Breakfast is long over when state senator William Shaw bursts into the Coffee Pot, a smoky little eatery at 115th and Michigan. His enthusiasm isn’t dampened by the small crowd that’s left, and he moves through the room greeting waitresses, busboys, cooks, and diners. “I need every vote,” he says. “Got to have every vote–because the big boys want me out.”

It must be hard for Shaw, a Democratic powerhouse in south-side politics for more than 25 years, to keep a straight face while maintaining that he’s the underdog in the November 5 senatorial election. Yet to some degree he is. He’s running against an independent, the Reverend James Meeks– Congressman Jesse Jackson’s handpicked candidate–as well as a Republican, Philip Arnold. The polls have Shaw running neck and neck with Meeks.

Shaw is one of Chicago’s great political characters. He and his twin brother, Robert, are instantly recognizable to most voters, if only because both of them are over six feet and wear toupees. “I have the utmost respect for the Shaw brothers–I call them the leaders of the Wig Party,” says Steve Wiedersberg, the outspoken president of the Chicago Professional Taxi Drivers Association and a longtime supporter of the brothers. “They’re consummate politicians. They’ve written the book on Chicago politics. Hell, they’ve lived it.”

But their many detractors across the south side and south suburbs see the brothers as the worst sort of tricksters and bullies. In the last year Senator Shaw, who’s also the mayor of Dolton, has been accused of assaulting Dolton village clerk Judith Evans, of demoting a Dolton water-meter reader who endorsed Meeks, and of harassing someone who’d posted Jackson for Congress signs on his front lawn.

“I didn’t do any of that stuff–none of it,” says Shaw. “It’s just a bunch of lies made up by my opponents–who’re desperate ’cause they know the people love me for the good things that I’ve done.”

Shaw, whose family moved to the west side from Arkansas back in 1949, says he learned the art of politics from machine aldermen such as Vito Marzullo. “In 1953, when I was just 16 years old, I went to work for Marzullo’s 25th Ward Democratic organization,” he says. “I wasn’t a precinct captain–I was an assistant to a precinct captain. Sixteen-year-olds don’t just walk in and become precinct captains.”

From the 25th Ward he made his way to the 24th Ward organization, then run by Cook County commissioner Artie Elrod. Elrod put Shaw on the public payroll, and he’s been there ever since. “I walked into Artie Elrod’s office and said, ‘I want to get involved in politics,'” says Shaw. “He got me on the Board of Elections as a clerk. That was 1958. I was, what? 21 years old.”

It was a time of great opportunities for ambitious young African-American politicians who were willing to fight their way into the machine. The west side was changing as blacks moved in and whites moved out, and power was shifting. Not every comer handled it well. One of Shaw’s buddies, Benjamin Lewis, was slated as alderman and committeeman, then started talking about taking control of the organization. He was soon found facedown in his office, hands cuffed behind his back, a bullet in his head. The case was never solved.

After Lewis’s murder, William Shaw wanted to take over as committeeman, but the party selected George Collins, Lewis’s driver. So Shaw and his brother moved south to the Roseland area, which was undergoing its own rapid racial change. In 1975 Robert came within 100 votes of unseating Ninth Ward alderman Alexander Adducci, and four years later he defeated him. Three years after that the Shaw brothers secured their hold on Roseland politics when William was elected state representative.

In the ensuing years, the Shaws proved to be cunning political creatures, wedded to no ideology beyond doing what it took to stay in office. In their early aldermanic campaigns they joined forces with Hyde Park reformers and railed against machine abuses–only to turn around and make deals with Alderman Ed Vrdolyak, Mayor Jane Byrne, and other regulars. “I believe in helping the people,” says Shaw. “We’re reformers–if by that you mean getting jobs for African-Americans. That’s just smart politics.”

For all their street smarts, the Shaws made a colossal mistake when they backed Byrne over Harold Washington in the 1983 Democratic mayoral primary. “We took a gamble. We had every-thing to win if Jane Byrne won–jobs and stuff. Harold understood. We had conversations with him about it. ‘You gambled, you lost,’ Harold told us. He laughed when he said it. My brother said, ‘You’re right, Mr. Mayor. I made a mistake. But I won’t make that one again.'”

The setback was only temporary. In 1987 Robert won reelection as Ninth Ward alderman, this time pledging unswerving loyalty to Washington. William spent ten years in the house; in 1993 he was elected to the state senate from the 15th District, and in ’96 he was elected mayor of Dolton. In ’98 Robert stepped down as alderman after being elected commissioner of the Cook County Board of Review. It seemed as though the brothers would reign over far-south-side and south-suburban politics for years to come.

Then in 1996 Jesse Jackson Jr. was elected to Congress from the Second District, defeating, among other candidates, state senator Emil Jones–the man the Shaw brothers had endorsed. Since then Jackson–William calls him “Junior”–has built his own rival political base on the south side and in the south suburbs. In 1999 he backed Anthony Beale in a race against Robert Shaw’s son Herbert in the Ninth Ward aldermanic election, and Beale won. In 2000 Jackson backed David Miller, who defeated incumbent state representative Willis Harris, the candidate the Shaw brothers had supported.

At that point the Shaws had two choices–they could either join Jackson or fight him. They apparently chose the latter, or so says Jackson’s press secretary Frank Watkins (neither Jackson nor Meeks returned calls for comment). Last year, Watkins claims, the Shaw brothers helped engineer one of the strangest political campaigns in recent years by getting a 67-year-old truck driver from Robbins named Jesse Jackson to run against the congressman in the Democratic primary.

In December, Congressman Jackson sued his opponent, charging him with, according to Jackson’s lawyer, Vickie Pasley, “theft of identification.” The truck driver eventually dropped out of the race, but Jackson didn’t drop the suit. “We believe that the other Jackson ran as a ploy to confuse the voters and to diminish the vote base for Congressman Jackson,” says Pasley. “We have affidavits from individuals who say that Robert and William Shaw misled them into thinking they were circulating petitions on behalf of Congressman Jackson.”

“I had nothing to do with that,” says William Shaw. “I was shocked when I read about it in the newspapers. That’s how I found out. It’s true I wasn’t supporting Junior. Yvonne Williams was my candidate in that race. Meanwhile, they put up another candidate named Anthony Williams just to confuse the voters–but they don’t talk about that.”

Watkins denies that Congressman Jackson had anything to do with Anthony Williams’s candidacy. In fact, he suspects the Shaws put up Williams to make it seem that Jackson was playing the same game.

Last March, Jackson won the Democratic primary for Congress, and Shaw won the primary for state senate. A few days later Jackson encouraged Meeks to run as an independent against Shaw, as a candidate of the Honesty and Integrity Party.

If Meeks doesn’t beat Shaw he could siphon off enough black votes to let the Republican, Philip Arnold, win. “I don’t know why Meeks is running against me,” says William Shaw. “It seems to me that they made a deal with the Republicans–you know how it can get with all these deals being made. This all started when I supported [Emil] Jones over Junior and he took it personal. You see, these guys are rookies. They don’t understand politics. Democrats fight all the time in primaries–then we make up. The way I look at it is that I won the playoffs in my division, and Arnold won the playoffs in his division. Now I’m on my way, trying to score the touchdown–and Meeks is some irate fan who comes out of the stands to tackle me.”

So Shaw is running hard. After glad-handing the folks at the Coffee Pot, he heads for a senior citizen building in south-suburban Lansing to honor Cecelia Lodge on the occasion of her 100th birthday. By the time he arrives the party is under way. About 70 white-haired white people sit at long tables in the rec room, eating pasta and salad served by Shaw staffers. It turns out that Shaw has paid for the party, which means he gets to make a few remarks.

“It’s a pleasure being here with such a darling young lady–they tell me you still go dancing on Friday night,” he began. “I asked the secret of your longevity. They told me it’s jogging. So I’m going to come jogging with you.”

As the laughter subsides, he launches into his political spiel, reminding the residents that he’s 65, a senior citizen. “I understand when you get up in the morning and everything’s hurting and you need something to take,” he says. “We have to make sure that the Democrats take over the legislature so that we get some pharmaceutical legislation for you. We have to make sure you don’t have to choose between eating and getting your medicine.” The seniors clap.

Later, in the lobby outside Shaw’s Dolton office, aide Billy Morgan is talking politics with Steve Wiedersberg and Curtis Copeland, a retired Streets and Sanitation ward supervisor. “I’m gonna tell you what I think,” says Wiedersberg. “I think Jesse Junior’s an arrogant little snot who hasn’t really paid his dues. He wants to be another Harold Washington, anointing all these candidates.”

Then Copeland starts reminiscing about the days just after Harold Washington was elected mayor. “One of the first things he did is put old Pouncey Taylor [a former state representative who’d worked against Washington on many issues] out of his office job and stick him at the back of a garbage truck,” he says. “Harold couldn’t stand Pouncey. Harold said, Put that so-and-so on a garbage truck–I don’t want to see him.”

As they talk, the door to Shaw’s office opens and out steps Shaw and, of all people, the Reverend James Bevel, one of Martin Luther King Jr.’s closest aides and tacticians during the 60s civil rights movement.

Asked what he’s doing in Shaw’s office, Bevel smiles and pulls from his briefcase a recent article in a local paper about a speech Congressman Jackson gave to the Chicago Southland Chamber of Commerce. “Let me read what Jackson said,” he says. “‘We don’t have to go all the way to Iraq to fight tyranny,’ the congressman said. ‘It’s right here at home.’ Now what kind of ridiculously provocative statement is that, comparing Shaw to Hussein? That’s ridiculous. That’s not leadership.”

Shaw is standing behind Bevel, a twinkle in his eye. “See what I’m saying?” he says. “We got all kinds of support. People aren’t dumb. They see what’s going on.”

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