On the rainy Wednesday night of February 20, a lone motorcycle sat parked outside Montclare Leyden VFW Post 1284, at 6940 W. Diversey. But inside, Rebel Knights, American Knights, Blitzkriegs, and Outlaws packed the smoky bar. The Chicago chapter of the national motorcyclists’ association ABATE meets here every month. On this particular evening, Illinois’ Republican and Democratic gubernatorial candidates had been invited to come by for a debate.

In the bright meeting hall behind the bar, a hundred or so white plastic folding chairs were papered with leaflets thanks to lieutenant governor Corinne Wood’s press deputy, who’d arrived early. As chapter members–most of them middle-aged men–filtered in, beers in hand, campaign workers clustered in the back of the room, slapping backs and muttering into cell phones. At the front of the low-ceilinged, fluorescent-lit room were a podium and several long tables with microphones; the otherwise bare walls were hung with posters for Operation Wrench, the organization’s campaign against restrictions on after-market detailing, which are being proposed by the EPA in an effort to reduce emissions. Off to one side, a table staffed by two cheery women was set with copies of the ABATE voter’s guide and a five-gallon plastic jug labeled “donations for PAC fund.”

“All right!” hollered a stocky man in the rear doorway, using his cane to rap on the floor for attention. “If we keep it quiet we’ll get through this!”

“Five minutes! Five minutes!” shot back a voice from the front.

ABATE of Illinois–the acronym stands for “A Brotherhood Aimed Toward Education”–is a 14,000-member PAC whose rallying cry is “Freedom isn’t free.” In its spare time, says the group’s newsletter, it shoots down helmet laws “for sport.” The Chicago contingent–founded in 1987–is 937 riders strong and counts among its membership cops, lawyers, tradespeople, and “anyone concerned with motorcyclists’ rights,” says Laszlo Nagy, who’s a stockbroker and the chapter’s legislative director. Bikers ambling into the VFW hall wore black leather and denim, Toys for Tots T-shirts and Awareness Ride sweats, POW-MIA caps, and Special Forces windbreakers.

Pat O’Malley, the ABATE-endorsed Republican candidate, was first to arrive, a squad of clean-cut men in black overcoats in tow. When Wood materialized a few minutes later, she swiftly appropriated a willing member’s leather vest, which she pulled on over her royal blue suit and wore for the duration of the event. Chapter business was dispensed with in short order, and Nagy took the podium to introduce 33rd Ward alderman Dick Mell, in attendance on behalf of his son-in-law, endorsed Democratic candidate Rod Blagojevich, who due to “horrendous scheduling” had sent his regrets. Rahm Emanuel, ABATE’s pick for the Fifth District congressional race, was also a no-show.

Mell was followed by First Ward alderman Jesse Granato, who’s not running for anything but “just wanted to come out here and say hello,” and a half dozen or so judicial candidates. “My very first boyfriend owned a Harley,” said circuit court hopeful Domenica Ann Stephenson, to whoops of approval. “And I’ve always had a soft spot in my heart for motorcycle riders. I can’t give a position on some of the issues that face you, but I can tell you that my bad hair day today is nothing compared to the bad hair days I had when I dated him.”

“Before I let my class-M motorcycle license lapse,” said Michael Clancy, an assistant state’s attorney also running for the circuit court bench, “back when I used to have hair, I enjoyed the wind blowing through it. So that’s the way I feel about your position. I appreciate your support.”

“At the risk of sounding like I’m bragging,” said Cowboy, a member who sat on the ABATE board for many years, “ABATE of Chicago is known worldwide as the most politically powerful motorcyclists’ rights organization in the world.” In 1998, after Fifth Ward alderman Barbara Holt and seven other lakefront aldermen tried–not for the first time–to get motorcycles banned from Lake Shore Drive, ABATE of Chicago sent a delegation to Washington. They pushed for the inclusion of Section 1206–which prohibits a state or municipality from barring motorcycles from any federally funded highway–in the Federal Transit Act. Lake Shore Drive, which is part of U.S. 41, remains open to motorcyclists, and in 1999, with the endorsement of ABATE of Chicago, Leslie Hairston took Holt’s seat on the City Council. The group’s other legislative coups include securing funding for motorcycle safety programs and defeating numerous helmet bills.

“We definitely put a serious amount of our energy into the political process,” Cowboy said. “Because we feel that that is one of the best ways to ensure our right to ride.” Other hot-button issues include proposed federal regulations limiting what motorcyclists can wear on the road (to “bright orange Kevlar nylon jumpsuits,” in Nagy’s words) and President Clinton’s 1996 amendment to the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, which allows insurance companies to exclude boaters, skiers, and people who ride snowmobiles, ATVs, horses, and motorcycles from continued medical coverage when they change carriers. “I could ride with a variety of restrictions put on me,” says Nagy. “But there’s no way I can ride without major medical insurance.”

At the urging of ABATE, and for the first time in Illinois history, both U.S. senators and all 20 representatives–“even the ones that disagree with us, such as a Bobby Rush or a Jan Schakowsky”–wrote to secretary of health and human services Tommy Thompson last year to protest the amendment. Last summer Thompson kicked the decision about when and where to apply the law back to the states. “That was a loss for us,” says Nagy.

In her opening remarks, Wood boasted that her first boyfriend also rode a motorcycle. O’Malley promised that as governor he would veto any helmet law. But the debate itself–moderated by Bill Wildt, producer and host of the public-access TV show Motorsports Unlimited–was a bit of a bust. Despite Wildt’s eloquent invocation of Thomas Jefferson’s caution against the tyranny of the majority, O’Malley and Wood found few points of policy on which they disagreed. They both came down against unreasonable search and seizure, discrimination, and restrictions on emissions, after-market modifications, and clothing. Both candidates were in favor of increased funding for rider education programs and the retention of existing off-road trails.

After closing comments, an American Knight with a long gray ponytail stood up to ask a question about funding for highway safety programs. In the back the crowd grew restless. “Last call!” barked the guy with the cane.

As the event broke up, Nagy reminded the crowd that Jim Ryan had been invited as well but had that afternoon declined. “Maybe he was afraid someone would ask him a question!” called out a voice in the crowd.

“I knew who I was voting for before I came,” said Cowboy–O’Malley. “Because he’s a conservative and so am I.”

“I don’t have tunnel vision–motorcycles and nothing else,” said another longtime chapter member named Doc, who’s also voting for O’Malley. “I’m looking at the big picture–the state of the nation, the state of the country. And really, if down the road I have to wear a helmet, I will. As long as the country is doing better with better leadership.”

“These guys are good precinct workers,” said O’Malley’s deputy campaign manager Dan Proft. “What they do here–and you can tell from the turnout–is when they come out they get involved. These are not guys who like to talk a lot, or listen to people talk. These guys like to do stuff.”

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