Almost three weeks have passed since the Fifth Ward aldermanic election, but activists in and around Hyde Park are still fuming over that campaign.
Janet Oliver-Hill, who lost, says she was smeared by "dirty and ugly and unwarranted" allegations of anti-Semitism. Barbara Holt, the winner, says Oliver-Hill brought the mess on herself by attempting to exploit racial animosities. Almost everyone agrees the episode's another example of fratricidal independent politics in Hyde Park.
"Barbara and Janet are victims of internecine politics," says Ben Kohrman, Holt's campaign manager. "It's not pretty."
Ironically, the candidates have much in common as African American women with independent credentials. Neither supported Mayor Daley. "Either one would have made a fine alderman," says Rebecca Janowitz, a Hyde Parker who supported Oliver-Hill. "There was no reason for the campaign to fall into the mud."
Yet from the outset the campaign was marred by bad feelings. Oliver-Hill was backed by Alan and Lois Dobry, Holt by Sam Ackerman--bitter rivals whose conflicts are too lengthy to enumerate and too complicated to explain. Oliver-Hill challenged the signatures on Holt's nominating petitions in an effort to have her thrown off the ballot. Each campaign accused the other of spreading lies and distortions.
In the primary, Holt, an educator, ran strongest in the white precincts of Hyde Park, containing about 25 percent of the ward's voters; she was supported by Leon Despres and incumbent alderman Larry Bloom. To win, Holt had to keep her Hyde Park base while picking up votes from South Shore and Woodlawn, predominantly black communities where Oliver-Hill, the ward's Democratic committeeman, was strongest. For that reason, Kohrman tried to recruit south-side politico Sidney Ringgold.
"I knew Sidney from Joe Gardner's campaign," says Kohrman, Gardner's issues director. "I called Sidney and said, "Can you work for me?' He said, "No, I'm working with Janet Oliver-Hill.' I said, "Sid, let's talk about compensation.' I meant we were ready to pay him for his services. He said no, and I said, "Well, Sidney, I'll see you on the campaign trail, loser buys the beers."'
Ringgold was not a factor until Wednesday, March 22, when Holt and Oliver-Hill appeared on Cliff Kelley's WVON call-in radio talk show. That's when he called with questions for Holt.
"I know there are Jewish overseers in [Holt's] camp because they contacted me to be a manager with her," Ringgold said. "Ben [Kohrman], who is running her campaign, [told me that if I tried] to bring us in some black votes we will turn over so much compensation to you. I want to know why is Ms. Holt allowing mercenaries to be bought by her Jewish overseers?"
Before Holt could respond, Kelley jumped in to say, "There's not a thing wrong with hiring campaign workers."
"Definitely not," said Holt.
"So, I don't, I don't know, I don't think you need to respond to that," said Kelley.
"Again," said Holt. "I hope people are really listening."
With that, Kelley took another call. But many listeners were outraged. "I recognized the voice as Sidney Ringgold's because he calls Cliff's show all the time," says Ackerman. "I was appalled at Oliver-Hill because she didn't immediately repudiate it."
After the show, Holt and her strategists--Ackerman, Kohrman, Richard Barnett, and Richard Means--gathered to assess the radio show. And the more they talked about Ringgold's remarks, the angrier they became. "Oliver-Hill and Cliff Kelley were working to discredit me," says Holt. "There was unfair screening of phone calls. Sidney was just one of her supporters that was allowed to come on and beat me up."
As she sees it, it was all part of a campaign to portray her as a puppet of white Hyde Park politicians, particularly Larry Bloom. "They said I was beholden to Hyde Park," she says. "In an article she was quoted as calling me "Larry Bloom with an Afro.' Those comments were more veiled. Sidney's were out in the open."
At the meeting at headquarters, Kohrman told about his exchange with Ringgold. "I never said that I knew Sidney was being paid by [Oliver-Hill] or that he was on her staff," says Kohrman, "but that was a deduction most people could make."
"I saw Sidney at Roland Burris's [south-side] campaign office," says Barnett. "He was steering volunteers to the Hill campaign. He was in the open about it and I complained. And I was in the studio for the Kelley show and I saw Janet smirking throughout Sidney's remarks."
Holt and her strategists concluded that Oliver-Hill's campaign had set the phone call up. "It seemed to us that Janet wanted to inflame black voters south of Hyde Park with Sidney's antiwhite remarks, while standing to the side as if she had nothing to do with them so as not to offend Hyde Park," says Means.
Kelley's show doesn't have a large following among white Hyde Parkers. But if word of Ringgold's remarks were to spread, Hyde Park voters would be incensed. Of course, Holt's backers couldn't be blatant. No one wanted to make the same stupid mistake that their rival, Alan Dobry, had made a few years back in another campaign. Dobry discovered anti-Semitic fliers allegedly issued by his candidate's opponents and began posting them around the ward in order, he said, that "people could see what kind of poison was being spread." He brought so much embarrassment to his candidate that she dismissed him from the campaign.
"This was really dynamite stuff, but we wanted to be careful," says Means. "We did a lot of agonizing over this. We didn't want to be accused of doing what Alan Dobry did."
Ackerman began to spread the word. "I heard about it from Sam," says Rabbi Arnold Wolf of K.A.M. Isaiah Israel Congregation. "I realized Oliver-Hill's biggest mistake was not to immediately say something. You have to let the world know that you won't tolerate such hate."
After Friday night services March 24, Wolf raised the matter with Rebecca Janowitz, a member of his congregation and an Oliver-Hill supporter. "Rabbi Wolf came up to me and said, "Your candidate has a problem,"' says Janowitz. "I didn't know what he was talking about. He wanted me to find out if Janet was soft on anti-Semitism. But I wasn't going to ask her that. Why would anybody think I would support an anti-Semite?"
Within a few days angry allegations against Oliver-Hill were spreading, the details changing with each telling. Ackerman wrote a letter to the Hyde Park Herald identifying Ringgold as one of Oliver-Hill's "campaign workers." In another letter to the Herald, Holt called Ringgold a "known worker for Ms. Oliver-Hill." A front-page Herald article accused Oliver-Hill's campaign of jamming the phone lines during Kelley's show to "question Holt on why her campaign had Jewish overseers."
And then on April 1 Holt's campaign circulated a flier that identified Ringgold as "Oliver-Hill's Field Coordinator, a paid campaign staffer." The flier was signed by Despres, Bloom, Means, Ackerman, Barnett, Marty Oberman, Timuel Black, and other well-known independents.
Now it was Oliver-Hill's turn to be appalled. "First of all, Sidney Ringgold never, ever worked for my campaign in any capacity, paid or unpaid," says Oliver-Hill. "I've met him three times in my life; I don't really know him at all."
But why didn't you denounce his remarks on Kelley's radio show right after he made them?
"That caller and his comments had nothing to do with me," she says. "I didn't know who "Sidney' was; I didn't recognize his voice. I had no idea who Ben Kohrman was, or that he was white. I had no intention of getting drawn off on a discussion about race. The caller addressed what he said to Holt. Once Kelley got him off the phone I thought that was the end of it."
Oliver-Hill says that Holt did not forcefully and immediately denounce Ringgold's comments either. "I have many faults, but bigotry is not one of them," says Oliver-Hill. "It's not my experience. It goes against everything I believe in and what I've fought for."
Ringgold agrees with Oliver-Hill that the two of them barely know each other. He calls Kohrman a good friend, but insists that what he told him was that he was still working for Gardner and had no interest in getting involved in Fifth Ward politics. First of all, he says, he lives in the 21st Ward. Secondly, after Gardner lost he went to work for a candidate in the 34th Ward.
"I'm kind of pissed about this, for people to say I was in somebody's camp when I was not," says Ringgold.
He dismisses his language on WVON as being the sort of thing that sometimes slips out on live radio. "If you do the research, you'll probably find I say some things more stirring versus other candidates. I am not an anti-Semitic person. I am an African American but my ancestry--my forefathers' surname is Ringgold. My first name is Sidney." It doesn't bother him, he says, that people who haven't met him yet often assume he's Jewish.
In the midst of her campaign woes, Oliver-Hill's father died of leukemia. "My father went to the hospital on March 25, the same day that I heard that [Ringgold's remarks] were becoming an issue," says Oliver-Hill. "A week later my father died. That was the week from hell."
On April 2, Oliver-Hill issued a statement denouncing Ringgold's remarks. But on election day Holt won 82 percent of the vote in Hyde Park and was elected alderman with 52 percent of the ward's vote. "It's important to mention our teamwork throughout the ward, not just in Hyde Park," says Ackerman. "We put together a great team of black and white independents. Yes, that phone call hurt Oliver-Hill. But our team got out the vote."
Ackerman thinks Oliver-Hill should let the matter die. "I don't think we did anything wrong," he says. "I was told by Kohrman that Sidney was on Oliver-Hill's staff. No, I didn't verify it. But it's irrelevant anyway."
But why did you sign that ad, which identified Ringgold as Oliver-Hill's field coordinator, if you didn't know it was true?
"Why do you keep harping on this point? So he wasn't her field coordinator. So he didn't work for her. So what? He was clearly a supporter and she should have repudiated what he said. We got a great alderman and that's the end of that."
But Janowitz says there's a larger lesson in the campaign for Hyde Park. "We have to be more responsible about how we deal with anti-Semitism or we leave ourselves vulnerable to manipulators," says Janowitz. "Incidents like this don't go away. They tend to live on in people's memories and come back to haunt us in the future."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photo/Kathy Richland.