If Carol Moseley Braun wins the March 17 Democratic primary and goes on to win the general election in November, she will attain an office that only one other black has held since Reconstruction, one that only two other women, both white, hold today.
Is it possible? A black woman elected to the U.S. Senate? Given Braun’s opponents, a telegenic millionaire lawyer and a popular glad-handing incumbent, both with money to burn, her chances may seem slim–slimmer still considering the muddled state of her campaign, which started late, has raised little money, and recently has been upset by dissension and well-publicized resignations.
But consider her credentials. A state representative for ten years, she won the IVI-IPO’s best legislator award for six years straight, along with similar awards from other groups including the Chicago Board of Education, the Chicago Firefighters Union, the Illinois Association of Realtors, the Illinois Council of Sheriffs, and the Illinois Women’s Political Caucus. She’s won numerous awards from gay and lesbian organizations. She’s credited with having dramatically modernized the office of the Cook County Recorder of Deeds, which she was elected to run in 1988. She adopted a code of ethics for that office.
In the 60s she participated in Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s open-housing marches on the southwest side and organized the Black Law Students Association while a student at the University of Chicago Law School. She entered politics in 1970 as a speech writer for now retired state senator Richard Newhouse. When Harold Washington’s seat in the General Assembly was threatened by the Democratic machine in 1972, she was one of the young people Newhouse organized to go door-to-door and save it.
By the time Washington was elected mayor in 1983, Braun was in the Illinois House herself, and Washington made her his floor leader. She was later named assistant to the speaker of the house by Speaker Michael Madigan, becoming the first woman to hold that position.
Last October, Senator Alan Dixon infuriated liberal and activist women, among others, by voting to confirm Clarence Thomas. Almost immediately, some of these women began looking for one of their own to run against Dixon. Former federal judge Susan Getzendanner and socialite Marjorie Benton, a member of the Democratic National Committee, both were suggested as candidates. And Kay Clement, the Hyde Park political activist who’d lured Braun into electoral politics back in 1978, organized an appeal to her. In November, Braun decided to run.
It’s been anything but smooth going. In addition to staff turmoil and a serious shortage of money, endorsements from black organizations have been slow to arrive (although County Commissioner Danny Davis says a large number of black elected officials met and decided to “enthusiastically endorse and support” her). Braun’s still dogged, if not hounded, by an old rumor that in 1985, while exploring a run for lieutenant governor, she played footsie with Regular Democrats, in particular with Edward Vrdolyak, then leader of the anti-Washington majority in the City Council. Braun denies ever having approached Vrdolyak for his support and Vrdolyak says, “That was another life. I can’t remember.”
One conspicuous black holdout is John Stroger Jr., a Cook County commissioner. He says, “I am very disappointed with what she did to me. She came on the floor of the [county] board to ask them not to reappoint me as chairman of the Finance Committee and went on the radio saying Stroger is through. After I supported her for everything she wanted to do all those years. I won’t be out there beating the bushes against her, but I’m not very enthusiastic about her. I think she owes it to me to call me now, after what she did to me.”
Another powerful black politician who has kept quiet on the subject of Braun is Alderman Bobby Rush, who’s running for Congress against incumbent Charles Hayes, a Braun ally. Both Stroger and Rush are Democratic Party officers, Stroger vice chairman of the Cook County party and Rush deputy chairman of the Illinois party.
The question of black endorsements was eclipsed recently by upheaval within Braun’s organization that mortally threatened her campaign. “What was once a very winnable campaign is now very questionable,” said Timuel Black, a longtime black ally who’s on Braun’s steering committee.
Braun strongly denied that her campaign was in disarray. “Come and see,” she insisted. “See how we’re falling over ourselves with volunteers. Look at my schedule and see the variety of groups I’m speaking to and how often I’m speaking. This campaign hasn’t missed a step.”
But in fact, downtown at headquarters there was big trouble. On Friday, February 21, communications coordinator Alton Miller became the fourth official to leave Braun’s campaign staff in two weeks. “Every campaign is either a tragedy or a comedy,” Miller told me afterward, “but Carol’s campaign is surreal. She’s by far the best choice among the three candidates, but it’s going to take a miracle for her to win.”
Miller held responsible Braun’s campaign manager Kgosie Matthews, who’d worked in Jesse Jackson’s 1988 campaign as Jackson’s “valet”–in Miller’s word–seeing to it Jackson got to wherever he was supposed to be. Matthews has “no visible experience” in hiring and firing, Miller said, and lacks any “people skills.” While the four departed officials were all white, Miller said blacks found Matthews equally infuriating.
“He also managed to alienate many south-side blacks who complained bitterly about his amateurishness and his rudeness. Many of the committeemen who have endorsed her are refusing to work for her because they’re so upset with Kgosie.”
Timuel Black told me that many black committeemen and ministers were working enthusiastically for Braun. But it was certainly true, he went on, that “Kgosie has discouraged people, driven them away from the campaign. He doesn’t listen to anyone. If you try to give him advice, he acts as if he always knows better.” Since Matthews came on board, Black said, there had not been a single meeting of the steering committee.
On the other hand, Sam Ackerman, another old friend active in Braun’s campaign, observed, “It’s only when Kgosie came on board that anything has happened. Before that, there was no campaign. If there’s some confusion, that’s not new. It reminds me of Harold Washington’s campaign when two campaign managers were fired.”
Issues director Bob Walsh sent Braun a four-page letter that said, “Because you have chosen to keep him [Matthews], I can’t stay.” Walsh signed an agreement when he quit in which he promised not to discuss leaving with the media. “I left the campaign over basic disagreements over how the campaign should be run with the campaign manager,” he explained. “Those disagreements were clearly with Kgosie and not with Carol Moseley Braun. I wanted it to be clear on paper that there would never be any question that I would ever say anything to damage her.”
Miller said, “The glue that holds the campaign together, the enthusiasm generated by the candidate and the campaign manager, and the camaraderie and efficiency created by the campaign manager was drying up and finally everything came apart. We would all be back in a minute, I’m sure, if Kgosie was gone.”
Matthews wouldn’t comment on these criticisms. Braun discussed them briefly with me over her car phone as she drove home from O’Hare after a campaign swing with Matthews through southern Illinois.
Braun said she’d learned only that morning, by reading the Tribune, that Miller had resigned and was naming Matthews as the reason why. She’d thought he’d been out sick. “Alton knows how to go to the press,” Braun said. “I only know how to be a candidate. But I do know that it was a hatchet job that surprised me.”
Is there no justification for Miller and Walsh’s allegations? I asked her. No, she said. “The campaign is going wonderfully. There is no evidence that this campaign has missed a step. We have more visibility except for television than either of the other candidates. I’m very comfortable with this campaign and I can recognize a good campaign when I see it. And I’m very comfortable with Kgosie’s leadership. He’s not exactly a warm, cuddly bear. But not everyone can be a warm, cuddly bear. But Kgosie is a highly qualified campaign manager and I think that Alton and Bob like to think they could run the campaign better.”
She said, “In a campaign you don’t have time to iron out differences.”
I told her what Timuel Black had said about Matthews. Black’s been a trusted friend throughout her political career. Braun made no response, except to say that it wasn’t up to Matthews to call meetings of the steering committee.
A few weeks earlier, I’d spent a day on the campaign trail with Braun that lasted until after midnight. I wondered then why Matthews was in almost constant attendance, highly unorthodox for a campaign manager. From the way he treated me, I concluded that apparently he didn’t trust me and therefore wanted to be present at the interviews.
I found Matthews to be as Miller would later describe him–rude, insulting, and spending his time inappropriately–as the candidate’s traveling companion rather than the strategist at headquarters. But Braun appeared satisfied with him, and she is not exactly unskilled as a politician.
Nor is she the usual politician. Should she prevail somehow, she has an irrepressibility that might send shock waves through the Senate. Although I heard no such thing during the hours I spent with her, at any moment, I kept thinking, she might say something politically unforgivable. She seemed much less wary than the politicians I was used to, and highly spontaneous. She talked steadily, giving long, complicated answers to short questions. Her smile seemed to say, “Look, ma, no hands!”
Braun’s appearance for the last couple of years tended to belie her personality. Surrendering the soft curls that she’d worn for years after giving up her Afro, she let her hair grow and pulled it back into a severe ponytail that gave her a formidable, almost tough look. For this campaign her advisers insisted on something softer, and when they ordered her to a hairdresser Braun was, she says, “in a snit for a week.” The ponytail took practically no time to care for, which was important to her.
Braun does not fit the senatorial image that most of us carry in our heads. Alton Miller laughed as he said, “I knew, right after the Anita Hill-Clarence Thomas business when Dixon voted for Thomas that the time was ripe for a woman candidate to run against Dixon. But Carol never entered my head as a likely candidate. One tends to have the stereotype of the senator as a middle-aged man with gray temples and an expensive three-piece suit, and when one thinks of a woman in that role one tends to think of a female version of that model–like [Congresswoman] Pat Schroeder. Carol contradicts that stereotype. She didn’t look like a senator to me. Then I remembered a Harold Washington story. He was bugged by his handlers to change the way he dressed. He said, ‘Why?’ and they said, ‘Because a mayor doesn’t dress that way.’ He got indignant and said, ‘Goddammit, I’m the mayor. This is the way the mayor dresses.’ He was redefining how we think about it. I think Carol has the potential to redefine the image of the senator.”
In her manner, her dress, her very physical appearance–a round face with large expressive eyes and a voluptuous figure–Braun is quintessentially female. A photo of her taken for the cover of January’s Indigo, the Chicago Sun-Times‘s supplement directed to the black audience, showed her posing glamorously in a strapless gown. Our women politicians don’t usually look like that, and neither do the wives of our men politicians.
Carol Moseley was born in 1947 at 41st and Indiana, in an all-black neighborhood that was a mix of middle-class homes and decaying housing. Blacks were confined to the south-side ghetto and the poor and the middle class lived side by side. The Moseleys owned a big 19th-century town house broken up into apartments; the family occupied the first floor, and a couple of other apartments were occupied by what Braun called “an extended family of aunties and uncles none of whom were really relatives, but everyone was considered family. To this day, they would be crushed if I called them anything but aunt or uncle. It was sort of communal. My mother always worked and lots of her child care responsibilities were handled by the other women in the house who didn’t work.”
Braun’s mother Edna was a medical technician who learned on the job at a southwest-side hospital, Central Community, where she worked for about 20 years. “In those days,” Braun said, “that was a new field and there were very few women in it. So she was in the vanguard. She was brought into the field by an aunt who was trained at the University of Illinois at Navy Pier, and when she got a job she brought my mother in.” The two women were also in the vanguard as blacks working in white hospitals as something other than orderlies.
Braun said she was hardly aware of racism as a young child, “or even with race as an issue. The black community was so segregated at that point that we thought everyone was black. At the same time, my family always had an almost international environment. I can always remember whites, Asians, all kinds of people being around. My mother had a Polish girlfriend, my aunt’s favorite friend was a Japanese man. So I didn’t have a sense of a problem in my early life.
“But then we moved to 76th and Prairie, a very nice middle-class neighborhood that was still newly being integrated. In those days, what was called integration was the time between the first black family moving in and the last white family moving out. We went through that transition. There I had my first experience with racism. I was eight or nine. The family living next door was white. The little girl was my age and her bedroom faced mine and we would talk to each other through the windows. We became friends. I discovered a little later that her parents were punishing her for playing with me. One day she was crying because she had been spanked for playing with me. I was shocked. Why was playing with me a crime? I didn’t want her to get in trouble and she obviously didn’t want to get spanked, so we hit on a great scheme to meet down the block and catch up with each other and walk to school together and then do the same thing on the way home. We played that game for a long time. We were friends despite her parents. For a long while I had a hard time figuring that out. It was my introduction to racism. But, of course, they soon enough moved out of the neighborhood.”
One family story is so important to Braun that I have heard her tell it three times. “The family went south and we were in the train station in Montgomery. They had segregated bathrooms and water fountains. My mother didn’t want us to drink out of the segregated water fountain. I understood what she was talking about so I wasn’t going to drink out of that colored water fountain, but my brother who was younger didn’t understand. He wanted some colored water. He got all excited thinking he was going to get red or green or purple water. He had a temper tantrum there in the station, yelling, ‘I want some colored water.’ Well, I’ve never wanted colored water. I’ve always refused to be served it. I only want to drink water that is equally available to everyone.”
Racism also penetrated Braun’s childhood at the Ruggles School, which was just being integrated. Bands of thugs regularly threw rocks through the windows. The teacher practiced the “duck and cover” tactics of the era, in which kids were taught to hide under their desks at the sound of an alarm.
When she graduated from grade school in 1960, Braun lived a few blocks from the all-white Hirsch High School. But she was not legally in the Hirsch district, the boundaries for which ran along the frontiers of the racially changing neighborhood. “This was the time of the Willis wagons [portable schoolrooms used to house overflow classes in the black community, to avoid sending black kids to white schools] and the attempt was to keep Hirsch white.” Braun was forced to take three buses each morning to attend the mostly black Parker High School.
In her early years, Braun’s father Joe was a policeman, as were all his brothers; they worked on the force as a “day gig” and played jazz at night. They’d been groundbreakers–in the 40s and 50s there were very few blacks on the force. In the 60s, when Braun was a teenager, her father quit to join a small real-estate firm on the south side.
Braun described her father as “a community activist, involved with unions and community problems. I remember him helping people get back into their homes after being put out. He was also involved with the integration of the streetcar drivers in the city. There are a few people in the city, Charlie Hayes one of them, who remember my dad from the old union activity days.” In the 60s, Braun’s father was involved with efforts to integrate the schools. Braun tagged along to meetings. “While he was always a Regular Democrat, he was always talking about how government could be better and how you had to extend yourself to help change things.”
By the time she’d reached her late teens, Braun was fighting her own battles. “I remember going out to Rainbow Beach with a bunch of young people in the early 60s to try to integrate it and getting rocks thrown at us,” she said. While still in high school, she held her own sit-in. She had been selected for a special program for exceptional students given at South Shore High School, which was then all-white and in an all-white neighborhood. Braun took chemistry. One day after class she went shopping nearby and then stopped at a restaurant for a cup of coffee.
“I sat down at the counter and the waitress walked all around me, serving other people, ignoring me. I sat there for about an hour. Finally she gave me a cup of coffee. I put my quarter down on the counter and I got up and left. I wouldn’t drink their coffee but I wasn’t going to move until I was served.”
A few years later, she marched with Dr. Martin Luther King in Gage Park. “I’ll never forget that Gage Park march. In front of me were some nuns. The crowd was taunting them with things like, ‘Are you sleeping with that nigger?’ I was just appalled. Here I am a kid who went to Catholic school. The idea of someone saying something like that to nuns! They were the Virgin Mary incarnate. Well, when we got to the park, the rocks really started flying. They put the women and children and Dr. King in the middle and the men surrounded us and then the real veterans surrounded them. Dr. King was only a few feet away from me. And he got hit with a rock. When that happened, I was on my knees with my hands over my head the way we did when there was danger and I remember being so furious when Dr. King got hit that I said to myself, ‘If that happens again, I’m going to pick up a rock and throw it myself.’
“And then it dawned on me–it was a revelation–that the reason that Dr. King preached nonviolence–that you don’t fight hate with hate–is that if you’re the little guy you’ll be overrun. It’s the little guy who will be hurt. And that was when I got the critical message of nonviolence and the kind of humanism that Dr. King stood for. Somehow, it all came clear, all the love and humanity. It was a very important point for me to get to at the time. Several friends and associates were lining up with the Black Panthers. You know, violence in the streets. I suddenly saw the real difference between ‘Get the gun and kill the pig’ and what Dr. King was talking about. I helped out with the Panthers’ breakfast programs and things like that, but that was as far as it went.
“On the other hand, I can remember going out to the west side after Fred Hampton got killed. We just stood on the street outside the building, stunned by it all. The building was just riddled with bullet holes. I felt absolutely traumatized.”
Braun’s civil rights activities were supported and encouraged by her father. They made her mother nervous. “My mother was more of a homebody, but our home was more cosmopolitan than most because of my father’s activism and also because my mother’s brother was a professional jazz musician. My father was a musician, too, but he stopped playing professionally a long time ago. He played seven instruments and played for a while with Red Saunders’s band. He had also been classically trained and he played the viola and the flute as well as the jazz instruments. His father was a ragtime player who came up from New Orleans with the group that brought the old jazz to Chicago.”
Braun herself has no musical talent, but she called herself a “great music lover who loves every kind of music, including country and western,” which she came to appreciate going back and forth to Springfield and finding nothing else to listen to on the radio.
Braun described her father and his family as black nationalists and onetime supporters of Marcus Garvey, the black nationalist who advocated the return of blacks to Africa. When Garvey was imprisoned for fraud in 1923, Braun’s grandparents switched their allegiance to the young Elijah Mohammed.
One of Braun’s favorite memories of her grandmother dates back to the first big black political convention, which was in Gary in 1972. Braun was then in law school and writing speeches for Newhouse; she attended the convention as part of the Illinois delegation.
“I was sitting in the bleachers,” she recalled, laughing, “and suddenly I see this little woman. She was about five feet tall and five feet wide. She is walking down the front of the bleachers with her Muslim outfit on. I couldn’t believe it. I said, ‘Mama Liz, what are you doing here?’ And she said, ‘I’ve come because we are an Ethiop people and I want to be at this meeting.’ She didn’t normally wear that garb. She only put it on when she went to meetings. But she lived in Gary and this was important to her. My father was one of the original ‘black is beautiful’ advocates.” On the other hand, her mother “had a fit” in the late 60s when she came home with an Afro haircut.
Like most black families, Braun’s was religious, though Catholic on both sides rather than Baptist. How her mother’s Alabama side got Catholicism, Braun doesn’t know, but her mother was “one of those go-to-Mass-every-day Catholics.” Catholicism came more naturally to her father’s family, rooted in New Orleans. Braun attended a Catholic school her last two years of grade school, and she went to Mass with her mother. Her father had his own ideas about her religious upbringing; he’d take Braun and her brothers and sisters to churches and synagogues all around the city, all kinds of churches, putting these Catholic children “in sin.” Braun was always a little nervous about it.
“I wish now,” she said, “that I could give my son the same kind of experience. We got a chance to see religion in every form. You realize that religion is the children of the light fighting back the darkness, the same stuff for everyone. It’s people in search of connectedness, with the universal being, or God, or whatever you want to call it, people wanting to find a countervailing force to evil. And quite frankly, at this point in my life, putting aside all the various denominations, I see the thread as the age-old battle of good and evil. People go to church to get a piece of the forces of good.”
Braun’s church of choice is the Vernon Park Church of God and Christ, theologically fundamentalist but politically one of the most liberal in the city, but she doesn’t get there very often. Usually she goes to Mass with her son Matthew, a Saint Ignatius High School student. She’s following her mother’s example. “She was the stable member of the family. She grounded it. The domestic type. Keeping the hearth and home together. My father was the free spirit, the philosopher who encouraged us to appreciate the arts and politics.”
When Braun was 16, her parents split up. Her father sold the house and moved to California. In a sense, her father’s departure brought about Braun’s independence. He had led her into politics and social activism, but now she was on her own.
The divorce was traumatic because Braun loved and admired her father and because it cost her a very comfortable life-style: a nice home with a backyard, rabbits, and a dog. Her grandmother, with whom she, her mother, and one brother lived for two years, had an old house in Oakwood, a formidable slum. For the first time, Braun lived among very poor blacks on violent streets.
“I thought it was fascinating, like moving to a different planet,” she said. She spent a lot of time by herself. But she made friends, too, one of them a girl secretly married to a young man from a very large family that had produced hustlers, drug dealers, and a major pimp. They became her protection, Braun said. “They wouldn’t let anything happen to me,” she laughed.
One day, Braun recalled, she was out on the lakefront with a group of neighborhood girls who were talking about their pregnancies and babies. “How many kids you got?” one asked her. “None,” she replied, a little aghast at the question. “I was 16, in high school. Where I came from, girls didn’t even have sex at 16.” The girls were equally aghast. How can you get to be 16 without having sex?
She escaped Oakwood as often as she could, taking her mother’s car–usually without permission, she said, laughing. “I would sometimes just drive,” she remembered. Nevertheless, her two years with her grandmother did not depress her. “It was all so interesting, another world, I was just taking it in.”
Meanwhile, her mother was working hard and saving every penny she could. Within two years, she was able to make a down payment on a house in what is often called the “mink ghetto” on the far south side. As far away from the slum as she’s remained, Braun said, those two years stamped her indelibly with the knowledge of how the poor, largely uneducated black lives.
It was always assumed the Moseley children would do well in school and go on to college. Carol’s sister Marsha graduated cum laude from Yale, took a law degree from Harvard, and now works in advertising. Her brother Joe Jr. is a policeman doing “exactly what he always wanted to do.” Her other brother died some years ago.
To help pay the bills, Braun worked during high school as a checker in a grocery store. Her first year in college was not an easy one. She worked in the grocery, made the long daily trip from 92nd Street to the University of Illinois campus, and was generally discontent. She didn’t go back for a second year. Instead, she took a job with the Chicago Housing Authority as a community representative in a near-west-side project. She spent her time with the project’s poorest, most disorganized families.
Before long she said to herself, this won’t do, and returned to college. Now she became actively involved in the life of the campus, running on a multicultural, multiracial ticket for student government and winning.
She entered the University of Chicago Law School on scholarship, helped found the country’s first Black Law Students Association, and became its first president. She worked for Richard Newhouse and Harold Washington, joined a law firm after graduating, and was soon lured away by another firm that promised she could work in the black community. Although she got to represent the Woodlawn Organization (TWO), that promise went largely unfulfilled. “I thought I was going to be a civil rights lawyer,” she told me, “and I ended up handling securities offerings.”
She decided to return to graduate school to earn a degree in art history. One night at dinner she was discussing her plans with her husband, Michael Braun, a white attorney whom she had met in law school and married shortly after graduation (they were divorced six years ago), and with a friend of his. The friend, a lawyer in the U.S. attorney general’s office, chastised her. “You took up a seat in a first-class law school and now you’re going to quit,” he told her.
“It was so typical of men,” she said, “but he had me feeling guilty, as if I’d gone to law school to meet a husband.” The friend urged her to apply for a job with his office. She decided to investigate and was hired.
Now the law became interesting. “Being in that job was a great experience,” Braun said. “It opened up for me the way the government interfaces with local and state governments, how policy is made, and what opportunities there are for changing things via the courts.” Braun was given a steady series of important cases and received an achievement award.
She left the attorney general’s office in 1976 to raise her new baby. But that decision was soon superseded. Hyde Park’s fiercely independent state representative Robert Mann was resigning and a search was on for a replacement. Kay Clement stopped Braun on the street one day as she was wheeling her baby and suggested she run for office. She invited her to a meeting where potential candidates would be interviewed. Braun’s first reaction was to refuse. But that night her husband convinced her to at least go to the meeting and see the lay of the land.
At that meeting, there turned out to be considerable support for Braun, but a minority refused to support her because they did not think that a black candidate could win in the white part of the district or that an independent could win in the black part of the district; a woman, they thought, would have trouble winning anywhere. Everyone was intent on keeping Mann’s seat for the independents and no one wanted to take any chances.
Braun got more and more miffed that she could be dismissed as a candidate because of her race or her sex or her politics. She told me she finally decided to run out of pique as much as anything else. Mann and Leon Despres, the highly regarded Hyde Park alderman, backed her and Braun won handily.
Braun doesn’t dwell on her feminism or her femininity; she seems to take both for granted. As she spun out the narrative of her life, she rarely reflected on what it was like to grow up female.
One story she did tell was of being taken by an aunt to Saks Fifth Avenue to buy a dress for her grade school graduation. “Now this was a big thing. The stores had just begun to let blacks shop there and Saks was pretty fancy for me. Now, there I am this chubbette and Auntie Darryl is this gorgeous woman who looks like a model. I haven’t changed much,” she laughed.
“So we go into this fitting room with all these dresses. I tried on one dress and it didn’t fit. I tried on another dress and it didn’t fit. By the time we get to the third dress, this saleswoman says to me, in a phony French accent, ‘Well, you should be thin like your mama.’ I got so mad. It wound up with my mother making my graduation dress for me because I refused to go shopping anymore. It was tough. I always felt like this toad in this family of beautiful women. I remember being in grade school and having my mother come to school one day and the teacher said, ‘Oh, your mother’s so beautiful, what happened to you?’ You know the way it is–40 years later and I still remember that.”
But there is nothing in Braun’s manner that suggests a “toad” image lies even below the surface of her mind. She is aggressive and self-confident, and jokes about her weight.
Braun’s 68-year-old mother, her only living parent, is now in a nursing home, having survived a couple of major strokes, a heart attack, and the amputation of a leg. Having mentioned this, Braun said, “Now I’m going to make a political speech. The issue of universal health coverage is so dramatized by my mother’s plight. She worked for years, contributing to Social Security, and now it’s touch and go to find any available care that is responsive to her needs. On the day before we held a press conference on health care, she got a notice from the feds saying Medicare would not cover her nursing home costs because she didn’t require skilled nursing care. If you don’t need intravenous drug service and you don’t need an RN to take care of you, Medicare won’t cover it and the state winds up carrying the burden of paying the bills. That’s asinine.
“Then there was the case of some friends of mine whose baby needed a heart transplant. They ended up having to make a general appeal for funds. Fortunately, Stevie Wonder was a good friend who helped them. But most people don’t have Stevie Wonders for friends. The choice for most people is to let the baby die. The need for health care reform goes to the heart of what’s wrong with our policy-making.”
“All of the diversity that comprises this country is not represented in the highest legislative body, which is composed, with two exceptions, of millionaire males and is all white,” Braun said. “I think I can give the Senate a healthy dose of democracy just by being there. This goes to the heart of representative democracy. Shouldn’t the people have access to the power? By being African American and female, by being just middle-class, not a millionaire, and by having a set of experiences drawn from all that, experiences that need to be heard in the highest decision-making body, that haven’t been heard, I can help be the key to making government function for the people. Maybe that’s what we need to turn things around to begin to come up with solutions to the problems.
“In the office I currently run, a lot of the changes I’ve made could easily have been done much earlier, but it’s kind of like they never thought of it. The old ways were the only ways. They just didn’t get it. I was able to do it because I come with a different set of experiences. I think that I can bring those same experiences, those views, to the Senate and perhaps begin to turn things around.”
Because a statewide Democratic primary tends to turn on the Cook County vote (62 percent of Democratic ballots cast in Illinois come from Cook County, according to pollster Nick Panagakis), Braun doesn’t have to win big in downstate Illinois. And it won’t hurt her that she has the top spot on the ballot. But she has to put together in Cook County the same black-liberal-Hispanic coalition that twice elected Harold Washington mayor of Chicago. Although both her opponents have far more money than she’s had access to, there is a possibility that money may not be what wins this race, just as former mayor Jane Byrne’s $9 million war chest failed to elect her in the three-way mayoral primary in 1983 against Harold Washington and Richard M. Daley. Washington’s campaign ran on a shoestring and it was at least as chaotic as Braun’s.
Braun is counting on Al Hofeld to gain support from his massive television campaign. For her to win, she thinks that Hofeld has to take close to 30 percent of the vote. A statewide poll taken by Market Shares Corporation and released by the Tribune February 10 showed that Hofeld’s support has risen to 19 percent from 6.5 percent in the previous poll. Dixon’s support was at 42 percent, down from 49 percent, and Braun’s was at 23 percent, down from 25 percent, after a television blitz by Dixon and Hofeld but with no TV advertising by Braun.
The Tribune poll also revealed that 57 percent of those interviewed “shared the opinion that Dixon has been in office long enough and that it was time for a change.” Only 31 percent disagreed.
The women’s vote is impossible to predict, according to Panagakis. Every representative of a women’s organization that I talked to emphasized that although their groups might endorse Braun they could not predict how the individual members would go. But if women tend to vote Democratic more often than men do because they tend to be more liberal, Braun’s liberalism might attract more women. She could also win some votes from more conservative women voters. Her success in ridding the recorder of deeds office of an archaic system of registering property, thereby saving property owners and the county time and money, was widely reported and praised in the press.
In a long telephone interview, by phone, I put a number of direct questions to Braun about the campaign.
Florence Hamlish Levinsohn: You’ve been criticized for taking city bond money when you were a state representative. That is, doing city business as a private attorney. As a good government type, how do you justify that?
Carol Moseley Braun: The very people who are doing the criticizing are the ones who were benefiting from the segregation of the bond market in this city. What happened was that Harold Washington called Dick Newhouse and me into his office and asked us if we would, and these are his words, “help integrate the bond market.” There were no African American bond lawyers in Chicago when I got involved with the O’Hare Airport deal. It was for the international facility. I said, sure. But to be honest, I hadn’t an inkling of how the bond market worked. I was trained as a lawyer and I knew something about public finance, but I had never handled a public finance issue before. Part of what I did was to open the door for African American lawyers to access that market. You may talk about criticism, but I’m actually proud of what I did. I did a good job. I worked for the fees my law firm, which was actually my husband’s law firm, Braun & Rivkin, got from it. I participated just like all the other lawyers involved. And while, sure, I profited from it, the most important thing that happened was that it opened up the door to other African American lawyers to do that highly profitable work.
FHL: According to the February 10 Tribune poll, you had only 50 percent of the statewide black vote. How do you account for that and how do you expect to win with those numbers?
CMB: Florence, do you remember that before the primary in 1983, Harold Washington didn’t even have 50 percent of the black vote? I’m not worried about that. To the extent that my campaign can get out the news that I’m running, I feel pretty sure we will get a goodly share of that community’s vote.
FHL: While it’s true that the lion’s share of the primary vote takes place in Cook County, you still need a share of the votes in southern Illinois. Are you campaigning there?
CMB: Oh sure. I had a good rally in Champaign last week with about 300 people and I’ve got people working for me in Peoria, Rockford, Carbondale, East Saint Louis, all over the state.
FHL: You claim to have dramatically reorganized the recorder’s office. Will you describe some of what you’ve done there?
CMB: We went to the legislature and had the Torrens system of land registration repealed. That was a major step. Torrens is a system of government insurance of titles as well as a separate system of recording of property. It was a system that was almost universally despised and that didn’t work. It made for untoward delays in closings. We had it repealed and now we’re in the process of shutting down its operation.
I also totally reconfigured service delivery in order to provide greater access to the public. You’d have to travel over three different floors to do a recording of property. Now a person can come in the front door, go to one counter and get their documents OKed, then go to another counter and finish up and leave with all his recording done.
We opened up access to other industry providers to break up the monopoly that Chicago Title and Trust had had for so many years. There’s now a level playing field here for all the companies that do business here.
We are also trying to get County Board approval to open suburban outlets and a telephone network so that people can just call and get information over the computer.
FHL: Now let’s talk about some of the campaign issues. You have said that the Japanese model for health care is superior to the Canadian one. Why?
CMB: The main reason I have advocated it is because the Japanese infant mortality rate is half of ours, while our system costs half again as much as theirs does. But of course, their society is so differently structured than ours that it is perhaps not as good a comparison as the Canadian system. But listen to these figures: in 1989, Japan spent $1,035 on health care per person, while we spent $2,354.
FHL: As a junior senator, you can take a low profile as most junior senators do, or you can try to make a splash. What do you envision yourself doing and what will be the issue that you will attack first?
CMB: I intend to be very active. One of the things about my having legislative experience is that I will be able to hit the ground running and I will be able to address issues because I know how you translate ideas into laws. Health care is at the top of the list. That’s where I think we will actually see some movement toward resolution in the next Congress. I will be a major advocate right off the bat for a universal, comprehensive, single-payer system.
FHL: Will you support already existing legislation or do you plan to write a new law?
CMB: I support the Russo bill, but I think there are some things that need to be added, such as freedom of choice, maintenance of quality of services, as well as the funding formula. I think we can fund the system out of present administrative systems–insurance company administrative expenses and the massive funds now spent to administer Medicare and Medicaid and all kinds of local and municipal health services that could all be collapsed into one system and save billions of dollars. We spend about $175 billion a year to administer just the current Medicare and Medicaid systems. I would like to be active in the development of that legislation.
FHL: There are already several bills in Congress to legalize abortion when the Supreme Court overturns Roe v. Wade. What role do you see yourself playing in that fight?
CMB: I think it is sensible to start with the Equal Rights Amendment, which would prohibit even the idea of discrimination against women based on biology. Secondarily, with regard to that fight to legalize the protections of Roe v. Wade, I’d definitely be an activist in that. I personally oppose abortion, but I strongly support a woman’s choice to have one.
FHL: The Democrats in Congress tend mostly to be for a middle-class tax cut. How do you stand on that?
CMB: I think that’s an election issue. The cut they are talking about comes to about $200 per person per year. The American people would be better served by not tampering with the tax code at this time and instead reinvesting in American infrastructure, housing, education, and health care, as well as deficit reduction. I would rather see that approach than willy-nilly opening the granaries and giving everybody a chicken in every pot just because it’s an election year. The money for that investment is there and should be used for reinvestment and not on a tiny tax cut that can’t mean anything to the average family. We have to do that if we’re going to reverse the decline that the Reagan-Bush years gave us.
FHL: Do you see some of the money for the reinvestment you talk of coming out of a peace dividend?
CMB: That’s where some of that money is. We need to get out of the nuclear business and the biological weapons business to create an even larger peace dividend than is now being talked about. And I don’t see why it has to take five years to get that peace dividend. We can accelerate that to three years. It just doesn’t make sense for us to have troops in Germany protecting it from itself, or to have troops protecting Japan.
Our real challenge will be in figuring out how to redeploy those forces and I think we have real opportunities here–to clean up the environment, to share technology, to educate people in prisons, all those things that can bolster our economy. But in addition to the peace dividend, the federal government has regular revenues that should be invested to get our domestic economy off the dime.
FHL: You mentioned at some point earlier that you favored federal investment in private industry.
CMB: I support both investment in the private sector and in the public as well. There has to be additional money directly invested in the infrastructure, in education, in health care; but in addition, to help get the economy going again, we have to provide leveraged support for the private sector in research and development, worker retraining, and new product development. You’ll notice that I use the word support instead of incentive because it was the so-called incentives of the Reagan administration that got us into the mess we are in. They gave these open-ended so-called incentives to business for which business did not have to be accountable. As a result of that lack of accountability, in too many instances business just took the money and ran. They didn’t reinvest in our productive economy, in job development here in the U.S., in exploring new technologies and new products that would make us competitive on world markets. So if we insist that taxpayer support be dedicated to those processes, then I think we’ll get the bang for our buck that we haven’t gotten from the Reagan incentive approach.
FHL: How would you make the private sector accountable for that support?
CMB: Quite simply, by requiring documentation to show that reduced tax rates were used for those purposes. We require that kind of documentation for grant money that is awarded by the federal government. Why not for tax breaks? The IRS asks for documentation for certain kinds of deductions. Why not for tax breaks?
FHL: The issue of foreign trade has people on both sides of protectionism. Where do you stand?
CMB: Protectionism is not in itself an answer. We have a trade deficit with Japan, but we have a trade surplus with Europe. When you go to protectionism, you find a double-edged sword and open the country to limiting our own trade and export opportunities. That’s not very sensible. However, we do have to explore fair trade and demand vigilant enforcement of anti-dumping regulations and demand enforcement of the GATT rules. We have to make certain that our trading partners do not have import barriers and we need to fight against protectionism in other countries.
Then we have to be certain that our goods are competitive in world markets with the kind of internal support we give to business. This gets back in part to the health care issue again, which is why it is such an important economic issue. Every auto made in this country has an additional $1,000 attached to its price tag because of the cost to the car makers of providing health care to their workers. It is estimated that the Japanese car makers pay about $200 for health care. If we resolve health care as an issue for our businesses, we can help to make them more competitive in world markets. If we take all those measures, we will get much closer to the level playing field in the world markets.
FHL: American productivity has been declining for years. Have you any ideas on that score?
CMB: We need to pursue a high-productivity, high-wage strategy. If we focus on education, training, and retraining, particularly in the new industries that will emerge from the defense industry, we can help stem the decline in productivity. At the same time, this will help us in our foreign trade.
FHL: I assume you are expecting the federal government to give large support to training and retraining, that you are talking about tax credits and a variety of such incentives. Can you give me a specific example of how that might work?
CMB: I hate to talk about tax credits because it conjures up images of the Reagan years. One of the reasons I am running for this office is because the incumbent senator supported all those laissez-faire Reagan economic policies. I am talking, of course, about tax incentives, but with real accountability. Let’s take an example with which I am very familiar: USX, the steel company that the Reagan administration gave huge tax breaks to–accelerated appreciation, investment tax credits, and so on, with the alleged intention of reviving the dying steel mills. They needed retooling, retraining of workers, and so on. But there was no oversight, no effort to monitor what was happening with those benefits. What happened was that USX took that money and turned around and bought Marathon Oil Company, no relation to steel, and as a result of that decision three months ago the South Works, which is owned by USX, with a potential for 10,000 jobs, was shut down. It is not inappropriate for the taxpayers who provided those tax credits to demand that USX reinvest in steel, that they keep their workers working or retrain them to do something else.
FHL: There is widespread sentiment in the government today to privatize education and provide parents with vouchers to buy education. How do you stand on that issue?
CMB: I oppose that idea absolutely because I think that this kind of thinking undermines the idea that our society has a public obligation to provide for education for all children. We abdicate our responsibility by going to vouchers. I think vouchers set up a model that will limit opportunities for poor children and will require parents to bear more of the individual burden of educating their children. This scheme betrays the American idea of providing public education for all.
FHL: What are some of your ideas for improving education?
CMB: I have a long record in this area. In the state legislature, education was my number-one priority. I worked hard to deal not only with funding but also reform. I was the sponsor of any number of funding bills, but I was the chief sponsor of the Local School Improvement Act that set up the local school councils. I’ve been an activist for parental involvement and for state funding and I would certainly work harder than our incumbent senator to bring federal dollars into this state to help pay the costs of education.
Right now, less than 10 percent of the cost of education in Illinois is paid for by the federal government. That doesn’t even begin to touch programs that are federally mandated but dropped on the state to pay for. So the place to start is just to get the federal government to pay for the programs it mandates, programs that could improve education. But in addition, we need to get the federal government to take leadership in curriculum development, in updating our school systems so that our schools are no longer living in the 19th century and are responsive to the demands of the 21st century. If the federal government set goals for the locals to implement, we could go a long way.
FHL: Many states are cutting back on welfare benefits and instituting workfare programs. How do you see these developments?
CMB: The reason many states are cutting back on their welfare benefits is that the federal government has dumped so much of the cost of the health care system on them. Medicaid takes up almost three-quarters of the welfare budget in Illinois. The reason for that is because the federal government is so stingy in what it pays for. A lot of the problems of welfare funding will be solved when we have universal health care service. With regard to workfare, obviously every able-bodied person who can work should be given an opportunity for a job. No one argues with that. But most of the people on welfare are children, the elderly, and those who are physically unable to work–disabled. That’s a statistical fact.
So the first real challenge is to deal with the true facts about what’s going on with welfare–who are the poor? And then we have to construct policies that are designed to provide jobs for those who can work, but at the same time provide a living subsistence for those who can’t and stop punishing the children in the vindictive way that some of these state welfare programs have been crafted.
FHL: Hofeld has promised to retire after two terms if he’s elected, in light of all the pressure for term limitation. How do you feel about that?
CMB: The best term limitation is the ballot box. I don’t believe it’s good to take from voters the right to decide who their representatives will be. Admittedly, we need to have campaign finance reform so that elective office is not limited to people who are wealthy or who are financed by special interests.
FHL: One of this country’s most pressing problems is the high rates of crime and drug addiction. Do you have some ideas that will help reduce this problem?
CMB: I think we first have to recognize that crime is an industry that has to be dealt with like any other corrupt and destructive business. You have to go to the source. You have to start off by talking about prevention. Our foreign policy has to be calculated to give farmers in Latin America and elsewhere incentives to grow other crops than drugs. Right now, if you’re a farmer in Colombia, if you’re faced with feeding your family or giving up coca production, what do you expect him to do?
Second, you have to focus on interdiction. There are no cocaine manufacturing plants on the south side of Chicago. It is being made and brought in by the boatload with little interference because we have all kinds of law enforcement agencies falling over each other failing to coordinate their activities. I know a police officer who laughs when he talks about arresting a drug dealer. When they are trying to bust a dealer, they have so many agencies in on it that the dealer gets away, he says. The same thing happens all up and down the line in the matter of the enforcement of drug laws. And if all those agencies were collapsed into one major one, the money saved in overlap and duplication could be used for a much more effective program.
Third, and just as important, we have to provide jobs and opportunities to the people involved in the business. It’s an industry down to the guys on the street, the runners. If you are able to provide people with jobs and education, you won’t have this massive industry operating out there. And with the eradication of the drug business, the crime business will also be reduced. But, in addition, you have to provide some hope for young people that there will be jobs and training to deter them from criminal activities.
FHL: Thanks, Madam Recorder. Good luck.
CMB: Thank you, it’s been fun.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Loren Santow.