By all accounts, particularly his own, it was the stupidest act in Fifth Ward Democratic Committeeman Alan Dobry's 30 years in politics. On March 24--just two weeks before the April 2 Fourth Ward aldermanic runoff between incumbent Tim Evans and challenger Toni Preckwinkle--Dobry pasted anti-Semitic fliers to light posts in Jewish sections of Hyde Park.
The fliers had allegedly been distributed by Evans supporters in the ward's black sections. Dobry was pasting them up, he says, to expose Jewish voters to the anti-Semitic leanings of some of Evans's black supporters.
His tactics backfired. For one thing, Evans vehemently denies having any hand in the fliers, and there's not a shred of evidence to prove him wrong. Furthermore, by calling attention to the fliers, Dobry was giving credence to the notion that anti-Semitism is a motivating force in black politics--an absurdity underscored by the support black south-side voters have consistently shown for Jewish politicians. (In fact, Alderman Larry Bloom, who's Jewish, was recently reelected with about 72 percent of the vote in a ward that is 75 percent black.)
Preckwinkle beat Evans, though her victory is tarnished by accusations of racism. But Dobry has emerged as the biggest loser. In the last several weeks he's been castigated by conservatives and liberals, blacks and whites. The state board of the Independent Voters of Illinois/Independent Precinct Organization voted to recommend that Dobry resign from the group--a particularly harsh slap in the face since Dobry has been inextricably linked to IVI/IPO's south-side chapter for years.
More important, the incident has exposed tension between black and white ideological soul mates in the liberal precincts of the Fourth and Fifth wards.
"I regret what I did; in retrospect I wouldn't have done it," says Dobry. "But, for the sake of fairness, you have to place this one incident in the context of my career."
Not all of his opponents are willing to do that. "The issue is not what Alan Dobry did in the past; the issue is what he did to this community in March," says Sam Ackerman, an Evans supporter and longtime Hyde Park independent. "This was a blatant attempt to smear Evans's reputation and tarnish the ward's racial solidarity. The wounds won't heal overnight."
What's strange is that Dobry--an easygoing fellow with a long history of supporting civil rights causes--should find himself in such a predicament. But then he's always been an unusual ward committeeman. Dobry is, of all things, a chemist with a doctorate from the University of Chicago. His introduction to politics came as a precinct worker in Leon Despres' successful 1959 campaign for Fifth Ward alderman. In time he became hooked on politics, and he tried to encourage some of his better-known allies to challenge Marshall Korshak, the ward's Democratic committeeman. He found no takers.
"Marshall was a loyalist to the first Mayor Daley, but he was also a realist; he knew he couldn't beat [Despres] so he didn't try," says Dobry. "I'd always thought Korshak was vulnerable. But no one ever wanted to run against him. There's this notion that no decent person would get associated with the committeeman in the Democratic Party."
When Korshak retired in 1976, Dobry decided to give the race a try. He linked his candidacy to Congressman Ralph Metcalfe's insurgency against the Daley organization, and beat his Machine-backed opponent by about 100 votes.
Once in office he was not a serious threat to Mayor Daley's authority so much as a nagging pain in the neck--the quintessential straight-A student in a class filled with ruffians. "I was the guy who denounced what they did as illegal or immoral or degrading to the Democratic Party," says Dobry. "They tolerated me because they had to."
Most bothersome to the regulars was what they perceived as Dobry's self-righteousness. They were professional politicians who made their living by wielding power and influence. He was the Hyde Park outsider who disdained patronage. They called him a phony, noting again and again that he was just one more white politician representing an all-black ward.
That final point exposed Dobry's greatest weakness; the Fifth Ward encompasses portions of Woodlawn and South Shore, primarily black areas, but its politics have long been controlled by white Hyde Parkers like Bloom, Dobry, and Despres. To their credit, these politicians were far ahead of even their black counterparts on civil rights issues. (Dobry, for instance, was the only south-side committeeman to support Harold Washington's 1980 congressional campaign.) And yet from time to time racial hostilities pushed to the surface.
"There's always been this underlying feeling among some black folks that the IVI/IPO, which is essentially all-white, has been running the Fifth Ward for too long and we should support our own," says Tim Wright, a Hyde Park resident and former commissioner of the city's Department of Economic Development. "My position is that we should involve ourselves in the IVI. But a lot of folks never trusted them."
This was the background to the flier incident, which occurred in the midst of a heated campaign that already had some racial undertones. Preckwinkle is black, but her strongest support has come from the wealthier white precincts south of 47th Street.
"Opposition to Tim goes back to the days when he was a loyal member of Mayor Daley's organization," says Dobry. "When Toni ran against Tim in 1983 she lost because of a whispering campaign initiated against her in the black precincts. They said she was married to a white man, and that she was controlled by white Hyde Park politicians."
In 1987, Evans (backed by Mayor Washington) trounced Preckwinkle. This time around, however, Evans was vulnerable; residents across the ward were complaining of lousy services. The race was considered a toss-up when the fliers--crude, handwritten one-page letters linking Preckwinkle to Mayor Daley--first appeared.
"Daley doesn't want to face a real lawyer in court in land grab schemes etc.," read one flier. "Tim and wife have P.H.D.'s [sic] . . . Toni Preckwinkle working [sic] with Daley. She is married to white man--Jew." (Preckwinkle's husband is not Jewish.)
On March 18 Preckwinkle held a press conference to denounce the fliers, and the Committee on Decent Unbiased Campaign Tactics (CONDUCT) called on Evans to do the same (which he did). After that, the issue seemed to fade, which only angered Dobry.
"The press was ignoring these fliers, and I started to get hot under the collar," says Dobry. "I felt that people in the south side of the ward had to know that they existed. I wanted the truth to get out."
So on his own (without, he says, notifying Preckwinkle) he started posting the fliers. "I went to 51st and Cornell, a Jewish section of the ward, and started posting them," says Dobry. "I wasn't trying to be secret about it. It was 11 o'clock on a Sunday morning. On reflection I should have added some explanatory labels. Something like: 'This is what Tim Evans supporters are spreading.' I admit what I did was stupid, but my intention was not to spread hate. I wanted to expose people to what was going on in the other part of the ward."
Eventually he was spotted by Lisa Tannenbaum, an Evans supporter, who reported what she saw to Ackerman. "I was outraged," says Ackerman. "He was slandering Tim, a man who has fought against that kind of prejudice all of his life. There was no evidence that Tim or anyone in the campaign had anything to do with those fliers. Why would we hang them? They couldn't possibly help us. They could only hurt us. One flier was even put on a synagogue. Now you tell me: how many voters are we going to win over by doing that? Worst of all, Alan was spreading the bigotry. Whether he realizes it or not he was trying to get Jews mad at blacks, and for what end? To win an election? Is electing an alderman that important?"
Ackerman put Tannenbaum in touch with CONDUCT and Sun-Times columnist Vernon Jarrett. On April 1 CONDUCT condemned Dobry and Preckwinkle, noting in a letter to Preckwinkle that candidates "should be responsible for the actions of their campaign staffs."
Jarrett's election-day column was much harsher. "Why would Dobry, a white committeeman of a ward that is 75 percent black, attempt to destroy the image of a respected black alderman who was one of the late Mayor Harold Washington's most dependable allies in the City Council?" Jarrett wrote. "The answer is clear: It is open season on all blacks, not just Evans, when they do not vote purposefully in large numbers."
Dobry supporters say Jarrett has distorted Dobry's intent. It was, they say, an impulsive act bred by too many years of provincial Fourth and Fifth Ward in-fighting. "This is an isolated incident," says Bloom, "that some people are trying to exploit for political purposes." It has nonetheless exposed age-old hostilities between black and white Hyde Park activists. And several Jewish leaders (including Rabbi Arnold Wolf of K.A.M. Isaiah Israel Congregation, a Hyde Park synagogue) and state Democratic Party chairman Gary LaPaille have called on Dobry to resign. "I won't resign," says Dobry. "My future as committeeman should be left to the Democratic voters of the Fifth Ward and not Gary LaPaille."
For the most part, Dobry's Hyde Park allies have supported him. "I think Alan made a terrible mistake, but I'm not going to join the chorus of people seeking his head," says Bloom. "He's all but said he won't run for reelection in 1992. He should be allowed to leave office on his own and not be hounded out."
But Ackerman and others say the issue goes beyond Dobry's career, comparing it to the bad feelings generated over former Eugene Sawyer aide Steve Cokely's anti-Semitic speeches.
"If we want to re-create the multiethnic coalition that elected Harold Washington, we have to send a message that bigoted acts by blacks or whites will not be tolerated," says Tim Wright. "With Cokely there was no place for equivocation. Some folks said, 'Steve has had a long history of working in the community.' That didn't matter. Black leaders were called on to denounce Cokely and demand that Sawyer fire him. You had to move with dispatch. There is no time for long considerations when you're trying to preserve a multiracial coalition.
"Dobry has had a good career, but what he did was wrong and the Fifth Ward's political leaders should recognize that by asking him to resign. This won't fade over time. People don't forget things like this. There's a lot of folks who are going to say, 'I told you you can't trust that IVI.' I don't know what I'll be able to tell them now."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jon Randolph.