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I was a Chicago ward heeler; tearing down posters, packing press kits, and other campaign adventures.

I Was a Chicago Ward Heeler

The cop savors the possible headline. "Candidate's brother arrested tearing down opponent'sj posters," he says. When he pulled the squad car to the curb moments earlier and asked for my driver's license, I contemplated gift-wrapping it in a twenty. That would be a headline.

Six weeks earlier I had been a political journalist in Washington. Rarely leaving the office, I opined about how the government was mismanaging its finances and whether certain politicians were presidential material. I have never worked in government and had long since given up trying to balance my checkbook. My experience working for a politician was limited to a month-long Capitol Hill internship, which consisted primarily of carrying the congressman's golf clubs from his office to his car. No matter: I was an editor, a pundit. I was paid to educate readers about how Washington really works.

Now it's two a.m. and I'm the one being educated. It's February in Chicago, about ten degrees outside, and my pockets are filled with crumpled posters of The Opponent. At one point there were four people running against my brother for an open seat on the city council, but now, in a runoff, there is only one. I hate The Opponent. I hate the people who work for him and am convinced they are all child abusers. I hate the local reporters who seem unable to grasp that my brother is the greatest political prospect since Abe Lincoln grew whiskers.

I am, in a word, possessed. More people--reporters in particular--should learn what it's like inside a campaign. The fear and insecurity. The all or nothing gamble. The hope. The experience engages voters and provides reporters with the insight to be incisive and tough.

There is knowledge: how to build a precinct operation; what to say when knocking on doors; little things like picking campaign colors and big ones like deciding on campaign themes. There is also perspective: I've done a dozen stories about negative campaigning, for instance, but I never understood what it feels like to be low-balled. As a reporter, I was disengaged from such stories, finding them dull and unimportant. As a campaign manager, I responded venomously, until cooler heads prevailed.

We spent $280,000 on the election. The Opponent spent $250,000. This is a grotesque amount and it underscores how daunting it is to run for even the most rudimentary public office. Both candidates have quick smiles and, with a little well-placed gel, nice hairdos. This matters, but plain speaking, a solid message, and knocking on doors play an equally large role. Even in local Chicago, political character is an issue.

Begging for (and thankfully receiving) the forgiveness of a patrolman in the middle of the night is one way of glimpsing democracy in action, as are a number of other humbling experiences: going door to door during the dinner hour, for instance, or trying to chat up the candidate to a bunch of freezing commuters at a bus stop. As a way of understanding how our system works, there is no substitute.

Teacher candidate

Sure I am biased. But there is really no arguing with may brother's credentials. First, Edwin has never been indicted. For a candidate running for city council in Chicago, that in itself is a pretty good platform. The number of indicted council members frequently hovers around 10 percent. Second, he has no experience dipping into the public till. This too makes him stand out: after approving a $296 million municipal bond issue for infrastructure repairs recently, 15 aldermen designated part of the money to repave streets in front of their homes. By not having a rap sheet, Edwin was a potential juggernaut.

But there is more. Edwin, who was 28 when the campaign began, ent to Harvard. he graduated at the beginning of the "go-go" eighties, but opted against pursuing greed and glory on Wall Street and took a teaching job in Chicago's public schools. For four years, he taught elementary school children in a predominantly Hispanic west side neighborhood. his community involvement was extensive and had been cited by the mayor.

Edwin didn't become a teacher in order to become a politician. He actually enjoyed sharing his knowledge with a group of unruly ten-year-olds. Edwin had been undeterred by the obstacles that keep so many talented people from becoming public school teachers. When he first applied to become a teacher, for instance, Edwin was told that his degree in psychology from Harvard did not qualify him to teach in the public schools. To become "qualified" he dutifully wasted a year of his life getting a master's degree in education at a local teacher's college.

He believes in public service. Still, life as an educator in a big-city public school bureaucracy is frustrating. No books. No chalk. Standardized lessons. Low pay. At the beginning of three of the four years he taught, Edwin and his colleagues went on strike. To do something about it, Edwin twice applied to become a member of the Chicago Board of Education. He was rejected both times. Denied access to those areas within the bureaucracy that would allow him more say in improving Chicago's schools, he began exploring the possibility of running for public office.

This was in the summer of 1986. It was seven months prior to the election, and, although the incumbent had not yet decided to step down, a changing of the guard seemed likely. The 43rd ward in Chicago is located along Lake Michigan just north of downtown. A primarily white community, it's known as home to the city's "Lakefront Liberals."

Over the years, the ware has become increasingly affluent. Gentrification has turned bungalows into showplace homes and urban renewal has transformed a number of factories into parks. Of Chicago's 50 wards, the 43rd is the second most affluent, with a median family income of more than $30,000.

Not surprisingly, the ward's politics have grown more conservative. The incumbent alderman, a liberal ideologue first elected in 1975, pondered these changes as well as the deep deficits he had racked up during two unsuccessful attempts at higher office and decided in August 1986 to retire to his law practice.

The H word

The following day my brother announced the was a candidate. A less momentous occasion can scarcely be imagined. To prepare for the big event, we combined the collective wisdom of a number of experienced political advisers with about $20,000 of consultant's advice and campaign materials to package Edwin's blue chip credentials. Slogan: "For the Basics, Back the Best." Poster: the candidate, jacket slung over his shoulder, smiling. Campaign literature: a heart-felt letter from Edwin decrying politics-as-usual. Image (wholly unintentional): Frankie Valli in his prime.

Intuitively we knew Edwin's strengths were his knowledge of the public schools and his study of the city budget. However, what came through was that too many members of his family were involved in the packaging process. We love him, it all shouted, you'll love him, too. (And right away some did: several high school girls stopped by the campaign office asking for copies to hang on their closet doors. A teen idol craze was averted only because beyond about three feet the posters, printed black on grey, were unreadable.) Blinded by our family affection, we failed to notice some of the rougher edges, like the wrinkles in Edwin's pants or the belt loop he missed. Voters beyond adolescence were less likely to be impressed.

The Opponent, motherless no doubt, projected an image as slick as oil. His slogan ("Effective. Experienced. Independent.") was supported in his campaign literature with lists of accomplishments. he looked God-like, born to lead. His message, printed in blue and orange against a white background, jumped off the page like it was in 3-D. Plastered side by side on El platforms throughout the ward, the Opponent's posters, fresh and colorful, made ours look like a run for the student council. Certainly our explanation for why Edwin should be alderman wasn't simply that he was a nice guy. But that was the message our initial efforts conveyed. I remembered Ted Kennedy's incoherence in 1980 when Roger Mudd asked why he should be president. Like most people, I laughed at the time. Never again. Those questions, which seem like softballs, are doubtless the hardest questions to answer.

Back at the drawing board we ditched the slogan, hid the posters, printed legible literature and decided to let Edwin be Edwin. Above all, he was a teacher. Lousy public schools mean a lousy workforce. Improve them and you've taken a big step toward ensuring future prosperity. Who better to do that than someone who understands the system?

Only one problem remained: in a ward populated by yuppies and DINKS (double income no kids), public school teachers are about as respected as a bear market. It's a perception that no amount of white papers on education reform can change. Fortunately, there is one word that can make a yuppie respect a public school teacher running against an attorney, one word that could have evened the playing field between my brother and The Opponent: Harvard. A Harvard-educated public school teacher is to so many people an oxymoron that it shatters their preconceptions. It had, we hoped, just the ring of intelligence and sacrifice to make even the most doubting DINK think. Budget reform and community matters were part of the package, but if voters knew just one thing about Edwin it was going to be that he had the longest job title in Chicago: A Harvardeducatedpublicschoolteacher.

Press kit blues

Like every campaign, we hoped to get our message out through the press. But reporters didn't exactly hang on our every pronouncement. When we held a press conference to unveil Edwin's position paper on the city budget, only one reporter showed up. Our disappointment was compounded when the reporter, who worked for a local wire service, evinced mroe interest in my knowledge of possible newspaper jobs in Washington than in Edwin's mastery of the city's finances.

When we released Edwin's school reform package, in many ways the intellectual centerpiece of the campaign, we had the same confidence-building turnout. Hoping some good visuals would draw TV coverage, we held the press conference in front of a local school. Wehn no camera showed, Edwin held the press conference in the confines of the lone reporter's car to escape the sub-zero temperature.

We weren't naive enough to expect a large turnout. One important reason for putting together detailed position papers was to influence editorial board members of the Chicago Tribune and Chicago Sun-Times. Their endorsements were important, and to get them Edwin needed to address significant city-wide issues. Still, before each press conference we prepared dozens of press kits, just in case a miraculosuly slow news day led all the political reporters in town to our office.

A press kit is a horrible, demoralizing thing. Nothing better exemplifies how desperate campaigns are for publicity. On the bottom of the press kit goes the position paper. It has about as much chance of being read as an article in Playboy. On top of that goes the summary of the position paper. This serves to thicken the packet so that even in tossing it out unopened a reporter will know he's dealing with a candidate of substance. Next up is the press release, which assumes either that no one will show or that the reporters who do make an appearance will be too bored to take notes. When, as expected, the press conference bombs, the press kits are schlepped over to all the newspapers and TV stations on the theory that if you're persistent enough, some editor might give you mention on page 65.

Eventually, of course, the campaign does get coverage. With 49 other alderman races to write about, as well as a bitter campaign for mayor, all the press has time for is the basic "who's who" piece. One by one the reporters come by the office, which we conveniently over-staff for the occasion, and get down to the business of parachute journalism. Invariably they neither know nor care about the issues. Their interest is strictly money (as in "Aren't you buying the election?") and the mayor's race ("who do you support?"). When pressed about issues, most reporters, in a discouraging chorus, reply: "Do you have a press kit?"

There were several candidates running for mayor, but as far as the press was concerned it was Harold Washington vs. the "regulars." Considering Chicago's political heritage, it's no surprise that the term regular--as in regular Democrat--is synonymous with "hack." It's applied principally to members of Mayor Daley's machine and their political heirs. Politicians who broke ranks with Daley and those allied with him are "independents." It's a sign of Daley's lingering influence that more than ten years after his death local politicians are still judged in relation to the Boss.

The press likes it this way. It makes it easy to categorize candidates and handicap races. Either you're a hack or you're not. In a racially polarized city like Chicago there is an implicit message as well: if you're not with Mayor Washington, you're a racist. Although the mayor made no formal endorsement, everyone knew he supported The Opponent. That made Edwin the regular. It only made matters worse when Edwin suggested such preconceptions were dated. In the Sun-Times's "who's who" piece, Edwin was reviled for insisting he was not a mouthpiece for the machine. To this "boast of independence," the Sun-Times replied that Edwin "fit snugly inside political webs."

Besides running a series of tabloid-style overview pieces (the recurring headline during the runoff: "The battle of the bluebloods"), the media focused primarily on making the candidates look as foolish as possible. Without any proof, the Tribune wondered aloud if The Opponent actually lived in the ward. Edwin, who had lived in the same neighborhood for 23 of his 28 years, was chastised by the paper for having the chutzpah to allege he was a lifelong ward resident. Items like these, which the gossip columnists love, appear in every campaign and rarely, if ever, affect the outcome. Still, they reflect the patronizing attitude of so many political reporters who believe that, on the evolutionary scale, candidates are to used car salesmen what baboons are to the rest of us. Their attitude seems to be: whatever you're selling, we're not buying.

A certain press skepticism is, of course, warranted. Campaigns are wars with each side looking for any advantage; to get it, both sides try to manipulate the press. One week before the run-off, for instancje, I turned on the evening news and was shocked to hear that my favorite deli, an extremely popular spot in the middle of the ward, was going to be torn down in favor of a high rise. Shock turned to panic when The Opponent, his cursed face now getting precious air time, told the reporter he was fighting the fatcat developers who supported Edwin and wanted to make money at the neighborhood's expense.

Not only were there no plans to tear down the deli, but both Edwin and The Opponent supported the pending city council ordinance that would prohibit the construction of a high rise on the property. The issue was phony, but coming up on election day the press, desperate for some hot political news, turned it into a cause celebre. Advantage: The Opponent.

While we were never able to land such a glorious sucker punch, we did manage a few slick jabs. When Edwin received the endorsement of a prominent public interest group, we made sure that in reporting the story the press mentioned that The Opponent was on the organization's board of directors. Our most shameful moment--one that more than any other, shows the strain campaigns place on people--occurred less than a week before the election when, after a long illness, my grandmother died. The day after she passed away, we called a local columnist who had known my grandmother. He ran the following item in the Sun-Times: "Popular Ada Rosenberg succumbed without realizing her ambition to campaign for her grandson, Edwin Eisendrath, 43rd ward alderman candidate." Advantage: Eisendrath.

At one level ward races are turf battles. The 43rd ward, with about 60,000 people, has an area of about four square miles. There are six major streets and only a handful of corners where they intersect. The number of busy El stations and bus stops is equally finite. A well-organized campaign should control these spots. For much of the time before the election, The Opponent, his 3-D posters at the ready, was firmly in command. He gazed from every lamp post, his blond hair and aquiline nose making him look all too much like Robert Redford.

Before working in a campaign, I never paid the slightest attention to political posters. Most people probably don't, and the impact they have in larger contests is almost certainly negligible. Posters don't mean much, for instance, in a contest with lots of TV ads. We had none, however, and so visibility on the streets became an important way of reinforcing our name recognition. The Opponent knew this all too well. The ward was smothered with his smiling mug. Looking at a lamppost was like gazing into an eclipse. I was so self-conscious about The Opponent's posters that after passing one, I felt like shouting: "He's been airbrushed! In person he looks more like Gumby."

Our counterattack consisted of ordering thousands of hooker-red posters so big that, once up, a passerby who couldn't immediately make out the name Eisendrath emblazoned in white might think he'd wandered into China on flag day. On a Friday night ten days before the February election we gathered together a group of high school buddies and, with visions of the Sharks battling the Jets, set out to reclaim the neighborhood. That Saturday was sunny and unseasonably warm. The streets were packed with people, and everywhere they looked and as far as the eye could see, there was the name Eisendrath.

For a day anyway. On Sunday a political gadfly working for The Opponent came by to inform us that we would get a good lesson in Chicago politics if we went out back and looked in the alley. Behind the office we found garbage bags full of Edwin's posters. Three days later our phone lines were mysteriously snipped. It wasn't too long before the cop with the knack for a good headline had me quivering in the back seat of his patrol car.

Campaigning in tongues

Since the days of the machine, elections in Chicago have been held at the end of February. The theory was that in the middle of winter the only people who will work the precincts are patronage employees whose jobs depend on how well they turn out the vote. With few exceptions, however, the days of the ward heelers are over. A first-time candidate has to build from scratch a precinct operation based solely on volunteers.

This is a daunting task for a political neophyte running in an upscale ward with constituents who, if the stereotypes are to be believed, think of volunteerism in terms of joining the local health club. What Edwin needed was credibility. On paper this is hard to come by as a 28-year-old elementary school teacher. Matters certainly weren't helped any when, reporting on the campaign's first fund-raiser, one local reporter noted that it was "organized by the candidate's mother."

We combatted the image of Edwin sitting in a high chair four ways. First, we ran him ragged. At bus stops every morning. In front of high rises every evening. Knocking on doors every night. Sure, some people treated him like a Hare Krishna, but most were open-minded and willing to hear him out. During the Super Bowl he pressed the flesh in the neighborhood bars; on Valentine's Day he played the piano in homes for the elderly. On many a Sunday my nice Jewish brother sang the Gospel and made his pitch in one of several all-black churches in the ward. After one church address a lay suddenly began speaking in tongues. Though most people weren't quite so moved upon first meeting him, many of our best precinct captains were total strangers who happened by Edwin one morning on their way to work.

Second, we sought numerous endorsements. Like most campaigns we started with a citizens' committee. This list, which at the outset is the only proof the candidate has that he's not going to get shut out, consists of every third cousin and high school acquaintance you can remember. Edwin and I have no other siblings, yet we managed to find 40 relatives for the citizens' committee.

Edwin and The Opponent each fielded an all-star roster of political endorsements. The first public official to back Edwin was the ward's Democratic committeeman. Edwin had for several years been a volunteer in her organization. A former alderman who had known Edwin for years also signed on. From there the committeeman and former alderman turned to other public officials they knew and convinced them of Edwin's merits. Pretty soon three state legislators and the attorney general were having their pictures taken with Edwin and saying in press kits and in letters to constituents that they hadn't seen a political prospect like him since, well, Abe Lincoln grew whiskers. Just prior to the February election the Tribune, citing the position papers that its reporters found so dull, also endorsed Edwin. (The Sun-Times, which in February endorsed one of the cnadidates who failed to make the runoff, backed Edwin in April.)

Third, we contacted voters through the mail and over the phone. In four months we mailed more than 200,000 letters and pieces of campaign literature to ward residents. If someone moved into the ward, he or she got a letter from Edwin. If someone registered to vote, a letter was sent. Three times we mailed letters or campaign newspapers to every household in the ward. Everyone over 65 was informed by the attorney general that in the city council Edwin would champion senior power; in case they forgot between the first election and the runoff the attorney general sent them a reminder letter. About half the ward residents live in high rises that don't allow volunteers to go door to door. Almost all of them received five phone calls and at least four letters. A 65-year-old newly registered Democrat who had just moved into a lakefront high rise in the ward would have received 13 letters and five phone calls--probably enough to get a pretty good sense of where Edwin stood on the issues.

Even at the ward level this is extremely expensive, underscoring that with rare exception the key to becoming a credible candidate is money. You can get endorsed by the Pope and still lose the Catholic vote if you don't have the money to let people know it. Likewise, no candidate, not matter how tireless, can come into contact with even a small percentage of the voters. In this respect Edwin was lucky. he had a network of family and friends willing to make generous financial contributions. he also had enough standing in the community to generate a large number of modest contributions. Edwin's good fortune extended to his having a best friend who's a fundraising genius. The three candidates who failed to make the runoff were all badly outspent. Undoubtedly that helped cripple their campaigns. In the runoff, however, Edwin and The Opponent went at it practically dollar for dollar.

There is no such thing as raising too much money, because in a campaign there is no such thing as overkill. This is especially true in a campaign like ours where, because of the expense, no polls were taken. As far as we could tell, the bundles of letters we sent out each day were providing voters with free bathroom wallpaper. So tenuous was our sense of progress that we treasured every positive comment and any slipup haunted us for weeks. At a bus stop one morning, after about 30 minutes of tucking Edwin's campaign literature leper-like into the overcoat pockets of people too cold to reach out their hands, let alone talk, one woman approached me with a big smile and her arm out. She said she was thinking of voting for Edwin but wanted to know more. Seeing a bus approaching in the distance I launched into my two-minute offense.

Harvardeducatedpublicschoolteacher, I said. Plans to cut city spending. She teed the ball up for me and asked how. Knowingly I replied: pensions and health benefits of city workers need to be trimmed. Her eyes narrowed, and just before boarding her bus she told me what I already knew: she worked for the city. As sure as I was standing there I knew the election had just been lost.

The only tangible evidence that we were moving forward was the growth of the volunteer operation--the fourth leg of our campaign strategy. Faced with the two coldest months of the year, people were actually coming forward and volunteering to knoc on doors: accountants, people who were unemployed, lawyers, doctors, policemen, bankers. Out of nowhere came a real estate broker who, in addition to becoming a terrific precinct captain, managed to get the waitresses at a popular neighborhood restaurant to wear sweatshirts with Edwin's name on them. Another precinct captain who would have done the Boss proud was a bus driver who, whenever his bus took him through the ward, laid out Edwin's campaign literature on all the seats.

The DINKS deliver

We had little to offer these people except ideas. No money, no jobs, and certainly no glamour. And neither during nor after the campaign did any of our workers come asking favors. Yet most of those who got involved (measured either in time or money) were the young urban professionals so often bashed by pundits for having no vision beyond the edge of the nearest bond pit. Of the more than 400 people who helped out, only a handful had ever been involved in a campaign before. Together we learned the tricks of the campaign trade: how to canvas neighborhoods to find out where people stand; how to "run voters" on election day to make sure the people who said they would vote for Edwin actually went to the polls. For a group that will be remembered for making the eighties a decade of avarice, it was a moving display of selflessness. The new generation of precinct captains may never be as dogged as their machine predecessors, but in the clutch they were no less enthusiastic. There are 72 precincts in the 43rd ward. On election day, each captain had to be at his or her precinct by 5:30 a.m. When I called at 5 a.m. to make sure everyone was getting ready, not a single one was still in bed.

Edwin beat The Opponent. They raised and spent about the same money, matched endorsements coattail for coattail, and got an equal amount of publicity. The Opponent is four years older and his resume--which includes a stint as counsel to the local Better Government Association and as a legislative aide to former Rep. Abner Mikva--would do George Bush proud. Yet Edwin got 65 percent of the vote.

Why the rout? One reason was The Opponent's association with Harold Washington. Washington's lack of popularity in the 43rd ward and The Opponent's association with him hurt. The Opponent also suffered fromt he where's-the-beef phenomenon. His resume was so gold-plated that he decided to run on it. Edwin, by contrast, ran on an agenda: school reform and city finances. Voters received equal amounts of literature from the candidates, but the messages couldn't have been more different. The Opponent talked about what he had done; Edwin talked about what he was going to do.

Another reason was thta, despite my urgings to the contrary, cooler heads did prevail. In debates and in the literature we distributed, Edwin was monotonously positive. In community forums he talked about what he planned to accomplish. The Opponent, by contrast, was negative. For months he thumbed Edwin more times than a lousy club fighter. Six days before the runoff election The Opponent mailed out an "Urgentgram" to most ward residents. In it he accused Edwin of "desperation tactics. . .a vicious whisper and smear campaign. . .'Hit' pieces in local media." Mistaking an overzealous reporter for one of our campaign workers, the Urgentgram declared: "Days ago, two people were caught ransacking garbage at my house, taking pictures through my mail slot." Yet onelection day, Edwin won 71 of the ward's 72 precincts.

Running a clean campaign helped Edwin gain voters' trust. The Opponent, bless his slickness, was too smooth. In the 43rd ward lawyers outnumbers public school teachers probably 100 to 1. Many parents send their children to private schools. Yet a public school teacher whomped three attorneys. In the end, the yuppies and the DINKS did think, and in doing so they came to appreciate the value of sacrifice and working for the common good. No one traded in his BMW, but many came out and volunteered, and almost all ended up with a far less cynical view of the political process.

I know I did.
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Author:Eisendrath, John
Publication:Washington Monthly
Date:Mar 1, 1988
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