engulfed it, but here's the gist:
The idea was to pay gang leaders to train other gang members—which was controversial enough, even for the late 1960s. But TWO, led by the Reverend Arthur Brazier, was an aggressive community group that had battled with the Richard J. Daley administration over school segregation and funding, among other issues.
Daley became outraged that the money was sent directly to TWO instead of being routed through City Hall for him to hand out, and it wasn't long before the gang-training program was under Senate investigation for misuse of funds, culminating in nationally televised hearings.
Yet when it was Brazier's turn to testify, Percy insisted on introducing him to the Senate committee and vouching for TWO's work. "The hearings had been going on for more than two weeks, and practically all the news from them had cast the project in an unfavorable light," Brazier wrote in Black Self-Determination, his 1969 memoir of the early years of TWO. "Many men holding public office would not have become involved."
This was an understatement—Percy showed major guts in sticking up for Brazier and TWO. To get a sense of the climate during the investigation, consider the thoughts of one of his Republican elders, Senator Karl Mundt of South Dakota: "Woodlawn has become a cesspool of criminality, spewing out on an innocent public, at taxpayers' expense, the guidance of habitual criminals."
Several gang members were eventually convicted. The grant was not renewed, but Brazier and TWO survived—and thrived.
The second Percy story happened in 1984, by which time the senator was finding it difficult to stake out his own space between the parties. He was under attack from the Jewish community over what they deemed inadequate support for Israel, and he was under attack from Chicago Mayor Harold Washington for what he deemed inexcusable work with Ronald Reagan. At the same time, Simon was running hard.
Less than a month before the election, Percy ticked off just the sort of grassroots community organization he'd once defended so valiantly. The United Neighborhood Organization, a predominantly Hispanic group led by a firebrand organizer named Danny Solis, hosted a candidates' forum at Bowen High School in South Chicago. Simon wisely showed up—but Percy didn't.
Percy said he'd been held up during campaign stops downstate, but Solis and the UNO people didn't buy it. So they tracked him down at his next stop, an interview on WVON radio. Percy tried to duck them again, seeking refuge in a women's bathroom. The UNO activists trapped him, pounding on the bathroom doors until the police showed up 20 minutes later, according to Solis and other UNO activists.
That was the end for Percy politically. And with him went a certain breed of Republican.
Meanwhile, in the years since, TWO and UNO have undergone their own Chicago-style political shifts—not to the right or left but toward the center of power and money.
Brazier was one of the first black leaders in the city to back Richard M. Daley after his election as mayor in 1989 and served his administration in various capacities, both official (member of the Public Building Commission) and unofficial (unelected / unnamed alderman of several south side wards). Brazier died last year at 89. His son, Byron, served on Rahm Emanuel's mayoral transition team and now sits on one of the mayor's educational advisory boards.
Daley made it official with Solis, appointing him 25th Ward alderman in 1996, and Solis returned the favor over and over by becoming a loyal "aye" vote in the City Council.
But UNO may have undergone the most interesting shift of them all. It's now sworn off the politics of confrontation in favor of becoming City Hall's chief ally in the Hispanic community—while reaping millions of public dollars a year to run a network of charter schools.
As Juan Rangel, Solis's successor at UNO, told the Wall Street Journal: ""I think we're living in a very politically correct society that almost values victimization.... Democrats are so intent on making Hispanics the next victimized minority seeking entitlement programs and all that, that the Republicans are starting to believe it!"
Senator Percy, you and your kind will continue to be missed.