On January 5—one of the coldest days of the winter—mayoral candidate Willie Wilson showed up at the Jefferson Park el stop to shake hands with the early-morning commuters.
A politician shaking hands with commuters may not seem extraordinary. But Wilson’s a black south-side businessman, and Jefferson Park’s a largely white northwest-side community that’s never been particularly receptive to black mayoral candidates.
The man who brought Wilson to Jefferson Park was none other than Frank Coconate—one of the most colorful political mavericks in town.
Somehow, then, it makes sense that Coconate signed on with Wilson after weeks of behind-the-scenes romancing with Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s campaign.
That’s right: the ultimate outsider almost went to work for the ultimate insider. It just goes to show you there’s nothing more surreal than the stuff that happens all the time in Chicago politics.
Before we get to Mayor Emanuel’s part of the story, a little background on Coconate. He’s a longtime local Democratic Party animal whose ties to the machine go back to the 1970s, when his father got him a job with the Water Department.
About ten years ago, Coconate began a political evolution that led him to denounce the very system of patronage, waste, and incompetence he used to champion. He quickly attracted attention. In July 2005, allies of then-mayor Richard Daley fired him from his city job just days after he brought Jesse Jackson Jr.—at that time a congressman and mayoral prospect—to the northwest side.
Technically Coconate wasn’t canned for backing Jackson’s short-lived challenge to Daley. Instead, city officials accused him of goofing off on the job. He says the charges were trumped up.
The dismissal turned Coconate into something of a nomad wandering the local political desert.
Over the last few years, he’s found his way on and off the payrolls of SEIU, the Cook County Board, and the suburban village of Bensenville. In each case, he managed to offend the wrong person in power, who sent him packing.
Without a steady job, he lost his northwest-side home to foreclosure and moved his family to the suburbs, where he makes ends meet as a part-time security guard in a health club.
You’d figure that by now no one would want anything to do with Coconate—except, of course, for fellow loony tunes like myself.
But he probably knows as much about local politics—with a subspecialty in the mob—as anyone else in town. As a result, some campaign somewhere is always looking to bring him aboard.
And that brings us to our current fair mayor. In December, Coconate and the Emanuel campaign were like a young couple, cautiously considering a marriage of convenience.
Their matchmaker was Matt Brandon, secretary-treasurer for SEIU Local 73, the union for whom Coconate once worked. Last year the local cut a deal with the mayor, donating $25,000 to his campaign in exchange for . . .
Well, I’m not sure what the union got out of it. I still can’t find any actual members of that local—which represents janitors and traffic aides and clerks—who has a nice thing to say about the mayor.
In any event, Coconate says that a few weeks before Christmas, Brandon got him a meeting with Michael Ruemmler, the Emanuel campaign manager, at the campaign’s downtown office.
“Matt did most of the talking,” Coconate says. “He said he’d like if they could put me on the campaign while I was waiting for a city job. Yeah, I still want to go back to the city. Ruemmler didn’t make any commitments.
“But he was very confident they were gonna win. He asked me what I thought of Wilson. I said, ‘If he gets on the ballot, there will be a runoff.’ And Ruemmler said, ‘You’re probably right, but he’s not getting on. We got him pretty good.'”
Back then, the mayor’s supporters were using election-law lawyer Michael Kasper for what turned out to be an unsuccessful attempt to bounce Wilson from the ballot. They claimed Wilson didn’t have enough valid signatures from voters, but eventually they dropped the challenge.
Coconate says he told Ruemmler that he could round up votes in the 36th and 41st Wards, on the northwest side. “He asked me how much I would like. I said, ‘[Mayoral candidate Bob] Fioretti’s offering me $5,000.’ Which isn’t true—Fioretti didn’t offer me nothing. I just said it ’cause that’s what I wanted to get from Rahm.”
In the days before Christmas, Coconate bugged Brandon with text messages, asking when the job was coming in. But he never got an offer. “I think Rahm was only stringing me along, trying to keep me out of the race,” says Coconate. “I couldn’t wait forever.”
So when Wilson’s campaign came calling—in the person of former state senator Rickey Hendon—Coconate took the gig.
“On December 27, I went to this church on the south side,” says Coconate. “It was me, Rickey, [former alderman Bob] Shaw, and Willie Wilson. I was the only white guy in the room. Which ain’t rare for me.”
He was hired as the north-side coordinator, which is how he ended up bringing Wilson to Jefferson Park.
“It was so fucking cold,” says Coconate. “We were standing near the turnstiles to get out of the cold. And this CTA worker tells us, ‘You gotta get outta here.’ I had this big sign that said say no to rahm, so you can imagine they weren’t happy about that. I said, ‘I bet if Rahm were here, you’d let him stay.'”
They went back to the street, where Coconate held up his sign and bellowed on his bullhorn, “Come meet the candidate!”
I called Brandon and Steve Mayberry, the mayor’s campaign spokesman. “The campaign does not publicly discuss hiring decisions or any other personnel matters,” Mayberry e-mailed. Brandon didn’t respond at all.
I’m tempted to say that Coconate burned the last of his bridges this time around. But this being Chicago, I’m pretty sure there’s always going to be someone looking to hire him for the next campaign.
Check out a broadcast of the “First Tuesdays With Mick and Ben” talk show on CAN TV21 on Sat 1/17 at 9 PM.