If ever there was a governmental body in need of a healthy dose of glasnost, it is the Cook County Board of Commissioners. Under the careful eye of board president George Dunne–who is also chair of the Cook County Democratic Party–county government has been a closed shop for the past 20 years, serving primarily as a patronage instrument for party loyalists.

“There are 40 or 50 important administrative positions downtown held by Dunne cronies,” says Ron Sable, a once and future reform aldermanic candidate from the 44th Ward, who is a physician at Cook County Hospital. “They’re all middle-aged white men with Irish names who’ve been there forever–for as long as Dunne has.”

After the governor of Illinois and the mayor of Chicago, Dunne holds the third most important executive position in the state, presiding over a payroll of 28,000 employees and an annual budget of $1.6 billion. The County Board has a rich trove of taxpayer resources at its disposal–and an incredibly poor approach to the issue of public accountability. For example, in 1982 the board suspended publication of its official journal, which means that Cook County is now probably the largest government in the United States with no regular record of its proceedings.

County government is ripe for reform, and with two machine candidates running for the board president’s post, reformers might have a better shot than usual at winning–except that there are also two candidates running as reformers. Neither Eugene Pincham nor Richard Phelan has been able to unite the coalition of blacks, Hispanics, and lakefront liberals that carried Harold Washington into office in 1983 and 1987. Pincham has solid support in the black community, but two prominent Hispanic politicians, Ray Figueroa and Luis Gutierrez, are in Phelan’s camp, while Alderman Jesus Garcia’s ward organization has declined to make an endorsement.

A few liberal organizations have endorsed Phelan, but several others are staying neutral. Phelan won the endorsement of the Illinois Public Action Council (IPAC), a statewide consumer advocacy group. The Independent Voters of Illinois-Independent Precinct Organization (IVI-IPO)–which chair Jerry Meites proudly describes as “the only white organization to support Harold Washington from day one”–might seem to be fertile ground for Pincham, but the organization has decided to make no endorsement.

(Meites reports that 43rd Ward committeeman Ann Stepan made an unsuccessful attempt to stack the IVI-IPO meeting in favor of Phelan–but the bus she rented brought only eight or nine people.)

The lakefront reform organizations formed following the 1983 Harold Washington campaign are also divided. Network 44 has come out for Phelan, but neither Pincham nor Phelan could muster enough votes for an endorsement from Network 49 or the 48th Ward Democratic coalition.

“We decided,” says Joe Moore, president of Network 49, “to concentrate on races in which there is a consensus among progressives.”

The true consensus among progressives is that the best candidate in this race is the one who isn’t running: David Orr. In summer and fall, the 49th Ward alderman flirted with a run for board president, but after a tense game of political chicken with Pincham, he backed off and decided to run for county clerk instead.

Orr seems likely to get elected to the little-noticed clerk’s post, where he would run suburban elections and voter registration and take charge of county record-keeping. (The county will surely have a journal again under Orr, who calls the clerk’s office “a reformer’s dream.”) A lot of people think he could have got elected board president, too, if Pincham could have been persuaded to stay out of the race.

Orr’s withdrawal was a sore disappointment to many reform activists. One of the arguments used against Pincham in the IVI-IPO endorsement session, says Jerry Meites, “was that the way he had gotten into the race–in the view of some of our members–hurt the person we really wanted, David Orr.”

Kate Peyton, a board member of Network 44, is backing Phelan–but he’s clearly a second choice. “There are so many people who feel like this race is so important,” she says, “that even if we can’t have David Orr, we have to take action.”

Orr’s campaign had the potential to unite a variety of voting constituencies, ranging from North Shore suburbs to south-side slums. The tale of how that project went sour tells an important story about the current state of progressive politics in Chicago and Cook County. The coalition of multiethnic voters that carried Harold Washington into City Hall seems to be alive and well and ready for another candidate to claim–but some of the politicians who say they are part of that coalition are presently doing it more harm than good.

Orr, a former history professor, has been a steady supporter of progressive causes in the City Council since first taking office in 1979. His legislative accomplishments–including a campaign ethics bill, a tenants’ rights ordinance, and the designation of Chicago as a nuclear-free zone–have earned him wide public attention, occasional praise from editorialists, and frequent brickbats from a number of his colleagues, many of whom cannot stomach his squeaky-clean approach to city government.

According to conventional wisdom, an ultraliberal like Orr would show up only as an asterisk in a countywide race. Orr running for County Board president in 1990 would look a lot like Larry Bloom running for mayor in 1989: a nice guy with decent ideas, a narrow, quiche-eating electoral base–and no chance of winning.

The conventional wisdom began to crumble in late October, when Orr released a poll that showed him with the highest net favorability rating among five potential board president candidates, including Dunne, Phelan (who was already an announced candidate), state senate president Phil Rock, and aldermen Danny Davis and Ed Burke.

Orr’s poll showed him leading Dunne in a two-person race and virtually tied with Dunne in a three-person race that included Phelan. Outside his lakefront base, Orr drew strong support from suburban voters–who evidently appreciate his good-government credentials–and in the African-American community, where he is remembered for his dignified performance as interim mayor in the traumatic period following Harold Washington’s death.

Suddenly, Orr the irritating political outsider began to look like a potential countywide giant killer, with a chance to prove that Leo Durocher wasn’t always right about where nice guys are supposed to finish.

Orr was not the only candidate contemplating a reform-oriented campaign against George Dunne. Others included tax activist Patrick Quinn, Alderman Danny Davis, and Phelan.

Dunne also faced a challenge from within regular Democratic ranks by Stanley Kusper, who announced his candidacy for board president in mid-November. There is a long history of conflict between Kusper and Dunne, in part because Kusper has been angling for the top county job ever since he became county clerk in 1973.

By the time the central committee of the Cook County Democratic Party convened behind closed doors for a preelection endorsement session at the Bismarck Hotel in late November, Dunne had decided not to seek reelection. He kept his intentions secret until the last minute, setting off a mad scramble among would-be officeholders.

Dunne’s Democrats behave in an insular fashion that closely parallels V.I. Lenin’s concept of democratic centralism: policy decisions are made by an elite group of self-selected leaders, then ratified by widening concentric circles of obedient followers. This method of doing business has fallen out of favor in most corners of the world recently, but Democrats in the County of Cook are still stuck in their old habits.

During several days of meetings at the Bismarck, the party’s executive committee–a small group of heavyweights handpicked by George Dunne–selected a slate of candidates for County Board president and a number of lesser offices. Their recommendations were then forwarded for approval to the 80-member central committee, which includes representatives from Chicago’s 50 wards and from 30 out-county suburban townships.

Much to the chagrin of the Democratic organization, this ratification process cannot be completed without an actual primary election vote by ordinary citizens, who have proven quite ready in recent years to reject party-picked candidates in favor of independent campaigns.

In order to avoid the danger of too many independent challenges, party leaders at the Bismarck attempted to create a balanced slate that would appeal to all factions of the party, but they were unsuccessful. There was some discussion, for example, of slating black reformer Danny Davis for county clerk. Dunne is reported to have favored the move, but was unable to muster support for it. Because the county clerk has responsibility for administering elections in suburban townships, suburban committeemen insisted that someone from their own ranks be slated for this pivotal position. The eventual choice was state rep Cal Sutker from Skokie.

“What it came down to,” says Fifth Ward committeeman Alan Dobry, a longtime party dissident, “is that blacks and independents wanted more than the old guard was willing to concede.”

By the time the dust settled on December 2, the central committee had endorsed a slate of 12 candidates for county office, including no fewer than 11 current or former members of the selfsame central committee. “There wasn’t much attempt to bring in people of high quality,” says Dobry. “It was basically decided on the basis of the work you’ve done for the machine years ago.”

Ted Lechowicz, who heads the ticket as the regular organization’s choice for county board president, has no record as a countywide vote getter. His chief virtue as a candidate–in the eyes of George Dunne, who was primarily responsible for picking him–appears to be his Polish ancestry, which might allow him to draw votes away from Kusper (who is also Polish).

Once the official party slate was announced, it immediately drew fire from blacks and independent Democrats. In a single clumsy stroke, the central committee had managed to offend women and Hispanics (who felt they were underrepresented) and two competing factions of African-American officeholders. Blacks with ties to the reform movement were disappointed that the slate had no room for Danny Davis or other independents, while blacks with links to the regular organization were offended that County Commissioner John Stroger was not picked to run for board president.

Stroger, a machine loyalist, serves as chair of the finance committee of the Cook County Board. “For 70 years, generally without exception,” argues Ninth Ward alderman Robert Shaw, “the chairman of the finance committee has succeeded to the presidency of the board upon retirement of the board president. When it became a black’s turn to succeed to the presidency, the party hierarchy changed the rules, and got another person to step in front of John. . . . When blacks challenge for real power, whites have a problem with it.

“Stroger did everything that was expected of him,” says Shaw. “He was loyal to the party, he had prepared himself. . . . He had even done some things that people in his community took issue with trying to support party positions.”

Because so many people were unhappy with the official party slate, and because Kusper and Lechowicz were positioned to compete for the loyalties of regular Democratic voters, many reform Democrats saw a unique opportunity to put together a coalition slate of progressive candidates. David Orr saw himself as the logical choice to lead such a slate, but by the time regular Democrats were done meeting at the Bismarck, there was another candidate ready to fill that role.

Appellate court judge R. Eugene Pincham was motivated to enter the race, he says, by “the existence of a leadership void and vacuum in the progressive movement,” and the tragic and unfortunate splintering of the progressive coalition. I saw the duty to fill the leadership vacuum, and bring the progressive coalition back together for reform government.”

Pincham says that he was committed to running for board president even before Democratic slate-makers convened at the Bismarck (although he also says that his candidacy grew in part out of frustration at the party’s treatment of John Stroger). In any case, he didn’t formally enter the campaign until December 7, six days after the regular Democrats were done meeting. During that week, an extraordinary caucus of black, Hispanic, and independent Democrats was taking place in the office of 17th Ward alderman Allan Streeter. The meetings began shortly after the regular Democrats announced their slate on December 2, and turned into a marathon free-for-all that lasted until Wednesday evening, December 6.

“Sometimes there were several sessions in a day,” recalls 27th Ward committeeman Ricky Hendon. “We’d meet in the morning, we’d meet in the evening, and go ’til two or three or four in the morning. We did that five or six or seven nights in a row. It got to be where my entire life was looking at Allan Streeter, Bob Shaw, and [28th Ward alderman] Ed Smith. . . . I like these guys, but this was something else.”

The group set out to discuss candidates for various county offices, but before long the principal subject of debate was whether to endorse David Orr or Eugene Pincham for County Board president.

According to Second Ward alderman Bobby Rush, the alternative slate-making process actually began several months earlier, when African-American officeholders convened at the suggestion of Congressman Gus Savage.

“We were going to look at how to proceed in this general election,” recalls Rush. “There were two points of view: one was whether you develop a total progressive slate, and the other was to get involved in slate-making of the central committee in order to extract some seats for the progressive bloc.”

A decision was made, says Rush, to proceed on the second track, but it proved impossible to work out an acceptable compromise with the central committee. Black committeemen had been caucusing during the Democratic slate-making session at the Bismarck; after that session was over, the group moved to Streeter’s office, and it was eventually redefined to include any elected officeholder who wanted to attend.

The cast of characters was also widened to include representatives of the various groups that once made up the Washington coalition: Hispanics like aldermen Ray Figueroa and Jesus Garcia; independent whites such as Alan Dobry and state representative Clem Balanoff; black reformers like Rush, Tim Evans, Joe Gardner, and Seventh Ward committeeman Alice Palmer. Also participating were blacks with close ties to the Democratic organization, such as Smith, Streeter, and the Shaw brothers: alderman Robert and his twin brother Bill, who is a state representative and Ninth Ward committeeman.

A few committeemen from suburban communities turned up for some of the meetings, since the races under consideration involved the whole county. Not everyone was happy with their presence. “They tried to stack the meeting for Orr,” grumbles Robert Shaw. “They brought in whites from as far away as Evanston.”

The Streeter meetings were frequently described as a gathering of the “progressive wing” of the Democratic Party, but some participants were unsure that everyone in the room could legitimately fit under that banner.

“There were people there who don’t necessarily have a progressive record,” says Jesus Garcia. “There were the opportunists–some of the machine forces who wanted to go with Pincham so they could ride on his coattails and seem to be pro-African-American.”

Garcia declines to name any names, but other participants make it clear that Streeter, Smith, and the Shaw brothers were Pincham’s strongest supporters. Much of the debate during the sessions at Streeter’s office focused on electability. Orr’s backers–including Garcia–argued that he had a better chance to wage a successful countywide race than Pincham, who, thanks to the infamous Operation PUSH speech he made during Harold Washington’s 1987 reelection campaign, has an image problem with white voters. The demographics of Cook County–which is about one-quarter black–demand that a successful countywide candidate be in a position to attract a sizable chunk of white votes.

Pincham’s backers in the late-night caucuses at Streeter’s office were ignoring that political arithmetic, says Alan Dobry. “The machine was in real trouble, and we had a great opportunity to form an alternative slate,” he says. “But this insistence that it be headed up by Pincham–who many felt was anathema to white voters of the county–merely ensured that we couldn’t win.”

At one point during the meetings, Jesus Garcia began to wonder whether everyone in the group was really interested in winning elections. “I raised the question,” he says, “that we should be honest with each other. Were all of us interested in coming up with a candidate that could build a coalition, or was the goal to build unity in the black community?

“I thought that was important, and I wouldn’t want to get in the way, but we should be clear. Some people are interested in that [black unity], which is right on–but those of us who don’t live in African-American wards have a different situation to deal with.”

A number of African-American politicians at the Streeter meetings lined up solidly behind David Orr. “I maintained,” says Rush, “that the best position for victory, to actually defeat the machine, was a David Orr candidacy. More than anything else, the African-American community, the progressive community, needs to show that we can win an election–which we haven’t done since 1987.”

“My argument against that,” counters Robert Shaw, “is that Orr was bringing about 10 percent of the electorate to the table, and we were bringing 90 percent of the electorate, of what it would take to win. I have a lot of respect for Alderman Orr, but I couldn’t see relinquishing my position in deference to him.”

Arguments about Orr’s electability, say Pincham supporters, really translated into an acceptance of racial prejudice. “Unfortunately, some people felt that a black person cannot get white votes in 1990,” says Ricky Hendon. “That’s a shame. Some of them openly admitted, ‘My neighbors are not ready.’ I’m not saying they were totally incorrect, but we can’t run away from racism. We have to stand up to racism.”

Hendon and other Pincham supporters argued that their candidate could mobilize his base in the black community and expand on it to win the election, just as Harold Washington had been able to do.

But many of the people meeting at Streeter’s office had known Harold Washington, and had worked with him. And Eugene Pincham was no Harold Washington. According to several participants, a majority of the group–which was at least three-fourths black–was supporting Orr. The informal caucus, however, had no sway over either candidate, and unless one or the other dropped out, there was potential for a bruising primary battle between two candidates with progressive credentials.

The prospect of an Orr-Pincham primary fight was especially unappetizing to the black officeholders who thought Orr was the strongest candidate, since they would come under heavy pressure to unite behind Pincham. An informed source reports that a number of black politicians were talking to Pincham behind the scenes, urging him to defer to Orr in order to avoid a divisive primary that might harm long-range efforts to build a multiracial electoral coalition.

Pincham says he never got any such advice. The only people who talked to him about the election, he says, were those who encouraged him to run. On Wednesday night, December 6, word reached the group in Streeter’s office that Pincham was set to resign his judgeship and enter the race the next day. With both candidates in the race, a compromise position seemed like the best option, and the group passed a motion to find both Orr and Pincham “qualified” without expressing a preference.

At this point, polls still showed Orr to be a front-running candidate, but positive poll ratings weren’t enough to keep him in the race. Orr had waited too long to announce his interest in the board president’s job, giving Phelan time to win commitments from major liberal donors. That left Orr without a solid financial base for a campaign that would require major media expenditures. “I’m not the world’s greatest fund-raiser,” he ruefully admits.

With Pincham in the race, Orr would have lost some of the support he could otherwise have expected from black voters. And he certainly didn’t relish the idea of a primary battle that might drive a lasting wedge into the remnants of the Washington coalition.

Orr decided to drop out of the board president’s race and run instead for county clerk against Cal Sutker, the party-endorsed candidate, and Joanne Alter, a commissioner of the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District. The route for this cushioned exit had been paved a few days before by Orr’s council colleague, Danny Davis. Davis himself had been campaigning for county clerk since mid-November, when Stan Kusper announced his intention to leave that position to run for board president.

With Orr and Pincham duking it out for the right to run for county board president in early December, Davis revised his plans and decided to run for county treasurer instead. “We were kind of at a stalemated position,” he recalls. “In order to move the process along, I made some decisions.” It was a gracious maneuver, because by making it, Davis dealt himself a more difficult electoral hand. In the clerk’s race, he would have been the sole black candidate positioned against two whites in a race with no incumbent. Running for treasurer, he is pitted head-to-head against Ed Rosewell, who has held the post since 1972.

The eventual arrangement of candidates actually leaves reformers in a position to capture one or more important county offices. At this writing, Orr has a substantial lead in the clerk’s race, while Davis is running even with Rosewell in the campaign for county treasurer. Pincham and Phelan are in a two-way race for board president, with Kusper and Lechowicz trailing.

David Orr has no regrets about his decision. The sessions at Streeter’s office, he says, were a sign of healthy political debate.

“A lot of people were struggling with a real honest question,” he says. “Who was the best one to lead the coalition? For some folks it was, ‘OK, I believe in black empowerment, but I think David Orr would be the best one to support,’ while others were saying ‘I think someone who is black would be a better candidate.’

“There was some testy stuff–it was a roomful of political people–but on the whole, there was some very serious and deliberate thought about which way to go.”

Bobby Rush is less forgiving of some of his colleagues. “They were ignoring demographics,” he says, “ignoring all the numbers, and emotionally involved in saying it has to be a black candidate. And some of them were looking toward their own reelection.”

“We certainly didn’t thrust coalition-building forward very far,” says Jesus Garcia. The regulars, he says, were extremely vulnerable after slating a weak candidate, “and I think we have not taken advantage of a great opportunity.”

Will there be opportunities for successful coalitions in the future? “It didn’t work this time,” says Kate Peyton of Network 44, “because the self-interest of the different pieces . . . sort of overrode the interests of the coalition as a whole. The interest of a lot of leaders in the black community was to have a black candidate for a real important office. That overrode the notion of ‘We’ll get this much and the independents get this much of it and together we’ll have a whole lot.’

“The coalition is there,” she insists. “But we don’t have something to come together around yet.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Marc PoKempner.