It’s nine in the morning. Monday morning. And some of the folks in the basement banquet room of the Bismarck Hotel haven’t even had their coffee yet. Most of them, particularly the reporter, aren’t even quite awake.
I won’t keep you long, Vrdolyak assures the assemblage. We’ve all got other business to attend to.
He stands at the podium facing the crowd and watches his colleagues scramble for their seats.
There are 80 of them—50 ward committeemen from the city, another 30 from suburban Cook County townships. The Democratic Central Committee of Cook County.
They sit before their leader tightly packed in narrow rows of metal chairs—their faces frozen in expressions that range from great expectation to unabashed awe.
He’s like Sinatra, Vrdolyak is. And these guys are like an audience of salesmen come to Vegas to hear the chairman sing a few songs. Most of the committeemen are soft and round. Chubby, but not cute. They wear drab brown suits and look like the lumpy guys in high school. The kind who never got the girl.
But Vrdolyak is different. He’s lean, hard, and tough in his sharp red tie and sleek gray suit. He’s the boss, all right. Best not forget it.
Since I’m running for reelection, he explains to the crowd, it would not look right if I chaired this meeting. So he turns the podium over to Tom Hynes, committeeman of the 19th Ward.
He scowls a bit as he says it. With a wink in his eye at that. Some of his guys grin. They all know. This bit he delivered about letting Hynes run the meeting. That’s all show. Just some sop Eddie’s tossing to those goody government types on the lakefront. You know, the liberals with all their prissy, fussy rules.
The guys sit in quiet rapture, at attention. Of course they’re not all guys. Here and there sits a woman committeeman. And not everyone is an Eddie backer. At least a quarter of the committeemen are blacks, allies of Mayor Harold Washington. It just seems like they’re all old-time Democrats. Old guys. Eddie’s guys.
Hynes, one of the tallest men in the room, takes the podium and announces that the floor is open for nominations.
Immediately, Bill Banks, committeeman from the 36th Ward, stands up.
“I want to nominate a leader who has exhibited a great deal of courage and honesty,” he says. “He stood up for what he thought was right. The Democratic party has always stood for loyalty and hard work. He’s a fighter. I am honored to place in nomination Edward R. Vrdolyak.”
Then Nick Blase, committeeman from Niles, stands to the second nomination.
“Ed Vrdolyak has been a chairman who understands the suburban committeemen’s problems,” Blase says. “There are problems in the city, sure. But we won’t talk about that. He’s been outstanding for us.”
He talks in tough, terse blurts, as if to say, these are the facts, people. You may not like the guy, but these are facts.
Phil Rock, committeeman from Oak Park, then rises. Let’s just end it now, he suggests. The debate, that is. Let’s just get to the vote. But Eugene Sawyer, a committeeman from the south side’s Sixth Ward, objects. Seeing how the party is divided, Sawyer says, and knowing that we need unity, I’d like to nominate John Stroger for chairman.
A few of the white guys in the room shake their heads. So they’re really going through with this, one mutters to his neighbor.
The “they,” of course, refers to the black committeemen. Since late last night, rumors have had it that Mayor Washington’s forces would mount some sort of opposition, token though it may be.
Supposedly, Washington would back some white guy. George Dunne, for instance, or maybe even Hynes. But no white guys applied for the job. Who needs the headaches? Worse yet, what white politician would want to go down as Judas Iscariot who conspired with the blacks to knock off Boss Eddie, the great white hope?
So, the nod went to Stroger: John H. Stroger r., committeeman of the Eighth Ward and a commissioner on the Cook County Board. Now Stroger sits sideways in his chair, looking confident, no doubt preparing himself for the great fight ahead.
All right, Hynes sighs, let’s take a vote.
But wait. It’s Tim Evans, another Washington backer, who sits in first row. Is it fair, he asks, to vote without at least hearing the candidates speak?
“What the hell,” gasps one old-timer at the back of the room. “Do you mean we have to hear speeches, too?”
Evans turns to address the committeemen who sit behind him.
This is more than an election, he tells. This is a plebiscite on our party’s future. Our party is divided: black versus white. And the current chairman leads the struggle against our great Democratic mayor.
Can this continue? We have seen the results. LaRouchies. Right-wings freaks have captured the party’s nomination for lieutenant governor and secretary of state. Two of the highest offices in the land. Should we not at least open this grave matter to public debate?
Fred Roti, alderman of the First Ward, yawns. Richard Mell, committeeman of Ward 33, toys with a toothpick that dangles from his mouth.
He’s a smoother talker, this fellow Evans. But the old geezers have heard their fill of smooth talkers over the years. After a while, they all sound the same. The room gets smokier, as many committeemen, resigned to their fate, light cigarettes and prepare for the long haul.
Hynes sighs once more. Ok, he agrees, we’ll let the candidates talk. But only for three minutes.
So Vrdolyak returns to the podium, this time looking sheepish, sad, and weary.
“I didn’t know we would go through this procedure,” he begins, shrugging innocently. He has, he explains, prepared no speech.
He smiles almost shyly, showing as he does the gentle side of the fierce warrior.
“I’ve been a committeeman since June 11, 1968,” he says.
He pauses, reminiscing, no doubt, about that first election. Richard J. Daley was mayor and party chair in those days. Ah, the good old days.
“I am proud to be chairman of the party,” he says. “I’m proud to be a committeeman. I am proud to be a Democrat.
“There’s been a lot of talk in the paper that people don’t want this job,” he says. “Well, I want it. I want it bad.
“I’m not everybody’s favorite. But I work. The phones are always open. I go to the committeemen and say, “How can we help?’ Since I’ve been chairman, I’ve been as fair as I can be.”
That’s all. What else is there to say? He stands at the podium for a brief moment, his head bowed. He seems so hurt, so misunderstood.
And then his boys start to applaud. Each one trying to clap louder than the next. Roman Pucinski, committeeman of the 41st Ward, is so moved that he stands. He looks around to see who will follow. No one else does.
Now it’s Stroger’s turn.
“Fellow Democrats,” he begins, his voice deep and angry. “I do not stand here today as a polarization candidate. That’s a presumption.”
His anger becomes more pronounced as he poses a question. Why is it, fellow Democrats, that when a black man runs for office, he’s called the polarization candidate?
“I am a good, loyal Democrat,” he says. “No one can deny that. I was there in ‘53, Roti. I walked the streets trying to get Mayor Daley elected. I was there, Laurino.”
The reference to politicians in the room is not unusual. It’s a favorite rhetoric tactic of speakers at these sort of committeemen debates. You address them by name (and always the last name—so as to best demonstrate familiarity) to let them know that you know that they know that what you say is the truth.
Stroger ends by pledging to unify the party, black and white together. And, as most of the white committeemen sit quietly, he sits down to the ringing applause of his fellow blacks.
Meanwhile, Jerry Orbach, 46th Ward committeeman, enters the room, just in time for the big vote. He looks for his seat, but it’s at the end of a row. Quietly and discreetly, Orbach attempts to climb across the tangle of stretched-out legs that clutters the aisle leading to his chair.
“Hey watch it, big guy,” one fellow jokes, as Orbach stumbles a bit.
“Hey, what you got here?” another asks, jokingly tugging at the briefcase Orbach carries. “Is that where the money is?”
Orbach reddens, but a few of the boys enjoy a little laugh. It’s a bit of old-time humor. A throwback to the good old days, when being in the Democratic party was a big deal and the guys could really have a swell time of it when they got together for these meetings.
Hynes calls for a vote and it goes as expected. All the white guys (with the exception of a few liberals) vote Vrdolyak; the blacks vote for Stroger. (Except, that is, for Wallace Davis, committeeman from Ward 27. Some unknown whitre lawyer, acting as Davis’s proxy, votes for Vrdolyak. Later Davis, much embarrassed, will assure the Chicago Defender that he would never vote against the mayor, that he didn’t know Stroger was running.) Vrdolyak wins easily.
So, Vrdolyak is called back to chair the meeting and give a little victory speech. And now he’s mad.
“Gamesmanship,” he says. That’s what the Stroger challenge was.
Showing off. Looking tough. Trying to keep the fight going just because the TV cameras are here. And then, afterwards, when the cameras are gone, you’ll come back all right. Because you need me. You need old Eddie Vrdolyak.
He pauses some and then continues, deliberating thumping his right hand on the podium to make a point.
So you were going to vote for a new chairman, he says, indicating Stroger. For a guy without a ward office? For a guy who had to call me on election night to get his ward’s results?
“Well, let me tell you something, guys,” Vrdolyak says, looking first Stroger, then Evans, dead in the eye. “This job isn’t that important that I have to come here on my knees.”
“You tell ‘em, Eddie,” mutters the committeeman from Cicero. “You tell ‘em.”
“I’d like to see your vote totals for lieutenant governor and secretary of state,“ Vrdolyak goes on. “I’d like to talk to you about the LaRouchies that you elected. Take a look at the vote totals in my ward. I didn’t elect them.”
The face is that his ward delivered. That’s right, the Tenths came through for the whole ticket, George Sangmeister and Aurelia Pucinski included.
But in the black wards. In those great big Democratic black wards, ha. The two freakos clobbered the Democrats in the black ward. And you want this guy, Stroger, to be your leader?
Stroger jumps up, to rush some words to his own defense. The pool of reporters and photographers turns to him, hungry for some confrontation. But it never really comes. He sputters some gibberish and then sits down.
Vrdolyak stares straight at Stroger, who was backed by the organization in his reelection to the County Board. He turns to Wilson Frost, another black committeeman, who got party backing in his successful race for the Cook County Board of Appeals. And he glares at Bill Henry, a Washington ally whose precinct captain, Rose Marie Love, also was slated for and elected to the County Board.
“I’ll tell you this: I’ll always be honest. I won’t come to you and ask for backing one month and then turn my back to you the next,” Vrdolyak says, his voice a snarl. “You can’t come here at slating and demand backing and then go your way. We won 43 out of 56 elections in the primary. If we had all done our jobs, we would have won them all.”
He sits down, vindicated. His guys clap. Hynes returns to oversee the election of officers for suburban committees. And for a while the room is filled with the droning sounds of voices combing over routine matters.
Most of the guys patiently wait for the meeting’s end. But Richard Mell, sitting near the front of the room, seems restless. Maybe he’s a trifle bored, because without apparent reason or provocation, he starts to poke fun at Alan Dobry, a white fellow who sits in the row before him.
Dobry is committeeman of the Fifth Ward, the latest in a series of white liberals to hold office in that Hyde Park-area district that is overwhelmingly black.
“Hey, Mr. Aparthied,” Mell says to Dobry. “How does it feel to be a white leader for the black majority?”
Dobry turns to smile, as if by acknowledging him, he can make Mell go away. But is getting giddy—enthralled by the silliness of his fun, new game. He’s utterly oblivious to whatever business the meeting’s leaders are conducting.
“Hey, Mr. Aparthied,” he repeats, this time leaning forward so that he’s practically whispering into Dobry’s ear.
Dobry stiffens, but says nothing.
And then, suddenly, a big, bright light seems to snap on inside Mell’s skull.
He gets a new idea. Why not call Dobry by the name of the president of South Africa? Oh yes, that would be loads of fun. Only he can’t remember that guy’s name. Dammit. And it would make such a great gag, too. Oh, what is that president’s name?
Mell turns to Bill Banks, and asks him. But Banks looks at him blankly. He’s an Italian kid from the northwest side, how the hell would he know who the president of South Africa is?
Mell is desperate. He needs to know, or his funny joke won’t come off. He turns to Wilson Frost. He’s black; he should know. But Frost shrugs. Mell seems stunned. Wilson Frost doesn’t know who the president of South Africa is? That’s like Roman Pucinski not knowing the name of General Wojciech Jaruzelski.
Anxiously, Mell turns around, looking for a helpful face. All he sees are a few unfamiliar reporters. He asks Dorothy Tillman, a black committeeman. But she ignores him. Finally, he turns to Evans. “Hey, Tim,” he pleads. “Come on. Who’s the president of South Africa?”
“Botha,” Evans replies, albeit reluctantly.
“Botha,” repeats Mell, practicing for his grand moment. “Yeah, Botha. That’s it.”
And then he returns his attention to Dobry, who sits ramrod straight, trying his damnedest to pretend that Mell does not exist.
“Hey, Mr. Botha,” Mell says. “I’m just going to call you Mr. Botha. You know, like the guy in South Africa. OK, Mr. Botha. OK, Mr. Botha. Mr. Apartheid.”
He repeats the line agaIn and again until it is obvious that the fun is over and there’s something chilly, mean, and bullylike in Mell’s voice. Mell looks to Banks, but he’s not laughing.
Mell turns to Tikllman, but she is angry. “Just ignore him,” she advises Dobry.
“Ah,” says Mell, as though he were disgusted with the whole crew. Party poopers; can’t take a joke. He waves his hand and looks away, nervously tapping his foot. He’s like a child, waiting for the bell to ring, so he can run out of class and enjoy recess.
Finally, Vrdolyak calls the meeting to a close. “OK, Mr. Botha,” Mell says, jabbing at Dobry one last time. “Don’t worry, we’re gonna get you, Mr. Botha. Mr. Apartheid.”
He laughs hideously, brushes his hair, sucks in his gut, and stands up to leave.
The great Democratic party has finished its business for the day.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Paul L. Merideth