Beyond the base

Everyone on the 7900 block of South Dorchester Avenue knows Kim Gilmore. Now 41, Gilmore grew up in a home around the corner, and still lives in the neighborhood. On weekdays he’s a deputy bureau chief with the Cook County human resources department, but on nights and weekends he’s a precinct captain, knocking on doors for the 8th Ward Regular Democratic Organization.

Armed with a clipboard and pen, Gilmore stood on the front porch of Merties Smith’s brick bungalow on a January day and asked her if she’d heard anything about the March 16 Democratic primary for U.S. Senate.
“A little bit,” she said. A 40-year resident of the neighborhood, Smith was used to Gilmore dropping by to talk about the politics of the mostly middle-class, African American ward; they laughed and chatted, and she referred to him as “one of my children.”

But Smith didn’t have much to say about his favored candidate, Illinois Comptroller Dan Hynes, an heir to the party’s Irish base, who had turned to Gilmore’s ward boss, Cook County Board Pre-sident John H. Stroger Jr., for help in the black community. In-stead, she was interested in Barack Obama, a state senator whose district lies just to the north. “He’s an independent black person, and I would vote for him,” she explained.

As Gilmore moved down the street, he was offered a different view at just about every stop. A few doors south, a man said he was torn between “Obyama,” as he pronounced it, because he was “local,” and multimillionaire financial trader Blair Hull, who is white, because “he’s got the dineros. I like somebody spending his own damn money instead of mine. He’ll be more independent.”

Some people couldn’t name any of the seven Democrats running, while others made it clear that neither race nor money would have anything to do with their votes. When Gilmore reached the home of Iris Bailey Howell and her husband, Daniel, he was ushered inside. Bailey Howell, who serves as the block club president, told him she knew very little about the candidates, though she recognized the names of Hynes, Cook County Trea-surer Maria Pappas and Gery Chico, the former Chicago school board president. And she was familiar with Obama, but not impressed, and she wasn’t sure he was the best person to represent her as a black voter. “We always thought he had money, so he didn’t have to come out to the community,” she said.

Gilmore was happy to agree. Out on the sidewalk, he was optimistic about Hynes’ chances. In a couple of weeks, Gilmore said, he would begin a “literature blitz,” and he believed more people would openly support Hynes when they saw photos of him with Stroger.

Still, Gilmore wasn’t sure what to expect. He admitted that, if Obama got his name out, 8th Ward voters might go with him. Hull’s massive spending on advertisements could also siphon off black voters, he said. So could the name recognition of Pappas, who is of Greek heritage, and Chico, a Latino, since both are well-regarded in the community. And who could say how the long-shot candidates—radio talk show host Nancy Skinner, an exuberant white liberal, and health care executive Joyce Washington, who is African American—might shake it up?

Although he strongly believes in Hynes, Gilmore said, “this is the freest I’ve seen everyone act. Everyone’s aligning with who they want to. … It’s almost like a free-for-all out there.”

Across the state, analysts, elected officials and the campaigns themselves are reaching the same conclusion. It is the first time that more than one viable nonwhite candidate has squared off in a statewide race. And, with two white ethnic insiders and a first-time, multimillionaire candidate also on the ballot, the old victory formula—mobilize your key base and cut into your opponents’—has never been more complicated.

“I’ve never seen this many people from within the party structure running for the same office. You’ve got everybody running,” said Joseph Berrios, a Cook County Board of Review commission-er and the Democratic committeeman of the Northwest Side’s 31st Ward.

Convention requires candidates to claim no group of voters gets special attention, but political players say that, as always, ev-ery campaign has identified groups it has to mobilize, and they’re mostly defined by race and class. But, because of the number and range of candidates this time, each demographic can split several ways, and none has been written off.

“This thing is so fluid, you won’t be able to tell what’s happen-ing until Election Night,” said Roland W. Burris, the state’s first African American comptroller and attorney general, who lost Dem-ocratic primaries for governor in 1994, 1998 and 2002. “They’ve all got to firm their bases up, and then go out and make others believe they can help them.”

Berrios said he doesn’t know of any racial or ethnic community whose leaders aren’t split among several candidates. “I’ve talked to a lot of guys who are wavering in their choices,” said Berrios. “We’re all over the place.”

Early polls suggest voters are no more certain. In January, a Chicago Tribune/WGN poll found Hynes, Obama and Pappas tied for the lead, with Hull trailing by a statistically insignificant margin and Chico not far behind. But nearly 40 percent of Democrats were undecided. In such a tight contest, the candidates recognize that every greeting offered in a train station, every flyer handed out in an apartment vestibule and every contribution to a ward organization has heightened importance, offering the possibility of reaching the few voters who could make the difference.

After all, the candidates largely agree on the issues—the need to counter the Bush administration’s economic and foreign policies
—and even many of the solutions; what could set them apart is who they are and how they connect with the communities they’re visiting. The winner will take on whoever triumphs in the equally congested Republican primary, which features several millionaires among its eight candidates.

“If you want the job, you’ve got to know how to get it,” Gil-more said. “Whoever does a better job of running a campaign will win, regardless of color.”

* * *

On Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Obama plunged into a cheering crowd packed into his new campaign office on the West Side, a storefront space off Madison Street. As a deejay jammed the 1970s soul hit “Ain’t No Stoppin’ Us Now,” Obama was greeted with hugs by other black leaders, including Cook County Commissioner Bobbie L. Steele, 29th Ward Alder-man Isaac S. Carothers and the activist Rev. Paul Jakes.

Obama has told his workers that about a third of the Chicago-area vote will come from black neighborhoods, and he was intent on proving he was their candidate. He saw that several people nearby had servings of soul food from the buffet table in the next room. “Before we start, there is a very important matter to take care of,” he said. “Did someone save me a plate?”

Obama spoke about the progress that had been made in civil rights, but noted that unemployment, incarceration and dropout rates were still higher in the black community than anywhere else. He vowed to keep working.

The Senate campaign could help Democrats take control of Con-gress, he said. “And the other reason it’s so important is because we don’t have one African American member of the United States Senate. When you look around the room and see who’s here, you know this is a diverse campaign. But all the people who support me, whether they’re black, white, Asian or Hispanic, believe the Senate should represent the diversity of this country. And this is the only chance we have right now.”

While Obama—or Washington, if she were to surge and mount a serious challenge—has to win votes from the collar counties and downstate, it will be all but impossible without receiving an overwhelming share of the black vote in Cook County.

Obama admits this—to a point. “Clearly I start off rooted in the African American community,” he said recently. “I feel confident that I have the track record to earn the support of that base, not simply because I’m black, but because I’ve pushed issues important to the community.” He cited legislation to track racial profiling by police and require videotaped murder confessions.

“People know my work, and I think I’ll do well,” he said. “But I’m not limited to the African American community. –¦ We will concede no demographic.”

Past primary results suggest that black candidates can’t overlook the rest of the city or its closest suburbs. Over the last 12 years, seven contested statewide primaries have featured black candidates—all of them Democrats. They lost four of those bids: three by Burris, and Joyce Washington’s 2002 defeat in the primary for lieutenant governor. The three winners were Carol Moseley Braun, for senator, in 1992; Earlean Collins, for comptroller, in 1994; and Jesse White, for secretary of state, in 1998.

While they all received more than 50 percent of the votes in the city, Braun and White also topped their opponents in the Cook County suburbs, and Collins finished a close second there out of four candidates. In contrast, in their losses, Burris and Washington were beaten in suburban Cook. Only Braun finished ahead in the five suburban counties outside Cook, and none of the candidates won downstate.

These contests, however, differed notably from this year’s primary. None involved more than one black candidate, and none had more than four candidates overall.

Still, the arithmetic of a Democratic primary—75 percent of the votes usually come from Chicago and its collar counties—compels Obama, like every black candidate before him, to maintain the same delicate balance: He needs to fire up the black community without coming across as simply black.

Obama and his supporters believe he has an advantage. After seven years in Springfield, he has compiled a progressive legislative record that resonates with white liberals, including many with deep pockets. Last year, Chicago attorney and education reform expert David Chizewer introduced Obama to members of his law firm, Goldberg Kohn, who found the candidate “dynamic and intelligent,” Chizewer said. “I collected a ton of checks.”

As the son of Thomas C. Hynes, the 19th Ward Democratic committeeman and former Cook County assessor, Dan Hynes is counting on the party engine to get out the vote for him. In Chicago, that means the ward organizations of the Southwest and Northwest sides; downstate, it means county and township leaders. He’s also looking for help from labor unions. While Obama won the endorsements of AFSCME and the Service Employees International Union—two of the largest and most racially diverse—Hynes captured the backing of the state AFL-CIO and many of its smaller, whiter trade unions.

Like his rivals, Hynes has vowed to campaign statewide—he sometimes boasts that he has visited every Illinois county at least twice—and declares that he has a diverse campaign staff, starting with its co-chairs: Stroger, the Cook County board president, who is black, and John Daley, a Cook County commissioner and the brother of Mayor Richard M. Daley. Hynes said that, under his leadership, the comptroller’s office has promoted workplace di-versity and civil rights.

“My campaign is not one dimensional,” he said in an interview. “Every area is reachable.” He added: “Politically, the winner is going to have to be able to deliver votes on Election Day. If you don’t have the apparatus to get out the vote, you won’t win. And I do believe we have an advantage there.”

The crowd at the official launch of his campaign, in September, reflected his core support. The location was carefully selected: the West Loop headquarters of the International Brotherhood of Elec-trical Workers Local 134. The meeting hall was warm and full of young families and workers in union T-shirts. It was a predominantly white group with a strong Irish presence, though a couple of dozen African Americans were there, most of them affiliated with ward organizations or the Illinois Young Democrats.

Flanked on stage by his family, Stroger and John Daley, Hynes described how his grandparents immigrated to Chicago from Ire-land in the 1920s and ended up on the Southwest Side, where his grandfather worked in a chemical plant for 40 years. “But too many of our leaders in Washington have just plain forgotten what makes America work,” he said in a speaking style even his backers describe as “dry.”

But the audience cheered loudly. Hynes criticized the Bush ad-ministration for not doing more to create jobs. “If you work hard every day, you should get ahead,” he said. “I will work hard to make America work again. Thank you all very much. Let’s go get them!” As he walked back and forth on the stage, waving to the whistling, fired up crowd, John Cougar Mellencamp’s blue-collar anthem “Pink Houses” blared over the P.A. system.

Jim Coyne was near the front of the room. His union, the Chi-cago Journeymen Plumbers Local 130, had endorsed Hynes earlier in the week, and he was excited. “I’ve followed his career, and he’s always been for the working man,” said Coyne, who is white. “He’s the real thing—not fabricated. He represents people.”

* * *

Early on in the campaign, Hynes was one of the two people Berrios, the 31st Ward committeeman, was thinking about endorsing. Chico was the other.

“The Hynes family has been very helpful to me in my political career,” Berrios said. Yet he didn’t want to slight a fellow Latino, both out of principle and political necessity. Berrios’ daughter, Toni, is a freshman state legislator from a Latino district on the Northwest Side, and he wanted to avoid making any moves that could hurt her re-election chances. In early February, though, he and about two dozen other Latino leaders, including aldermen Ariel Reboyras and Daniel Solis, held a joint press conference to endorse Hynes.

State Rep. Dan Burke, from the Southwest Side, went the other direction and backed Chico, citing his ability to get things done. “He’s in the main circuit for political society,” Burke said, adding that neither Obama (“I’m not out there waving any banners just because he went to Harvard”) nor Hynes (“I haven’t seen any stellar talent there”) had particularly inspired him.

But there’s more to it than that. He and his brother, 14th Ward Alderman Edward M. Burke, another Chico supporter, have watch-ed their old neighborhood shift from ethnic white to predominantly Latino. Dan Burke said he has worked hard to stay in touch with voters, and he said that Chico’s Mexican roots are “most definitely” an issue. Chico “needs to do tremendous outreach in the Latino community,” he said.

Perhaps none of the candidates has as many challenges in mobilizing a base as Chico, and, as a result, no one spends as much time emphasizing the ability to move outside it. While acknowledging that he could be the first Latino to serve in the Senate, Chico has denied that he must clinch the Hispanic vote. “I don’t think you should be the darling of any particular group,” he said in an interview. “There are no ‘have to haves.’ In my heart and soul, because I’m a Hispanic, I have some affinity with the His-panic community, yes. But do I feel someone else should not go to the Hispanic community? No.”

Chico’s network unquestionably extends beyond Latino neighbor-hoods. Before serving on the school board, he was Mayor Daley’s chief of staff, and has friends among the city’s behind-the-scenes political operatives. He also worked with several of the most powerful law firms in the city—even though the international firm Altheimer & Gray dissolved last year while Chico was chairman of its executive committee. Some members of the firm have accused him of greed and poor management. But Chico said that, faced with declining revenues, the partners of the firm voted to disband rather than “slug it out,” which would have been his choice. And he chose to help lead the firm through its final days rather than resign, he said.

Born to a mother of Greek and Lithuanian heritage, Chico has contacts among white ethnic leaders, and young white profession-als regularly give him strong reviews after they hear his command of the issues. But, as the only Latino in the campaign, inspiring and turning out the growing Latino community is a must, his supporters say. Chico has won backing from local Hispanic leaders like 22nd Ward Alderman Ricardo Muñoz, as well as national figures like Henry Cisneros, the former secretary of the U.S. Depart-ment of Housing and Urban Development. But others have al-ready come out for Obama, Hull or Hynes, and, in private, some say they’re waiting to see if Chico remains competitive; at the first sign that he’s not, they say, they’ll support someone else.

To make his task more formidable, a large swath of the Latino community isn’t eligible to vote, and even among the registered voters, the turnout is typically low. In the 2002 primary, 42 percent of registered Democrats in the city’s white wards and 40 percent in its black wards voted, but the figure was 36 percent in Lati-no wards.

A few days after President George W. Bush proposed reforming immigration policy, Chico joined several other Latino leaders in lashing out at him during a press conference at Casa Aztlán, a so-cial service agency in the Mexican neighborhood of Pilsen. In a large classroom, its walls adorned with murals of Mexican workers and a Mexican flag, Chico decried the Bush plan as an election-year gimmick to try to win Hispanic votes.

“This plan is not only unfair, it’s an insult to my entire community,” he said, first in Spanish, then in English. Chico then outlined a proposal he had crafted that would eventually lead undocumented workers to U.S. citizenship. Other speakers aired additional criticisms of the Bush plan, and one said, “That’s why we need people like Gery Chico who can change our policies.”

But, when approached one-on-one afterward, several of the leaders were vague about whether they were backing his candidacy. “The Senate race? That’s a complicated one,” said Moises Zavala, an organizer with the United Food and Commercial Workers In-ternational Union. For one thing, the union had already endorsed Hynes. Electing a Latino certainly wasn’t as important as finding someone strong on immigration issues, he said; while Chico’s plan sounded promising, Zavala wanted more details. He wanted to check out the other candidates, too. “We have a lot of good people running for the same position,” he said. In early February, he decided to support Hynes.

Carlos Arango, Casa Aztlán’s executive director, said Chico’s im-migration plan was strong overall, but his organization does not back political candidates, and he couldn’t predict how well Chico would do. “Gery is well known in the community,” he said. “And he seems like he has a good approach and has some visibility. The whole question is, Gery has to galvanize the votes of Mexican and Latino workers. If he can do that, he’ll do well. If not, his chances are slim.” At that point, though, no other candidates had established a significant presence in the neighborhood, he said.

Chico isn’t the only candidate fighting to hold onto his turf. Each campaign is trying to chip away at the others’ core support. This, too, is a standard election scheme, but this year—when 30 percent of the votes could win—it’s even more aggressive and in-tricate, an arabesque of strategy and counter-strategy. For example, Pappas is after some of the ethnic support important to Hynes as well as black votes crucial to Obama. Chico won the endorsement of the Baptist Ministers Fellowship of Chicago, which represents more than 200 black churches, while Obama has touted the backing of U.S. Rep. Lane Evans of downstate Rock Island, an area Hynes hopes to win decisively.

Hynes believes people like Gilmore, the 8th Ward precinct captain, and frequent campaign trips to African American areas will garner him a good chunk of the black vote. At about 11:30 on a morning in mid-January, Hynes made a stop at Grant Village, a senior home at 4161 South Drexel Blvd. Several of his African American staffers were already in a first-floor meeting room where chairs had been set up in rows. One of the staffers was leading about 16 black seniors in a call-and-response chant. “Say Dan!” “Dan!” “Say Hynes!” “Hynes!”

Hynes entered to applause and began moving around to shake hands, careful not to step on anyone’s feet or, in some cases, knock over canes or walkers. Greeting each person, he was so formal and polite that he seemed uncomfortable.

After reviewing highlights of his record, Hynes began to criticize Bush in the tone of a good Sunday-school teacher—serious, patient and rancor-free. “I think Bush has made the wrong choices,” he said. “He had the choice—were we going to help people who need help, or give people tax cuts? Well, he decided to give tax cuts. I think that shows his values are in the wrong place.”

Levada Banks beamed at him from her wheelchair. “It’s nice of you to take time and come by and see us,” she said. Hynes smiled. “I feel blessed to be here. Thank you for that.” He looked at the others. “Now, don’t forget—it’s Hynes with a Y, not like the catsup.”

“And don’t just come by here at election time,” said a woman near the back. “They always forget about seniors except at election time.”
Hynes vowed that he wouldn’t. Growing more casual and openly friendly, he began asking people where they were born and how they were feeling. After a few minutes, he said, “I see the men are outnumbered three to one. How do you handle that?” Banks ex-plained that the man next to her always tried to kiss everyone. Dressed in an impeccable gray suit with a yellow shirt, the man smiled mischievously and said he was 92. “Well, you look 20 years younger, and I don’t say that just because I need your vote. You look good,” said Hynes. He turned to Banks. “Remember, if he gets too fresh, use that cane for something.”

The seniors loved it, and, long after Hynes had left, Banks talk-ed about how nice it was of him to visit.

* * *

Two unconventional candidates could upend the carefully laid plans of Chico, Hynes and Obama. In previous runs for the Cook County board and treasurer’s office, Pappas earned a reputation for unusual campaigning—spending much of her time visiting ethnic festivals, often as a baton-twirling parade performer, and walking around neighborhoods meeting people with her pet poodle.

Not only was she the last Democrat to declare her candidacy, but she hasn’t bothered to launch a major fundraising effort, line up endorsements, or build an effective political organization. She skipped the first of several candidates’ forums, and her campaign issued a press release about her performance in a recent triathlon. While she says that she started her networking in Chicago’s Greek community—“that’s where I know people”—she is also spending time in black neighborhoods, the suburbs and downstate.

The unorthodox approach baffles her rivals, but she has finished at or near the top in just about every early poll. “There’s no big dark secret here. I just do what I do,” she said. “I’m very serious. I’m probably one of the most focused individuals I know.”

Perhaps the most unpredictable—and definitely the wealthiest—entrant in the race is Hull. Though a first-time candidate, on the trail he describes a long history of allegiance to the Democratic Party, activism on pro-choice and women’s issues, and business acu-men that produced jobs for Illinois residents. In 1999, Hull sold his financial trading company for $531 million.

What he doesn’t talk about as much is his recent history of handing out contributions to political candidates and organizations across the state. But it’s big money, and it could have a ma-jor impact on the race.

Several of Hull’s rivals have made political contributions totaling thousands of dollars, most notably Hynes. As the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported in late January, Hynes last year gave a total of about $20,000 from his state campaign organization to other candidates who subsequently contributed comparable sums to his Se-nate fund. Though candidates are barred by federal law from making large direct transfers of money from state to federal campaigns, Hynes denied that the transfers were unethical. But he was dogged by a round of news stories discussing how the funds were “laundered.”

In terms of quantity, though, Hull’s history of contributions is on another level. Illinois State Board of Elections data show that, since 2001, Hull has given $1.1 million to Illinois candidates and political committees. The top recipient was Gov. Rod Blagojevich, who took in $459,061 from Hull in checks and the use of a rented plane. Dozens of downstate party organizations, like the Rock Island County Democratic Central Committee and Peoria Coun-ty Democrats, received thousands of dollars.

Members of Congress and liberal interest groups also benefited from Hull’s largesse. In 2001 and 2002, he handed out an additional $306,000 to national political candidates and organizations, ranking 100th in the nation, according to Steven Weiss, communications director at the Center for Responsive Politics, a Washing-ton, D.C.-based non-partisan organization that tracks campaign fi-nancing.

“Certainly he is not your ordinary giver,” Weiss said. “It makes him a very desirable person in political circles. –¦ He’s attempting to buy friendships and maybe even loyalty among people he hopes are his future colleagues.”

Jim O’Connor, Hull’s press secretary, said Hull is proud to contribute to other Democrats and expects nothing in return. “He wants to further Democratic issues across the state and nation, and running for Senate is just an extension of that.”

While Hynes, Chico and Obama have each raised more than $3 million since launching their campaigns, Hull has vowed to spend at least $40 million of his money by November. According to the Federal Elections Commission, he’s ahead of schedule, having spent more than $12 million so far. Hull also transferred another $6 million into his war chest in January.

The money has certainly attracted attention and support: Over the last several months, Hull has received some endorsements that have surprised and worried his opponents. While Blagojevich has officially remained neutral in the race, his father-in-law, 33rd Ward Alderman and Committeeman Richard F. Mell, has signed on; he and his ward organization received $6,500 from Hull in 2002.

Last summer, U.S. Rep. Bobby Rush announced that he would chair Hull’s campaign. In the 1960s, Rush was a Black Panther, and now, when he’s not in Washington, he pastors a South Side church. Within the black community, he possesses what some po-litical observers call “the authenticity card.”

Rush denied that Hull had provided money to his campaign fund—an assertion backed by federal records—or that the two had worked out any quid pro quo. He also rejected suggestions that he was trying to exact revenge on Obama, who unsuccessfully challenged him for his congressional seat in 2000. Rush said he and Hull have similar backgrounds—both came from working-class homes—and he believes Hull can win in November.

The African American endorsements did not end there. Alder-men Carrie M. Austin and Shirley Coleman have also signed on; last winter, Hull gave Coleman’s 16th Ward organization $3,500. Others say Hull has been visiting black churches for months, often leaving generous sums in their collection plates.

“I don’t see [Obama] locking up the black vote,” said 7th Ward Alderman William Beavers, city vice-chairman of the Cook Coun-ty Democratic Party. Beavers, who is African American, is not en-dorsing anyone in the race. “Some [ward] organizations are poor and need money, and the person who supplies that to take care of judges and workers is going to get support.”

Hull wants to make similar inroads in the Hispanic community, where his hopes rest with U.S. Rep. Luis Gutierrez, the state’s highest-ranking Latino politician.

Gutierrez announced his backing at Hull’s River North campaign headquarters on Jan. 22. With Hull at his side, and a giant Spanish-language campaign poster behind him, Gutierrez repeated Rush’s explanations: Hull had a working-class background and the ability “to get to the finish line,” and his money would protect him from special interests. Gutierrez added: “I believe Blair Hull will be a champion for Latinos.”

The two showed reporters a television commercial featuring a Spanish-speaking Gutierrez asking voters to come out for Hull. The screen then flashed to Hull, who, in his own Spanish, said, “I am Blair Hull, and I support this commercial.”

When it was over, Gutierrez said, “Your Spanish is getting better everyday, you know.”

“Gracias,” Hull replied.

Reporters fired off questions, mostly at Gutierrez: Why didn’t Chico get your endorsement? Why not back the Latino?

“I’m happy that Gery is finding his Latino voice,” Gutierrrez said. He repeated his praise for Hull’s background and independence. But the questions kept coming, and Gutierrez grew exasperated.

“Should any endorsement be based on race, ethnicity, or the color of someone’s skin?” he demanded. “No. Absolutely not. It’s as if you’re saying I shouldn’t endorse a white man.”

As Gutierrez began giving interviews to Spanish-language TV re-porters, Hull went on. Straightforward and brief, he promised that both Gutierrez and Rush would be helping him on the campaign trail.

“I’m the one who has to carry the message,” Hull said, though having them along “certainly gives me validation for my candidacy and ideas.”
Hull, like every candidate, insisted that he can present voters with a clear choice. But others—including workers in the neighborhoods—sound a different refrain. They’re concerned that the long list of candidates, and their intertwining outreach strategies, will dampen voter turnout.

Ed Kelly, a Hynes backer who has been committeeman of the North Side’s 47th Ward since 1968, recently met with his precinct captains, who reported that voters still hadn’t made up their minds about the race. “I’m glad there are so many people interested in politics,” Kelly said, “but it’s causing confusion.”

Norell Giancana, Alden K. Loury, Brian J. Rogal, and Paula Wills helped research this article.

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