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Southwest Slugfest

National Policy vs. Neighborhood Politics in the New Third Congressional District

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Out on the far southwest side a bruising political slugfest has broken out between old colleagues. Never close friends, congressmen Marty Russo and Bill Lipinski were nonetheless frequent companions over the past decade on flights back and forth from Washington. They are often seen--inaccurately--by outsiders as political peas in a pod, "conservative ethnic Democrats" who consistently vote against civil, reproductive, and women's rights, but who support most narrowly defined prolabor and urban initiatives. Now the redrawn boundaries of the new Third Congressional District have pitted the two incumbents against each other in the March 17 primary.

At the local level this race is a test of how an important bloc of swing voters responds to a choice of political styles within the Democratic Party. Despite great similarities between the two men, Lipinski represents traditional machine-style Democratic politics--a parochial and suspicious world of personal favors, deals, and loyalties based on ethnic and neighborhood links. Though his roots are in the same Democratic machine, Russo embodies a newer style of moderate urban populism--a somewhat more open and inclusive politics emphasizing general policies that benefit the broad middle or working class more than deals and favors for well-connected individuals, institutions, and interests.

But this primary fight has significance far beyond the bungalows and two-flats, the leafy residential streets and the well-ordered industrial parks of this part of the city and the adjacent suburbs. At the national level it's an important test of the political appeal of a progressive approach to the hot issue of health care. Russo, an influential congressional insider, had never played a public leadership role, but over the past two years he has become the high-profile sponsor of comprehensive health-insurance-reform legislation. Modeled on the Canadian system, his plan would replace the current expensive, crazy-quilt system with a single national health-insurance plan that would cover everyone at less expense. While formally a supporter of Russo's proposal, Lipinski is still leaning toward less drastic reform.

Neither man would be a candidate for political sainthood or Common Cause awards. Lipinski relies on his comrades in the declining Democratic machine and remains an unabashed proponent of patronage politics. And despite his emphasis on policy over patronage, Russo harvests bushels of campaign funds from political-action committees and organized special-interest groups, and often looks out for those supporters.

Lipinski claims to bring home the political bacon for Chicago in the form of public- works projects. Russo positions himself as the champion of an increasingly beleaguered middle class, especially with his health-care proposal. Lipinski, who virtually cedes Russo's claim that he's a national leader, derides him for being a national politician and not a true representative of the old neighborhood and its people.

The terrain of this battleground stretches from the closely packed bungalows and two-flats of wards at the edge of Chicago, the home of traditional Democratic power brokers such as state house speaker Michael Madigan and Alderman Ed Burke, to the more spread out, more Republican suburbs, from Oak Forest and Tinley Park on the south to Oak Park on the north and Hinsdale on the west.

The people living in the district are overwhelmingly white, many of southern- and eastern-European heritage. Virtually all would consider themselves middle-class, though they range from moderately affluent to barely scraping by. Many of the younger families have put on white collars--taking clerical, technical, or low-level managerial jobs--thanks to the steady if unspectacular past paychecks of their blue-collar parents. Yet this is still factory territory, the home of many plants that fled Chicago's inner city or took root in suburban open spaces over the past few decades.

The voters' roots and loyalties may be Democratic, but in recent elections they have chosen Republican presidents--and even some local officials. Many of them have relied heavily on government programs--from housing subsidies (mortgage interest deductions) to social security--but over the years they have soured on government, seeing it as costly, ineffective, and, worst of all in the eyes of many, mainly a boon to blacks. Now their enthusiasm for the antigovernment policies and leadership of Ronald Reagan and George Bush has plummeted, but Democrats have not yet recaptured their support.

Will these "Reagan Democrats" come back to their old party? Is it possible to create a Democratic Party that is home to them and the party's loyal core supporters, including blacks, Hispanics, women's-rights advocates, civil libertarians, and antimilitarists?

For most of his 17 years in Congress Marty Russo has held Saturday-morning workshops with constituents throughout his district. They're attended mostly by the elderly, who have time to spare, and people who have a gripe with Russo, the government, or the world. There's always at least one elderly person who brings up "the notch," complaining that because she was born between 1917 and 1921 she's been shortchanged in her social-security benefits.

Russo is 48, his wavy, bushy hair now graying. He's a self-confident, engaging figure, and the brusque, no-nonsense mannerisms of his Taylor Street childhood still clearly show through a social patina acquired over the years in Congress, where he has developed a reputation as an effective party whip and as possibly the body's best golfer.

Russo has sometimes seemed politically retrograde, as when he and Lipinski became the only northern Democratic congressmen now running for reelection to vote against the 1991 civil rights bill that even Bush finally supported. Yet standing before these district workshop audiences, Russo sounds like a bastion of progressive politics, defending the role of government in society.

"The government today is our enemy," declared one older constituent, an ironic position given that one of the main complaints of the elderly in the audience is that they want more out of the social-security programs on which they depend. Russo shot back, "I think it's horrible you'd say government is your enemy. Government hasn't been doing its job because Reagan and Bush sold people like you a bill of goods. Government is not your enemy. It ought to be a partner with people like you. The reason it's not doing the job is because people in power don't want to do the job."

When another constituent attacked welfare, Russo bit the bullet. "Do you think people love being on welfare?" he said angrily, to which there was a mumbled chorus of "yes" from the audience. "You ought to see the way people live on welfare. Most people stay on welfare less than nine months. But to get people off welfare there have to be jobs for them."

These days, however, Russo primarily defends what government could do about health care. Despite their misgivings, his constituents are so burdened by health-related woes that they're more than willing to consider his ideas.

The United States spent 12.3 percent of its gross national product on health care in 1990, and at the current rate of increase it will spend more than 16 percent by 2000. By comparison, Germany, France, and Canada spend between 8 and 9 percent of their GNP on health care--Japan, Britain, and others spend even less. And the growth in health-care spending in all these countries is far less than here.

More and more Americans--now about 37 million individuals--also have no health insurance. Unlike every other industrialized country except South Africa, the United States does not have a comprehensive national health plan. Instead of making health care a right, the United States assumes most people will get insurance through their jobs. But because insurance has become so expensive and growing numbers of people work part-time or temporary jobs without benefits, having a job is no guarantee of protection. Three-fourths of the uninsured are in working families.

The high cost of health care is not just a personal nightmare--it's a drag on the overall economy and makes this country less competitive. Even major corporations, including the Big Three auto companies, now support national health insurance.

Those with some kind of insurance have also suffered as employers try to shift growing costs onto workers by reducing coverage or increasing employee payments. Four-fifths of all strikes in recent years have occurred to protect health insurance. Insurance companies have increasingly tried to avoid covering people who are sick or seem at risk of injury or illness, including AIDS. Millions of Americans are trapped in jobs they might otherwise leave because they have preexisting health conditions that would exclude them from insurance at a new job. Unemployment looms as a double catastrophe: loss of income, but also loss--possibly forever--of health insurance. More than one-fourth of Americans who are nominally protected are underinsured and vulnerable to catastrophes. Poor people covered by medicaid are shunted into a second-rate system; medicare for the elderly covers a declining share of old people's health expenses, especially for long-term illnesses.

Russo's legislation is roughly modeled on Canada's health-care system. Everybody in the country would be covered by the same insurance with comprehensive benefits--hospitals, doctors, prescriptions, preventive care, nursing homes. Patients would pick their own doctors. National and state health-care budgets would be set annually to guarantee appropriate coverage, and providers would be paid according to a schedule of fees or, in the case of institutions such as hospitals, a negotiated global budget. In place of employers or individuals paying insurance premiums, Russo's plan would be financed through a 6 percent payroll tax on employers, increased income taxes, a long-term-care premium on senior citizens, state taxes, and current federal health spending.

Russo's plan would provide insurance for everyone, including those now uninsured, and improved insurance for many already covered. Yet all that would be done at a lower total cost than the nation now spends for inferior health care. The U.S. General Accounting Office concluded that if a Canadian-style health plan were applied to the United States, "the savings in administrative costs alone would be more than enough [about $67 billion a year out of about $800 billion currently spent] to finance insurance coverage for the millions of Americans who are currently uninsured. There would be enough left over to permit a reduction, or possibly even the elimination, of co-payments and deductibles."

Marty Russo came to be one of the preeminent congressional leaders on health care in a roundabout fashion. The basic idea is not new. In the 1930s Roosevelt called for national health insurance, just as Truman did after World War II, but both were beaten back by the American Medical Association and the insurance industry. For many years Ted Kennedy promoted comprehensive public-health-care legislation, but faced with constant frustration he retreated to the limited idea of requiring employers to either provide insurance for employees or pay into a public fund ("play or pay").

Russo is a relative newcomer to the issue. Ironically, in 1978 he cast critical votes in the defeat of a hospital-cost-containment proposal of President Jimmy Carter. He says he voted against it because the proposal favored northeastern hospitals over more efficient midwestern hospitals; critics say he was beholden to insurance companies that had contributed to his campaign. In 1988 he voted against long-term home care for the elderly. But now his own legislation encompasses both cost controls and long-term care.

Over the decade from 1981 to 1991, according to Common Cause, Russo received $228,575 from medical-industry political-action committees. Lipinski charges that those contributions led Russo to support lucrative industry tax breaks engineered by Dan Rostenkowski. Lipinski also implies--without offering any evidence--that Russo is not pushing forward on his health-care bill. Russo responds that he had nothing to do with the so-called transition rules that benefited insurers, and that he has worked hard on his bill, which now has 67 cosponsors, far more than any other health-care proposal.

In any case, Russo is now working to wrest the entire health-insurance market from private industry. Other Democrats haven't shown such willingness to bite the hand that financed them. For example, Iowa senator Tom Harkin, who portrayed himself as the most traditionally liberal presidential candidate, has waffled on health care in large part because he has depended so much on insurance-industry contributions.

Born into a working-class family, with a father he remembers working three jobs, Marty Russo followed a classic Chicago political career. He went to DePaul for both college and law school, then worked in the district attorney's office. In 1974, in the wake of the Watergate scandal, he was tapped for a long-shot run against a Republican incumbent. Russo won and has held on to the office by substantial margins ever since.

For many years Russo drew little press attention, except for occasional controversies about his fund-raising or his actions favoring business special interests, such as blocking new regulations on small bakers and the funeral-home industry or supporting tax breaks for Chicago's futures traders. He defined himself in the late 70s as a "conservative probusiness Democrat" defending small business from undue regulation. Now he finds himself attacking deregulation and arguing that government can and should do more for the average citizen.

For much of his time in Congress Russo has been a junior ally and student of Dan Rostenkowski. But he has also been influenced by three more traditionally liberal members of Congress who share a house with him in Washington: Charles Schumer of New York and Leon Panetta and George Miller of California.

His voting record is an odd concoction: neither predictably liberal nor conservative. He shows signs of being driven by both principle and expediency. Unlike many other social conservatives--who share Russo's opposition to choice, affirmative action, and the equal-rights amendment--Russo has often supported civil liberties in tough cases. He opposed the Reagan-Bush "gag rule" that would prohibit federally supported doctors from discussing abortion with their patients. He voted against prayer in schools and the constitutional amendment banning burning of the United States flag. He opposed aid to the right-wing El Salvador government and Nicaraguan contras, and he favored sanctions against the South African apartheid government. He has also been a staunch opponent of weapons systems such as Star Wars, chemical and nerve-gas weapons, and the MX missile, and he has supported nuclear test bans and the nuclear freeze.

Over the years Russo gained respect as an effective behind-the-scenes operator, as a leading critic on the Ways and Means Committee of the Reagan and Bush tax and budget policies, including defense spending, and as a primary advocate of the alternative minimum-tax provision of the 1986 tax act that was designed to make sure the rich wouldn't escape taxes. As a party whip he's known for being forceful but not too overbearing in rounding up votes. But he was certainly better known to his peers than to the public beyond his district.

Early in his career Russo served on a health subcommittee, but it was only while serving on the Ways and Means Committee, headed by Rostenkowski, that he began thinking seriously about national health insurance. Like nearly everyone in the House, he voted in 1988 for a revision of medicare that raised premiums to pay for catastrophic care and some other improved benefits. But the elderly protested mightily, and a year later Congress reversed itself. During the debate on repeal Russo spoke out repeatedly in favor of comprehensive reform of the health-care system rather than piecemeal changes.

It was the experiences of his family and his constituents that pushed him to contemplate drastic changes. "I got started because of senior citizens coming to my workshops, complaining that the premiums go up but the benefits go down," he says. But he also saw what happened in his own family: his mother-in-law had a hiatal hernia and had her gall bladder removed, but the insurance company resisted covering the operation because it wasn't approved in advance. His father had major surgery, and he watched with frustration as his 72-year-old mother struggled to fill out the voluminous forms with her arthritic hands. Then his sister-in-law was hurt in a skiing accident in Colorado. Russo took her to one of the best knee surgeons in the country, who lived in the area, but the insurance company demanded a second opinion, even though only one doctor was readily available.

"How silly is this system?" Russo asked himself. "I've got to wait for a bureaucrat. That's not the way we ought to be doing it." One person who has worked with Russo adds, "Marty grew up thinking a congressman was a powerful guy. To find himself humiliated by an insurance bureaucrat got under his macho Mediterranean personality."

Russo had another motive to introduce health-care legislation. "I had helped so many people get their bills passed," he says. "Why don't I come up with an idea I can pass? It's time you get moving on the national scene." Though he had pushed through the Brady bill to control handguns, he says, "it's not called the Russo bill. I'd like to do something for myself too."

Russo also had a politician's hunch that the nation was ripe for radical health-care reform. "I try to represent the core section of the country, to reflect the sentiments of people around me." Now he proudly claims, "I read it right. My constituents told me this was something on the horizon. People said this isn't going to be a big issue. I said this is a sleeper issue." Then underdog Democrat Harris Wofford made national health care the centerpiece of his Senate campaign last fall in Pennsylvania and won a dramatic victory over former attorney general Richard Thornburgh. With self-satisfaction, Russo says simply, "I saw a problem, made an issue, proposed a solution."

Because he had voted earlier against hospital cost containment, Russo says he "felt an added responsibility" to return to the issue. After he and his staff studied a wide range of alternatives, he settled on the essentials of the Canadian model, which breaks the link between employment and health insurance and establishes a single payer for medical bills. Drafting a bill took a year and half, with contributions from a number of outside experts and citizen lobbying groups, including Citizen Action (a national coalition of progressive statewide groups), the Illinois Public Action Council (Citizen Action's Illinois affiliate), and Citizens for Tax Justice.

"By the time we started working with him [in the fall of 1990] he was convinced that the single-payer reform was the way to go," says Cathy Hurwit, legislative director of Citizen Action. "I do think that when he started he was looking for a way we could work through the insurance system. But the more he looked into and studied the problem and tried to figure out what was required on both a political and policy basis, he was convinced single-payer reform was the way to go."

Maureen Testoni, Russo's chief aide on health issues, says, "One of the main reasons he picked single payer is that every American would be covered--there are no gaps, no cracks. It's the only plan that can guarantee coverage for everyone with less money than what we pay now."

For a politician the appeal is obvious: Russo is able to expand benefits vastly, not only for the uninsured but also most of the insured, and he can pay for it all by eliminating waste. In this case, however, the waste is in the private system, not the government. "The private sector has failed miserably," he says. "Government-run medical care is more efficient." He lovingly cites comparative figures: under medicare, administration represents 2.5 percent of program costs; under private insurance, administration eats up 12 percent of costs. Canada's overhead is about the same as medicare's. And these figures don't take into account the huge cost to doctors, hospitals, and patients in time and money spent filling out claims forms and fighting with insurance companies over who pays what.

The private system has enormous duplication and expends a lot of effort and money in marketing and reviewing claims, attempting to avoid payment, or second-guessing doctors. None of the alternative proposals before Congress touches this massive waste, whether it's the Senate Democratic leadership "pay or play" legislation or President Bush's proposed tax credits to help people buy insurance (which Citizen Action derided as "taxpayer subsidies to the insurance industry"). Putting the government in place as a single payer--the basic objective of related bills introduced by Vermont representative Bernie Sanders and Nebraska senator Bob Kerrey--also provides the leverage to negotiate overall health-care budgets and implement cost controls more effectively.

Unlike many of the managed-care plans that would effectively channel people into health-maintenance organizations--which are endorsed by the New York Times, Paul Tsongas, and others--the Russo plan would preserve the freedom of individuals to choose the doctors, clinics, or hospitals they wanted.

Russo loves to tally the savings. According to a study cosponsored by Physicians for a National Health Plan, if Russo's bill had been in effect last year, state and local governments would have saved about $30 billion in reduced payments for medicaid, the uninsured, and public-employee benefits. That would have amounted to $1 billion in Illinois, about two-thirds of the budget deficit the state faced. According to calculations his staff made earlier, the elderly would have saved $28 billion in 1989 as a group and nonelderly individuals $25 billion if his plan had been in place that year.

Under Russo's plan, some people would pay more in taxes: the lowest income-tax rate would stay at 15 percent, but the top two brackets of 28 and 31 percent would change to three--30, 34, and 38 percent--with the highest rate for families with incomes over $200,000. There would also be a $25-per-month premium for the better-off elderly to pay for long-term care. Although businesses as a group would shoulder a bigger load than they do now, since many companies offer no or limited health insurance, many companies would actually save money.

On the campaign trail recently, Russo met at Heim Corporation in Bedford Park with a group of machine-tool-company executives. At first they pressed their typical business agenda, trying to restrict liability for their products. After listening respectfully a while, Russo sneaked in a question about health-insurance premiums. After subdued moans of complaint around the table, Roger Maroch, chief financial officer of FamTech, exclaimed, "I wish somebody would come up with a way of controlling health-care costs."

"Support HR 1300, my bill," Russo said with a smile.

"Nobody seems to have an answer," Maroch continued.

"I've got an answer," Russo insisted. "I'll bet you're paying 11 to 12 percent of payroll on health insurance." Actually some of the companies were paying as much as 17 percent of payroll. Russo told them that under his plan they would pay 7 percent, a substantial savings. The executives were suspicious, but eventually Maroch concluded, "All I can tell you is somebody has to do something. At this stage I don't think anybody other than the government can do it."

Sometimes Russo has trouble convincing individuals who would benefit. At one workshop he walked 70-year-old Hiamen Rubenstein through the math, showing how he could save $9,000 a year and still go to the doctor of his choice. "I'd rather pay my own way," Rubenstein insisted, "rather than depend on the government." Of course, he already depended on the government for medicare, social security, and much more. Other people told horror stories about Canada. Russo responded that 90 percent of Canadians like their system and dread nothing more than the possibility of returning to a U.S.-style system. Besides, he said, "People wait all the time in this country. If you're at the bottom, you don't even get in the waiting line."

Clearly the United States does ration health care according to ability to pay, and that contributes to the high cost of health care: the working poor and even many middle-income people delay going to doctors or avoid treatments, which leads to more serious illness and higher costs when they're eventually forced to seek help. Russo objects strongly to this two-tier medical system, which would be perpetuated even under many other Democratic plans. And he thinks Bush's proposal would be even worse. "I think the Donald Trumps of the world and the average Teamster should get the same kind of care," he told constituents at a recent workshop.

He argues that systems like "pay or play" will lead to private insurers skimming off younger and healthier workers, leaving more expensive clients to a public program. He adds that those younger workers will resent paying taxes to finance a public system that doesn't benefit them. Like social security, he says, a universal system can win broader political support.

Russo has made his national health plan a consuming mission, and his personal role as backer of the single-payer approach is extremely important. First, he works hard and effectively, not only with his colleagues but also in public forums. Second, as a representative from a conservative, white ethnic district, he symbolizes how progressive policies can be fashioned to benefit the broad majority of Americans, from poor to middle-class, both black and white. And it's important for the country to break out of the morass of internal conflict and antigovernment, uncommunal politics that have contributed so heavily to the decline of our quality of life and economic vitality over the past two decades. For the Democrats, such inclusive progressive social reforms are key to revitalizing their party.

Cathy Hurwit of Citizen Action has worked on Capitol Hill since 1976. "I've worked on a lot of different issues with a lot of different members of Congress," she says. "It is extremely rare, if ever, that I've seen someone work as hard on a bill [as Russo does]. If we call and say we hear someone is interested in the bill, he's dialing that person before we're off the phone. He's educated himself on this so he can argue with anybody. I've been enormously impressed. You can tell the people who really believe in what they're doing and those who are doing it for personal political reasons. It's absolutely clear this has become a critically important thing to him."

Public-opinion polls have repeatedly demonstrated that the power elites--the medical, political, media, and other establishments--are way behind the American people on this issue. And no other approach generates the kind of grass-roots enthusiasm that Russo's bill does.

Worries about health care and the economy are at the top of voter concerns across the country, and the new Third District is no exception. Russo is staking his race for Congress primarily on his leadership role in the health-care fight. "My race is of national importance," he says, "not because of Marty Russo, but because of what I stand for. I'm going to put the insurance companies out of business. If I lose, they'll say, 'If national health insurance is such a great idea, why did he lose?'"

The man who wants Marty Russo to lose almost as much as the insurance companies do is Bill Lipinski, the incumbent congressman from the Fifth Congressional District, much of which was merged with former Russo territory. Lipinski is pure old-school Chicago politics, a man who a few years ago contemplated a run for mayor on a platform of restoring patronage, which he defends as a means of instilling discipline in city workers. A lifelong southwest-side resident, the 54-year-old Lipinski touts his roots and bungalow life-style as political badges of honor.

"I'm one of you" is Lipinski's basic message, suggesting that Russo isn't. "I'm interested in representing people where I live," he said. "[Russo] is interested in serving in Congress." In one mailing he prominently contrasts his modest home with Russo's larger suburban house with its three-car garage, highlighting how he lives in the heart of the district and Russo outside of it. Russo counters that the boundaries of his district were changed, and he'll move if he wins. Russo also responds that his house and garage are larger because his sister-in-law, mother-in-law, and two sons live there with his wife and him. Lipinski's literature asks, "Had enough of insiders like Marty Russo?" Yet Lipinski is, if anything, more an insider than Russo, certainly with regard to the local Democratic Party.

The implication in Lipinski's message is that he will look out for his neighbors in the urban village like a superalderman who was simply bumped up from City Council to Congress. After he was described in such terms by one writer, Lipinski remarked, "I don't know if it was meant as a compliment or negatively--but it was accurate. My campaign style has not changed since I ran for alderman in 1975."

Lipinski's roots also limit him and his political vision. "I don't think I could represent a district that was 30 percent black and 70 percent ethnic American," he says. "I'd have to change my basic political philosophy that I am a representative of the people that live in my ward and district. It's all well and good to look down the road at what's good for America, but my first obligation is to represent the views of my district."

Lipinski's father was a CTA driver, his mother a secretary in a steel mill. The family's closest tie to politics was an uncle who was a Republican precinct captain. After graduating from high school, Lipinski went to Loras College in Dubuque, Iowa, for two years. He never finished college. In the summer of 1958 he got a temporary job with the Park District, then was asked to stay on as recreation leader and physical-education instructor.

He began to develop ties with local politicians and businesses who sponsored the athletic teams, and gradually became involved in his Democratic ward organization. As one alderman after another fell to indictments for zoning corruption, the leadership of the ward was in shambles. In 1975 Lipinski was given a boost into the committeeman slot by Mayor Richard J. Daley, who was facing a challenge from then-independent William Singer and wanted to get convicted alderman Frank Kuta out of his party-committeeman role. Lipinski went on to win an open aldermanic fray by a modest margin, exploiting networks he'd established working for the Park District.

Lipinski rebuilt the 23rd Ward organization, relying heavily on Park District patronage, and established a local zoning board and a ward council to include businesses and neighborhood organizations in community politics. In 1982, with the backing of Richard M. Daley, Lipinski ran against and solidly defeated incumbent congressman John Fary, who was backed by then-mayor Jane Byrne.

Lipinski retained both his role as committeeman and his old sympathies for patronage politics when he moved to Washington. Russo recently revealed that over Lipinski's nine years in Congress 27 of his staff made 150 contributions totaling $45,000 to Lipinski's ward organization. All but 15 of the contributions were made either just before the staffers were hired or while they were employed. Of course, it's illegal for congressmen to promise or deny jobs on the basis of contributions to them, and illegal to solicit contributions from staff. It's also illegal for staff to contribute to campaign funds that might influence a federal election. Russo called for a federal, state, and local investigation to see whether Lipinski had violated criminal statutes, pointing out that the contributions and the close relationship between ward-organization activities and elections suggest he might have. Lipinski's campaign admitted to only one such contribution from a staffer to a Lipinski fund and said the $250 was being returned.

Russo also criticized Lipinski, as others have in the past, for profiting personally from his ward office, which rents space to his ward organization, his alderman, and his state representative--all costs the public pays indirectly. Russo contends that this behavior may violate federal statutes and is ethically improper, even if it is true to the machine tradition of politics as a family business.

One of Lipinski's colleagues in Congress was Harold Washington. Despite their political antagonism, they managed to maintain a moderately friendly relationship. During Washington's first years as mayor, Lipinski had been the member of the Vrdolyak bloc who most went out of his way to cultivate ties with Washington and to invite him to neighborhood functions on the southwest side. Washington genuinely appreciated Lipinski's gestures, though he never won Lipinski's support. Lipinski praised Washington for distributing city services fairly, increasing government efficiency, and rebuilding the neighborhoods, but he blamed Washington as much as Vrdolyak for the city's bitter political and racial strife.

In the City Council Lipinski, who once made a sartorial splash by wearing a bright orange suit, campaigned for a rapid transit line for the southwest side. In Congress he continued the fight, getting help from Washington and other members of the delegation. As a member of the Public Works Committee, a traditional Chicago plum, Lipinski made the transit line his special cause. After Lipinski cast one of the very few votes in favor of aid to the Nicaraguan contras from a northern Democrat, Ronald Reagan called to thank him. Then Reagan asked Lipinski if there was anything he could do for him. Appropriate money for the southwest rapid transit, Lipinski said. In half an hour a Reagan aide was back on the line beginning to work out arrangements. Lipinski denied that he traded his contra vote for the transit line. He said he simply believed in contra aid and reaped the political windfall.

Compared to previous hacks from the Fifth District, Lipinski has worked hard to bring home the public-works goodies. He takes credit for pushing through the airline tax that Richard M. Daley wanted to finance a new Lake Calumet airport. (That alone may inspire some votes against him. Russo has been noncommittal about a new airport site but very sympathetic to new high-speed railroads that in the long run would benefit Chicago as well as the country even more than a new airport.) Ironically, while Lipinski is claiming credit for revitalizing Midway Airport and surrounding businesses, the Lake Calumet airport--in the unlikely event it is ever built--would shut down Midway. In this election both Lipinski and Rostenkowski take responsibility for bringing home highway and transit funds with last year's highway bill.

Lipinski has voted as a generally prolabor Democrat on economic issues, though he--unlike Russo--voted for the politically attractive but fiscally unsound balanced-budget amendment. But on cultural, military, and foreign-policy issues Lipinski is one of the most conservative Democrats in Congress. His voting profile most resembles that of a white southern conservative Democrat, and he's significantly to the right of Russo on many issues.

Lipinski was an ideological hard-line cold warrior and an enthusiastic backer of all Reagan's military-spending initiatives--from Star Wars to the MX missile. He also opposed bans on chemical weapons and nuclear tests, and even talks on test bans.

While a tough foreign policy may be popular in Lipinski's district, it was the Reagan military budgets that ran up the huge public debt Lipinski disliked. Far worse, the debt that was squandered on high-tech military gimmicks could have been spent on productive public investment, such as new railroads and highways or improved education. That spending drained far more money from Chicago and Illinois than Lipinski's hustling managed to return in public works. In the bargain Lipinski effectively cut with Reagan--southwest-rapid-transit money for contra aid and military spending--Chicago and the Third District were big losers. In this sense, Lipinski didn't bring home Chicago's bacon--he sent it to both coasts and overseas.

Now Lipinski says he's willing to cut some defense spending--perhaps $75 to $100 billion over the next five years, compared to Bush's $50 billion. But Russo, who opposed many of Reagan's biggest military-spending boondoggles, wants to cut $175 billion or more in the same time. And though Lipinski declared a year and a half ago that the cold war was over, he has continued--often as part of a tiny minority of 11 Democrats--to fight defense cuts and arms control. He voted for a new tactical missile, and against a call for a nuclear test ban, against small cuts in the MX-missile and Star Wars programs, and even against a modest proposal to help convert military facilities to peacetime work.

Conservative as Russo has been on many social issues, Lipinski is even more so. For example, he favors school prayer, taxpayer financing of church-operated programs, and an amendment outlawing flag burning. He has been a militant crusader against liberal social policies and civil liberties in the national Democratic Party, which he sees as alienating his constituents and losing national elections for the Democrats.

At times Lipinski's positions are remarkably inconsistent. In his district he's fought against trash incinerators, yet he would be happy to pave over the Lake Calumet wetlands. But he's also a cosponsor of the admirable Ancient Forests Protection Act, denounced by many loggers in the northwest as more pointy-headed liberal planning by effete easterners like Lipinski. (Maybe Washington and Oregon congressmen could introduce legislation to protect midwestern wetlands.)

Besides focusing on public works for Chicago and fighting social liberalism among Democrats, Lipinski has been a staunch supporter of a government industrial policy, including federal aid to retool industries and retrain workers to match international competition. Here he and Russo are not far apart, and both want to maintain restrictions on Japanese auto imports. But Lipinski recently called for a five-year moratorium on all Japanese car imports; Russo ridiculed that plan as irresponsible and pointed out that Lipinski drives a Fiat in Washington while denouncing imports at home. Lipinski said feebly that he'd been trying to sell the car--and besides it was Italian, not Japanese. From start to finish, it was an episode of pure political nonsense. Both congressmen reject knee-jerk free trade, but Russo has more experience and a better sense of government's role in managing trade.

Driving around the southwest side recently--in Chicago he drives a red Chrysler LeBaron convertible--Lipinski reflected on the hot issue his rival had staked out: health care. Having endorsed nearly every proposed bill, he was reluctant to back one. "I don't know what I want till the people know what they want," he explained. Yet he seems to be leaning against the single-payer approach in favor of tinkering with the current system. "As I learn more, the way I'd approach it is to create jobs, put the people back to work, then give people health care through their employer," he says. "Some people can't get it, and the federal government will have to provide for them." But that leads to a more costly two-class system with little political appeal, even for Lipinski's constituents. Russo's national plan could unite blacks and whites, a rare and needed political strategy for Democrats.

"In many cases gains made by blacks have been supported by representatives of ethnic America I deal with," Lipinski contended. "But we get looked on as impediments to a free and equal society. The people I represent--and I truly try to represent them--they're caught in between two national parties. Some issues the Republicans seem to give lip service to, and some issues the Democrats promote. Neither one seems to have taken a serious look at the plight of people I represent. The first thing Democrats could have done different is they could have given more attention to the plight of my people on quotas and reverse discrimination. My people resent affirmative action. They were never in positions of power to deny a job or housing to anybody. They had nothing to do with slavery, discrimination--but they had to pay for it."

It's a familiar message these days. Pat Buchanan and David Duke promote it on the Republican right, and George Bush pushed it until it looked like it could begin to backfire after the Clarence Thomas hearings. Russo would probably disagree with little of Lipinski's argument, and he certainly justifies his votes against affirmative action as the will of his constituents. Yet unlike Lipinski he does not make antiquota politics a central plank in his campaign. By contrast, one of Lipinski's leaflets proclaims that "Bill Lipinski hasn't been afraid to say what many of us feel" about quotas and reverse discrimination--an example of blunt pandering to racial fears and prejudices.

Lipinski can be warm and friendly even to political antagonists, as he showed with Harold Washington--or mean and nasty to onetime friends, as he's showing in some of the campaign tactics he and chief aide Joe Novak are using against Russo. Lipinski loves to mingle with his constituents, to drive his own car around the district and drop in on community meetings without an entourage of aides. He's pure southwest style--a bit unpolished and untelegenic, his features angular and tight, his voice reedy, his taste enough of a throwback to be almost retro chic in another setting.

Russo is smoother in style, the old neighborhood boy who's been to college, moved to the suburbs, and managed to hobnob with people who would have thought themselves his social betters. A bit more full of a sense of his own importance than Lipinski seems, Russo nevertheless maintains a common touch. Generally polite and genial, he can be brusque and blunt. It's not simply geography that divides Russo and Lipinski. They reflect in many ways the cultural divide between the old urban-village white ethnic working class and the less traditionalist families who moved to the suburban crabgrass frontier after World War II.

"There's a dramatic difference in their political orientation," argues John Cameron, who, as associate director of the Illinois Public Action Council, has often cooperated and occasionally fought with both men. "Not at the broad ideological level, but more at the level of how they relate to their base and constituents and how they position themselves in Congress. Although Russo's origins in politics were as a southwest-side regular machine politician, over the years he's developed into a political figure who has a more media-oriented style. He's not a creature of ward organizations that elect him. . . . Lipinski is a ward-organization guy. His claim to fame is he delivers bacon to the city. His is more of a classic machine strategy. His ward organization is his primary base, but one that can't talk to suburban voters."

Now comes the test of what plays best with the voters in this new district. Although three-fourths of the voters live in the suburbs, about 54 percent of the likely Democratic primary voters live in the city. Overall, a slight majority of the district identify themselves as Republican, which raises the hopes of Republicans that they might take it away in the fall. The Lipinski campaign contends that a tiny plurality of voters comes from his old district; Russo strategists claim the narrow plurality favors their man. They also say that 54 percent of Democratic primary voters come from Russo's district, 36 percent from Lipinski's old district, and 10 percent are new. In any case, the district is overwhelmingly white; it's only 2 percent black, about 7 percent Hispanic.

Russo is expected to raise far more money for mailings and other campaign media tactics. His campaign admits to raising $600,000 so far, though Lipinski staffers think that figure will rise to $1 million. Lipinski hopes to raise $250,000, not counting the funds spent by the ward organizations. Lipinski admits that he's been on Russo's heels trying to exact equal contributions from Russo's donors. Lipinski has nearly solid regular Democratic organization support in the city and strong backing in the suburbs, where Russo also has some Democratic organizational support. State house speaker Michael Madigan, who supported Russo in the past, is now backing Lipinski with his potent ward organization. But many voters in Madigan's ward are happy with their current congressman and may not switch to Lipinski.

Regular Democratic committeemen seem to have closed ranks around one of their own rather than support one of the top national leaders on what could be a breakthrough issue for Democratic successes. "Bill is a Democratic committeeman," Lipinski's deputy campaign manager Tom Mannard said. "He's from the regular Democratic organization. He's one of their own. But we're a little disappointed the mayor hasn't endorsed us, because we've produced for the mayor."

Russo has picked up endorsements from some of the unions that are enthusiastic supporters of his health-care bill--AFSCME, the United Auto Workers, the Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers Union, the Laborers' International Union, the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers--but officially the state AFL-CIO and many individual unions are neutral. The small boilermakers' union endorsed Lipinski. The Illinois Public Action Council--which includes many liberal unions as well as consumer, senior citizen, and neighborhood groups--has endorsed Russo.

Russo's strategists want to focus on health care and Russo's leadership role. Lipinski's campaign is stressing his public-works achievements and the jobs they create, as well as his empathy with the district's ethnic voters--coupled with sharp attacks on Russo on social issues (flag burning, church-supported day care, pornography).

After a November poll the Russo campaign staff claimed their candidate led 44 percent to 37 percent with the remainder undecided (they say the numbers have not changed much since). They said Russo did slightly better among voters who knew both candidates, and overall had higher favorable ratings and lower unfavorable ratings than Lipinski. When a question identified the candidates with their core issues--in Russo's case, health care--Russo's lead was even greater. But Lipinski's campaign staff claim their most recent poll shows their man ahead 46 to 41 percent. A Chicago Tribune poll taken in late February showed Lipinski leading 47 percent to 31 percent.

Out on the streets of the southwest side one wintry day, it seemed clear that voters had health care and the economy on their minds. Lipinski was handing out leaflets at a Dominick's at 76th and Pulaski when 70-year-old Clement Marszalek walked past decked out in a Bears jacket and stocking cap. "I'm sort of favoring Russo for the elderly," he said. "He's shown more action, more interest in seniors. One thing we want is to get medical care. Canada has it, from baby up till grave. This [current policy] is ridiculous. And we spend too much on the military."

Other voters that day leaned toward Lipinski. Retired printer Jim Sinkay saw him as "sincere," Al Aliano was mad about a vote Russo had made on veterans, administrative assistant Pamela Ryback liked Lipinski's "overall attitude" and friendliness. A few voters observed that they were Polish or that Russo was a "dago," but Russo campaign manager Jack Quigley says their research suggests ethnicity will not be a big factor.

Former Madigan precinct captain Anthony Giedraitis wasn't going to follow his leader. "Though Lipinski worked at the Park District with me, I never thought he'd have the ability to be congressman. I thought he was OK as park superintendent. I think I'd go for Russo. He's more of an intelligent man."

If Russo is able to make health care the issue in the campaign he stands a good chance. "I'm going to pick Mr. Russo," said Catherine Dimaggio, a retired secretary whose husband used to be a city employee. "I think he's fighting for us, first with health care. That's really hitting us." Although Olga Wierzbicki, a housewife, hadn't yet made up her mind, her views favored Russo. "Anything would be better than what we have now," she declared. "I really dislike Bush--40 million people without insurance, a lot of people laid off. I think it's very important. I was brought up under socialized medicine. There's absolutely nothing wrong with it."

Lipinski unquestionably helped the city with some public-works issues, especially the southwest transit and recent highway and transit funds. His role in promoting the Lake Calumet airport, while seen as a feather in his cap, gave a political and financial boost to a fatally flawed site. On balance, however, his work in Congress has lost Chicagoans, especially the majority of his potential constituents, more than they've gained. But his brand of deal making fits the old narrow vision of Democratic machine politics as well as the corporate, banking, and legal elite, whose views are reflected in the Chicago Tribune's endorsement of Lipinski.

Russo's political history is marked by shortcomings, especially on issues of race and women's rights, and the sort of deal making with special business interests that has corrupted politics and weakened the Democrats. But increasingly he has shown signs of transcending those limits. That's most evident in his positions on military spending and his hard-driving advocacy of the best and most popular answer to the health-care crisis. These policies would serve not only Chicago and his constituents but also the rest of the country better than the old cramped pork-barrel politics that have long dominated the city. Despite the superficial similarities of the candidates, voters on the southwest side have a clear choice with important ramifications for the rest of us.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Marc PoKempner.

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