Slim chances

Nancy Skinner and Joyce Washington both have to know the odds aren’t in their favor. But they’re going to tell you anyway: They’re in it to win. Among the seven Democrats competing in the March 16 primary for U.S. Senate, Skinner and Washington are the two who, despite showing up at almost every debate or community meeting they’re invited to, are often dismissed by party insiders as “fringe” or “long shots” who don’t have a chance–except perhaps to steal liberal and black votes from state Sen. Barack Obama or one of the other “serious” candidates.

It is not an unreasonable conclusion. Both acknowledge that they’re short of cash, media attention and organizational might. And, according to early polls, they’re far behind in name recognition and committed supporters.

But this doesn’t seem to rattle them as much as the questions they keep getting: What are they really after, and which of the other candidates are they going to endorse when they drop out?

“If I can wake this party up, and shake them up, and get them to address their deficiencies, why they are losing, you bet that’s what I want–but I also want to win,” Skinner said recently.

“Let me look you in the eye and tell you: I am going to win this thing,” said Washington.
The two share other similarities. Both are political outsiders who have never held elective office. But they maintain they are committed to making a difference, and are not running for the fun or novelty of it. Reciting campaign clichés with ease and frequency, but short of the resources and connections enjoyed by their rivals, both campaigns rely on small staffs, lots of handshakes and unusual stops–and claim that’s the way they like it.

But Skinner and Washington have different approaches and target audiences.

Skinner, a 38-year-old former environmental activist, co-hosts a nationally syndicated radio talk show called “Doug Stephan’s Good Day.” Though the show is no longer heard in Chicago, Skinner has made her take-no-prisoners media personality the core of her campaign. Republicans have outsmarted Democrats and taken over the nation’s political conversation, she says; the challenge for progressive candidates, then, is to learn to speak in 30-second sound bites and think of creative ways to market “big, bold ideas” on issues like the environment, job creation and protecting abortion rights.

With stylish blond bangs and neat, colorful suits and skirts, she always appears ready for TV, and she enjoys firing off taut catch phrases: “I am the liberal media!” “Democrats need courage!” “The only thing Orwell got wrong was the date!”

She says she is out to mobilize “POLs”–pissed-off liberals who are still bitter about the impeachment of Bill Clinton, the 2000 election controversy and the economic policies of the Bush administration. “They have either been squeezed or they know enough about the squeezing to be upset,” she said. This includes blacks and Latinos, Skinner added–“It is not the white, North Shore liberals who are really hurting.”

Skinner is usually asked less about herself than how she’s hurting other candidates. Many of the people talking about her after the recent candidate forums were left-leaning whites, most of whom would be expected to support Obama.

She rejects the spoiler argument, and responds that the goal of primaries is to have a range of options. “Whoever the nominee is, I’ll be behind 110 percent,” she said. “I’m not a Ralph Nader.”

With little more than $21,000 on hand at the beginning of the year, Skinner can’t afford much advertising or paid staff. Instead, she relies on a network of volunteers and internet supporters, and battles for press coverage. She plans to spend much of February campaigning Downstate.

On a Saturday morning in January, Skinner appeared on “Live at the Heartland,” a weekly program on WLUW 88.7-FM, a 100-watt community radio station. The show is aired from a stage in the Heartland Café, a Rogers Park restaurant known for vegetarian food and progressive politics.

Over the clatter of dishes, Skinner told program host Mike Steven that the Chicago Tribune had refused to cover her and Washington, and she blasted federal policies that had allowed media consolidation. “My first piece of legislation would be the McCain-Skinner Media Reform Act,” she declared.

Skinner picked up speed, proposing ideas for investing in hydrogen cells, a pollution-free alternative to gasoline engines, and regulating big corporations. “Right now, we do not have a free market,” she said. “We have an oligopoly.”

As the segment wound down, Skinner asked listeners to give her a chance: “Don’t rely on TV commercials. I encourage everybody not to make up your mind until you hear from all of us.” Several friends clapped and cheered, and she went back to finish her breakfast.

* * *

Three days later, Washington spent an evening introducing herself to people on the West and South sides of the city. Washington, 53, is the former manager of several Chicago-area hospital systems, and made her political debut in the 2002 Democratic primary for lieutenant governor. She beat her two opponents in Cook County, but finished second overall with more than 360,000 votes.

Impressed with her showing, officials in the Blagojevich administration reportedly offered her several positions, and others advised her to run for the legislature. But she wasn’t interested, and planned to make a run for Capitol Hill. She said her opponents don’t have her expertise on health care, which she believes is the nation’s top priority. “I am not doing this to get another job,” she said. “I have a mission that fits this role.”

If nominated, Washington could make history as the third African American elected to the U.S. Senate since Reconstruction. But she’s grown tired of the questions about possibly splitting the African American vote with Obama, who is also black and has the support of many black leaders. “I think that question is really insulting to black people,” she said. “We are not a monolithic group that walks to one tune.”

She said she was out to reach not only black voters, but also women, health care professionals and church members, and brushed off the notion that many white voters hesitate to support minorities. “I think the people of Illinois are far beyond that,” she said. “I’m counting on it.”

On a Tuesday in February, Washington pulled up to a church at 84th Street and Damen Avenue, and hurried into a room where the North Beverly Civic Association was hosting a candidates’ forum. She was the only Senate candidate to appear.

“You know all of the issues, like health care and unemployment. You know that this No Child Left Behind [education] law is leaving lots of children behind, especially those who look like me and like a lot of you out there,” she told the 40 or so people present. A hint of her Tennessee childhood surfaced in the way she drew out her a’s. “Well, I think the state of Illinois needs a fighter.”

Upon finishing, Washington took a wide lap around the room, shaking hands and hugging people she knew while her staffers fretted about their tight schedule. Then she was off to pop in on several South Side taverns, including Tommy’s Place, a sports bar in Blue Island.

She joined a group of pool players in singing “Happy Birthday” to a friend. Patron Bob Snipe said he thought she was a strong candidate. But he would probably vote for Obama. “I like both of them, not because they’re black, but because they’re good,” he said. “I like her, but I don’t think she’s got enough support,” said Snipe, who works at a nearby car dealership. “She doesn’t have a chance.”

Washington soldiered on. At the next tavern, the owner, a man with a full, ovular face and carefully trimmed beard, sat on a stool next to her. He told her he had hosted an event for Obama several weeks earlier, and someone from Hynes’ camp had recently called.

He asked Washington why she was running. She talked about her plans for health care and jobs. Obviously impressed, he agreed to hold a fundraiser for her. “I’m going to help you,” he said.

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