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Running on Empty?

Some say liberalism is dead. Gubernatorial candidate John Schmidt is about to find out if they're right.

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By Ben Joravsky

All in all, John Schmidt generated an impressive display of money, clout, and connections when he came to Navy Pier last Sunday and announced he was running for governor. He stood on the roof of the bustling pier he had developed, a panoramic view of the city's skyline as his backdrop; he enlisted David Wilhelm, former chair of the Democratic National Committee, and Valerie Jarrett, chairman of the CTA, to say a few words on his behalf. There were free soft drinks and beer, a blues band, and a variety of state reps, committeemen, and wealthy party donors in attendance. A film crew brought in by David Axelrod, the Democrats' top media adviser, filmed bits for a commercial.

One by one, Wilhelm, Jarrett, and other speakers listed the many great achievements in Schmidt's career: corporate lawyer, savvy backroom negotiator, chief aide to the powerful. It was Schmidt whom Mayor Daley picked to oversee the billion-dollar Navy Pier redevelopment and McCormick Place expansion, just as it was Schmidt whom President Clinton tabbed to negotiate a world-trade agreement in Geneva and then named associate attorney general, in charge of, among other things, civil rights.

"John Schmidt has a lot of friends," said Jarrett. "And I'm proud to say I'm one of them."

And yet his candidacy is a long shot--a very, very long shot. It's not just that he's a first-time, relatively unknown candidate up against Congressman Glenn Poshard and former Illinois attorney general Roland Burris, two veteran campaigners with strong bases. And that he'll have to contend with the double standard that benefits Republicans who are able to keep on winning by promising tax cuts they can't possibly deliver, exploiting white fears of blacks, and doling out patronage to their pinstripe donors.

On top of all that, Schmidt is a liberal (no matter how much he trumpets his support of the death penalty)--at least his base is the liberal wing of his party. As such he must confront the painful reality of liberalism in the age of Daley and Clinton. It has become a meaningless ideology, easily bashed and easily manipulated.

So many charlatans have parroted its rhetoric, so many Republicans have maligned its past, and there has been so much racially tinged party infighting that liberal Democrats (particularly those out of Chicago) have become overly cautious; afraid to upset anyone, they wind up alienating everyone and standing for nothing, at least nothing that distinguishes them from (speaking of the timid) moderate Republicans.

Critics of these liberals are already gloating over the problems Schmidt will face. "Schmidt's a limousine liberal," sneered Victor Crown, publisher of the monthly Illinois Politics, as he watched Schmidt's Navy Pier bash. "John Schmidt is going to learn a lot about voting rights before this campaign is over."

Specifically, Crown is referring to articles his magazine has published (there will be more) about Schmidt's failure as associate attorney general to get the Clinton Justice Department to intercede quickly on behalf of a federal lawsuit filed by black and Hispanic activists against the city's ward map. Crown, a political gadfly who delights in humbling the mighty, contends Schmidt delayed intervention until after the '95 mayoral election as a favor to Daley. Schmidt denies the accusation, which has become a favorite topic of callers (particularly former judge Eugene Pincham) on black talk radio. The result is that Schmidt, who clearly has done more to enforce voting rights law than any of his opponents, will be on the defensive in black wards come March's primary.

Like so many other Democratic gubernatorial candidates, Schmidt has a slick-talking North Shore lawyer named Dan Walker to partly blame for his woes. In 1972 Walker talked a lot of liberals who should have known better into helping elect him governor. Despite all of his antimachine blather, Walker was incompetent, disingenuous, and corrupt. He was defeated in 1976, and the Republicans have held on to the governor's mansion ever since. For years the Democrats told themselves there was nothing permanent to the Republican hold, that it was merely a testament to the charisma of former governor Jim Thompson (who, for what it was worth, should have been a Democrat, since he was more liberal than most, at least when it came to supporting Chicago). But after Thompson stepped down voters overwhelmingly elected Jim Edgar, a bland moderate--and so went that theory.

In 1994, liberalism made its last great grab for glory when the Democrats nominated Dawn Clark Netsch. She at least showed some guts by boldly proposing to hike state income taxes and use the extra money to ease property taxes and erase the spending disparities between rich and poor school districts. Unfortunately for Netsch, Daley and other Democrats pulled back their support as soon as her proposal generated a little heat, while Edgar mocked her as a "tax-and-spend liberal" and cruised to reelection with more than 60 percent of the vote.

Now no ranking Democrats talk realistically about school funding, even though Edgar--in a blatant display of chutzpah--stole Netsch's plan and tried to pass it as his own. (He failed miserably as, irony of ironies, his GOP legislative cronies accused him of selling out to the "liberals.")

None of these problems is insurmountable, provided Schmidt has enough money to blanket the boob tube with ads. Some analysts have likened him to Richard Phelan and Al Hofeld, rich lawyers who tried to buy their way into higher office with brainwashing commercials. In fairness, Schmidt has a much more impressive public record than either Phelan or Hofeld. Like Netsch, his base is on the north side and the North Shore. He grew up in Evanston and graduated from Evanston High School in 1961; from there he went on to Harvard for college and law school. After law school he went to work in corporate law. In addition to his positions with the Navy Pier authority and with the Justice Department, he was an adviser to Adlai Stevenson III and Daley's chief of staff.

But such connections have a double edge. As a party insider and a well-connected corporate lawyer he's uncomfortable with the populist issues that rally Democratic voters. He talks about the jobs he created at Navy Pier and yet he backed NAFTA. He supports abortion rights and gun control, yet he's never been at the forefront of either movement. Jarrett's endorsement is a mixed blessing, since the CTA recently cut service in black and Hispanic communities. And even his ties to Daley may prove to be useless. The Democrats have lost every state office they held when Daley became mayor eight years ago. (Some Democrats privately wonder if Daley secretly withholds support, not wanting anyone to eclipse him as the party's top dog; or maybe his endorsement is a liability downstate.)

At the moment, Schmidt has no solid issues on which to run. In his announcement he criticized Edgar for "a passive attitude born of 22 years of one-party rule of the governor's office that has yielded an administration by autopilot." But he offered no clear programs or themes--certainly nothing like Netsch's bold plan on taxes. He even lost a chance to galvanize a growing suburban movement by blasting the state's tollway authority.

In his speech, Schmidt criticized the tollway authority (and the Department of Public Aid) for being "riddled by scandal and mismanagement." But when asked if he'd be willing to call for a halt to tollway construction, a position guaranteed to win him suburban votes, he backed off. "Well, I'm not ready to say that," he told a reporter.

The authority is a classic example of what strategists call a "wedge" issue--it exposes the hypocrisy of Republicans who rail against government spending while quietly operating a billion-dollar pork barrel for rich contractors and lawyers. Almost every week brings another embarrassing revelation about tollway extravagance. Last Monday's Sun-Times, for instance, offered a front-page story about a consultant who received $100,000 from the authority to conduct a study on whether the authority bosses were underpaid.

To his credit Schmidt was persistent. For over half an hour after his speech he stood in the broiling sun answering one question after another, even pleasantly enduring several pointed questions from Crown himself.

The reporters pushed and shoved to get closer, and soon Schmidt's shirt was soaked with sweat and his face turned red; an aide stood patiently in the background eyeing a watch. An RV with "John Schmidt for Governor" painted on the side (just above his 800 number) was ready to speed him off. He had several downstate campaign stops to make before the day was done.

The general predictions of Democrats who stayed behind to chatter with reporters is that Burris will take the black vote Schmidt needs to win, leaving Poshard as the front-runner, a depressing thought to any liberal. "In Poshard we're talking about a downstate conservative who opposes abortion rights and gun control," sighed one north-side elected official. "These are tough times for liberals. No one is as strong as we used to be. We have to find a breakthrough issue. It would be a disaster for the party if the nominee was Poshard." o

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): John Schmidt photo by Randy Tunnell.

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