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Saturday, April 20

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What does a good ground game get you?

Forrest Claypool ran solid television ads, had a flashy website and top-flight mailers; he picked up more endorsements than LeBron James. His ground game was good — but not as good as incumbent Cook County Board President John Stroger.

So what does a good ground game get you?

Yesterday, as the night progressed and it became evident that it was the Chicago returns that were running late, something strange happened: the Stroger campaign went crazy. Donne Trotter, a South Side state Senator known for his bow ties and general surliness, appeared behind a podium at the Allegro Hotel and went into a five-minute rant about disenfranchisement in the African American wards in Chicago. Flanked by the fearsome looking Marlow Colvin and a snarlier-than-usual CFL President Dennis Gannon, Trotter went absolutely non-sequitor, turning what was almost certainly simply a matter of counting glitches with a new process into a major civil rights crisis.

What does a good ground game get you? Intelligence. Sometimes too much.

Cut to a visibly shaken David Axelrod, who had insinuated some possible ballot monkey business earlier in the night, flipping out. Axelrod, a high-priced media consultant specializing in innuendo, seemed to go a little batshit himself. Suddenly he was painting a picure of poll workers driving around the city with uncounted ballots in the backseat of their Delta 88s, of boxes of ballots strewn haphazardly in the back of rented trucks, of early 20th Century Chicago election malfeasance, the resurrection of Bathhouse John and Hinky-Dink Kenna.

What had suddenly changed?

What a good ground game gets you:

The Stroger campaign pollwatchers in city precincts, experienced election hands most of them, had likely been calling in numbers off of poll tapes from high-density precincts since 8pm or so. Their internal numbers were telling them that there were a huge number of Stroger votes not being reflected in official counts. Someone at Stroger HQ rightfully freaked out. Were these votes going to eventually be counted, or what? They must've known that they would, slowly, but they must've also known that the lag time would cast doubt on the legitimacy of the ballots.

Meanwhile, across town, the Claypool camp was sensing that concern but, lacking the wider ground presence, had no idea what the true vote counts would be. But what the more media-savvy on that staff must've known, too, was if there was a sudden surge in Stroger votes at 1am, there would be suspicion and casting as much doubt on the results as possible would not only set good precedent for a legal challenge if the vote was close enough, but also position their boy well in any post-election negotiations on who would replace Stroger if he proves unable to campaign. This was all really about who would pick this "Candidate X."

So Axelrod's accusations got more and more whack-a-doo as the night wore on, much to the consternation I'm sure of Cook County Clerk David Orr and Chicago Board of Elections Commissioner Langdon Neal. Stroger's people, personified by Congressman Bobby Rush, got more shrill themselves. Here's Rush, on WGN-TV at 8 in the morning, saying that this is the "worst election" he's ever seen. I find that hard to believe coming from the Black Panthers' former Minister of Defense. This is with 80 percent of the ballots in Chicago counted, and Stroger already boasting a 20,000-plus lead.

The two sides started out-batshitting each other.

But this isn't really about the ballots being counted and whatnot, is it? What a good ground game gets you: facts.

Anybody who was responsible for poll-watching and pulling tape last night knows how slow the process was. "Pulling tape," or getting the official results out of the ballot counting machines, usually takes 20 minutes, and election judges will print their six to eight tapes right away, hand the poll watchers their copies, and set about packing everything away. Last night, because of the new machines and the fact that many precincts were sharing polling places (due partially to the high cost of the new machines), the process was much slower; the machines had to sort data from two or more precincts, and then slowly print six copies of tape from each precinct. This process in many cases took over two hours.

Nobody honestly thought the votes were never going to get counted, or that some mythical "chain of custody" was being broken and hooded precinct captains who talk like Edward G. Robinson were stealing away in the middle of the night with ballots.

No, the two sides were out-batshitting each other, out-shrilling each other, out-victiming each other in an attempt to fight off challenge attempts by the other side and better position themselves for the fight over who will inevitably replace Stroger on the ballot come November.

Cynical? My goodness, yes. Reality? Most probably.

If the Claypool campaign were to succeed in making it look like Stroger's people robbed the joint, they will have quite a strong position when it comes time to replace Stroger — they can take their case directly to the people and say, "Look, our boy should've won anyway — don't let the party bosses put some hack on the ticket." Even if Claypool himself doesn't get on the ballot, he'd have a strong hand in picking who does.

Meanwhile, the Stroger camp is trying to tamp down those accusations by saying, right off the bat, "Look, we should've won this thing by even more. Claypool was roundly rejected by the voters, and so Stroger should be able to pick his replacement." Meaning the County Party's ward and township bosses would pick the winners.

Claypool and his team, although their ground game was not as strong, saw the writing on the wall when their lead stayed at about 11,000 votes even as the numbers from suburban Cook County neared completion. Those votes would get eaten fast once the South and West Side wards came in — so why not throw out some criminal innuendo with no facts to back it up?

The forces around Stroger (the Daleys, Tommy Hynes, Ike Carothers, Bill Beavers, Rush and a smattering of suburban township bosses) want to pick the next Stroger, and if it takes a bit of bat-shit crazy to get you there, why not?

What does a good ground game get you? The lawyers will sort that out.

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About the Author(s)

Richard F. Carnahan is a true South Side Sox fan who's played a bit part in Chicago politics more than once over the years. Contact him at .

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