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Committeeman Sawyer

Primary Night in the Inner Sanctum of the Man Who Once Was Mayor


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In the Sixth Ward Regular Democratic Organization's inner sanctum, a leonine Gene Sawyer sat behind an imposing polished black desk. "Was that a three-pointer?" he asked, pulling a long brown More cigarette from between his lips. He focused on the other side of the room, where a Bulls game glowed from a TV set.

A cadre of impeccably dressed men answered Sawyer in a scattered chorus. One guy actually said, "Yeah, boss." They all sat in a semicircle in front of the desk, watching the game as they waited for the results of the primary election. Besides a reporter, there was only one woman in the room, young and slender and sitting at Sawyer's side.

This Gene Sawyer was not the same Gene Sawyer who was so uncomfortable in the mayor's office. This Gene Sawyer, Sixth Ward committeeman since 1968, held everybody's attention no matter how softly he spoke. He gave forceful direction to precinct captains on the telephone, and predicted returns within a handful of votes in each precinct.

"Jesus, look at this," said Sawyer's son Roderick. Unlike his father, who was dressed in a silk shirt and a sharp Italian double-breasted suit, Roderick was casual in a sweater and jeans. He held out the palm sheet used by current Sixth Ward alderman John Steele, who beat the candidate Sawyer chose to succeed himself in the 1989 special election--Sawyer's second blow in that campaign. "Look at that--he's got Woody Bowman at the top, and where's Pincham? At the bottom. And where's the union bug, huh? Where's the union bug?"

Sawyer chuckled and muttered into the telephone. From one wrist jangled a bright gold bracelet; on the other he sported a smart gold watch. The gold rings that disappeared when he was promoted to the fifth floor of City Hall were back too. Behind him, a plaque saluted him as one of the ten best-dressed men in Chicago in 1973 and again in 1979.

Nothing except the pink message slips addressed to "Mayor Sawyer" scattered on the desk gave any clue that he'd ever held the post. All the plaques and citations and awards that hung about the room harked back to his aldermanic days. One certificate, from the Ex-Boxers' Association (Sawyer was once a flyweight), recognized his gentlemanly comportment. Also on the walls were portraits of Sawyer and Harold Washington and three ward maps: one of viaducts, one of unimproved alleys, and one with the street sweeping schedule.

When the election specials finally came on TV, they led with the announcement of Richard Phelan's nomination for president of the Cook County Board of Commissioners. Sawyer sat back, his eyes like slits. He was wearing only one campaign button on his lapel: Pincham for President.

"How do they know, anyway?" asked Roderick. "The black vote always comes in late. They probably have Tim Evans's numbers. He sure wasn't for Pincham. He didn't want him to get momentum, that's for sure."

"The black vote's not even in," Sawyer said emphatically, almost angrily. He picked up the phone and started calling fellow committeemen. "There ain't gonna be no victory speech, boy," he said to Phelan's televised image.

"Hey, maybe he'll be a Dewey," Roderick said.

Don, the dapper salt-and-pepper-haired bodyguard, went to change the TV channel.

"Hey, don't do that," protested Frank, the only guy besides Roderick not in a suit.

"You want to watch that?" Don asked, nodding at Phelan's jubilant image.

All the while Sawyer was greeting precinct captains like a king receiving his subjects. One by one they'd come in with their vote totals. Sawyer would take the sheet, quietly unfold it, put his reading glasses on, and coolly jot down the numbers. Some precinct captains received handshakes or smiles for their efforts; a few got nods without eye contact.

"Oh man," exclaimed Roderick, turning away from the TV, where the anchors were announcing that Cecil Partee had won the nomination for state's attorney with 32 percent of the white vote. Partee gave white liberals an opportunity to vote for the least objectionable black guy, Roderick said; then they felt free to vote for Phelan.

Sawyer shook his head. "Cecil's got short coattails," he said. He took a drag on his cigarette. There were Partee posters plastered all over the public areas of his ward office.

"That was a good race," Roderick said after seeing the results of the treasurer's election, in which Edward Rosewell trounced Sawyer's friend Danny Davis. "They didn't throw shit at each other, you know? I'd like to see more races like that."

Sawyer raised his eyebrows and smiled. "I don't know what it is about Danny," he said, leaning back, raising his feet up off the floor for an instant. "He has the hardest time attracting good organizers, good fund-raisers."

When the results from the Second Congressional District came on, Sawyer leaned up on his desk, planting his elbows in the precinct totals he'd been carefully tallying. Incumbent Gus Savage, who had once publicly rebuked Sawyer at a mayoral rally, was going on and on about challenging Mayor Richard M. Daley in 1991, not with a "crossover black, but with a black black." Sawyer, who had endorsed and campaigned for Savage's opponent, Mel Reynolds, clenched his fists as he listened.

"What's he going on about the mayor for?" asked Shederick, Sawyer's other son. "The mayor had nothing to do with him."

"Did you hear that?" Don asked incredulously. "He just called white folks 'brothers and sisters'--after all that racism?"

"He likes to listen to himself talk," Roderick added.

"Gus makes you want to quit politics," Sawyer said, still up on his elbows. "You're never gonna bring people together like that. It only drives them away."

"He's gotta cut it out," Shederick said, shaking his head. "That only hurts us. You don't insult a sitting mayor like that, calling him Dum-dum Daley."

"That's right," Sawyer said. "You gotta respect the office of the mayor, period."

"Yeah," said Shederick, "no matter what you think."

"Yeah, you keep the insults to yourself," added Roderick. "You gotta show some respect."

When the totals were finally posted, Sawyer's ward machine had raked in the highest number of votes in the county for Pincham, Partee, Davis, and clerk nominee David Orr--all of them endorsed by Sawyer. Voter turnout in the Sixth Ward--at 52 percent--was one of the highest in the city.

"This is a clear signal of how powerful he is in this ward," said an aide named Derek.

"People are crazy if they don't look to him for future leadership," added Shederick.

Back behind his desk, Sawyer was clowning with a precinct captain, a woman who had defied the privileged space to come hug him. Sawyer's lady watched and smiled.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Bruce Powell.

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