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"I'm running for governor because I'm tired of seeing the people so tired. I'm a pure champion for the people. It's time for the voices of the people to be heard!"
"That's right!" calls out his running mate, attorney Brunell Donald, from the seat next to him. Her two-year-old son squirms in her lap.
Hardiman, a veteran antiviolence activist, is running what most analysts have officially deemed a no-chance-in-hell campaign against Governor Pat Quinn for the Democratic nomination. But Hardiman insists the naysayers couldn't be more wrong. During a short break from greeting voters, he's parked outside the Target in Uptown to deliver a speech to me explaining why his candidacy should be taken seriously.
"We have campaign literature, a website outperforming everyone else's, and we've got a campaign office—and if you call our office, a receptionist answers the phone. This is real! And the guy who has all the money—what's his name? Rainer?"
"Rauner!" Donald booms.
"Yeah, Rauner! I'm spending my own money to do this, just like Rauner is. What's the difference between me and Rauner? He's never held office either."
Hardiman doesn't note that while he's loaned about $23,000 to his campaign, Bruce Rauner has poured more than $6 million into his own quest for the GOP nomination, which has propelled him to the front of the field in most polls—and made him the subject of intense media attention and scrutiny.
This is not something Hardiman has been forced to cope with. "Some people act like we don't exist!" he says with a mix of disbelief and disgust.
And on second thought, Hardiman does want to stress that, as a progressive Democrat, his politics couldn't be more different from Rauner's.
"Check it out—Rauner said he wanted to reduce the minimum wage, then he backed down. He's a flip-flop artist! If he's successful—but he won't be successful. Once we win the primary, the Democrats will put $20 million into my campaign. Rauner will not survive our debate. Trust me—he'll walk away from me. I'm an outspoken guy. When people talk about Tio, they say I'm a champion for the people. I'm like the Nelson Mandela of Illinois."
Hardiman argues that he has exactly the credentials needed to lead Illinois at a time of high unemployment, recurring violence, and deep financial troubles. As the state director of CeaseFire, the antiviolence initiative that's spread to cities around the world, he says he managed tens of millions of dollars in grants, oversaw the hiring of hundreds of ex-offenders, and worked with both police and gang members to improve public safety.
"There's not one candidate in Illinois who understands what the people are going through like Tio Hardiman," he says. "I've met people from all walks of life. I met Laura Bush! I met the Queen of Jordan!"
Two years ago, however, his wife accused him of domestic battery. She later dropped the charges, but Hardiman lost his job with CeaseFire.
He resurfaced as a candidate for governor. Hardiman is adamant that he's not running to rehabilitate his name or to raise his profile for another job. He says he intends to win the election. "We're going to shock the world."
Hardiman never considered the idea of running for a lower-level post before aiming for the governor's mansion. "Starting off as an alderman or a state rep, that's not where my spirit led me. I'm not going to sell myself short—I'm governor material. I'm presidential material, to tell you the truth."
Yet it's not only the media that's ignored him: Hardiman is outraged that Governor Quinn first challenged his ballot application, and then refused to debate him. "Governor Quinn would not survive a debate with me. Trust me. Pat Quinn is one of the least-liked governors in the United States. Governor Quinn needs to go."
And while he's at it, house speaker Michael Madigan and Mayor Rahm Emanuel should find new jobs too. "Now I'm going to be honest with you: Rahm Emanuel is all about self-aggrandizement. Closing schools and firing 2,000 teachers [and staff] at one time? That's diabolical. And Governor Quinn did not even issue a statement about it."
He assures me he's had a great response everywhere he's traveled around the state. "We've been to Bloomington, East Saint Louis—which looks like a war zone, 30 or 40 years of pure neglect. We've been to Jacksonville, Carbondale, Murrayville.
"People need to believe in Tio Hardiman. Hundreds of thousands of people will turn out, and they're not going to vote for Pat Quinn. Everyone's listening to us. Even you, sitting there, as a working-class person, you're like, 'Damn, they're right!' Aren't you?"
Donald answers for me. "That's right, Governor!"