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Local Elections Fri Nov 05 2010

Election Day with a Long-shot

There are some longtime rituals on Election Day that politically active American citizens repeat every election cycle. Voters gather in homes or public places on the first Tuesday of November and watch televised up-to-the-second exit poll figures and vote tallies. They arrive at these parties with some basic expectations: their party will win some, and their party will lose some. Hopefully the former will outweigh the latter. If not, they can try again in two years.

A strange atmosphere hangs in the air of such a get-together put on by a party that considers five percent of the vote a victory. No one goes to a Green Party election-watching expecting their candidates to win the majority of the electorate--no one. It's like rooting for the Cubs, except the Greens never even make it to the playoffs.

But Election Day 2010 was different. The party that accepts losing as a way of life thought that maybe they would get to win.


The Chicago Green Party had pounded the pavement hard for one of their candidates, social worker Jeremy Karpen, a brown-haired 29-year-old social worker whose beard always seems on the verge of really filling in. (GB covered his candidacy two years ago and on Monday). The party thought it might be possible to actually pull out a victory in the 39th district state representative's race, where he had captured a respectable 22 percent of the vote in 2008 against incumbent Toni Berrios.

Photo from Karpen's Facebook.

As I walked into the Greens' after-party at a hip Logan Square bar, I wondered: when losing is a foregone conclusion, how will a group react if they actually win? I imagined what Wrigleyville would look like after a World Series win by the Cubs; after so many years of failure, what kind of exuberant, destructive catharsis would Cubs fans engage in post-championship? I glanced warily at the small crowd of quiet, polite Green Party members at the bar and made it my immediate business to locate all the emergency exits.

I was worried about a potentially explosive situation at the party because earlier in the day, I had been at the Green Party's Chicago headquarters, on Fullerton Avenue near Kedzie. I saw what was undoubtedly one of the most enthusiastic groups of volunteers for any state rep candidate in any race in any state at any time, gathered to blanket the neighborhood.

Volunteers showed up at the brightly-painted, impressively sharp-looking office--the party had taken pains to make it look slick, Karpen later explained during his concession speech, "so we didn't look like a bunch of hippies"--for shifts in a constant stream, as sleep-deprived campaign coordinators hustled them out the door in neon yellow Karpen t-shirts and a stack of baseball card-sized palm cards to hand to voters near polling stations. Election Day and the weeks leading up to it had clearly taken a toll on the coordinators, and a few were more than slightly irritable with each other after reaching the limits of what probably once seemed like an endless reserve of energy for "clean politics."

Karpen, far left, and his campaign's volunteers in front of their Logan Square headquarters. Photo from Karpen's Facebook.

The office was striking in its seriousness in approaching the race. This was not solely a shot-in-the-dark run to shrilly denounce a corrupt two-party (or, in the case of Chicago, one-party) system, like many Green Party campaigns; Karpen's volunteers seemed possessed with the idea that unlike their campaigns for governor or senator, they actually might be able to win.

Indeed, Karpen admitted in his concession speech that he had held high hopes to do just that. And watching the party's impressive team go to work in the neighborhood, I thought it might be possible, too.

at the polls

I headed to a polling place just north of Armitage to find out what, if anything, voters in the neighborhood thought of Karpen. Staking their territory just outside of the traffic cones set 100 feet from the polling place, where all electioneering must end, were two men, John and Albert, laughing and joking while passing out bright yellow fliers encouraging voters to punch straight Democratic. Both longtime Logan Square residents, they seemed like the kind of loyal foot soldiers who enable the Democratic machine's functioning at the neighborhood level. The two had never met, but they exchanged names of precinct captains and various aldermanic and state congressional staff in the neighborhood with an ease that suggested they knew their way around the lower levels of the Cook Country Democratic Party; as an alderman exited the polls after voting, Albert exclaimed, "That's my man," and crossed the street to shake his hand and chat.

Both men had never heard of Karpen, and were wary of anyone who wasn't a Democrat. John insinuated he had received his city job through his connections in the party, and seemed to think Karpen would not be willing (nor able) to do such a thing himself. In addition, Toni Berrios is Puerto Rican, like John and Albert, and that was important to them. As a young white couple politely refused the yellow sheet and crossed the street to the polling station, John said they would probably support Karpen.

"Why?" I asked.

The two men looked at each other with a smirk, then burst out laughing. "Because he's white!" John exclaimed as if it were obvious.

Still, several voters--most of whom, it should be noted, were white--on their way to cast their ballot had heard of Karpen, and thought well of him. The Greens had been knocking on doors in the neighborhood for five months trying to get the word out about him, and it had clearly had some effect. One voter stopped to say that the only reason he was going to the polls was because of Karpen. As he returned after voting, he stated, "Chalk one up for Karpen."


The campaign apparatus was undeniably impressive, but it soon became clear after the polls closed that the effort was not enough: Toni Berrios was easily reelected with 65.4 percent of the vote.

Karpen was visibly disappointed with the results. He took to the stage to give an unprepared concession speech.

Later, when Rich Whitney, the Green candidate for governor, was beamed into the bar on a large screen as he conceded in Springfield, he rambled on for a good fifteen minutes from some prepared remarks. It was an uninspired concession: he condemned the national Republican and Democratic Parties, denounced the corruption of Chicago's Democratic machine, called for the end of corporate money in politics. Green Party stalwarts wandered away disinterestedly, heading to the bar for another PBR; a young white twenty-something with glasses and a goatee mentioned he wanted to go back to NBC's coverage, muttering, "Can we get Tom Brokaw back?" I wondered if I had just witnessed the first time in history a hipster had hankered for the aging newscaster out loud.

When Karpen took to the stage, however, the room was captivated. He spoke extemporaneously, with the visible sadness of a candidate who thought victory was possible.

"This isn't the speech I wanted to give tonight," he said, clearly a little crestfallen.

"This campaign was an incredible example of grassroots democracy. We raised the bar for what a candidate is through this race." The crowd was still captivated.

Karpen seemed relieved that the race was over, and didn't say he'd run again in two years. But after winning 21 percent of the vote two years ago and over a third this year, he certainly didn't say he wouldn't.

Soon after his speech, the crowd began petering out. As I left the bar, I thought to myself: had I really just witnessed a state rep's race? The hordes of young volunteers, the under-slept and over-caffeinated coordinators, the passionate candidate whose concession speech almost brought him to tears as he insisted that his campaign had given people hope that the old way of doing politics could be brought to an end--was this all for a position whose actual responsibilities few people understand?

A campaign riding a wave of such bright-eyed enthusiasm seems to have two prospects for its future. It can hit the brick wall of defeat a few more times, wearily admitting that a different way of doing politics really isn't possible, that political power in this city is too deeply entrenched to be successfully challenged.

Or maybe, through acquired skill, massive outputs of energy, and dumb luck, the Cubs actually do win the World Series.

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John / November 6, 2010 10:36 AM

Hey Micah, good article. I talked to you at the table before Whitney started speaking and I think that you pretty well nailed it.

As a pragmatic idealist who voted for Karpan and Burns but also Giannoulias and Quinn (albeit ruefully), it was refreshing to spend election night with people truly committed to ideals they believed in as opposed to the lesser of two evils.

I expected that going to the Green party event would anger/depress me as I watched idealists with little practical hope flounder, but instead I found smart, clear-eyed optimists who were disappointed but not ultimately defeated at the night's outcome (as compared to an understandably dyspeptic and irritable Whitney).

We need a ray of light admist the grey, soul-crushing Sophie's Choices that comprise most of Illinois politics and after Tuesday night, I felt slightly more hopeful that that is still possible.

R / November 6, 2010 9:20 PM

I hope Karpen is not disillusioned by the BS logic that has gone into keeping people like Joe and Toni Berrios in power. Run again in 2012--you'll have my vote (as you did last Tuesday)...

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