Back when Harold Washington and Edward Vrdolyak were slugging it out for control of the local Democratic Party, a race for committeeman in the 49th and 6th wards would have telegraphed the future of local politics. But these days there’s little passion in the trenches–most party leaders have sworn oaths of blind allegiance to Mayor Daley, and there’s no struggle for control of the organization. As a result, several interesting matchups in the March 17 elections are going virtually unnoticed–whatever their outcome, these races will not affect the power structure.

“A lot of people ask me, ‘Why are you running again?'” says Sixth Ward incumbent committeeman and former mayor Eugene Sawyer. “It’s a good question. The job doesn’t have the perks it used to. These are troubled times for Democrats in this country.” Sawyer is trying to head off a challenge by Alderman John Steele, a relative newcomer, who stunned the experts by defeating Sawyer’s hand-picked successor in 1989.

In the 49th Ward incumbent Lee Preston is locked in a close battle with Rich McMenamin, a businessman. Though McMenamin is a first-time candidate, his campaign is stoking 49th Ward rivalries that go back to the early 1970s. Then Rogers Park’s Democratic organization was headed by Neil Hartigan, a close ally of the late Mayor Daley, and the local political world was neatly divided into regulars and independents. Former alderman David Orr’s defeat of Hartigan’s organization was viewed as a triumph in the crusade against patronage and for open government.

Fairly or not, Preston’s place in that struggle was determined by his early alliance with Hartigan. “I was not politically involved at all when I moved to Rogers Park in 1971,” says Preston, who grew up in Hyde Park. “When I went to my first meeting I was waiting for someone to say something off-color ethically, like “Go buy a vote.’ Instead I heard Neil Hartigan’s impassioned speech about how we can do more for seniors.”

At that time Hartigan was lieutenant governor. Two years later Preston became one of his top aides. After Hartigan left office in 1976, Preston opened a local law office. In 1983 he became committeeman, defeating Mike Kreloff, one of Orr’s closest allies. Ever since then Orr’s followers have regarded Preston’s presence as a political affront.

“Why do they oppose me?” says Preston. “All I can say is that it’s like someone is a Cubs fan and someone else roots for the Sox. It doesn’t have much to do with political ideology. If you look at my voting record you see that I support almost all of the same legislation as my opponents. The Independent Voters of Illinois gave me an award for having the best voting record. And yet a lot of our ward’s so-called progressives endorsed McMenamin. It doesn’t make sense.”

Though he supported Jane Byrne over Washington in 1983 and 1987, Preston says he doesn’t routinely support the party’s slated candidates. “I liked Byrne because I thought she was gutsy–it was nothing against Washington,” he says. “Those terms ‘regulars’ and ‘independents’ have no meaning anymore. I endorse so-called independents all the time. I supported Paul Simon for senator in 1984 even though the organization supported Phil Rock. And I’m supporting Carol Moseley Braun this year over Alan Dixon.”

McMenamin contends that Preston has failed the party by allowing voter registration to slip. “There are some basic jobs a committeeman has, and one of them is registering new voters,” he says. “Registration in our ward is down 30 percent from when Lee started. I plan to continually register new voters.”

By most standards McMenamin is unconventional for Chicago politics. For starters, he’s not a lawyer and he didn’t grow up in the city. He was born in 1956 and raised as one of 12 children in a closely knit Irish Catholic family that counted New Zealand, Australia, France, and suburban Chicago among their homes. “My father had a job with International Harvester that took us around the world. I know what it means to be outside the mainstream.”

After graduating from the University of Illinois at Champaign, McMenamin worked at several banks until 1984, when he and a friend bought Current Technology Corporation, a four-person electronics manufacturing firm in Elk Grove Village. Since then the firm has moved to Bensenville; it now employs 35. “Politically, I am an anomaly,” he says. “When I go to meetings of progressives, I find that I’m usually the only one there who works in manufacturing. I like to think that my company has survived an incredibly competitive business environment through a practical application of my political philosophy, which is based on empowerment, openness, and trust.”

According to McMenamin, his company sponsors regular meetings with employees. “One of the key words these days in the business community is empowerment. Executives are finally starting to realize that if we are to become competitive we have to give the workers a great stake in the product.”

When it comes to business, McMenamin likens Preston to the executives at General Motors. “They’re both out of touch, they’re both floundering. Preston does not schedule regular meetings. He does not conduct voter-registration drives. He’s out of touch, and he’s not allowing his party to stay competitive.”

Preston contends that it’s McMenamin who’s out of touch. “He owns a factory in Du Page County–what’s that got to do with Rogers Park? He says he’ll keep his door open for meetings at night and in the morning. But what if you need him in the day? I’m at my office all day. I eat breakfast in Rogers Park every day. This afternoon I’m having my hair cut in Rogers Park. I’m here when he’s not.”

“That argument is absurd, coming from a committeeman who never holds regular meetings,” McMenamin counters.

Similar arguments have been advanced against Sawyer by Alderman Steele, whose rapid rise to office documents some startling changes in black politics. A graduate of Harlan High School with a private law practice on the south side, Steele entered his first campaign in 1989, the special aldermanic election that was held to fill the vacancy created when Sawyer became mayor. “I didn’t decide to run in that election until I went to a community forum and listened to what the people were saying,” says Steele. “My wife said to me, ‘There are no good people running, why don’t you run?’ And I said, ‘Maybe I will.'”

His chief opponent was Ronald Robinson, a longtime member of Sawyer’s legendary Sixth Ward organization. “My first fund-raiser didn’t have more than 50 people,” says Steele. “I ran that campaign out of a room in the second floor of a storefront on 75th Street. It wasn’t really an organization so much as a group of committed volunteers, most of whom were senior citizens.”

The election followed Sawyer’s struggle against Alderman Tim Evans for the support of black Chicagoans, who were devastated by Washington’s death. Richard Barnett, a former Washington adviser and Evans supporter, helped run Steele’s campaign, which capitalized on the bitterness of many voters who thought Sawyer had spoiled Evans’s chance to be mayor. In February 1989 Steele finished second to Robinson in a five-candidate race.

“Robinson got about 50 percent, and the Board of Elections declared him the winner,” says Steele. “I said if the election is that close they’d better count all the write-in votes, because there was a write-in candidate named Julius Jones who had nine kids, all married. If those kids and their wives all voted for Jones that would give him enough votes to deny Robinson the 50 percent he needed to win without a runoff.”

Sure enough, a canvass of the write-in votes dropped Robinson’s total below 50 percent. Steele won the ensuing runoff. For the first time in almost 20 years the Sixth Ward’s committeeman and alderman were in opposing camps. Aldermen Sawyer and Robinson rarely voiced opposition to whoever was mayor, but Steele has persistently opposed Mayor Daley on everything from the new ward map to cuts in social expenditures.

Now Steele wants to be committeeman as well as alderman (it’s not unusual for politicians to hold both offices). “I am a Democrat, but I feel that Sawyer is not expressing the wishes and desires of the people in slating meetings,” he says. “This election will be about moving the Sixth Ward toward independence and away from machine politics.”

Steele complains that Sawyer has allowed voter registration to slip. He also wanted Sawyer to support Cook County Commissioner Bobbie Steele (no relation) instead of state representative Jesse White for county recorder of deeds, contending that White was the first choice of white party leaders. “African Americans have to stop letting whites tell them who black leaders should be,” he says. “I’m not saying Jesse White is not a good guy, but most African Americans supported Bobbie. Blacks don’t tell whites who their representatives should be. Why should it be the other way around?

“I feel that the Cook County Democratic Party is on the brink of destruction and that the next four years could be a major make-or-break situation. A lot of blacks are saying, ‘We want to remain good Democrats, but if they don’t cut us in we’ll have to look to other alternatives.’ That could be a disaster.”

Sawyer vigorously defends his support for White, pointing out that it’s ludicrous to criticize a black leader for having biracial support. “I’m not going to apologize to anybody for my relationship with Jesse White,” he says. “I have known Jesse since 1962. He’s a positive role model for black kids, and that’s what we need. Bobbie Steele already had a job–Jesse was losing his seat. To blast me for supporting him is terrible.”

Like Preston, Sawyer also feels he’s being unfairly blamed for declines in voter turnout. “Registration and turnout are declining all over the country, not just in the Sixth Ward,” he says. “There’s something bad out there. People are losing faith in politics. Certainly the Democratic Party is not what it used to be. We don’t have the precinct captains we used to. We don’t have the slate making that really means that much. Years ago everyone had their organizations. We used to help people get jobs and kids get scholarships. Now, with the end of patronage, there aren’t many jobs.

“I believe a lot of [Steele’s] early success had to do with animosity toward me from Evans’s supporters. That hurts. I’ve never tried to hurt anybody in my life. Even with Tim I hold no bitterness. The grief and pain I went through–I survived it all. I’m thankful for that. Hopefully, I made some contribution to the city. I don’t think we’ll lose–but if we do, I’ll go out with my head held high.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Bill Stamets.