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Thursday, July 18

Gapers Block

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John Fritchey puts ketchup on his hot dogs. That's right, ketchup. So ashamed was John Fritchey of this factoid that he didn't even go on with the other condiments. He just put his head down on the table at the neighborhood bar we were at, and said, "Ketchup." Although he would go on to say that he was more of an Italian or Polish sausage kinda guy, the damage was done. Voters of Chicago: John Fritchey puts ketchup on his hot dogs.

More shocking than his proclivity for that vile red sauce was his immediate willingness to admit it. That willingness indicates one of two things: either the young North Side legislator doesn't understand the shame in slathering those delicious cylinders of meat in that forbidden substance, or, more shocking, he's compulsively honest.

Because, honestly, when the hell was I going to see John Fritchey eat a hot dog? He could have happily described to me the copious amounts of mustard, relish and celery salt he bathes his hot dogs in, and I would never have been the wiser. And his constituents in Ravenswood, Ravenswood Manor, Lakeview and Bucktown could have slept soundly knowing their elected official was not given to perverse flavoring habits.

Fritchey at rest, possibly moments before slathering a hot dog with ketchup.

Yet it took years for Fritchey's naturally frank (ha, ha) nature to come through to the broader Chicago political establishment, due to its observers' natural cynicism. Fritchey is the nephew-in-law of powerful Northwest Side Alderman William J.P. Banks and is affiliated with the political organization of Alderman Richard F. Mell, father-in-law of Governor Blagojevich. The shadow cast by these two heavyweights has kept Fritchey's energetic, pragmatic progressivism obscured from much of the voting public, denying him the notoriety of similar maverick, independent legislators.

"People haven't understood what to make of me. Now they get it — I feel like I've finally come into my own. Because I was inevitably 'Banks' Guy,' or 'Mell's Guy.' But, hey, I can tell you on my daughter that Mell has never asked me to vote on a bill, has never come to me for a thing."

It was Mell, after all, who gave Fritchey a leg up into politics. As he tells it, in 1994 he went to his ward committeeman, Theris "Terri" Gabinski, and asked to be the Party's slated candidate for State Representative. Not unexpectedly, Gabinksi shrugged him right out of the room. So Fritchey went to Mell, who after hearing the young pup's resume shrugged, too — but this time as in, "OK, let's do it."

So now here was an outsider, a young reformer, who would be seen by everybody as the Party hack, "Banks' nephew" or "Mell's Guy," take your pick.

Fritchey was no stranger to long shots. The child of a Moroccan immigrant and raised primarily by a single mother, Fritchey attended the Latin School of Chicago on a hardship scholarship and later matriculated from the University of Michigan and Northwestern University on federal financial aid. He was officially, in the parlance of Chicago politics, nobody nobody sent.

In that first campaign, Fritchey faced the chairman of the fiercely reformist IVI-IPO (Independent Voters of Illinois-Independent Precinct Organization) and it was assumed Mell had slated Fritchey to avoid the reformers and to secure Banks' fearsome organization for Blagojevich's congressional campaign. Whether Fritchey's relationship to Banks was integral or tangential to his success in that first campaign is something that will only be known by the three principals involved�but there's little reason to doubt the man (remember, "ketchup"). Fritchey describes late nights with his friends in the basement, silk-screening signs. He recalls with a laugh his first campaign contribution, from the Association of Beer Distributors of Illinois, a group he mistook for a person when they first contacted him ("Who's Abdi?").

He faced fierce criticism as just another beneficiary of Chicago-style nepotism, the local press, as it so often does, ignoring the issues and transforming the race into The Machine versus The Reformers. But he remained determined to win and to pay society back for the opportunity it had given him. What if he had lost that first race for state rep? What would John Fritchey be today?

"State rep. I would have run until I would've won."

Fritchey is not one to give up easily. From the moment he entered the General Assembly in Springfield he began pushing for serious, common sense reforms that brought the respect of good government and consumer's rights groups from all over the ideological spectrum. It was Fritchey who drew former Governor George Ryan's ire when he introduced the Inspector Solicitation Conduct Act, an earth-shattering piece of legislation that prohibited state inspectors from conducting political business while performing their initial duties. For years a cornerstone of the statewide Republican fundraising apparatus, the initiative failed to be called to the floor until 2000. Fritchey would also introduce legislation to protect consumers from predatory payday lending, a years-long fight that culminated in the passage of HB1100 this session, winning Fritchey praise from myriad consumer advocates.

Fritchey prides himself on his independence, which can frustrate legislators and special interests on the left as well as the right. Sometimes it can lead to downright contradictions. He was identified as one of the "100 Rising Stars," by the pro-corporate, centrist Democratic Leadership Council (DLC), an organization repudiated by his former comrade-in-arms, Barack Obama, and condemned by the Reverend Jesse Jackson as the "Democratic Legacy of the Confederacy."

During the Democratic Senate primaries of last year, Barack Obama wrote a letter to the DLC asking them to remove his name from their membership list and asking to be excluded from the same list that Fritchey appears on. Fritchey's embracing of his DLC citation confounds his recent pro-consumer initiatives from the last two legislative session, including his primary sponsorship of HB3485, which amends the One Day Rest in Seven Act and requires hotels to give room attendants two 15 minute breaks, a break room and free, clean drinking water. It was a bill heavily backed by the influential hotel employees union (UNITE-HERE) and vociferously opposed by the Chicago Chamber of Commerce and the Illinois Restaurateurs Association. He is proud to point out that 11 Republicans voted for the bill to get it through (albeit after limiting the scope of the bill to Cook County). He also drew the ire of the financial community when he drew national attention last year for trying to place a cap on ATM fees banks could charge consumers, a multi-billion dollar profit center for the banking industry. At the time many said the bill would be impossible to pass and that it was basically a lowest-common denominator stunt by Fritchey to appear on the side of the "little guy."

So who is John Fritchey, besides a hot dog defiler? Is he indeed the Mr. Smith-Goes-to-Springfield he often appears to be, or is he merely another cog in the Chicago Democratic establishment, high-wiring his way to more influence and prominence?

The question itself reveals a bias that political discourse in the Illinois' media has suffered from for decades.

There can be no doubt that John Fritchey knows how to play politics, when necessary. In last year's primaries, he filed for the race for 32nd Ward Democratic Committeeman, an important party position held by powerful former alderman Terri Gabinski, who years ago had dismissed him as a no-account. To ensure a more difficult race, Gabinski had the alderman of the ward, Ted Matlak, also file for the race. A few weeks later, Fritchey pulled out, and Matlak followed. Some reported this as having been a maneuver by Fritchey to secure Gabinski's support for some future higher political office, a deal supposedly brokered by Dick Mell. Fritchey denies it was anything more than a desire to see the job done better.

"I wanted to see conditions in the ward improved. I wanted residents' phone calls to get returned. So we sat down and... worked it out."

Did conditions improve?


So does Fritchey's association with powerful elements of the Democratic Party, his ability to play hardball when necessary, his high-profile crowd-favorite legislation mean he can't be a serious, pragmatic, progressive legislator? It is a false dilemma Illinois voters have been thrust into: if an elected official has ties to an organization, he or she is automatically a flake, a phony, a power-grabber; if they oppose The Organization, they're a saint (an attitude Barack Obama benefited from — forgetting his main advisor, David Axelrod, is also Mayor Daley's media advisor). The flap with Gabinski in the committeeman's race is just further proof that very few things are as simple as either/or. Indeed, some of the most "little guy"-friendly legislators are Organization heavies who command armies of volunteers. William J.P. Banks is one; Thomas Allen and Harry Osterman are others.

John Fritchey's electoral influence comes not solely from Organizational support, but moreso from the fact that he's not afraid to lose. A fierce competitor who values his integrity above all else, Fritchey has never shown an inability to confront traditional special interests and power structures if he felt it was necessary. Last year's controversial property-tax cap legislation was an example of Fritchey side-stepping the spotlight to get important policy through; this year, his lead role in forging a compromise on the Born Alive Act, in which the pro-life and pro-privacy camps were brought to the bargaining table for the first time, showed his desire to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat, even if it meant a threat to his progressive credentials. At the end of this year, after being pressured to vote for a controversial state worker pension skim, John Fritchey went on television and offered a mea culpa, an act most politicians would consider political suicide.

There will be many who are loath to feel sorry for the organization-backed pol given short shrift by a myopic media; but just as many true reformers are simply laughed off the stage, too many so-called "establishment" legislators are pigeonholed as hacks, and the result has been a poisoning of the political atmosphere in our state.

There is no doubt that despite his pragmatic centrism, John Fritchey is a proud Democrat and progressive.

"Being a Democrat — it has to mean something," Fritchey says, his voice hushed and obviously deep in thought, "it can't be about having power for the sake of power. It has to be about advancing Democratic ideals... that being said, most Americans are not on the left or on the right. They're in the middle... how do you appeal to those people? Not just getting elected, but doing what's right by those people?"

Fritchey recently set up a political action committee, CHICAGO PAC, meant to raise money for progressive issue campaigns and to back progressive candidates; he sees a need to build a clearinghouse for progressive ideas and issues in Illinois, based on the basic idea that on some level, every working person is a progressive. Fritchey stubbornly refuses to see a difference between being pro-business and pro-labor; between being pro-privacy and pro-family; between being rural and urban. The problem he sees is that people lack the courage to shake off the bonds of special interest and make the policy.

Fritchey after the passage of the Payday Loan Reform Act, HB1100.

Fritchey's bold legislative initiatives, ideological agility and relative youth (42) have lead to rampant speculation that he's a young man in a hurry — he's been rumored for City Clerk, Cook County Assessor, Secretary of State, Mayor of Chicago, and most recently and loudly State Treasurer. Is he angling for any of these seats? Fritchey denies he is eyeing anything specifically, although "being Mayor of Chicago would be a dream come true — I will not run against Rich Daley; let me say that unequivocally. Not out of fear — he does a good job." He goes on, idly speculating, "Being the Attorney General would be a fascinating job... but I will run for something where I feel I can do something right out of the gate — it is flattering, but I don't know that [the Treasurer's job's] what I want to do. I haven't ruled it out yet — I'm close to ruling it out — but I don't know."

Unequivocally, Fritchey considers the primary issue facing Chicagoans, Cook County residents — in fact, all Illinoisans — to be school funding. The logic behind the need for reform is exactly the kind of pro-capitalist progressive thinking that has been lacking from public discourse in the last 25 years: Without equitable school funding and better schools, the talent pool shallows and businesses suffer; Illinoisans become less competitive in the labor market, and the quality of Illinois business declines. What's more, businesses have to chase families around as they look for the few areas with well-funded, well-performing schools; the result is further concentration of jobs and investment while other areas suffer.

"Families have been staying here — but they're going to start moving out to the suburbs, if they have to escrow $4,000 a month for their property taxes. Whether you want to call it education funding reform, whether you want to call it property tax reform, whether you want to call it 'economic development,' whether you want to call it 'workforce development.'"

So, is John Fritchey in favor of favoring raising the income tax rate or raising the standard deduction?

"Yes, if there is a guaranteed reduction in property taxes. But hey — show me a better, workable idea, and I'm with it. But I ain't seen it."

It's going to take brass ones to run for any higher office on a platform of increasing any tax, even though this particular reform is best for the vast majority of Illinoisans. It is an essential, important reform that only a brave politician will be willing to undertake, and owhich will require bravery from his or her colleagues to pass. Requiring bravery from fellow politicians is always dangerous. Like any good fight, it requires somebody not afraid to lose.

"Ultimately, the problem the old guard is going to have with me [whatever the seat], is when I make up my mind to run for something because there's a job to do — I'm in. I'm not afraid to lose. And I'm not going to run a race that I can't win."

I believe him. "Ketchup."


About the Author(s)

Ramsin Canon is Gapers Block's political columnist. Read his column, "Revenge of the Second City," every Wednesday.

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