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Getting Out the Vote

Cruising the 26th Ward in Roberto Caldero's '81 Fleetwood: "I just bought it. . . . Don't give me a hard time about it."

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"Don't give me a hard time about it," says Roberto Caldero, his face illuminated by a nearby streetlight. He's sitting in his new car, a 1981 yellow Cadillac Fleetwood. Caldero is handsome and curly haired; except for the soft curve of his nose, he could be a Greek sculpture.

A political consultant working for 26th Ward Alderman Luis Gutierrez, Caldero knows this lemon car doesn't fit the image he wants, but he's not too defensive, He's propped against the headrest; the white of his teeth shows through a sly grin.

"I just bought it," he explains, laughing. He has big Bambi eyes and he flutters his lashes. "I haven't had a car in ages. I'm always dependent on other people to lend me one, which is fine. But I thought it'd be a good time for a car now."

The car has been mighty helpful today. It's election day and the polls are only open for one more hour, so Caldero has been ferrying volunteers and voters around. He's just scanned the voter lists and deployed a couple of precinct workers to a block jammed with tidy working-class homes, the kind that beg for company on the front steps in the summer. The two workers--young, smart Puerto Rican women with a sparkling energy about them--are ringing the bell at a dark little bungalow as Caldero watches from the Caddy.

"Listen, I know those people are home," Caldero says, almost in a whisper--it's as though he wants to will the bungalow door open.

Though no one answers the door, the foray is no loss. The precinct workers have cornered a couple of voters on the sidewalk. The workers are friendly but firm, each one leading a citizen to vote. Seeing this, Caldero turns the ignition and directs the car back to the polling place.

"Since I bought this thing, that's all I hear about," he continues, adjusting the mirror. "This car's a classic, and besides the guy sold it to me for nothing. I know its expensive on parts and gas but I figure I'll keep it at least until April."

The Caddy has automatic transmission, power steering, power brakes. Caldero turns the wheel easily with an open palm and the car lumbers around a pothole. "It's going to be a low turnout today," he says. "We have 400-some registered voters in this precinct, but I think we're only going to get about half. I'm not worried about anything, except Migdalia."

Migdalia Collazo is Gutierrez's candidate for state representative in the Ninth District. A perennial good-government campaigner, she has been endorsed by nearly every progressive organization in her run against Miguel Santiago, the former alderman, but it still doesn't look good for her. (This is her third contest against the chubby-faced Santiago.)

"Santiago will get at least 5,000 votes," Caldero says. "The machine can get that many votes here on any election, that's clear. It's going to be close."

Caldero won't talk about it much, but he knows Collazo's candidacy faces other obstacles besides Santiago's machine ties. For all her good stands on the issues, Collazo has a poor presence and has never mastered public speaking. "She's a lot better," he says.

As the Caddy turns a corner, a shaggy-haired boy leaps out at it. "Hey, man, gimme a ride," the kid demands. Caldero slides open the back door and the boy jumps in effortlessly.

"Everything's holding up," says 11-year-old William Garcia with the square-jawed look of a campaign vet. Caldero has had him passing out palm cards with the ward organization's recommendations. "I'm all out of cards. You got any more?"

"We lost this precinct by just a few votes last time," Caldero says. "So this time, we did a different kind of outreach. That was home base," he says, pointing to a typical corner bodega. There are grates waiting to cover the door and a cigarette ad that reads, "Winston Lo Tiene Todo." "We worked with the guy who owns the store. His family alone, that's like 32 votes. That cuts down on a lot of door to door."

"I'm out of cards," the kid says again. "They told me to just give 'em to everybody."

"That's all Tight," Caldero tells him. "Polls are about to close anyway." He brings the car to a slow, cautious stop at Moos School. Across Fairfield Avenue, the stained-glass windows on a church are glowing. Inside Moos, the polling place is just off the basement stairs in a brightly lit hallway.

"This particular precinct is not good for us," Caldero says. "It's not one of our strongholds, although we're getting better here. We're going to do fine for Jesse and Pucinski too."

Tending to the voters' needs are four election judges who graphically represent the area's black, Puerto Rican, and white ethnic mix. They're all older women, longtime residents of the neighborhood. When Caldero enters, they light up.

"How are we doing?" Caldero asks. He's warm and tactile toward the judges.

"Looks like 194 votes so far," says Agnes Kurtyka, a widow who refused to follow her children to the northwest side or the suburbs. ("I get along with everybody," Agnes boasts. "Nobody bothers me here.")

"You mean we're not going to break 200?" Caldero is stunned. He huddles with one of his precinct workers and then disappears. It's so near closing time, the cop assigned to the precinct is taking down one of the three Democratic voting booths. The Republican and Solidarity booths are unobtrusive to the point of invisibility.

Within minutes, Caldero's workers show up with three more voters. He is right behind them with two catches of his own, including a young woman carrying a baby.

"Hey, my son's shoe is in your car," she protests. Caldero leaps out to the Caddy, his black coat waving, and returns with the shoe as if it were an eggshell. The young mother is embarrassed and Caldero practically bows to her.

By 7:05 the last voter is out the door and election judge LaVerne Leskt, a 19-year veteran of this political process, is cracking open the ballot box. Gutierrez leads all the candidates on the ballot, handily defeating his opponent for the committeeman post. Jesse Jackson and county clerk candidate Aurelia Pucinski both win, and the Jackson delegates are doing well too. But as Caldero feared, Collazo loses two to one.

On the first floor of Moos School, Caldero punches in Gutierrez's number on a public phone. Next to him is a bulletin board with cutout letters that say "Teacher achievements," but almost all of the illustrations are photocopies from the Extra newspaper showing Gutierrez and his wife Yolanda at the school's Mexican Flag Day celebration.

"What's happening with Migdalia, man?" he says into the receiver. "Is she losing in the base? No, no, no way. This isn't our base . . . we've always had trouble here. Any counts from Kedzie and North?"

Caldero loosens his tie. He's worried. The margin against Collazo is so big it might be insurmountable. He calls Ben Reyes, another Gutierrez ally. "Hey, motherfucker, I'm trying to close down a precinct, not riding around in no car," Caldero protests. "Pucinski's declared a winner? Already? Are you kidding? Yeah, we carried her. We did a good job for Jesse. We did good for Pucinski. I think we might have lost Migdalia."

Still another call. "Let's see, Migdalia lost," he says. "I don't know how they got 83 fucking votes here. Santiago and his boys, they didn't even deal with the presidentials here, they just went after Migdalia. If Pucinski wins, we're going to hang out."

And another call. "We lost Migdalia here, 83 to 41. I don't know why," he repeats.

When Caldero finally parks the Cadillac at Gutierrez's ward offices, the alderman looks grim. "We got them to vote for Pucinski; you realize how hard that is in a Puerto Rican area where everybody's dying to vote for Byrne? And they voted for Jesse too, although Dukakis and his Spanish--man, I can't believe people were so impressed by that. But Migdalia lost," Gutierrez says. "Damn it."

Robin Gable, one of Gutierrez's staff assistants, is red-eyed from crying. "I feel terrible about Migdalia," she says.

"This is going to make it really hard for Latinas," Caldero says of Collazo's defeat. "I don't know; I just don't know what happened."

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

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