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Chicagoland Fri Feb 05 2010
I'm not entirely sure how I should feel after Tuesday's elections. Over a year of work on behalf of Rudy Lozano's state legislative campaign culminated in the single most bizarre Election Day I've ever experienced. Being there, at the Strohacker Park Field House at 4am on that snowy Tuesday morning was just the latest in a long list of "being there" days. Being there meant endless meetings plotting strategy, developing platforms, and setting up committees and what not to get the petition drive going. Being there meant the thrill of hearing words I wrote delivered in front of over 300 volunteers and supporters at Little Village High School on a warm August evening. Being there that day also meant having to go to the bathroom for 2 hours while collecting signatures and singing every Billy Idol song I knew waiting for the light at 25th and Pulaski to turn green before I wet myself. Being there meant days when we had big groups of volunteers knocking on doors for signatures and nights when it was just me, my 6 month old in a Baby Bjorn and Manny walking around Archer Heights. It was about late nights updating databases, running over to the Chicago Board elections for data CDs and ultimately, serving as a precinct captain on Election Day.
It was also about not being there, about having to take a break in mid-November as family, work and school commitments became too pressing to ignore any longer. It was about those nagging feelings of guilt and even shame that bubbled up every time I thought of the hours and days friends and co-workers were giving up for this campaign, while I sat in front of a laptop entering data.
More than anything though, for me this campaign revealed the fear and cynicism of the last grasping claws of the old machine on the Southwest Side in all its thuggish splendor. The precinct surrounding Strohacker has been captained for decades by the affable and capable thickly white haired Jerry. I did my best (and so did Jerry, for the most part) to keep things pleasant and friendly. Given the fact that Jerry usually turns out between 80-90% of his registered voters on behalf of the Madigan-approved candidate, there didn't seem to be a great need to start off what was likely to be a long and challenging day with cold stares and silence.
Everything about Jerry's operation was like something out of Chicago machine politics central casting. Jerry didn't really have to worry about electioneering between those blue cones. All he had to do was to get poll watcher credentials for him and his block captains (which wasn't too hard given how the judges rode around in cars with his captains at various points during the day) and post up inside the tiny polling place or just outside. Just about everyone knew Jerry and Jerry knew just about everyone, and everyone knew who Jerry wanted them to vote for. He'd just smile and greet them, thanking them for coming by to vote, noting any complaint (windows, sidewalk) they may have had in his little memo book and wish them well again when they left. Not a bad set-up.
So it was up to a first-time precinct captain, a University of Chicago undergrad from Pittsburgh and three other volunteers to at least make a showing of it. We soon realized we were never going to match the streetside presence of Jerry and his crew. They brought in at least 10 Latinos from Berwyn and Cicero to stand on the corner handing out palm cards for what they claimed would be a $100 payday. There were the local block captains, construction trade unionists from other parts of the South Side, and political operatives like the rakish "Johnny Burns" (whom the chingones from Cicero nicknamed "el quien baila" for his cocked fedora) and Joe, a retired ATF agent and 1965 University of Chicago grad whom I spent half the day being teased by, taught the history of the neighborhood, or encouraged to keep on working. Joe determined that I was in it for the same reason everyone else would be, to take my lumps and prove to Rudy I was worthy of a job when he eventually got elected. As he said, "five years from now Jacob, you'll be walking here in a Stetson, with a nice London Fog overcoat, maybe smoking a cigar, running things." "And you, Joe?" I asked "Hopefully still alive, still busting your chops."
So we decided we were going to hit doors all day. We knew who our voters were, even though every lawn had at least a Burke sign, and most had Burke and Lipinski ones planted in neat rows like soldiers on patrol. At least one house had Burke and Lipinski lawn signs and a Rudy Lozano sign in the window. The only way we were going to overcome the fear of Jerry and his seemingly unassailable operation was to keep hitting those doors and getting folks out of their houses and to ground zero in the tiny field house filled with seven of Jerry's handpicked judges.
And that's when the trouble started, when the seedy underside of the fetid remains of the all-powerful machine revealed their core values. It's become easier and easier for me to be nostalgic for the days of the machine. People turned out to vote. People got their sidewalks fixed and their garbage picked up. The machine allowed the working class immigrants and their sons and grandsons to wedge their way into the smoke filled rooms of the silk stocking lake front so-called reformers. There was something poignant about the wistful look in Joe's cloudy eyes when he spoke of the old days in the precinct.
But there were Jerry and one of his block captains following Beto and until we caught them, removing our door hangers from the doors. There was the scandalous racial politics of the trucked-in Mexican men, who most of Jerry's block captains refused to claim as their own. The crowd of Latinos on each end of the block forced every Latino voter to pass through a gauntlet of Spanish-speaking palm card passers, in a scene more reminiscent of street vendors descending on tourist buses in the developing world than anything else. And it also confirmed every fear of Jerry's remaining reliable white voters, who arrived clutching their racial fears in clenched hands ready to vote for anyone who reminded them of the old days.
The worst of the day started out as our greatest success. Mike ran into an older woman on the street and so charmed her with his earnest appeal that she decided to vote for Rudy: as long as Mike escorted her to the polling place (she was legally blind). Mike got as close as twenty feet from the polling place when our tenuous peace fell apart. "El Quien Baila" raced over to grab Jerry, who moved with surprising speed to intercept Mike and the woman. He wrenched her away from a shocked Mike, sped her back to his car, and drove up the polling place for a curbside vote in his car.
Curbside voting, much like curbside recycling in Chicago, is not standard practice, especially in the form it was practiced at that moment. While my fingers burned from dialing every single number I could think of to get lawyers, investigators from the Board of Elections, the pope, anyone, to get over to witness what was going on, Jerry sat in the passenger seat whispering prompts to the now quite rattled woman, who then told the election judge what to fill in for her. Surprisingly, a number of our volunteers did not take too kindly to the situation and loudly protested what was going on. Instead of seeking to diffuse the situation, one of the judges decided she would engage in an ever louder argument with our volunteer.
And that's where I messed up. Instinct took over and stepped in between my friend and the increasingly irate judge, touching both on the shoulder in a seriously misguided attempt to diffuse the situation. After being screeched at for "touching an election judge," being told how lucky I was that I wasn't being charged with assault, and apologizing to the judge (who threatened me with her Taylor Street husband), it seemed that things may just calm down.
Until the next curbside voting incident. This time, one of our campaign workers with a bit of a chip on his shoulder happened to be passing by when the precinct captain drove up with another elderly voter. Now the screams and shouts became intimidation of judges. The police were called. A number of lawyers from Burke's campaign, our campaign, and a couple of Board of Election officials came along. Official complaints and affidavits were being filed. And my friend the judge was on the phone, coached by Burke's lawyers and Jerry the captain, talking to the police, making an assault and battery complaint against yours truly.
At that moment, vague memories of community organizer training and books about the civil rights movement were all I had to go on. I gave my wallet, cell phone, and water bottle to Mike. I prepared myself to go limp and make a scene in front of the fieldhouse if it came to it. I imagined the phone call to my wife, whose patience with the time the campaign was taking away was thin at best already. It was like being in the principal's office in high school after getting caught at some shenanigans awaiting the dreaded "discussion" with authorities. I was angry, mentally kicking myself for mistakes. I tried to act as normal and continue to get our vote counts, but I was shaking.
"Leave now. Drive out of the precinct, work a different precinct, leave now." "Wait, won't I be fleeing arrest?" "Nothing's happened yet, nothing's likely to happen, but you need to be away from here now." I motioned to Mike who frantically dug through his palm card filled pockets for the keys, emptying piles of paper, keys, etc. on the ground. As I "non-chanlantly" walked away, my heart pounding and sinking I called the office with words I never thought I'd have to say: "I had to leave the precinct because I may be arrested for assault and battery on an election judge."
I just drove west, past Midway airport, into the clearing neighborhood profiled in the Working Class Heroes book I had taught to Wheaton College Urban Studies students. After another slightly awkward conversation, this time with my wife, a deep breath and some tears, I moved to a different precinct and spent the rest of the day doing what I came to do, without the attendant drama.
After all that, after Mike, Cesar, Javier, Beto, Amiee, and others rocked 23-10 to the point where we kept it to a 60%-40% margin, we lost. Despite the reports of Burke's panic, despite the compliments Mike received from Jerry's block captain for his courage, despite overcoming Burke's jars of candy with his name on it delivered to every voting station, despite challenging Ed Burke's attempt to vote twice in his home precinct, we lost. By just a couple of hundred votes. And I don't know how I feel.
I suppose I should take Joe's advice and take the long view on this. Rudy's day will come. The foundations of the patronage that maintain Jerry's operation and other operations of the Madigan monolith were dealt a heavy blow with the elections of Toni Preckwinkle, Jesus Garcia, and John Fritchey (as Ramsin noted in this space). And the numbers will just get better in two, four, six years for Rudy in the 23rd district. Most of all, we showed we weren't afraid. That we weren't going to back down, even if it meant yelling at the elderly and risking arrest. More than favors and back-scratching, the power of the machine revealed itself to be built on fear, on fear of the power of a tall white haired man who told me as I walked away, "when you guys are long gone, we'll still be taking care of these people."
And that's why, despite all the positives, despite the hope I know I should and do feel, I still find myself rent by anger, disappointment and guilt. I can't imagine how awful I would feel if the election were even closer, if I could think of the phone calls I didn't make, the doors I only half-heartily knocked on, or the days I stayed home instead of talking to voters. It would make the pit at the bottom of my stomach even deeper. Because I'm tired of a few old white men taking care of people. I'm tired of the fear, of the dirty tricks, of the pay-to-play and the cynical game that requires working class families to sell their birthright, their vote, for mere bowls of porridge while their elected officials play ridiculous games with their lives and livelihoods. I'm tired of the racial antagonisms, the hatred and exclusion, and inability of some to extend the privilege of the good life on the Southwest Side to their new neighbors. And so I'm mad, mad enough to not quit, to not stop, to not give up, to not let the smug "el quien baila" get the last word: "Yeah, they're pretty brave, but you gotta be really dumb to take on Mike Madigan and think you're gonna win."
Not this time. Maybe not next time. Maybe not ever. But it won't be for lack of trying, for fear, or for hopelessness. It's far from over on the Southwest Side of Chicago.