"I believe anybody who can read and write can run that office," said Thomas Fuller, a candidate for the Democratic nomination for clerk of the circuit court. "The only real value of the clerk's office is jobs." The three dozen or so citizens seated before him chuckled. From Fuller, a wiry, often contentious politician, it was an awful and somewhat unexpected truth.
"If he weren't such a crook, I'd give him my vote just for saying that," laughed a middle-aged man in a trench coat.
Like the other members of the Independent Voters of Illinois-Independent Precinct Organization, he had in his hands a yellow card, which would signal his vote on various questions relevant finally to the venerable group's endorsement. But this would be no secret ballot; much public discussion, soul-searching, and hand-wringing would go on before any choice was made.
"This is a tough endorsement," admitted Adrienne Goodman, the committeeman for the 9th Congressional District. "None of the candidates are really up to our standards."
After Fuller's presentation, the membership discussed his honesty and his compatibility with their stand on the issues, as well as how viable Fuller would be as a candidate. Hands went up and down, the yellow cards flashing like lights at a dangerous intersection.
"I didn't vote that his candidacy was weird," said Alan Dobry, an IVI-IPO member and the Democratic committeeman of the Fifth Ward, the late Harold Washington's home turf. "I just voted that it was vile."
Former mayor Jane Byrne followed Fuller at the podium. Her entourage consisted of daughter Kathy, campaign manager Joe Pecor (former president of Festivals, Inc., the producers of Chicago Fest), and a couple of large, silent men. Byrne's hair was stylish and cropped short, three strands of pearls curled over her chest, and her nonexpression remained fixed.
"We're in a moral and financial crisis," Byrne told the IVI-IPO, then went on to discuss the more mundane matters of the clerk's race--computers and night-court hours, child-support enforcement and jobs. She promised, if elected, to stay out of the 1989 mayor's race and complete the clerk's term.
"I'm concerned about your stand on gay rights," she was told by an audience member.
"I stand on my record," she said.
"What about what you told the Logan Square Extra?"
"That you wouldn't ride in the gay parade anymore, that you couldn't support gay rights--I don't remember exactly--unless you first talked to your confessor."
"'Confessor'? Nobody uses that word anymore," Byrne said in dismissal. "That wasn't me."
"But I heard the tape myself," the questioner insisted.
"You couldn't have," she said, "because I never interviewed with them. It couldn't be me, it couldn't be my voice."
"That story in the Extra, that was a last-minute smear in the last campaign," Pecor said as the Byrne troupe exited. "It's amazing how often it gets told; it just isn't true." At the time of the Extra story, just a few days before the mayoral primary, the Byrne camp didn't disavow it, however.
"How are you?" Byrne said on her way out to Paul Waterhouse, an Uptown activist who once ran for committeeman as Washington's candidate. Byrne's hand was outstretched to him. He hesitated, then shook it.
Waterhouse, a big guy with bright eyes, nodded and smiled, but he was clearly embarrassed.
"I've gotta wipe my hands," he said to no one in particular after Byrne walked away. "Doesn't this feel too much like deja vu?"
"Hey, Bob, how are you?" Byrne said enthusiastically to Sun-Times photographer Bob Black. She gave him her first and only smile of the evening.
Black, an easygoing sort, chuckled. "I'm waiting to see if I can get you and the competition in the same picture," he said.
"Oh, is she here already?" Byrne asked with mock surprise. In Byrne's mind, Fuller didn't even exist.
She--Aurelia Pucinski, the candidate the Democratic Party has endorsed for the clerk's office--was already up before the group. Pucinski was slick: she gave just enough of a hint of a smile and spoke with a veteran's polish. She promised nothing more or less than Byrne, but there was a curious irony to her platform of which she seemed unaware: she said voting for her, the daughter of one of Washington's most consistent opponents, would be the way to continue the late mayor's legacy.
"How can she say that?" gasped a sandy-haired woman in the audience. She stood up. "How can you say that? You didn't support Washington." (The question of her support is controversial, but even a committeeman working on Pucinski's campaign admits that she did support Vrdolyak.)
"No, I didn't support Washington in 1983--I didn't support anybody because I felt none of the candidates were good for my district," Pucinski explained. "But I did support him in 1987."
"No way!" exclaimed Rich Barnett, a longtime activist and organizer in the black community. Barnett's eyes flared. "When did that support come through? This is the first I've heard about it."
"I did support him," insisted Pucinski, "and Harold Washington understood that. Harold Washington understood--perhaps better than all of us--that politics is a process of addition, not subtraction."
"Where do you stand on gay rights, an issue that's very important to this organization?" demanded an agitated young man with a baby face. "Your father is proud to have voted against the gay-rights ordinance, and when people called his office about it they were treated rudely and yelled at."
Pucinski took a small step back from the podium. In this instance she seemed willing to ignore her political connections. "I am running for Cook County Clerk, not alderman. I am not going to answer for my father," she said.
Barnett threw up his hands. "This woman wants it both ways!"
"I am personally committed to human rights," Pucinski continued, now angry. "It was the Polish-Americans in 1619 that staged the first strike for human dignity in this country--a principle which I intend to maintain."
Barnett pushed again, reminding her that shortly after Washington's death he saw her at Operation PUSH in the morning and then, on the same day, at a meeting of white ethnic aldermen that may have adhered to the letter of the Open Meetings Act but not to its spirit.
"I was [at the aldermanic meeting] as an impartial observer," Pucinski insisted through, clenched teeth.
As Pucinski left, she was followed out by a couple of gay reporters. "Would you support the gay-rights ordinance?"
"It's irrelevant," she said. "That's a city issue and I'm running for county office."
"OK, fine, let's say such a piece of legislation were proposed county-wide; could you support it?" pressed the other.
"If you're asking me whether I support hiring . . . everybody . . . with freedom and opportunity . . . yes," she finally said.
Inside Barnett was arguing that the IVI-IPO make no endorsement in the clerk's race. Waterhouse disagreed. "I don't know who I'm going to support," he said, "but there are questions, beyond this office, which have great political importance."
"No action," called Barnett. "Pucinski, man, she's just a future white ethnic mayoral candidate."
"We have to make an endorsement," argued Goodman. "We can impact because a quandary exists in areas where people listen to us. They're looking for direction." The Ninth Congressional District committeeman was pitching for Pucinski, and noted that Alderman Danny Davis had already thrown her his support.
"Danny has another agenda," said Carol Zavala, another organizer, alluding to the fact that Danny Davis has often been mentioned as a dark-horse candidate for mayor. "The black community doesn't support the slate. Just listen to black radio."
By this time, Waterhouse was conferring with Steve Jones, the state chair of IVI-IPO, and leaning toward Pucinski.
A weary Dobry stood up. "Look, I was there when the slate was forged, three weeks before Harold Washington's death," he said. "Washington's goals were these: to elect a Democratic president and to defeat Vrdolyak. He gave Pucinski his support because the white committeemen guaranteed they'd carry her. The reasons for Aury are dead; they died in November. She will be defeated, and very badly, in the black community."
"Yeah, but the alternative is endorsing Byrne," said a young man in a burgundy sweatshirt. "I mean, I remember hearing her as a reform candidate in 1979. I just don't think we can touch that."
Jones was pacing. The room at Harold Washington College where the group was meeting was only available to them until 10 PM.
"Let's find them all qualified," said an older gentleman. The crowd giggled.
"I move we endorse Jane Byrne," said an earnest-looking young woman. "Look, we all make mistakes."
"Mistakes?" The young man in the burgundy sweatshirt jumped out of his seat. "Mistakes? Are you kidding? That was a disaster! Are we really talking about endorsing Jane Byrne? Is that what we're doing? I just can't believe it. Jane Byrne was a calamity for this city."
"Yeah, but is Pucinski viable?" someone asked.
"If she changed her name she'd be viable," somebody else answered as the room laughed.
Waterhouse nodded. He'd finally voted to endorse Byrne, a move that failed. Jones kept eyeing his watch; they only had use of the room for a few more minutes.
"Listen, we have to think about this," explained Lilia Delgado, the group's state vice-chair. Delgado, a soft-spoken, attractive woman, continued: "Look at Pucinski. She's antichoice." The membership groaned.
"Yeah," Delgado said, "for most people in this room that's a heavy one. She's anti-gay rights, that's another big one for us. She participated in a violation of the Open Meetings Act--she was only there because of her father. I think she's running for mayor, maybe not in 1989, but maybe in 1991. If she beats Byrne, she'll have momentum. If she beats Vrdolyak, who's going to stop her? This last year, Pucinski's been running and running. She ran for secretary of state, she's a commissioner, now she's running for clerk. She's off and running. Doesn't that tell us something?"
"Lilia Delgado for clerk!" someone shouted, then time ran out. The meeting ended.
IVI-IPO made no endorsement in the clerk's race.