The night bombs started falling in Baghdad Gloria Chevere was going door-to-door asking for votes. Her feet crunching in the snow, her breath shooting steam into the frigid January air, Chevere, running for alderman in the 31st Ward, couldn't command much attention that night. Through the windows of every home on every block of this mostly Hispanic west-side ward TV sets were flickering with news from the Middle East.
"I gotta go," one man said to her, "I don't want to miss the war."
Her campaign helpers were restless (they didn't want to miss the war either), and when she encountered a teary-eyed woman who said her cousin was serving on the front, she decided to call it quits.
"Sometimes world events take precedence," she said. "We'll be back tomorrow."
On the eve of the elections scheduled for February 26, aldermanic candidates are finding their races overwhelmed by bigger national and international events. Most of them acknowledge that it's hard to get residents interested in much less enthusiastic about their campaigns.
But they keep trying (over 200 will be on the ballot in all 50 wards), though sometimes it's hard to see why. The job doesn't pay all that much ($40,000). The work is steady but mundane ("you think you're going to talk about great legislative issues and all anyone cares about are potholes and abandoned cars" one alderman admitted). The council itself is void of meaningful debate--there's no give and take, no compromising, particularly now that a solid majority of aldermen are firmly in Mayor Daley's camp.
Certainly there are easier offices (Cook County Board commissioner, for instance--the cushiest political job on the block) and more noble political pursuits. The job has become the butt of jokes, the aldermen buffoonish caricatures. Over the last five years, six aldermen have been indicted or convicted for various corruption charges. From a political standpoint the job is a dead end, since most voters have such low regard for the office to begin with. Since 1983 at least a dozen aldermen have run for or talked about running for higher office. Only two, Cook County Sheriff Mike Sheehan and Cook County Clerk David Orr, have succeeded.
So why run for alderman? Ego? Power? Someone asked? Nothing better to do? Save the world? Advance a legal, insurance or real estate career? Take your pick.
They say that in war the first casualty is the truth. Well, war's got nothing on aldermanic elections. Hardly any candidate ever tells the whole truth; if he does, it's by accident. In general, they tend to misspeak, obfuscate, distort, and sling a lot of bull--at least during the campaign.
Take with a grain of salt any claims a candidate makes for him- or herself or any charge slung at an opponent. And don't be convinced by their election-result prognostications (like the rest of us, they're really only guessing). If one says, for example, that it really doesn't matter who the local paper endorsed, assume that the other guy's getting the endorsement. If a candidate says he really doesn't care about all the opposition signs in people's windows, you have to figure he's given up on winning. Above all else, if she looks you in the eye and says that the City Council is where she wants to stay and she has no interest in higher office, get ready for the congressional campaign to follow.
I visited storefront campaign offices, sat through debates, and guzzled gallons of coffee with candidates in coffee shops from Indiana to Evanston; what follows is some of what I found.
10th: A Vrdolyak in Every Camp
Politics in the Tenth Ward--that patch of smelly dumps, abandoned steel mills, and working-class bungalows on the far southeast side--were so much simpler back when Eddie Vrdolyak was in charge. You either loved him or you hated him, but one thing was for certain--Eddie ran the show. Now, no less than ten candidates are vying for the aldermanic seat Vrdolyak bequeathed to his brother Victor when he ran for mayor in 1987. Victor is in ill health and isn't running for reelection, so for the first time since 1971 there won't be a Vrdolyak in the City Council. What's more, the front-runner is Clem Balanoff, whose family has been fighting the Vrdolyaks for control of the ward for years. (In these nonpartisan elections, if no candidate receives more than 50 percent of the vote, the winner will be determined by a runoff between the top two vote getters on April 2.)
Though Eddie refuses to publicly endorse a candidate, at least three claim to be his rightful heir. The only people who might be able to give some clue as to Eddie's preference--the other members of his family--are dispersed in different camps.
Victor supports former alderman John Buchanan, whom Eddie unseated in 1971 (now Buchanan is Victor's legislative aide--figure that one out). Eddie's son Peter supports lawyer David Ortiz (old friends, they used to have sleep-overs together when they were boys). Eddie and Victor's sister Gen Simmons supports Alex Adams, a self-made Greek immigrant who owns two restaurants: he's "the epitome of the American dream," she says. (Of Eddie Gen says "He's happy to sit this one out and just play with his baby granddaughter.") Policeman John Davis, though he used to be Eddie's bodyguard, isn't supported by any of the Vrdolyaks.
The Vrdolyak-Balanoff feud is just one of several at play here, where isolation and politics have bred twisted relationships and grudges: Ron Maydon, now Adams's campaign coordinator, used to work for Vrdolyak. Balanoff used to be a close friend and ally of Maurice "Maury" Richards, president of Local 1033 of the United Steelworkers of America, also a candidate for alderman. Now they're not talking and no one will say why. Simmons says she's so mad at Buchanan (for reasons she won't divulge) that if it came to a runoff, she'd risk family excommunication and back Balanoff. (The Balanoffs say it's support they neither seek nor want.) Buchanan's workers say Adams will no longer serve them at his Ewing Avenue restaurant, the Lion's Den. Adams says that thanks to Buchanan and his influence, he was denied a bank loan. Ortiz's people say a Balanoff backer called their candidate a "spick." Balanoff says Ortiz's people tear down his signs. And everyone agrees it will be a miracle if the campaign passes without a bloody climax.
There's really only one way to make sense of this chaos: you have to see it firsthand. So one day in early February, I took a drive south along Lake Shore Drive, down Jeffery, over the Calumet River at the 106th Street bridge (the 92nd Street bridge has been broken for three years), past houses decorated with yellow ribbons and American flags, and onto Ewing Avenue, the heart of the southeast side.
I started with a visit to Balanoff, since most observers figure he's the fellow to beat. His name is almost as well known as Vrdolyak's. His father, Clem senior, was a steel union activist; his mother, Miriam, is a Cook County circuit court judge. Except for five years (1981-'86) in California--his opponents sneeringly call him "California Clem," as though that brief sojourn away from Chicago reveals some essential character flaw--Balanoff has always lived on the southeast side.
Since losing the 1987 aldermanic race to Victor Vrdolyak, Balanoff has been on a roll. He was elected Democratic committeeman (a seat vacated when Eddie Vrdolyak turned Republican) and then state representative, having put together an integrated coalition of blacks, Hispanics, and whites (no small feat).
"I'm running for alderman because the influence City Hall has on the life of every man, woman, and child in the Tenth Ward is tremendous," Balanoff told me. "I'm running because hundreds, literally hundreds, of people have asked me to run. They see I do services. They see I'm a committed environmentalist. They see that I come through."
The 38-year-old Balanoff, who's married and has two children, has got a baby face, a boyish physique, and a charming tendency to flap his arms and talk really fast when he gets excited--which is most of the time.
"When it came to stopping a proposed landfill at the O'Brien Locks, Clem Balanoff stood up and it was stopped," he said. "When it came to the flooding in Jeffery Manor because of the lousy sewers, Clem Balanoff stood up and we got the city moving. When it came to stopping them from putting a garbage-burning incinerator at 106th and Torrence, Clem Balanoff helped get that project blocked. We need someone who is going to go downtown and fight for the interests of this ward, and I'm telling you Clem Balanoff is the man for the job!"
After that he insisted on taking me on a tour through the neighborhoods of Hegewisch, Jeffery Manor, and East Side to prove that constituents had posted his signs in every section of the ward (there was even a Balanoff-for-alderman sign not far from Eddie Vrdolyak's mansion).
Balanoff said, as we drove through Jeffery Manor, "I'm the only candidate who campaigns in every community, not just white, black, or Hispanic ones. I'm the candidate to bring this ward together."
Naturally, not everyone agrees. "Clem's too young and green," said Tom McNulty, a volunteer at Buchanan's headquarters, a converted grocery store on 112th Street. "He doesn't know what he's doing. He should go back to California."
Across the street at Ortiz's office, the candidate's nowhere to be found, but the jeers and jabs at Balanoff continue. "What's Clem ever done in his life except to go running off to California?" says a volunteer named Thomas Dunne. "Ortiz got his legal experience working in Ed Vrdolyak's firm. That's experience."
Over at the Lion's Den, Adams would rather talk about himself than Balanoff. "I am the most qualified for this job because I work the hardest," Adams said. "I didn't have shoes until I was 12 and I used to walk two miles over rocks to get to school. I came here from Greece 17 years ago with $16 in my pocket. My first job was washing dishes in a restaurant. I earned $35 a week. I worked for two years and had no nightlife; I bought no new shoes, no new clothes. My rent was $135 a month. All the rest of my money I saved. I love this country. God bless America. We live in a great country; God bless America."
Most of his opponents dismiss Adams as a well-meaning dupe who's being taken by a gaggle of slick-talking operatives who stroke his ego and spend his money. Adams scoffs at the suggestion.
"I've been around, I know how things work," he said. "If I get elected I won't take my salary. I will give it to the fund that buys bullet-proof vests for police officers. Who needs the money? Life is short. If I die tomorrow, money doesn't matter."
At Richards's headquarters, where I find the candidate alone and working at his desk, I get a different perspective on life in the home of the brave. "This used to be a place where working people could earn an affordable wage," says Richards. "We need someone who will stand up for working people. To replace industrial jobs with $4.50 an hour is nonsense. To support your family on $4.50 an hour is crazy."
"But Adams says he made do on $35 a week," I said. "If he can do it, why can't everyone else?"
Richards snorted. "That's the stuff that dreams are made of. I deal with reality not dreams."
I was trying to figure out why he and Balanoff had fallen out.
"I was very close to Balanoff," Richards said. "It's not a personal problem. The kid just turned out to be a big phony. As soon as he got elected state representative he jumped into bed with the Michael Madigan machine and was totally financed by the regular Democratic machine to the tune of $125,000.
"Looking back, I should have known better. I should have never trusted him. I was on the street working for his mom when he was beachcombing in California."
Back at Balanoff headquarters I met, of all people, Richards's wife's sister-in-law, who said neither she nor her husband supports "Richards, that jerk." I also hear that the race has taken a turn for the worse. A flier has been sent to white voters, inviting them to a phony Balanoff fund-raiser hosted by Louis Farrakhan and U.S. Representative Gus Savage.
"This is nasty, low-life, and dirty," Balanoff said. "Everyone else is fighting to come in second and I'm fighting to win more than 50 percent on February 26. This is an important election, the future of the ward is at stake."
4th: How the Mighty Evans Has Fallen
In the early hours of December 2, 1987, Fourth Ward Alderman Tim Evans seemed nearly invincible--the man the movement had anointed to succeed Harold Washington.
The City Council had just elected Sixth Ward Alderman Eugene Sawyer as the interim mayor, an outcome caused by sharp divisions among black aldermen. But the throng of jeering activists that flooded the chambers and streamed down the hall made it seem as though "the People" were with Evans, even if the politicians weren't. "You will be mine in '89," Evans proclaimed at the meeting's conclusion.
Of course, it didn't work that way. The rift never healed. Both Sawyer and Evans eventually lost to Daley (Sawyer in the Democratic primary, Evans as a third-party candidate in the general election).
Since then both of their careers have taken tumbles. Sawyer's hand-picked successor couldn't even win a special election to fill the aldermanic vacancy opened when Sawyer became acting mayor. And in the Fourth, five candidates are doing the unthinkable: they're running against Evans.
Their race is wide open, the outcome anyone's guess. Evans's opponents call him ineffective, indecisive, and disorganized. They say he skips important meetings, overlooks essential services, runs late, doesn't return phone calls, and can't be reelected without Washington around to lend him a hand.
"There's not a group in this ward that Evans hasn't kept waiting or stood up," said Robert Lucas, executive director of the Kenwood-Oakland Community Organization and a candidate in the race. "Harold put his arm around Tim and got him reelected. Without his patron, Tim doesn't have the issues and he doesn't have a base."
The same point could be made about several black incumbents. Few black committeemen are or ever have been big-time vote generators. They didn't ignite the movement that sent Washington to City Hall. Quite the contrary, they jumped aboard only after Washington was well on his way. Most of them secretly feared the movement, as they mistrusted any attempt to register thousands of voters they could not control.
Like Evans, they are products of the old Daley Machine. Evans himself was a precinct captain for Claude Holman, perhaps the most obsequious pro-Daley black alderman the City Council ever had. As recently as 1982 Evans supported Ed Vrdolyak. He completed his conversion to independent politics only after Washington's election in 1983.
This may seem like ancient history, but there's a core of dedicated Fourth Ward activists (call them zealots, if you will) who will never forgive or forget. Most of them live south of 47th Street, the Fourth Ward's great racial and class divide. Some are black, most are white, all are professionals. They remember every politician's transgression, their every fall from faith. To them the mantle of independence is a badge of honor that must be earned and then earned again. They feel so strongly that they challenged Evans in 1983, even after Washington asked them not to. We are independents, they declared, and no one can tell us what to do. For the third straight election Toni Preckwinkle is their candidate.
"It's a question of leadership and vision," said Preckwinkle, executive director of the Chicago Jobs Council. "Tim came out of the 1989 mayoral election with 420,000 votes. He had a platform to work from. The media looked to him as the leader of the Daley opposition. There were so many important citywide issues--homelessness, education, economic development--he could have raised. And yet he's been quiet. He's blown a great chance."
In 1983 Preckwinkle won virtually every precinct south of 47th, but got clobbered on the other side of the street. That's where most of the ward is located, stretching north to 39th Street and west to King Drive--an economically depressed community scarred with vacant lots and boarded-up buildings.
Evans beat Preckwinkle in 1983 because his campaigners played the race card, viciously ridiculing her as a black woman controlled by white Hyde Park liberals.
She doesn't figure to get many votes north of 47th Street this time around either. Aside from Evans, there's Lucas to contend with. In fact, Lucas says he'll beat Evans in this neck of the ward. He's been working there since the early 1970s, although until recently he lived on the southwest side; "Residency is not an issue," says Lucas. "I've given this ward more sweat and blood than any other candidate." No one doubts his courage; a 66-year-old civil rights activist who had the guts and gall to lead both black and white open-housing demonstrators on a march through Cicero, he's also one of the few black leaders who denounced the anti-Semitic rhetoric of former Sawyer aide Steve Cokely. He's proud of the homes his not-for-profit community development group has constructed. But many residents call them cheap and tacky.
His split with Evans has to do with six dilapidated CHA high rises on the eastern edge of the ward. Evans wanted them rehabbed and preserved for the poor. Lucas wanted some of them replaced.
"I would like to see an economic mix and a racial mix because there's no such thing as a viable poor community," Lucas said. "There's a so-called barrier at 47th Street and I would like to see it erased by making the north section of the ward stronger. It's a disgrace as it is. We have to plead with the city to tow abandoned cars, enforce the building code, and cut the weeds and grass. In some vacant lots it looks like a small forest.
"Tim is nowhere to be seen. When you need him, he's never around. Go ahead, call his office. You won't find him. The man's never in."
The other candidates--Eva Jean Jackson, James Fitzhugh, and William Powell--don't appear to pose much of a threat. Powell, a communications manager at Illinois Bell, said he was running because he was "tired of the neighborhood's general decline.
"I was sitting on my back porch one day and my friend came over concerned because people were dealing crack just down the street," said Powell. "I said why don't you go see the alderman? They said, 'He won't do anything.' I said well, you need a new alderman. And they said, 'Why don't you run?' That was in late June and I've been running ever since."
It was a nice story, and I gave him my address so he could send me some campaign brochures, but I didn't expect to hear from him.
The next day at 10 AM my doorbell rang, and there was Powell standing on the steps. "Just dropping off my literature," he said.
I hid my surprise and invited him in for coffee.
He went back to his car to turn off the engine, which gave me enough time to pick up the dirty laundry and old newspapers and hide them behind the couch.
He turned out to be a personable 44-year-old Army veteran, born in Mississippi and raised in Chicago, with a bachelor's degree in marketing and a master's degree in criminal justice. He was also refreshingly honest.
"I know I have a problem--it's called low name recognition," Powell said. "Lucas, Preckwinkle, and Evans, they all are better known. I've put up billboards at strategic intersections, so that should help. But mostly I'm walking through the ward. I walk the ward, going house to house, on a regular basis. I walk on all sides of the ward--north and south of 47th Street. I wake up at 5:30 and I'm out on the street shaking hands with commuters by 7. At 10:30 I'm going door-to-door ringing bells. At 4:40 I'm out at the commuter stops to greet folks as they come home. I believe in being open and accessible to my constituents. I want to be different in this regard from the incumbent."
His campaign brochure was a thick photo album filled with eight-by-ten photographs of both vacant lots and thriving business strips. "The vacant lots are in the Fourth Ward, the business strips are in the Fifth," Powell said. "Our ward is diverse and strong, we have so many resources to tap. We should do better than this."
Meanwhile, Evans was proving very hard to reach--neither he nor his assistants were returning my calls. Finally I called one of his supporters and told her that Powell had visited my house.
She sneered, "That just shows he has nothing better to do."
I mentioned that to me it made him seem open and accessible.
Within a few hours Evans was on the line, full of apologies and confusing explanations as to why he had not called.
"Your opponents say you don't return phone calls and that you have let basic services slide," I said. "What's your reaction?"
"They are factually incorrect," he said. "We have hundreds of thousands of service requests in a year, and we respond to all of them, big and small. I've even helped some of my opponents. Every housing complex that Lucas brags about came through the City Council. He needed my help to get financing. Toni Preckwinkle even wrote me a letter--here it is--on July 3, 1989, thanking me for helping her community get a park. She said they couldn't have done it without me."
"Your opponents say you have blown your opportunities to challenge Daley in the City Council--again, what's your reaction?"
"Again, I say they are not factually correct. They know nothing about what goes on in the City Council. I expect to win without a runoff. I think that the principles I stand for were the principles someone needed to stand for. The race is not always to the swift; it also goes to he who endures. And I expect to endure."
It was a good effort, but he never sounded like anything more than a feeble echo from an old Harold Washington or Jesse Jackson campaign. His supporters say it will take a runoff (probably against Preckwinkle) but that Evans will prevail. The absence of black leadership never loomed so large.
31st: Outsiders Reach for the Hispanic Button
Such is the state of things in Humboldt Park that three of the 31st Ward's four aldermanic candidates are outsiders, each having moved into the ward recently to become eligible for this election.
The front-runner, Gloria Chevere, moved from a Victorian house in the 1800 block of Addison (now referred to by her opponents as "the mansion in Lakeview"); Regner "Ray" Suarez moved from a bungalow in Cragin; and Ricardo Negron moved from an apartment in West Town.
A fourth candidate, Evelyn Ogiela de Alvare, has actually lived in the ward for some time, but she is so underfinanced, inexperienced, and unknown that few people realize she's running.
It's appropriate, I suppose, that the next generation of this ward's leaders come from outside--Humboldt Park's been leaderless for such a long time. It seems people are always leaving it. Through the years, Jews, Italians, Poles, and Greeks have all called this west-side working-class neighborhood home. And as soon as they saved enough cash they moved to bigger homes in more fashionable neighborhoods and suburbs just up the road.
Now its residents are mostly Puerto Rican and Mexican, although blacks are moving in on the south from Garfield Park, North Lawndale, and other economically devastated west-side communities.
The incumbent is a lawyer named Ray Figueroa. He's not running for reelection, which is just as well since he'd probably lose--at least that's what all the current candidates say (it's about the only thing they agree on).
Figueroa won in 1987 because his predecessor, a former schoolteacher named Miguel Santiago, was short-sighted enough to support Vrdolyak over Harold Washington during Council Wars, even though roughly 20 percent of the ward is black. After losing to Figueroa, Santiago was elected to the state legislature, while his former committeeman, Ed Nedza, went to jail on charges of shaking down the operator of a flea market. (There's poetic justice in that conviction, as Nedza's predecessor, Tom Keane, also went to jail for corruption.)
The ward's claim to fame is that it is among the poorest, filthiest, and worst cared for in the city. Chevere has promised to change all that, and there's little reason to doubt that she'll try. Hers is another one of those up- from-poverty success stories. Raised by her grandparents, Chevere grew up in Lincoln Park (when it was still a working-class community), got married, graduated from Northeastern Illinois University, earned a law degree from Kent, went to work as a lawyer, had two children, ran the Caballeros de San Juan Credit Union (a predominantly Puerto Rican institution), went to work for the Department of Planning, ran on Harold Washington's 1987 ticket for city clerk, lost, and then took a $72,000-a-year job as director of purchasing for the CTA.
"This woman is one of the most articulate and brilliant leaders in the Puerto Rican community," says Chevere supporter Manny Torres. "It's almost criminal to vote against her."
As he talked Torres stood in the middle of Chevere's sparsely furnished storefront headquarters near the intersection of Armitage and Kedzie. The last time I saw him must have been in 1986, when he was a Cook County Board commissioner running as Vrdolyak's candidate for 26th Ward alderman against Luis Gutierrez in the special election stemming from the lawsuit against the 1981 remap. Gutierrez won, giving Washington control of the City Council and ending three years of Council Wars. But the election was passionate and there were plenty of fights. In fact, I almost got beat up when I wandered into one near-brawl between a scrawny Gutierrez supporter and a barrel-chested supporter of Torres (I managed to talk the Torres guy out of throwing a punch).
When I told Torres that story, he laughed and said: "You probably deserved it for getting in the way."
"Who would have ever thought you'd be working for Chevere?" I said.
"In this business, relationships change all the time," observed Roberto Rivera, Chevere's campaign manager, a wise man with a penchant for snappy sayings. "Only the interests remain the same."
One interest that remains is an enmity--bordering on hatred--shared by Torres and Chevere for Gutierrez. Torres's reasons are obvious; he still feels the wounds of that bitter '86 campaign. Chevere and Gutierrez used to be allies (in fact, she supported him against Torres). Now she claims that Gutierrez betrayed her by using his clout with Mayor Daley to get her ousted from the CTA (an accusation Gutierrez denies--although usually with a smirk on his face).
"Luis couldn't stand to have competition from other Hispanics within the Daley administration," says Chevere. "I think all of us should beware."
Both Chevere and Gutierrez are combative and articulate, and many reporters openly relish the notion of a one-on-one showdown between the two. It almost happened this year, as Chevere considered moving into the 26th Ward. "I decided not to because I don't think our community would be served by that kind of battle," she says. "But you never know when we might meet face to face."
Instead, she moved to the 31st, for which she is by no means apologetic. "I don't think where I used to live is an issue," she says. "I have lived in this city all of my life. I grew up in a Puerto Rican neighborhood. I have been involved in Hispanic institutions like Caballeros de San Juan. I know this community. These are my people."
Her opponents disagree, though they must feel a little foolish doing so. Suarez, an assistant commissioner in the Department of Streets and Sanitation, used to live in the 30th Ward, where he worked for 20 years for state senator Ted Lechowicz's Democratic organization. When 30th Ward Alderman George Hagopian died in 1989, Suarez expected to be tapped for the vacancy. Instead Lechowicz asked Daley to select Carole Bialczak (who happened to be Lechowicz's secretary).
So Suarez moved to the 31st, opening a headquarters in a building just down the street from Chevere's, and the two sides have been hissing at each other ever since. Chevere claims that agents for Suarez challenged the eligibility of all voters with Chevere-for-alderman signs in their windows. (It's a typical machine tactic that forces the challenged parties to attend a hearing downtown; if they miss the hearing, their names are taken off the rolls.)
Suarez denies that accusation and says Torres pushed one of his supporters, Emilio Cruz, to the ground, causing a head wound that required three stitches. (Torres says Cruz pushed him first.)
For his part, Negron, a former assistant in the Department of Human Services, spends most of his time criticizing Chevere.
"Here you have a person who moved into the ward from her Victorian mansion in Lakeview; what does she know about the needs of this community?" says Negron. "She hasn't been in the trenches. It's true, I too recently moved to the 31st Ward. But before that I lived in the 26th Ward, in West Town. The only difference between the 31st and the 26th is a line on a map. But Lakeview might as well be in another world. And I'll tell you this: if I lose, I'm staying here to work in my community. But if Gloria loses, you'll see a U-Haul van drive up to her temporary apartment and take whatever she brought with her back to the mansion in Lakeview."
Chevere counters that Negron is a Machine lackey sent to the 31st by 33rd Ward Alderman Richard Mell to confuse the electorate and siphon away her votes so Suarez can win. Baloney, says Negron, adding that Chevere has not an iota of evidence to support these claims.
Most observers figure Chevere will win because her name is so well known and because she is supported by Miguel del Valle, the area's popular state senator.
At a debate on youth issues, sponsored by Aspira, a social service organization, Chevere deftly fielded every question. The room was filled with high-schoolers who sat in polite silence while the candidates promised to bring untold millions of dollars in social service programs to a forgotten community in a bankrupt city that squanders its few resources on baseball parks and airports. One girl in the audience finally exclaimed: "How can we ever hold you to all your promises?"
Afterward, Chevere was interviewed in Spanish by a Channel 44 reporter while her driver waited off to the side. He was a big man with a huge chest and a thick neck and the more I stared the more I thought I had seen him before until it dawned on me that--yes--it was the same Torres campaigner who had almost hit me three years ago.
I could not contain myself. "I know you," I said to him, as he looked at me without the faintest trace of recognition. "You almost beat me up."
When I told him the story, he laughed and said: "I don't remember that fight; there were so many."
"Who would have thought you'd be working for Chevere."
"What can I say--politics is funny."
44th: The Politics of Sexual Preference
During his first aldermanic campaign, Bernie Hansen played the part of the quintessential machine hack, right down to his wide ties and polyester pants.
This time around he's wearing gray flannel suits and thin silk ties. "What can I say--I've changed, the ward's changed, we all move on," Hansen says.
Hansen should be nervous: he's running as a strong Daley backer in the kind of north-lakefront ward that traditionally admires political independence. His opponent is Ron Sable, Vietnam vet, Cook County Hospital internist, AIDS specialist, human rights activist, gifted fund-raiser, charming campaigner, and, as far as anyone knows, the first openly gay aldermanic candidate. He's everything the independents could hope for. In 1987 Sable defied the experts and pulled within a few percentage points of upsetting Hansen. By all accounts, he's even smoother now (much more comfortable in front of crowds).
But Hansen's not worried. Most experts figure he's ahead of the game. Even the ward's leading gay activists and the Windy City Times, the most widely read local gay newspaper, have endorsed him.
"The reason, my friend, is that when I make a promise, I deliver," says Hansen. "That's the secret to politics."
Most of Hansen's success has to do with his almost legendary enthusiasm for delivering services. He grew up in the ward, graduated from Lane Tech, was once the ward superintendent, and has an almost photographic memory for the nitty-gritty details.
"I love to drive through the ward in the morning to see where the abandoned cars are or the graffiti is," Hansen told me during a recent interview in his office. "I love delivering services. I love this ward. I know almost all the names on every polling sheet in my ward."
"Prove it," I said.
"Give me a test."
I tried to think of any 44th Ward residents. "Where does Lorraine Hoffmann live?"
"Lake Shore Drive."
"How about Susanna Lang?" "Roscoe Street and she doesn't even support me."
"Who owns the building in which the Sable campaign is headquartered?"
"What school is Rob Buono on the local school council of?"
"Agassiz," he said, leaning back in his chair with a laugh.
Hansen's lead says a lot about changes in north-side politics. The great north-side independents of old (Aldermen David Orr, Dick Simpson, and Marty Oberman) took pride in their defiance of authoritarian mayors. These days, blind allegiance is in. One of the saddest sights of the new Daley era is the sorry spectacle of would-be independent aldermen from the lakefront laughing at the mayor's jokes, clapping at his speeches, and seeking his endorsement.
Most of the change has to do with racial fears and prejudices. So, OK, white voters on the north lakefront are more likely to vote for black politicians than, say, white southwest-siders. But the same could probably be said for folks in Du Page County. The fact is that Washington only pulled 38 percent of the 44th's vote in his 1987 race against Vrdolyak and Daley is running very strong there today. In fact, Hansen thinks it's such a handicap not to endorse Daley that he constantly pesters Sable at debates to reveal whether he supports the mayor or Danny Davis (a not-too-subtle form of race baiting, since Hansen never asks if Sable supports Jane Byrne; for the record, Sable's staying neutral in the mayor's race).
"I can read election results; Rich Daley is very popular here," says Hansen. "He's also doing a good job, in my opinion."
Nonetheless, there is a band of eager activists who have still not forgiven Hansen for siding with Vrdolyak during Council Wars. True, Hansen was never loud or dogmatic about his council affiliations ("Washington never returned my phone calls right after he was elected and they were reorganizing the City Council; Eddie called all the time and he offered me a committee chair). But he did wear a ring that said "29" ("a gag gift from my wife," says Hansen), and he never forcefully opposed Vrdolyak's more obnoxious antics.
On top of that, he was not an effective proponent of gay rights issues, a significant oversight for the alderman of a ward that's at least 20 percent gay.
"The first time the Human Rights Ordinance was introduced, Bernie was horrible," said Sable. "He said things like, 'These people are clean.' What the hell is that supposed to mean? He just didn't understand our community at all. As a gay person it was important that I run. But it's also tricky. You worry about being a one-issue candidate. You don't want that. I consider myself a progressive. I feel confident on a range of issues.
"I ran as an independent candidate who happened to be gay. I wasn't saying, 'Vote for me because I'm gay.' But I wasn't hiding my sexual orientation. I wasn't in the closet. It was a very important race for gays."
His support among gays was strong, a fact that Hansen did not miss. "I saw how people were excited by Ron's campaign and I knew I had work to do," said Hansen. "I'd go to every gay meeting in the ward, and I'd say, 'I know I don't have a vote in this room, but you can count on me to represent your issues. Because after I win I'm the alderman for all the ward.'"
True to his word, Hansen sponsored and maneuvered through the council a human rights ordinance and a hate crimes bill in the face of strident and well-organized opposition. He even demonstrated for gay rights in Washington, D.C., donning a pink armband in solidarity.
"I would love to see a strong, openly gay voice in the City Council, but I am not preoccupied with a person's sexual orientation," said Rich Garcia, a prominent north-side gay activist. "I can't say this enough: Bernie has been a great friend to Chicago's gay community. Human rights, hate crime--neither would have passed without Bernie's efforts."
Garcia is just as strong in his condemnation of Sable. "I supported Ron in 1987; in fact, I was very enthusiastic about his campaign," he said. "But in every major issue fought for the gay community since then, Ron has been absent. His attitude was that we have to be careful about passing legislation with Hansen's name on it. That's selfish. At one point responsible leaders must put aside their personal interests for the good of the community."
Sable vehemently denies Garcia's charges. "I worked hard for gay rights legislation," Sable said. "There is always going to be an element in the gay community that overdoes their appreciation for whatever straight support they get. There's always going to be a conservative element too. The first time I ran, a lot of businessmen were wary about crossing the machine. Now we have so-called activists like Garcia who would rather sit at the elbow of power than have somebody like me sitting at the table. I am openly gay and that means something. Like blacks and Latinos, we deserve direct representation. Straight people do not have to be speaking for gays thank you very much.
"My presence in the council would have made a big difference during the human rights debate. I don't think we would have seen someone like George Hagopian call us animals. I don't think he would talk about a peer that way. Civil rights, hate crimes, these are important, but they are not earth-shattering. What's ahead for us is the legal recognition of our relationships and families. These are the hot-button issues. If tomorrow every gay and lesbian person moved, Bernie's support for these issues would disappear. But my personal commitment will always remain."
On January 28, Hansen and Sable met face-to-face in a debate sponsored by the Lerner newspaper chain. Both came out swinging. Hansen hammered at Sable's lack of experience ("You want to trust this guy with ward services? He'll probably need an 800 number to find out where to fix a streetlight"). Sable zoomed in on Hansen's relationship with Kent Realty, a local company that sells property in the ward. ("Do you want an alderman who's selling real estate in our ward? If it comes down to what's good for Kent or what's good for the ward, which side will he take?")
In the end, both sides declared victory, although Hansen admitted Sable's performance was stronger than he expected. "Ron's improved a lot since 1987," Hansen said.
Still, Hansen remains confident. "I was never the guy a lot of people made me out to be," he said. "I was sort of a hippie in the old days. I used to have long hair. I used to listen to rock 'n' roll music. I liked the Beatles and all that kind of stuff. I'm much more liberal than anyone thinks."
"And I got rid of that '29' ring--make sure you write that I got rid of it a long time ago."
46th: Regulars Roll Out Their Shiller Killer
When Mike Quigley moved into the 46th Ward two years ago, all the party regulars rejoiced. As an aldermanic candidate he was right out of central casting: a bright, energetic lawyer with a master's degree in public planning from the University of Chicago, a pretty wife, and a brand-new baby girl.
For six years Quigley ran Bernie Hansen's 44th Ward service organization. He attended dozens of neighborhood meetings, became an expert on recycling, drafted several bills, and led the fight against lights in Wrigley Field. Best of all, he liked campaigning. The 46th Ward committeeman, Ed Rosewall, and state senator Billy Marovitz actively encouraged him to run. True, there was a third candidate in the race: lawyer Vince Samar, a self-proclaimed gay candidate. But no one took him too seriously, and Quigley's supporters were confident. As one party regular put it: "This time we got the bitch on the run."
Call them Helen haters; their unwavering contempt for Helen Shiller is one of those inexplicable, almost pathological abnormalities of Chicago politics. In most wards there's a natural ebb and flow to hostilities, with passions subsiding after elections are over. But in the 46th, campaigns never end and memories never recede, so you generally have a large group of energetic politicos wandering around seething about Shiller.
It seems odd they hate her so much. After all, she runs a responsive ward service organization, and is usually friendly and polite. True, some of her allies are arrogant (particularly political activist Slim Coleman). But if we're going to judge Shiller by her companions, at least give her credit for Liz Caldwell and Dave Ochal, her eminently likable legislative aide and talk-a-mile-a-minute chief of staff.
Shiller moved to Uptown in 1972, a 25-year-old liberal activist. Since then she's organized legal and health clinics, fought to change the reading curriculum in the public schools, and worked with dozens of local kids to keep them out of gangs and off drugs--and still her critics don't think she sincerely cares about the poor.
"[Shiller's] main motive was that she was building a political power base which included as many winos as she and Coleman could drag to the voting booth," Mike Royko wrote in the Tribune a few years ago. A lot of developers and politicians in and around the ward got a big kick out of that column; Quigley still passes it around.
Over the years she'd been falsely accused by detractors of everything from bearing the illegitimate son of some unknown Black Panther to backing Yasir Arafat and the PLO. She ran two unsuccessful campaigns for alderman before winning in 1987. The margin of victory came when the Jesus People, a solid voting bloc of about 300 Uptown-based urban missionaries, switched their allegiance from incumbent Jerry Orbach to Shiller.
Her ward is an eclectic mix of blacks, whites, Hispanics, recent Asian immigrants, elderly Jews, artists, and professionals. No other ward is so economically or ethnically diverse, and she makes no apologies for wanting to keep it that way.
"In the 70s this community was ravaged by arson-for-profit fires, and dozens of buildings fell apart because they weren't kept up," says Shiller. "But there was no great outcry about the poor people who were left homeless. I'm happy when people want to move to this community. I welcome responsible development. But it's too often called progress when poor people are displaced."
This attitude has earned Shiller a reputation as an antidevelopment zealot who has single-handedly thwarted the revitalization of Uptown. In 1988, the Tribune went so far as to run a front-page article--entitled "Shiller guards against Uptown progress"--that blamed her for keeping the stretch of Wilson Avenue that constitutes Uptown's main drag a dingy strip of seedy bars.
But other than the moans and groans of one disgruntled developer who wanted to build a small shopping strip, the evidence against her is negligible at best. The fact is that there is no wave of young professionals waiting to gentrify Uptown (there are barely enough to buy all the overpriced town houses in Lincoln Park). And if aldermen can be blamed for Uptown's economic degeneration, why let Shiller's predecessors Jerry Orbach and Ralph Axelrod off the hook? They were both cordial to developers; they both had time to let the free market work its stuff. But then, as now, development was slow and inconsistent--a courtyard building rehabbed here, a town house constructed there--and virtually unaffected by the machinations of politics or politicians.
But such are the passions that fuel Uptown politics that many observers figured Shiller's antidevelopment leanings would lead to Quigley's victory. Then, out of nowhere, Vince Samar took charge.
It seemed as though he had undergone an amazing transformation. He learned to deliver his lines in neat little sound bites. He didn't always agree with Shiller, but he saved his most savage attacks for Quigley.
"The problem with Mike is that he seems to think he can take large amounts of money from people who have vested interests in this ward without any obligations to those people," said Samar, alluding to Quigley campaign contributions from some 46th Ward developers. "That's wrong. And if he doesn't realize that, he shows poor judgment."
Samar seemed to be becoming a pain in the neck to Quigley partisans, particularly in January after published reports of the goofy goings on at the ward's Republican Party aldermanic slating session. At that session, Samar had told slate makers that he was gay, which prompted one Republican (barely concealing his sarcasm) to ask Shiller about her "sexual preference." Straight, Shiller responded, adding that it's no one's business.
After that it was all downhill, especially when the Republicans disappeared for a behind closed doors voting session, where they slated Quigley. Assuming, no doubt, that their antics would go unreported, they made cracks like "Who would want to sleep with her [Shiller] anyway?" and "You can have her," and "I'll let you have [Samar]" and "When it comes to sexual preference, we have a lot of strange ones in this ward."
Details of that meeting were leaked to Samar, who publicized these remarks with a press release. Within a few days the entire affair--as well as Samar's accusation that Quigley deliberately altered his campaign approach for gays and straights, wearing "tight-fitting polo shirts to gay events and business suits to straight ones"--was featured in an article by David Olson in the Windy City Times. Samar also demanded that Quigley renounce the Republicans' endorsement.
Quigley refuted Samar's accusation. "I go to six or seven events a day," he told the Windy City Times. "Do you really think I'd change between each event?" He also refused to renounce the endorsement and reiterated his support for gay rights. The ensuing publicity gave Samar a burst of momentum and encouraged him to continue his attacks.
"Mike is running a negative Willie Horton-system campaign based on fears and misstatements against Helen," said Samar. "I would hope he was better than that."
Through it all Shiller avoided direct attacks on Quigley, apparently delighted to let Samar do her dirty work.
If Quigley was bothered, he did his best not to show it. "The campaign is going fine, I think I'll win; I don't worry about Samar," he told me. "Vince still considers himself a viable candidate; he's incredibly naive.
"This is not a race about rich versus poor; I defy those kinds of parallels. If people vote for me for those reasons I can't help it. I'm not running that kind of campaign. This neighborhood will never be Lincoln Park. It will always be diverse. But it doesn't have to be a dangerous neighborhood that looks like hell.
"I learned a lot when I worked for Bernie. I learned how to get things done. I think I can work with a wide range of people, including developers. You know, [Shiller chief of staff David] Ochal is a great self-promoter. He's always talking--a-rat-a-tat-tat--about the great things he's done. The fact is that until she hired Ochal, Helen went two years without having a service office."
After talking to Quigley, I walked west along Irving Park Road to Shiller's campaign office, where Ochal and Liz Caldwell were stuffing envelopes.
"Quigley told me that Shiller didn't start a ward office until she hired you two years ago," I told Ochal.
"And you believed him?" Ochal exclaimed. "First of all, I started here three not two years ago. Second of all, Helen already had a ward office when I got here. Third of all, it's the best ward office in the city. And fourth of all, what does Quigley know about ward service? Call my wife, call Liz's boyfriend--ask them how much time we spend working on ward services. Go ahead, use the phone, call them now."
He stood up and started pacing. Then he lit a cigarette. Then Caldwell lit a cigarette. Then some volunteer in the back lit a cigarette. Soon the whole room filled with smoke.
"Did Quigley tell you we're probably gonna get Lerner's endorsement?" he asked.
"He said it didn't matter who Lerner endorsed because you need it more than him."
"He also said he was gonna win most of the senior citizens."
"And you believed him? Let me tell you, we practically live in those senior citizen buildings."
"We hold regular meetings there," said Caldwell.
"We help them with social security, insurance, health benefits--tons of stuff that doesn't have anything to do with the city," said Ochal. "But Quigley goes in there and they ask him a question and he shows them a picture of his kid because he doesn't know the answers. I mean, come on, it's a cute kid, but what does the kid have to do with anything?"
As I headed for the door, Ochal was predicting a victory. "We'll win without a runoff," he said.
If that happens it will be a surprise. Each of the last three elections required a runoff, and all were decided by a handful of votes.
"The 46th is tough to figure," said Rich Garcia, who supports Shiller. "Take the gay vote. In the 44th you have a lot of upwardly mobile gay men. In 46 we're talking about some conservative gay guys and about 400 very active lesbians. Helen has always enjoyed lesbian support, so I don't think Samar's going to cut into her vote."
Most observers figure that Shiller's coalition--300 Jesus People and 400 lesbians included--will prevail. Not that it matters. The hard-core Helen haters won't give up until she's out of office. Like the races that have come before, the end of this election is the beginning of the next.
50th: Carpetbagger vs. Hack
At age 65, with 18 years on the job and a heart condition that requires regular doses of nitroglycerin tablets, Berny Stone doesn't need a difficult reelection battle.
"I'd like an easy go-around," says Stone. "Any politician would. Or better yet, I'd like to run unopposed."
Unfortunately for Stone, his opponent is Hank Rubin, a consultant to community organizations and a member of the faculty at DePaul University. The contrast could hardly be more striking. Rubin is tall, slender, and handsome (almost dashing) with a full head of jet black hair; Stone is dumpy and balding. Rubin speaks in long, eloquent sentences; Stone has a raw, raspy, west-side edge to his voice. Rubin graduated from the University of Chicago; Stone, a real estate lawyer, from the city college system.
Beyond that there's the question of ideology. Stone was one of Vrdolyak's loudest anti-Washington cheerleaders; he switched to the Republican Party saying he could no longer tolerate the politics of Washington, Jesse Jackson, and other liberal Democrats. He switched back late last year because, he said, President Bush was too tough on Israel.
Rubin supported and advised Harold Washington; he calls himself an independent Democrat, and cites as his role models the very sort of good-government aldermen (David Orr, Leon Despres, Martin Oberman) Stone scorns.
"Berny represents some of the more loathsome aspects of Chicago politics," said Rubin. "He put his wife on the payroll, he refused to disclose how he spent his aldermanic allowance, and he makes bigoted appeals."
Rubin, said Stone, "is one of these glib operators who doesn't know the ward--he moved here from east Rogers Park to run--doesn't understand politics, doesn't realize what the role of an alderman is, and hasn't done much of anything in his life except talk."
In other words, said Rubin, "the only thing we share in common is our religion and gender."
The ward encompasses several neighborhoods west of Clark Street and north of Devon, an integrated community of mostly Indians, Pakistanis, and white ethnics. But in many ways the race comes down to a referendum on the future of Jewish politics. The ward is roughly 35 percent Jewish--a diverse lot that includes Orthodox Jews, recent Russian immigrants, and secular young professionals.
By most accounts, the high point of Stone's aldermanic career came in 1984, when he led the council charge against the expensive and ill-conceived proposed World's Fair--an effort that won him the grudging respect of many longtime independent adversaries. But he is mainly known for abrasive City Council histrionics, like the time he bellowed "You little pipsqueak!" at Luis Gutierrez.
At his headquarters near the intersection of Western and Devon, Rubin assured me that such antics were never well regarded in the ward. "David Patt got 45 percent of the vote running as an independent in 1983 and the ward has changed a lot since then. More independents, like me, have moved here. Berny is much more reviled. His base has weakened. He's been quite an embarrassment, especially the way he's flip-flopped between parties."
His response to the carpetbagger label: "I have lived within ten blocks of my current house since I moved to Rogers Park in 1975. It's a non-issue. Not that Berny isn't trying. I know what his people are whispering, 'He's got a shiksa wife'; 'He supported Washington.' At forums, I'll get questions like, 'Is it true that you supported Washington?' I'll say, 'Yes, but so did [popular state senator] Art Berman.' Or, 'Is it true that your wife is not Jewish?' And I'll say, 'Yes, but what's the point? I'm not running for rabbi, I'm running for alderman.' You embarrass them a little, those kinds of things shouldn't be issues and they know it."
He smiled. "I have a lot of my mother's attitudes toward politics and politicians. She was like Mike Royko: if you run for office that means you were probably crooked. I have a one-year-old baby. I want him to believe that politics is noble and right."
Inside, I winced. I can't stand it when politicians talk about their kids.
Stone says Rubin won't be able to work in the system.
"That's nonsense," said Rubin. "I believe in consensus politics. I believe in reaching out. Before I ran I called upon [committeeman] Howie Carroll. I know he backs Berny, but I did it out of respect. I know Mayor Daley has well over 26 votes in the council. But on some issues he won't have those votes."
But it seems to me the aldermen are Daley's puppets.
"That's not completely true," Rubin said. "We're in a new era. We will tackle each issue on its merits. That's why we need independent-thinking aldermen who can build coalitions. I know that at first I'll be the outsider, the kid, the goody-two-shoes guy. I won't let that bother me. I'm going to make sure I have the best ward office in the city and that it acts as a clearinghouse for all the community groups and local school councils. If some aldermen don't like me, well, I'll live with that."
A few days later, I visited Stone in his City Council office, a room unusually well stocked with framed grip-and-grin snapshots of Stone with Washington, Golda Meir, and other politicians.
"Rubin's naive; he doesn't understand the process," said Stone. "He's like a lot of independents: talk, talk, talk; but what have they ever done? This job is tougher than U.S. congressman. You're on the firing line all the time. It's streets, alleys, and sewers; there's nothing glamorous about it.
"[Former alderman] Tom Keane once told me, 'You can't do a goddamn thing about education. But you can do things for people in your ward. You can keep the streets clean and the alleys in repair.' That's good advice. Mr. Average Joe cares about the 30 feet in front of his house and that's about it. All they care about education is what kind of education their kid's going to get. And that's the truth."
Stone claimed to have no regrets. None for the way he treated Washington: "I love a fight; Harold loved a fight. When we were alone we got along famously."
None for switching parties: "I left the Democrats because I had no place to go. I came back because the Republicans really weren't for me. Sure, I worried about looking like a flipper. But that's the chance you take. At least I have no qualms about joining a party. Rubin calls himself an independent. What does that mean? At least I'm somewhere. Where the hell is he?"
None for calling Gutierrez a pipsqueak: "I walked through a heart attack 14 years ago. I live on pills. After that Gutierrez thing I went straight to the doctor's and when I got home my wife was crying. She said, 'If you do that again, I'll divorce you.' And you haven't seen an outburst like that since. But that doesn't mean I'm going to give Rubin a pass. If he thinks he's coming into my ward to fool the people with a bunch of glib rhetoric and slick brochures, he's got another thing coming."
Stone and Rubin's main showdown--another debate sponsored by Lerner--was the following day. True to his word, Stone walked in ready for action.
As he and Rubin stood at the front of the room, reporter Greg Heinz explained that he would flip a coin to determine the speaking order.
"No way, Greg," said Stone. "I'm the incumbent and I get the privilege of going last. I made that agreement before I agreed to this debate."
"I don't know of any such agreement," said Heinz. "Hank, do you know of any agreement?"
"I never heard of any agreement," said Rubin.
"It was an agreement I made with [a debate organizer]," said Stone. "And you should honor it."
"What's that, Berny, another back-room deal?" Rubin cracked.
Stone said nothing and Heinz pursed his lips. By now every chair in the room was taken and people were standing along the walls.
Heinz turned to Rubin: "Hank, will you agree to let Berny go last?"
Rubin looked Heinz dead in the eye and said: "Flip the coin; that was the agreement."
Heinz pulled out a quarter and said: "Berny, what will it be--heads or tails?"
"I won't participate," said Stone.
"Tails," called Rubin.
Heinz flipped the coin. Mercifully, it was tails. "Rubin, you go first," Heinz snapped. Stone shrugged. The crisis had passed.
A sharp exchange followed. To paraphrase: Stone called Rubin a carpetbagger; Rubin called Stone a hack. Rubin said the ward deserved "new leadership"; Stone said his "vision of the future is based on the deliveries of the past."
The debate seemed a draw until a critical question on whether the candidates would support legislation allowing gay men and women to have the same conjugal rights as straights.
"That's an issue for the state legislature," Stone said. "But, no, I would not go on record [endorsing it]."
"That's a very brave position to take," Rubin countered. "You know there's no organized gay constituency in this ward. But I would support such legislation. It's inconceivable to me that you can stand in front of people and call yourself an egalitarian and choose who is equal and who is not."
What followed was the evening's loudest burst of cheers. In his close, Rubin was inspired. "Time magazine defined the Chicago City Council as the worst urban legislative body in the country," he said. "I don't know if that's true. But the image certainly exists and our incumbent alderman is one of the people who most contributes to that idea."
After the debate Rubin's supporters were beside themselves with glee. "For the first time, I really think Hank will win," one said.
And at that moment, it certainly did look like the start of a new era for the 50th Ward. Alderman Hank Rubin--fresh meat for the jaws of the Chicago City Council.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Bill Stamets, Jon Randolph.