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The Cousin Campaign

The Lonely Struggle of an Unknown Candidate in an Uphill Race for an Obscure Office

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Ertharin Cousin, Democratic candidate for commissioner of the Metropolitan Sanitary District, has it on good authority that a great group of voters will be there to greet her at a Saturday morning breakfast for seniors on the west side.

And so she gets up at 6:30 (especially early, given that she'd been up past midnight campaigning), buzzes a wake-up call to her driver, Henry O'Neal, and sends her 12-year-old son Maurice off to his grandparents'.

Call it the lonely struggle of the unknown candidate running an uphill race for an obscure office in the March 15 Democratic primary; whatever, she's up and at 'em early, hitting the road while the sun's still rising, at eight o'clock in the morning.

"All right, Ertharin," says O'Neal, "let's be real good." He's a well-dressed, slightly built black man whose work is in computers. He doesn't have to drive Cousin around. She doesn't pay him. He does it, he says, because he wants to; he believes in her campaign.

Cousin, 30, steps out of O'Neal's 1988 Toyota and over a massive pile of crusty, dirt-brown snow.

"This is what you might call a captive audience," she says with a grin to the reporter who accompanies her. It's the Westside Center of Truth church on Ogden Avenue. Inside, there are at least 100 senior citizens seated on aluminum chairs around a series of long, narrow tables.

Cousin sighs; the day's first handshake is always the hardest.

"Good morning, sir. How do you do? My name is Ertharin Cousin, and I'm running for the board of the Metropolitan Sanitary District."

She's talking to a spindly old man who wears a Harold Washington commemorative button on the lapel of his light-brown overcoat. The man looks up, blinks, and takes in the sights: a smiling black woman in a pink dress, with her purse slung over her shoulder.

"What do they do?" he asks.

Well, sir, the MSD is a nine-person board that oversees the treatment and disposal of waste in Cook County, she explains. She hands the man one of her fliers, which he takes while blankly staring ahead.

And so it goes. Up and down the aisles she walks, shaking hands--or pumping paws, as the reporter calls it--passing out fliers, exchanging chitchat with the old-timers.

A church aide directs Cousin to a seat behind the dais at the front of the room. There's a hymn, a prayer ("Father, see that each and every one of us steps forward and sees a better way with God"), and then the food. Chairs scrape, feet shuffle, the line of seniors stretches up one wall and down another, and the tantalizing aroma of eggs and sausage wafts through the room.

Cousin rises to speak. "Thank you, thank you for being here." But she's speaking too close to the mike, and it screeches. "Please don't stop being served. I don't want to interrupt anyone's breakfast."

A man whispers in her ear, but somehow she continues talking. "I grew up on the west side. I still live on the west side. The MSD has a budget with over $440 million and no representation from the west side. With the will of God we can overcome any obstacles. Please keep my name in mind."

Traffic is light heading south on the Dan Ryan, and that is good. For it's only 9:50 when O'Neal pulls up to the front of the massive Greek temple on 50th Street--right on time for the Saturday morning service at Operation PUSH.

It's a complicated thing, these services at PUSH, Cousin explains as she bolts through the front entrance. You don't just walk up onstage; you've got to get invited. Big shots sit toward the front, near the Reverend Willie Barrow, PUSH's executive director. Bigger shots get their names read by the master of ceremonies sometime between 10 and 11:30, when the service is being broadcast over several black radio stations. As for the super big shots, well, they get to speak.

Cousin has not reached that last, great plateau--at least, not yet. But she has a chance. E. Duke McNeil, a prominent south-side attorney, is one of today's masters of ceremonies. Cousin once worked for McNeil, for two and a half years, in fact, right after she graduated from law school. And McNeil told me, Cousin says, that if I get here today on time (no later than 10), he'll get me a seat onstage, and mention my name while the service is on the air.

Sure enough, Cousin winds her way through the back rooms behind the stage and eventually pops up onstage, where she is directed to a seat in the last row. At the podium, someone is talking about Mozambique. About 150 people sit scattered about the sanctuary, most of them black.

And then, at ten, the simultaneous radio broadcast begins. The band and choir kick into a jazzed-up version of "We Shall Overcome," and the dignitaries onstage, Cousin included, rise and clap.

"This is judicial day at Operation PUSH," announces the Reverend Ed Riddick. "We love the law; we want justice."

Before we begin the service, he continues, a few announcements: There's a meeting of the anti-900-line club coming up; we don't want those porn lines open to our children. Also coming up soon is a special gathering, "Let's Chat With Joe Gardner," candidate for the Metropolitan Sanitary District.

Cousin's face shows no reaction.

As Riddick talks, John Stroger, committeeman from the Eighth Ward, bounces onto the stage and shakes a few hands. McNeil takes the podium and barks out the names of the black judges on the stage: Blanche Manning, William Cousins Jr., Leo Holt, and Earl Strayhorn. Then he introduces a woman who introduces all 42 judges in attendance. As their names are called, each rises and waves to the crowd.

One judge then gives a speech describing the drawbacks to blacks of judicial merit selection. Then another judge tells the whole history of blacks and the Cook County judiciary, in the middle of which speech Leon Finney Jr., executive director of the Woodlawn Organization (TWO) and statewide manager of Jesse Jackson's presidential campaign, makes his grand entrance, shaking hands, kissing cheeks, playfully slapping Reverend Barrow on the thigh, and plopping down in a center-stage seat, where, head down, and oblivious to the judge's remarks, he furiously scribbles notes on a large yellow legal pad.

The judge finishes; McNeil returns to the podium and calls out the names of other dignitaries in attendance: Alderman Allan Streeter, John Stroger, Carol Moseley Braun, Monique Davis.

Next comes Barrow, a slight woman with a booming voice. She praises Rosa Parks, denounces Pat Robertson, demands that more blacks be hired as contractors on the Dan Ryan Expressway project, and then steps aside for Riddick, who introduces three more politicians, asks the owner of a blue Chrysler to move his car because it's blocking traffic, and calls to the stage two white organizers from the United Auto Workers local in Kenosha, Wisconsin, where about 6,000 workers were recently fired from a plant owned by Chrysler.

"There's only one candidate running for president who's speaking out against this moral outrage, and that's Jesse Jackson," says one of the organizers, a beefy guy named Rudy, in summation. "God bless you Jesse Jackson."

The crowd cheers, and Leon Finney takes the stage to explain that he got the job as state chairman of Jesse Jackson's presidential campaign because, among other things, he knows how to "pray, organize, and fight--God knows, I know how to fight."

Having said all of that, Finney goes on to predict, in a bellowing fashion, that Jesse Jackson will win southern, northern, and western primaries before capturing the whole darn Democratic nomination, because "America is strong, America is fair, and our rainbow coalition is America."

The crowd cheers, particularly the crew from TWO that came with Finney. And Finney sits, beaming.

Back comes McNeil. He cites the names of two other officials sitting in the audience, asks the owner of another automobile--this one a Ford--to move his car, and mentions, oh yes, that we have one Ertharin Cousin, candidate for Metropolitan Sanitary District, in attendance today.

It is 11:25, five minutes before the radio broadcast signs off, and almost 90 minutes after Cousin, right on time, walked through the door.

On the way to her next stop--she's heading north on Lake Shore Drive--Cousin explains the intricate ups and downs of running for MSD.

The sanitary board is not exactly the most glamorous political job in the world. It's not high-profile. Most voters never heard of it. You're dealing with waste--a topic unlikely to stir the embers of your soul, unless, of course, it's getting dumped in your backyard.

For that reason, the board has been used, over the years, both as a launching pad for young politicians (Aurelia Pucinski, for example, is now a commissioner), and as a resting place for the old.

To win a spot on the board, you have to run a countywide campaign--no small trick. In addition to working your base, you're required to buy big-ticket items--radio ads, bus signs, that kind of thing--that get wider circulation. It can get expensive--Cousin figures to spend about $13,000.

It also demands connections; you have to have ins all over the place. How else could a west-sider like Cousin find her way, say, to a civic group in Palos Hills, or a women's club meeting in Wilmette?

That's why candidates slated by the Democratic Party usually fare so well--they are connected to dozens of township and ward committeemen who can get them into suburbs and neighborhoods all over the county.

Unfortunately for Cousin, she didn't get party slating this year. That's more than a problem--it's downright disappointing. Because nearly everyone expected she would.

The nine members have staggering terms, you see, so this year three commissioners--Richard Troy, James Kirie, and Nellie Jones--were up for reelection. The party slated Kirie and Troy decided to step down. That was fine with the party, because now they had some place to stick Harry "Bus" Yourell, who had been Cook County recorder of deeds and might have stayed there forever if not for the fact that state Representative Carol Moseley Braun, a close ally of Mayor Washington, suddenly had a burning desire to keep track of dusty files in the County Building--which is all, most people say, the recorder has to do.

Anyway, Yourell agreed to run for MSD, Braun got the party nod for recorder, and everyone figured Cousin would bump Jones as the third party favorite for MSD. Why not? Jones had never worked hard in campaigns for Harold Washington--at least, not as hard as Cousin had.

Besides, Cousin really wanted the job. She had even run for it once before. Or tried to anyway. She never made the ballot, which is a story she's not eager to relate.

Then all of a sudden, Joe Gardner jumped into the fray. You remember Joe: onetime chairman of Washington's political action group, handpicked by Washington to run tenant services at the Chicago Housing Authority. Within a few days, the word came down: Washington wanted Joe on the slate. So, now it was Cousin's turn to be bounced.

At first Cousin was hurt. She felt so rebuffed. Then it got funny, the way the mayor's council allies and political advisers--no names are necessary, she says, for this part of the tale--tried to get her out of the race.

Forget MSD, they told her. We'll run you for judge.

I don't want to be a judge, she told them. I'm not qualified for that.

So what. We'll get you elected anyway, they said.

But that's not right.

OK, forget judge. We'll run you for state representative in the 19th District instead.

But I don't live there.

So move there.

But that's not right.

What are you, an angel? Come on, Ertharin, you gotta play with the team.

But guilt didn't work either, and Cousin kept running, along with Gardner and eight other folk.

"What we tell everybody is that a vote for me is not a vote against Joe," says Cousin. "Remember, ten candidates are running, and the top three vote getters will win this race."

Who will those three be? Who the hell knows? It'll come down to name recognition, ballot position, endorsements, and, most likely, luck.

"People ask me, are you angry about the slating? and my answer is no," Cousin says. "This is politics; I got hands to shake. I don't have time to be mad."

David Slavsky, manager of the Cousin campaign, paces the hallway of the Loyola Park field house as the candidate tromps up the stairs.

He's been pacing for at least 15 minutes, one observer comments. He'll probably pace for 15 minutes to come. For Slavsky is a small, hard, round ball of nervous energy. At the moment he's particularly anxious because Cousin is about to appear before the slating committee of the 49th Ward's Independent Precinct Organization. But then, he's usually anxious, and he almost always paces. That's his style.

"How did you do at PUSH?" he asks Cousins.

"OK."

"You ready?"

"Yes."

"You're next."

She nods.

"Where to after this?" says Slavsky.

"The west side."

"Good."

"Henry's hungry."

"It's a campaign," says Slavsky. "Don't you know we don't eat during campaigns."

They met in 1985 during another campaign for Metropolitan Sanitary District. Slavsky was the candidate then. A professor of natural science at Loyola University and an ardent environmentalist, he figured he was a natural for the office. If nothing else, it would be his great firsthand experiment with politics.

He ran sixth in a field of eight candidates. So ended the experiment.

Now Cousin, his favorite candidate, is meeting the folks from the 49th Ward. It should be a friendly bunch. These are true independents, good liberal people. Imagine a crowd of about 30 George McGoverns.

But they've been sitting on these hard folding chairs in this dingy, dimly lit room for hours. They sat through Aurelia Pucinski, Jane Byrne, Tom Fuller, and countless other faceless, nameless, boring, lackluster candidates for clerk, recorder of deeds, and MSD. It's enough to make even a true believer testy. Behind the podium is a large glass window. Through it, you can see the sun shining over the lake and sparkling in the snow. It only makes the misery worse.

Cousin clears her throat and starts her spiel. I grew up in the west-side independent political movement with Richard Barnett and Danny Davis. I am supported by Alderman David Orr, State Representative Woody Bowman, Alderman Jesus Garcia, and Cook County Commissioner Bobbie Steele.

I could have made a good living practicing law, but I've always wanted to help people. I was the affirmative action contract compliance officer for MSD before I took time off to run this campaign. We could do much better at the district with affirmative action. There's millions of dollars in business that might otherwise go to women, blacks, Hispanics, and other minorities. I believe in affirmative action. If not for affirmative action, this itty-bitty black girl from the west side of Chicago could not have gone to the University of Illinois, then on to law school, and then become a lawyer.

The District needs direction; it needs leadership. We have to worry about what to do with sludge once our landfills are filled. Should we convert sludge to energy? What are the costs? What are the benefits? These are the issues of the 21st century. These are the issues that demand leadership now.

She starts to giggle. At first, it's not really noticeable, but in a while she's laughing hard and uncontrollably.

"I'm sorry," she mutters.

A couple of her allies in the back of the room look confused. What the hell is going on? Has Ertharin cracked? Has she talked about sludge and waste and disposal one time too many?

She regains her composure long enough to point to a woman in the front row who is holding up a small sign.

"The sign says I have two minutes left," says Cousin. "But I can't read the sign. You see, I'm not wearing my glasses. The lenses are broken. So I can't see from long distances. And that's such a small sign and, ugh, uhm, oh well."

She stops talking. She looks embarrassed.

Members of the audience stare. They've sat through dozens of candidates. They've heard it all--taxes, sludge, waste, reform, good government. But glasses? Someone giggles. Another guy laughs. What the hell, these candidates, who knows, maybe one or two of them are actually human. In about two hours, the group will vote to endorse Cousin in the March 15 primary.

Outside in the hallway stands the next speaker--Harry "Bus" Yourell, candidate for MSD. Nearby is Slavsky. As usual, he paces.

By now, it's 2:30. The sun is high in the sky, and the Cousin contingent, having polished off a heavy lunch at a Chinese restaurant, is feeling kind of giddy.

O'Neal cruises west on the Eisenhower Expressway toward what is supposed to be a massive rally at a church somewhere on the west side. Joe Gardner may be there, may be not. Either way, Cousin's got to go.

"Did I tell you I always was a politician?" she asks the reporter.

Nope.

"Even back in high school. At Lane Tech, I was founder and president of the pom-pom club."

"Ertharin!" says O'Neal in mock disbelief.

"It's true," she says. "I love sports."

The reporter shakes his head. I don't want to be a chauvinist, he says, but I have yet to meet a woman who really understands sports.

Cousin takes the challenge, rattling off the names of the great basketball players who rose from the west side. Why just last week, she concludes, I attended Mark Aguirre's wedding.

No, says the reporter.

"Oh yes. My sister is best friends with Mark's wife."

You were there with Magic Johnson?

"Yes."

And Isiah Thomas?

"Isiah was crying."

No.

"Yep. Magic said 'That's Isiah, he's so emotional.'"

So tell me, asks the reporter, why didn't you make the ballot in 1986? Cousin sighs. She shakes her head.

"It was one big mess-up, a real tragedy. We were running late, and Richard Barnett and I came into City Hall with just a few minutes to spare before the filing deadline. So, Richard had my nominating petitions, and he ran up the stairs to get in line at the Board of Election Commissioners. I had to get my statement of candidacy stamped at another office. By the time, I got to the board's office, the doors were locked. It was after five o'clock."

You mean, the guard wouldn't let you in the room?

"It was awful. There was Richard on one side of the glass window with petitions, and there I was, on the other side, with the candidacy statement. I couldn't even slip it under the door. I learned my lesson, though. Next time around, I made sure I got my petitions signed real early."

O'Neal turns off the Eisenhower, drives to Madison Street, and turns into a parking lot across the street from the church where the rally is scheduled to be. Slowly, the crew climb out of the Toyota.

"Hold it! Who told you you can park there?"

The speaker is a black man whose overcoat is open at the top.

"Excuse me," says Cousin.

"This isn't a public parking lot; it's private and I own it."

"I didn't know that."

"People think this is public parking, but it's not."

"I'm sorry."

"You should know better than that."

"Well, let me introduce myself. My name is Ertharin Cousin. I'm running for the Metropolitan Sanitary District. And I apologize for any inconvenience this may have caused you."

She holds out her hand, which the man grudgingly accepts. She offers him a flier, which he handles as if it were poison.

"May we please park in your lot? We heard there was a rally across the street."

"I'm just saying you ought to ask, that's what's proper. People think they can just butt in here without asking."

"You're so right, sir. I agree. Well, listen, sir, I'm running for office, and would it be OK to invite you to a coffee? I'm from the west side. We have many coffees."

The man mutters something incomprehensible and gets into his car.

"Whew," says Cousin. She starts to laugh. "This meeting better be worth it." They cross the street and O'Neal, leading the way, pulls at the glass doors at the front of the church. They don't budge.

"Locked," gasps the reporter.

They stare through the darkened glass doors. The church is empty. "That's the way these things go," says Cousin. "You can hear about a great rally, and when you get there, nobody's around. Or you expect a small group, and find 200 people."

For a moment, they are silent. Several cars whoosh past. "Let's check out this hair salon down the street," says Cousin.

So they walk to a storefront, inside of which two hairdressers huddle over a client. "Excuse me," says Cousin, "do you know about a rally--a political rally at the church?"

The attendants shrug. The group returns to the street.

"Well, that's it," Cousin says. "Tonight I've got some rallies, but that's all we have scheduled for today."

I'll take you home, O'Neal offers the reporter, and everyone falls silent as the Toyota winds through the streets of the west side. Up ahead, they spot a red-white-and-blue bus stopped at the corner.

My God, it's Mayor Sawyer's unity bus, says the reporter. He's driving that thing to churches all over town and giving speeches and calling for unity. What the hell, let's follow it.

They set off down side streets, ending up at an old Roman Catholic church at the corner of Millard and 22nd. O'Neal hands Cousin some fliers. "I'll park," he says. "You might as well hand these things out."

But except for a few bored television technicians hanging around the front steps, there's no one to hand them to. Inside the church, about 25 people--most of them Mexican--sit beneath bright murals and stained-glass windows and listen to a man strum his guitar and sing songs in Spanish.

Cousin walks up the main aisle, sits in a pew, sighs, and then heads outside.

At the moment, Mayor Sawyer is finally disembarking from his unity bus. Cousin maneuvers for position to greet him, shake his hand, maybe offer him a flier. But the television guys sort of push her aside, surrounding the mayor to bombard him with questions about some white guy at a snack shop in Midway Airport who lost his job because he offered Sawyer a free ham sandwich.

They all eventually disappear into the church, leaving Cousin alone on the street. She shakes her head. What a bust, what a lousy, wasted afternoon. No rally. No voters. No nothing.

For the first time today, she looks discouraged. She buttons her coat against the cold and is waiting for O'Neal to bring the Toyota, when up to the church pulls a yellow school bus, depositing a dozen--no, close to two dozen--residents, from the look of them all of voting age.

Cousin pats the sides of her jacket. The fliers! Where are the fliers? There they are--in her pocket.

"Good afternoon, sir, I'm Ertharin Cousin; I'm a candidate for the board of Metropolitan Sanitary District."

The first fellow is startled, but he takes her flier and shakes her hand. One by one, they all take her fliers, they all shake her hand. She smiles with some satisfaction. She's turned defeat into triumph. She did what she had to: Ertharin Cousin, candidate for MSD, pumping paws with the public.

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

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