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Election 2012 Fri Mar 09 2012

Out of Turn: The Story of the Will Guzzardi Campaign

By Caroline O'Donovan

"Loving Chicago is like loving a woman with a broken nose."
—Nelson Algren

will_guzzardi1.jpg"Do you want a beer?" Rebecca Reynolds, campaign manger for Will Guzzardi, shouted at me from across the back room of Cole's bar on Milwaukee Avenue. "I usually buy so many beers for people during a campaign, but I haven't this time. I need to catch up!" Last week, 20 days before Election Day, the Guzzardi campaign, an agile, grass roots operation that is fighting for its life against the Berrios family and the Chicago machine, held one of its final fundraisers. Between the craft brews and the Guzzardi supporter wearing magenta velvet, a campaign button and stilts, the mood could best be described as jubilant.

Six months ago, Will Guzzardi announced his candidacy for state representative in the 39th District in that very same room. That night, the bar was filled with his friends, a large group of 20-somethings, and Will Guzzardi, with a new haircut, a red tie and a pressed suit, became a candidate.

Guzzardi, looking eminently more comfortable but infinitely more tired up on stage Thursday night, drew a narrative of how far he and his staff had come since he called the incumbent Representative Toni Berrios and told her he'd be challenging her in March.

"I sat down with a lot of people when I was getting started," Guzzardi said, "And I remember one of those conversations like I was yesterday. Someone said to me, 'You'll get 20-30 percent, and you'll be out of Chicago in three months.'"

Everyone booed. One of the most noticeable differences between this crowd and the one that gathered back in September are the call-and-response style shout-outs. The noticeably older, new supporters come from political organizing backgrounds, from groups like the Illinois chapter of Democracy for America and the local Democratic organization, 1st Ward First. That group, a project of Alderman Proco Joe Moreno, assembled at Cole's as a tacit endorsement of Guzzardi. With the alderman's blessing, they will continue to work with the campaign through Election Day, shoring up Guzzardi's efforts to Get Out the Vote.

The general consensus among these experienced political organizers, and campaign staffers, was that the Berrios campaign is scared. In the last two weeks, they've printed seven mailers, four of which were attack ads. "I've learned a lot of interesting things about myself," Guzzardi said, holding the attack ads up to the crowd, "'Will Guzzardi wants to send jobs overseas to India and Pakistan.' I didn't even know I had the power to do that!"

The joke, aside from the fact that Berrios is running scared and spending huge amounts of money on printing lies, is that Guzzardi, who at 24 has only ever held one job in the city of Chicago, doesn't have the power to do anything. Yet.

The first thing that everybody seems to notice about Will Guzzardi is that his hair is well on its way to being almost completely gray. For a candidate for political office, a little gray is usually a good thing — it adds an air of distinction. For Guzzardi it might be especially helpful, seeing as he's taking his first stab at politics by running for state representative against the Cook County Democratic machine.

In the first year or so that I knew Guzzardi, he was the Chicago Editor for the Huffington Post, writing about city and state politics, or, as the campaign rap reads, "covering local leaders and investigating corruption."

It was through such a piece of reporting that Guzzardi eventually came to turn the Buzz Stop Barbershop at Albany and Diversey into his very own campaign headquarters. In the fall of 2010, Guzzardi began covering the political aspirations of a young teacher named Jeremy Karpen. Karpen, like Guzzardi, was young and, like Guzzardi, was not born in Chicago. A member of the Green Party, he believed in lower taxes for the middle class and better schools for low-income students. In November of 2010, he would run for state representative in the 39th District.

Enter the competition, incumbent State Rep. Maria "Toni" Berrios. Since 2002, she has been reelected to her position five times. A variety of factors have made it easy for her to retain this seat. When, in 2010, Karpen challenged the idea that she "defacto represents the people of the community somehow better because she is Puerto Rican," for example, Berrios countered with the argument that the 39th District was intentionally drawn with a majority Latino constituency. "The reason for that," Berrios told Guzzardi and the Huffington Post, "is so that we can have more Latino representation downstate." In other words, it's not that she believes her ethnicity makes her a better representative of her voters, the city does.

Toni Berrios's dad is Joe Berrios. He was born to Puerto Rican parents in Cabrini Green. According to his personal website, he got his first job washing dishes at age 13, but was around that same time that his real career began. Starting as a teenager, Berrios worked as for Alderman Thomas Keane's political organization, learning along the way what it meant to be a Democrat in Cook County. By 1974, Keane was in a federal prison in Kentucky on charges of insider trading, and Joe Berrios was a precinct captain. In 1982, Berrios landed his first job as an elected official. Today, he is the Cook County assessor, committeeman for the 31st Ward, and the chairman of the Cook County Democratic Party.

So it's not just Toni Berrios, 34-year-old former Liquor Control Commission employee that Jeremy Karpen was up against in the general election in 2010. It wasn't just the wary families who go to church every Sunday and barbecue in Humboldt Park every Saturday that he had to convince. His opponents weren't even limited to the supporters of the Latino Caucus that Toni Berrios co-chairs. It was the tax attorneys who want breaks from the Cook County Assessor; it was the career politicians who might need votes from the chair of the Cook County Democratic Party; it was anyone who needed a favor in Cook County.

Jeremy Karpen lost the race for state representative, coming in with about 35 percent of the vote. Forrest Claypool, who challenged Joe Berrios for the office of Cook County Assessor, also lost that year. There may have been, as Karpen put it, an air of anti-incumbency, but not in Chicago. Guzzardi, who had written every headline from "The Greening of Logan Square" to "Green Against the Machine" in hopes of making a dent, watched as the Democratic machine wore Karpen down.

He kept reporting, but he was frustrated, increasingly aware of the ancient system of favors that Chicago is run by, but no nearer to making it stop. In a 2010 interview with Karpen, Guzzardi asked him about the obvious racial issue, how he felt about representing the flow of new money and youth into the neighborhood. There is an unpleasant discord when the young idealist is forced to admit that he's riding the wave of gentrification to power. Karpen responded, "It sucks; the feeling sucks."

Guzzardi announced his candidacy for state representative in the summer of 2011.

The 39th District of Illinois is composed of Belmont-Cragin, Avondale, Hermosa and Logan Square. Logan Square, where the Guzzardi fundraiser was held, is the neighborhood furthest to the south. People between the ages of 25 and 34 make up 29 percent of the population, which explains the proliferation of new bars and restaurants, one of which seems to spring up every three months. That's where Guzzardi's office is located. The Berrios campaign is, somewhat unsurprisingly, located in Belmont-Cragin, where the population is 78.8 percent Hispanic, as compared to Logan Square's 51.7%. Belmont-Cragin, where half of inhabitants are under 17 or over 50, is where Toni's family lives. (via data from the MCIC)

will_guzzardi2.jpgWill Guzzardi was born in New York City. His father is a publisher, his mom a social worker. He attended high school in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, and was ultimately accepted to Brown University. There, Guzzardi developed his interests in jazz, comedy, and writing. He is an excellent pianist. At Brown, Guzzardi also co-founded an online literary magazine, called Wag's Revue, that has featured the musings of cultural figures from Stephen Colbert to Alison Bechdel.

"We usually say he moved here after college," says campaign manager Rebecca Reynolds, driving Guzzardi back to headquarters in Logan Square, "But if they push it, Guzzardi's lived here for two years." Long before he ordered campaign stickers or booked the kickoff party, Guzzardi's hired Rebecca Reynolds, whose previous work experience includes working for "Témoc" Morfin when he ran against Danny Solis, but more importantly, for Jeremy Karpen when he ran against Toni Berrios. "When Guzzardi told me he wanted to run," Reynolds said one day at campaign headquarters, "my first thought was, Absolutely not! He was just one of the best journalists."

Reynolds is an idealist, but a hard-nosed one; she learned everything she knows — from the number of times to confirm a voter's support to how much you can expect from a donor on the second call — from reading, networking, and attending conferences. Organizers in Chicago who were trained in machine campaigns don't understand the value of work, Reynolds says, only the value of showing up — much like machine candidates themselves. "There just isn't an existing grassroots organizational structure in Chicago." It's her passion for building one that allows Reynolds to thrive under a grueling campaign schedule.

The sole remnants of the The Buzz Stop Barbershop's former occupants are some tissue for collar lining and a bit of window paint on the front door reading, "Walk-Ins Welcome." When the campaign moved into the space they washed away the rest of the paint, but Guzzardi spared that message. Lists of voter addresses and postcards with Guzzardi's face on them cover the tables, and volunteer sign up charts drawn on whiteboards cover the walls. The back office has a separate bathroom, whose sink is crowded with razor blades, shaving cream, toothpaste and deodorant. Extra-large dress shirts on hangers are strung up along the windows. On the coffee table, where Reynolds stages nerve-wracking training sessions, there is a print-out of a New Yorker story titled "How Underdogs Can Win."

"I'm supporting Guzzardi because I believe we need independent leaders who will be accountable only to us, and not to big money and special interests," she says slowly and clearly. "Now you say it." Even in the face of grouchy constituents with their hair in rollers and kids screaming in the kitchen, Reynolds says every word slowly and with a smile. She wrote the rap sheets and she also tested them. A few months in, regular volunteers noticed a change in the script. Reynolds had noticed that not all the constituents knew who "the incumbent, Toni Berrios" was, so she added another clause, " — she's the daughter of Joe Berrios."

Even after they got on the ballot, the Guzzardi campaign didn't hear from Berrios for months. Guzzardi, who runs into her occasionally at candidates forums and other events, describes her as "confused." In Springfield, Berrios is relatively active on women's issues, chairs the Consumer Protection Committee, sits on the Executive Committee, and is Co-chair of the Illinois Legislative Latino Caucus. She spearheaded an educational program that raises private funds to send undocumented students to college. On weekends, she sometimes sits at a booth at the Logan Square Farmer's Market. In her own words to the Reader, "I've been a very good state representative." Funded by her father's political operatives, however, the campaign is outside of Toni's jurisdiction.

In February of 2004, Joe Berrios openly admitted to pushing Pedro DeJesus out of the race against his daughter. When asked in the same year why he had stopped supporting the opponent of a donor to his daughter's campaign, Berrios told the Reader, "Everybody has been trying to bring everybody together in the neighborhood. So when Alvarez came to me for help I said, 'Not this time.' In the last election I believe I gave him $70,000. So you can understand why he changed his mind about running."

In May of 2011, the Sun-Times reported that Joe Berrios was had given one of his children a $10,000 annual raise, even as other employees were dealt a mandatory 12-day furlough. He was simultaneously accused of lobbying in Springfield for legislation sponsored by his daughter. Said Toni Berrios to the Reader in 2004 of her father's protectiveness, "He's my father — he's there to help his daughter." When you've got $1 million in campaign funds, what's $100,000 between family?

In February of this year, someone bought an ad in the Sun-Times that read, "Happy V-day Uncle Joe, Thank you for the jobs and promotions. We couldn't have gotten them without you. With love, the Berrios family." Alonso Zaragoza, who is running against Joe Berrios for Democratic committeeman in the 31st Ward, took the credit for the ad, and political junkies from Lake Michigan to Cicero had a laugh. It probably won't prevent Zaragoza from getting crushed in the election, though, just as full knowledge of the misdeeds of establishment candidates hasn't prevented anyone from winning an election in Chicago since the city's inception.

This is what Chicagoans proudly but quietly refer to as the Chicago machine. A thing of lore it may be, but glamorous it is not — being a machine politician involves a lot of standing in line and waiting your turn. Last fall, Appellate Justice Rudy Garcia accused Berrios of yanking his Democratic Party endorsement because seven years ago, Garcia refused to throw a case for him, despite the fact that word came down that Berrios wanted to see it go a certain way. Berrios says Garcia lost the nomination because, "Rudy didn't work. He called one committeeman. If he'd have gotten off his fat ass, he could have gotten it."

He's a funny man, but Joe Berrios seems genuinely unaware that handshaking, phone calling, and ass kissing are not actually the work of an Appellate Court Justice. In Berrios's mind, that's the most important work a politician does. It took him over 40 years to be able to masterfully manipulate the insidious network of favors that permeates Chicago's daily grind. For the Berrios family, it's just another iteration of the American dream in which hard work is compensated by wealth and security.

"Chicago ain't ready for reform!" "Ubi Est Mea — Where's mine?" Urban historians are quick to point out that Chicago didn't invent the political machine, but ours is easily the most pernicious. All it takes to build one is an economically depressed, heavily immigrant underclass and an opportunistic, resource-rich political class. While other cities gradually learned to want more out of their government, however, as Michael "Hinky Dink" Kenna, one-time boss of the 1st Ward, once put it, Chicagoans "never go for the big stuff."

Indeed, the persistent, quiet whirring of the machine itself has always relied entirely on the smallest of its cogs and screws. When Berrios defeated Karpen in 2010, according to the Reader, it was in large part because individual precinct captains rooted out voters before they went to the polls and told them that Karpen was running with the Tea Party — not the Green Party. While Toni and Joe might not have made much noise about Guzzardi getting on the ballot, elements of the 39th District's Democratic voter mobilization apparatus were being put into play even before the petitions were counted.

"Your precinct captain is around if you need a light bulb changed, or snow shoveled, or your mail picked up," Guzzardi explained, "He does for you." Then, come election time, he'll come by with a piece of paper with some names written on it, and those are the guys you vote for. Whether appointed or elected, they are the eyes and ears of the party organization — in this case, the one that's controlled by Chairman Berrios.

Consider one precinct captain, from W. Barry Avenue in Logan Square. Between 1999 and 2004, he and his wife made 12 donations between $60 and $300 dollars to then-alderman Mike Wojcik, and after that, multiple donations to his replacement Alderman Ariel Reboyras. Once, as Guzzardi was knocking doors, the precinct captain walked right behind him, knocking on the exact same doors and telling the people inside not to vote for him. Another time, Guzzardi turned around on a doorstep to see that precinct captain flashing a thumbs-down.

The campaign lifestyle calls for pure optimism, so Guzzardi and Reynolds laugh these instances off. The only reason to work tireless hours knocking on thousands of doors is because you believe you are going to win. Still, it's hard not to be a little perturbed, especially in the face of voters who say, "Sounds good, buddy, but I'll have to ask Mike."

The more people vote, the less likely incumbents are to get a free pass. That's the reason that Guzzardi has knocked on over 13,000 doors since September. Chicago's voter registry levels are at an all-time low, however, and as former mayor David Orr recently pointed out on "Chicago Tonight," Chicagoans have never voted in primary elections in significant numbers. Still, Guzzardi says the campaign is exactly where it wanted to be by the beginning of March.

Reynolds's mantra is that if only 9,000 people are going to vote, then you only have to shake 4,501 hands to win. When I asked Guzzardi if they're worried about Election Day shenanigans he said, "People know who they are going to vote for before they get to the polls." When talking to a voter, volunteers have to score how likely a voter is to go to the polls. A 1 is a definite yes, a 2 is a probably yes, and a 3 is a maybe. 4s and 5s don't count. After months of keeping such tallies, though, Guzzardi came up with a new response code: ABB, or Anybody But Berrios.

There are a lot of ABBs on the campaign trail, like the working moms who have petitioned regularly for changes they never see and are frustrated to no end about the poor quality of their children's education. The number of constituents who invite him into their homes, listen to his platform, and then guarantee their vote consistently encourages Guzzardi.

One of these was Tony, a middle-aged press machinist for the Tribune with nine grandkids. If property taxes keep rising, Tony told Guzzardi, his wife and he would be forced to move to Indiana. Tony asked Guzzardi how old he was, and I expected him to laugh when Guzzardi said, "Twenty four." Instead he said, "You wouldn't know it, with all that gray hair. That's good though. Get some young faces in there." When Guzzardi asked if he could count on Tony's vote in the primary in March, Tony said yes, for him and for his wife.

"It just goes to show you that the whole age line of attack just doesn't work," Guzzardi whispered as he rang the next doorbell. Just a few days before, the Berrios campaign had begun message testing, trying to find out what kind of negative ads would stick. Apparently, exhaustive research had uncovered that one of Guzzardi's donors briefly worked for a consulting firm with ties to the Libyan government. The connection Berrios tried to draw between Guzzardi and Muammar Gadaffi earned scoffs from campaign staff and constituents alike. Needless to say, Guzzardi himself never had the opportunity to speak with the murderous dictator before his death in 2011. The attack did not poll well.

One message that did poll well accuses Guzzardi of being allied with Wall Street and big business. He's not, but as Reynolds says, there are six elements to strong messaging, and believability is the most important one. Ironically, with Berrios printing off $10,000 mailers back to back, there is no friend, friend's parent or former employee of Muammar Gadaffi that the Guzzardi campaign can afford not to call. Unfortunately, Guzzardi, for whom the term affable was seemingly invented, is not very good, as Reynolds puts it, at the hard ask. "At this point," he said, "It just has to happen."

In January, Alderman Scott Waguspack, who was elected on a platform of vehement opposition to the privatization of city resources, endorsed Guzzardi's bid. Winning Waguespack's endorsement was a major coup for Guzzardi, who undoubtedly would like to model himself in Waguespack's image as a reformer. The problem is, of course, trying to figure out what Waguespack has actually reformed.

The mayor's budget was passed without conversation despite significant public consternation over cuts to mental health facilities, and just a few weeks ago Mayor Emanuel gave himself sole control over the selection of contractors for the G8 and NATO conventions, all with the Council's blessing. Many in the city's political circles feel abandoned by the reform candidates who run on progressive platforms, score unthinkable victories, and then immediately begin to play by inside rules.

The cynic can't help but wonder if the same thing will happen to Guzzardi. The truth is that a single vote against the nation's most regressive tax structure won't change it. Reynolds herself pointed out that the Chicago City Council has had a progressive caucus for eight years, and so far has very little to show for it. Guzzardi's argument, of course, is that having no friends in those circles will mean that he actually has to do what is best for the voter. Still, the fact is that reformers tend to be more potent as symbols than as actual legislators. It's not easy to make change from the outside.

Former Illinois Gov. Daniel Walker began his political career walking the precincts of Chicago. He ended it in prison, of course, although shockingly, not on charges of corruption, but for insider trading. In his autobiography, Walker writes of his introduction to the political machine, how at first trading baskets of vegetables for votes and giving homeless people false voter registration cards felt wrong. Even as he worried about the ethical aspect of the system, though, Walker appreciated that "there was an immediacy, a directness, a simple justice to it — a favor for a vote. It was what it was, and it didn't pretend to be anything more."

Dan Walker became a part of that system as an adult; Toni Berrios was born into it. "Toni's not evil," said Guzzardi at a recent policy event. "She's just not accountable to voters."

Jim Reed of the Illinois Education Association, which endorsed Guzzardi in late February, said he has long enjoyed a pleasant working relationship with Rep. Berrios, but said that being tied up with the leadership can make it hard to act unilaterally even on policy issues that are important to you. Reed said the IEA made it clear to Berrios that school vouchers are a detriment to public education, but caught up in alliance to various caucuses and the Executive Committee, she sponsored the legislation anyway. The locals who chose to endorse Guzzardi, Reed said, believed that a new approach — a fresh face — might make all the difference. The editors of the Tribune, which endorsed Guzzardi yesterday despite "disagree[ing] with him on many things," apparently feel the same way.

Over 50 years ago, on the opposite side of the city, another young intellectual, Leon DesPres, was just beginning his lifelong battle against the Cook County Democratic machine. Like Guzzardi, DesPres rode his bike to and from the office, prompting famed Chicago journalist Mike Royko to question if DesPres was really was an alderman after all, seeing as he didn't own a Cadillac. A reformer, DesPres spoke out against segregation when even African-American aldermen were rubber-stamping Mayor Daley's racist housing legislation and ferried Chicago through the Shakman Decrees, ending party control of city jobs. Kenan Heise, who spent 30 years at the Tribune during the first Daley administration, said of DesPres "In a city government run on clout and patronage, he had neither."

Guzzardi, too, has neither clout nor patronage, but the dream is a city that requires neither. It's hard to imagine because the machine is engrained in the city's identity, passed down from generation to generation, Daley to Daley, from father to daughter. The voters who perpetuate it, the journalists who write about it, and the party-liners who depend upon it have lived in this Chicago so long that they can't imagine that there's another way.

Leon DesPres, though, saw another way. "I fell in love with a city the way some do a sport or the theater or even a writer," he wrote in his autobiography. Politics in Chicago may breed cynics, but it's the lovers, especially the blind ones, that will change it.


Photos courtesy of the Will Guzzardi campaign.

Caroline O'Donovan, University of Chicago 2012, likes politics and loves Chicago. She tweets at @ceodonovan.

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