Sometime in the next few weeks Lou Pardo will oversee the registration of his 100,000th voter--surely a record, even in a city obsessed with politics and campaigns.
At age 73, Pardo, a retired rank-and-file union leader, heads a crack group of activists who march door-to-door or position themselves outside el stops, grocery stores, and public aid offices, registering voters in Logan Square, Humboldt Park, and West Town.
The secret to Pardo's success, all observers agree, is perseverance. By day and night, weekday and weekend, he can be found behind a messy desk in a cramped office in State Senator Miguel del Valle's storefront headquarters at 3507 W. North Ave. He spends most of his time with his volunteers, cajoling them, encouraging them, driving them to their locations and catering to their needs. For his efforts, his friends and allies will honor him with a dinner on October 22 at the Amalgamated Clothing & Textile Workers Union.
"Lou's the czar of voter registration," says Kevin Lamm, a Logan Square activist. "He's absolutely amazing--he just won't stop."
Pardo makes no secret about his most immediate goal: he wants to help ignite a grass-roots political movement that would unseat Mayor Richard Daley--the same kind of movement that carried Harold Washington to City Hall.
"These are apathetic times," says Pardo. "Or maybe voters have a realistic attitude that the system doesn't work for them. But I think people underestimate their ability to make change."
In many ways, Pardo is the last of a breed--a lifelong labor, civil rights, and political activist radicalized by the Depression and World War II. He was born in Indianapolis, the son of Sephardic Jews who had migrated from Macedonia. By the age of 18 he was working in a packing plant.
"I saw what unions could do when they organized the packing workers and wages went up from 25 cents to 75 cents an hour--in 1938 that made you pretty rich," says Pardo. "So many people have written unions off, but I think unions will lead the way to social change in this country. I really do."
During World War II Pardo served in the Air Force and was based in England. "The war really opened my eyes," says Pardo. "It was a fight for democracy. And I figured if you were going to fight for democracy in Europe and Asia you ought to practice it at home."
After the war, Pardo returned to Indianapolis; he supported Henry Wallace's third-party candidacy for president in 1948 and worked in early civil rights campaigns.
"When I came out of the Air Force no black could stay in a downtown hotel in Indianapolis, so we held demonstrations," says Pardo. "We had a rally for Henry Wallace and Paul Robeson. The American Legion, which is based in Indianapolis, raised a fuss, but that was all right. They called so much attention that we were able to fill the National Guard armory. I truly supported Wallace. I was convinced we needed a new party of labor, small business, farmers, and minorities. I haven't seen anything to change my mind; the recent Democratic Party is mentally bankrupt and doesn't represent its constituency at all."
Throughout the early 1950s, he and his wife Edna moved around the midwest. They settled in Chicago in 1956, buying a home in Austin, where they have lived ever since. It was a hard time for Pardo, who was labeled a Communist.
"I always worked at the tool and die trade, always worked on the bench," says Pardo. "But there was a lot of red-baiting then. When an employer found out who I was he'd want to get rid of me."
To keep a job he changed his name to Pardo (he still won't say what his former name was). Gradually he rose through the ranks of the tool and die makers' local 113.
"I've held every position in the union," says Pardo. "Most of the guys I worked with were white ethnics, and they didn't always like the stands I took. I was for the ERA and I worked to get blacks and Hispanics hired. One time some of the guys in the shop didn't talk to me for a month because I pushed hard to get this Mexican American kid hired. That's tough, having the guys you work with give you the cold shoulder for a month. But these things pass. I think the attitude about me was, 'Lou's got some screwy ideas, but he'll never steal anything and he'll always stand up for the union.'"
He retired from the tool and die trade in 1985. "It's a hard job, lots of pressure, lots of concentration," says Pardo. "You're working with drill presses and saws, sitting at a bench fitting things. Most of the old guys tell their sons, 'I don't want you working in a shop.' But I'm proud of that job. It requires creativity and problem solving, and the pay is pretty good. A good tool and die operator makes $20 an hour. One of the great failures of the school system is that we don't have machine shops in all the high schools. I know there's a big thing about pushing kids to college, but you shouldn't overlook the trades."
By the time he retired Pardo was a well-known activist on the west side. He'd volunteered in the campaigns of such independents as Art Turner, Anthony Young, and Danny Davis.
"The big boost for independents came in 1982 when the state changed the voter registration law," says Pardo. "Before that, voters could only be registered at city hall or a library. Now people can become official deputy registrars by taking a course at the Board of Election Commissioners. After that they can go all over the city registering voters. I think we were able to register about 30,000 voters on the west side.
In the 1980s Pardo volunteered out of Alderman Percy Giles's office in the 37th Ward. But a few years ago Pardo had a falling out with some precinct workers in Giles's office; they apparently resented the presence of a white man, even one who had marched for civil rights well before they were born.
"One guy said to me, 'Get your white ass back to Oak Park,'" says Pardo. "I never lived in Oak Park. For 35 years I've lived in Austin. I've lived there longer than he had. I didn't need that kind of abuse."
Del Valle invited Pardo to work out of his office and help register voters in his racially and ethnically mixed near-northwest-side district. "I was honored that Lou would come here," says del Valle. "There's a lot of turnover here as people move in and out. A lot of people aren't familiar with the process. They don't know they have to register every time they move. Part of Lou's task is teaching them about the system."
Pardo helped organize the northwest-side Registration Project, whose members include local leaders like Kevin Lamm, the Reverend Jorge Morales, Hilda Frontany, and David del Valle, the senator's younger brother.
Most important, he recruited volunteers eager to sign up voters. "The secret to registering voters is relating to people, because you are going to be stopping total strangers on the street or knocking on their doors," says Pardo. "You have to be outgoing, you have to like to talk to people. You also have to be consistent. Registration can be very boring; you're sitting in one place for hours at a time."
Pardo tracks the number of voters each registrar signs up, awarding prizes to the most productive. In the six months leading up to last year's presidential election, the five best registrars from Pardo's organization were Geraldine Varner, Martin Rodriguez, Molly Harris, Florice Sutton, and Teresa Gonzalez, each of whom registered more than 1,000 voters.
"Lou taught us that if you want to get registration done you have to take care of your volunteer registrars," says Lamm. "Lou buys them lunch, gets them bus fare, drives them all over the place. He even gets them card tables to set up their operation. It's hard to find card tables these days. Lou's always cruising the thrift stores looking for those tables."
Despite Pardo's efforts, overall registration in his area as well as throughout the city has dropped. Citywide there are about 1.49 million registered voters, down from 1,524,979 in November, according to the Board of Election Commissioners.
"Part of the reason for the drop is that the city's losing residents and many of our new residents are not citizens," says Tom Leach, a spokesman for the board. "The all-time high was in the 1950s when we had about 2.3 million. We had 1.6 million registered in April 1983, when Washington won. I don't know if we'll ever approach that number again."
For his part, Pardo remains optimistic. "Washington's victory didn't just come overnight--it was years in the making," he says. "I'd like to think that's what we're doing now--building the framework for the next political movement."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Yael Routtenberg.