The activity room at WilPower, a mental health center in Northfield, is so close to the Edens Expressway you can see traffic speeding past the window. There's a map on the wall for the world cultures class, a painting of a windblown tree, and a handwritten poster headlined "What to do when your symptoms increase."
Most of the time the room is used for day classes--art, cooking, choir. But this election year it's reserved on Tuesdays at one o'clock for talking politics.
On a recent Tuesday a dozen men and women sit in a cramped circle. Some are schizophrenic. Others are depressed or obsessive-compulsive. They all plan to vote. Six are for John Kerry, four are for George W. Bush, and two are undecided. They're as close to a cross section of Illinois voters as you'll find. Only they're probably better informed than most.
"Are you ready for the no-spin zone?" asks the group leader, Dan Birkhahn-Rommelfanger, as he slides a tape into the overhead TV. "This is Bill O'Reilly interviewing George W. Bush."
O'Reilly, looking like a high school reporter quizzing the principal, gingerly asks Bush, "According to a poll, only 5 percent of the Iraqi people see the United States as liberators. Are you surprised they don't appreciate the American sacrifice more?" Cheryl, one of the liberals in the room, cackles derisively.
A few moments later Bush declares, "You gotta stand tough with these terrorists." Barbara (not her real name), the room's most vocal Republican, shouts, "A-men!"
"Are you ready to use military force against Iran if they continue to defy the world on nuclear?" O'Reilly asks. Bush replies, "All options are on the table."
"We're going to war against Iran!" moans Rob Logan, a self-described political junkie who follows the campaign on the Internet.
"They have nuclear weapons," Barbara reminds him.
"This is the kind of guy who'll get the world blown up," says Cheryl.
When the political awareness group first met last February it had six members. Dan, a counselor at the center, started the group intending to offer civics lessons on the power of the presidency and the role of primaries in choosing a candidate. "I thought we would learn a little more about politics and get involved," he says. "But some people were very well informed, so we're able to do things that are more complex. If you just sit and don't say anything, Rob will take the class somewhere. He's outspoken. He engages people. Some people have a hard time in this community. They want to withdraw. That's why we have these groups."
Rob has struggled with depression and bipolar disorder since he was a young man, but he's always kept up with politics. The grandson of a union organizer, he was born and raised a Democrat. He voted for Jimmy Carter in his first presidential election, when he was 19. Four years later he phoned voters and walked a precinct in Northfield Township. "I was very excited by Geraldine Ferraro and Paul Simon," he says.
Rob has never lived on his own. He lived with his mother in Northfield until last year, when her Alzheimer's became so debilitating she had to be put in a nursing home. He moved to an eight-member group home in Skokie and promptly registered four of his housemates to vote.
At WilPower this fall Rob's been flogging his party's line. He started a voter-registration drive, printing forms off the Internet and handing them out all over the building. He also posted signs in the hallways: "Are you registered to vote??? This could be one of the most historic elections in recent history." On October 5 he stood up during a meeting to announce, "Today is the last day to register to vote, so don't forget to do that."
One of the first to sign up for the political awareness group, Rob rarely misses a week. He says it's one of the few classes that engages his mind. "I went to a therapist once and he called day treatment programs--he was saying they were like babysitting services or kindergarten groups," he says. "This is definitely an adult group. We talk about real issues that concern adults. Some people would probably call me a big mouth, but I'm passionate about it. I think there's some good discussion."
At one time most states had laws denying voting rights to the "insane," the "mentally incapacitated," or those of "unsound mind." Today Illinois has no restrictions on voting by the mentally ill, but 37 other states still deny ballots to people who've been placed under guardianship because of their mental illness or declared incompetent by a judge. In 2000 Maine voters rejected a proposal to overturn a state ban and grant voting rights to mentally ill people under guardianship. The next year a judge did what the voters hadn't, by ruling that the ban violated the Americans With Disabilities Act.
"The fact that you're unable to take care of yourself doesn't have any bearing on whether you're able to make a decision on how to vote," says Jennifer Mathis, staff attorney at the Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law in Washington, D.C. The center is suing Missouri on behalf of a former University of Illinois law professor who was barred from voting because he suffers from a schizoaffective disorder that leaves him unable to eat, bathe, or dress without help.
"There was a resistance, a prejudice toward mental illness and voting," says Rob. "There's a stigma against people with mental illness. I cry out for them to know that we have brains too, that we're really quite intelligent."
When Dan started the group he'd recently returned from Japan, where he taught English. He was a Dennis Kucinich partisan, and some staff worried that he would try to indoctrinate members of the group. But he seems as stoically nonpartisan as Ted Koppel. One week he brought in a tape of leftist academic Noam Chomsky. Another week it was Fox News.
"Ohhkaay," says Dan, as the tape of the Bush interview blurs to static. "What do you guys think?"
"I wouldn't vote for that man if somebody gave me a million dollars!" Rob blurts out. "We have to have a change in this country. It's so clear. Why can't people see it?"
"Because they're terrified of terrorism!" says Barbara.
"I don't know why you're going to vote for this man, Barbara," says Rob. "We could be in risk for World War III."
"We are already in risk for World War III," she shoots back.
Dan cuts their argument short by asking, "How do you think he did in the interview?"
"Terrible!" Rob declares. "He comes off as arrogant!"
"But Rob, don't you think some people like that?" Dan asks. "He's confident. He's presidential."
"Yyyeesss!" Barbara says, nodding vigorously.
"But he's using the terrorism issue for his benefit," Rob argues. "Dick Cheney said if John Kerry gets elected we'll have another terrorist attack."
"Whoever becomes president, we're going to have an attack worse than 9/11," Barbara says.
"I don't know why Barbara's voting for Bush," Rob says again.
A quiet, nervous man sitting by the window says, "'Cause of her medication."
"Change her medication!" says Cheryl, in a mocking voice.
Then all three of them start laughing at the conservative in their midst.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Rob Warner.