Most voters in the Fourth Legislative District–which encompasses all of Evanston as well as bits of Wilmette and Rogers Park–are anti-gun, prochoice, clean-up-the-environment, spend-more-for-education liberals (or progressives, as they call themselves these days). They may not realize it at the moment–distracted, no doubt, by higher-profile campaigns–but with Tuesday’s contest for state representative, these Evanston voters can help to chart the course of liberal politics for the coming decade.

Their six-term incumbent, Woods Bowman, is stepping down to run for state comptroller; public-interest lawyer Jonathan Baum and public-interest activist Jan Schakowsky are competing in the Democratic primary to take his place. Unless their two constituencies work themselves into a frenzy that precludes reconciliation (as Democrats sometimes do), one of the two candidates should win November’s general election and will presumably be able to make a name for him- or herself as a leader of liberals in Springfield.

“The seat is one of those bully pulpits from which you can launch progressive ideas and crusades fully confident that your constituency will back you up,” says Jeff Smith, who, as Democratic state central committeeman of the Ninth Congressional District, has a strong base in Evanston. “There’s no reason to waffle when you represent the Fourth. It gives the representative incredible freedom and the opportunity to be a leader on controversial issues.”

In Bowman’s case that meant championing the prochoice fight during the Reagan years. “Until I got to Springfield it never occurred to me that abortion was even an issue,” says Bowman. “My district was so heavily prochoice I just assumed that everyone felt that way too.”

The irony is that Evanston used to be a bastion of Republican politics. That was in the 1950s, when the handful of blacks and Jews who lived there were the only Democrats. All of that changed with the growth of the suburb’s black community and the influx of middle-class home owners, many of them liberals, on the run from Chicago’s public schools. By 1972, Evanston was so liberal the majority of its residents voted for George McGovern.

The main beneficiary of that change was U.S. Representative Abner Mikva, who moved to Evanston in the early 1970s after his Hyde Park district was reapportioned out of existence. Mikva rebuilt Evanston’s Democratic Party. He preached the door-to-door, grass-roots tactics of lakefront independents, and taught his disciples how to run a field operation. Running in the old Tenth Congressional District, Mikva eked out victories in 1974, 1976, and 1978, leaving Congress midterm in 1979, when President Jimmy Carter made him a federal judge.

In the early 70s, Jonathan Baum, who’s now 33, was a curly-haired, bespectacled Evanston teenager. He says he was the quintessential student-government activist, who followed politics with the passion and attention some other kids devoted to sports. When a politician came to school to lecture, say, on how a bill becomes law, Baum says, he’d be there, hand in air, with tough questions about Watergate or Vietnam.

“The first time I went door-to-door with petitions was after Kent State,” says Baum. “I was outraged by the Cambodian invasion, so I made up my own petitions condemning the invasion and collected signatures, which I sent to Senator Percy. People were surprised; I was only 13. They wanted to know, ‘Who put you up to this?’ One guy said, ‘I know who it was–it was that commie Evanston public school system!'”

After college (Harvard) and law school (the University of Chicago) Baum worked at a legal clinic. Now he works for the downtown firm of Sidley & Austin, dividing his time between corporate and pro bono clients.

“I like gathering information and using it,” says Baum. “I remember helping Ab prepare for a debate against [his opponent] John Porter. I gathered everything there is to know about Porter’s record and then put it together in a big, fat book with tabs so you could find each subject. At the debate there was a question about collective bargaining, and Porter said he was for it. Ab was able to turn to the appropriate chapter in my book, and say, ‘Oh yes, well, then why didn’t you vote for it?’

“Most of my pro bono work has been suing the state. I’ve never worked for the state, but I’ve sued a lot of state departments. I had one case where the Department of Children and Family Services was running a shelter in which the conditions were worse than the homes the kids were taken from. We filed a suit, and within two weeks most of the kids were moved to decent homes. I asked a state employee where the money had come from to move the kids. She said it came from ‘Jim Thompson’s cover-your-ass-in-an-election campaign fund.’ That’s how they make policy. I’m running for state legislator because I want to change that attitude.”

Schakowsky, who’s 45, got her start in coalition causes far removed from the ballot box. Born and raised on Chicago’s north side, she moved to Evanston in 1971 with her husband and two children. Her first cause was consumer rights.

“I remember standing in a grocery store hearing all this commotion going on,” says Schakowsky. “The butcher was yelling at these two women. The women wanted him to translate the coded dates on the meat, and he was saying, ‘If you don’t get out of here, I’ll kick you out on your fanny, you geeks!’ He was a big guy with a red face. All the women wanted to know was the dates. In those days, stores didn’t post the dates of meats or milk or anything.

“We formed a group we called National Consumers United and started a campaign to get dates on food. You should have seen us–we’d show up to stores with our clipboards and announce an inspection. We were able to convince Jewel to date its food. After that the law changed and stores have to date food. But those early experiences changed my life. We knew nothing–we didn’t even know how to write a press release–but we were able to make major change that affected people’s lives.”

Her first full-time organizing job was with the Illinois Public Action Council, a not-for-profit statewide coalition of utility and consumer activists (her husband Robert Creamer is the group’s executive director). She led efforts against utility rate hikes and against cuts in state spending for education, mental health, and general assistance. In 1985, she became executive director of the Illinois State Council of Senior Citizens, a not-for-profit lobbying organization.

The different backgrounds of the two candidates partly explain their different styles. Baum is lawyerly in his presentation, offering voters a lengthy resume of all the cases he’s argued and briefs he’s written–which run the gamut from abortion rights to a defense of affirmative action.

On the other hand, Schakowsky takes pride in her ability to build coalitions around economic issues.

By and large, they agree on most major issues. And by Chicago standards, their campaign has been peaceful–the biggest controversy seems to be over whether Schakowsky’s supporters are nailing signs to trees, a violation of Evanston law. (Baum says they are; Schakowsky says if they were, they aren’t doing it anymore.)

Beyond that, Baum says Schakowsky is weak on such controversial but important issues as the First Amendment. “The thing about Jan is that she’s running in the wrong district,” says Baum. “Her main issues are consumer issues–which I also believe in–which play well anywhere. But will Jan take stands on tough issues, like Woody [Bowman] did? When has Jan ever taken a personal risk for a principle that’s not popular with the leaders in Springfield? I’m not afraid to take risks. If I had been Michael Dukakis, I would have stood up to George Bush. I would have said: ‘You bet I’m a card-carrying member of the ACLU. And I’m proud of it.'”

Schakowsky dismisses Baum’s criticism. “I resent the implication that I am somehow less progressive or courageous than Jonathan,” says Schakowsky. “I would love to be the Democrat asked to go on TV and debate Phyllis Schlafly or other conservatives on abortion rights or whatever. The difference between Jonathan and me is that I know how to organize coalitions. Let’s say we’re talking about gun control. I can call on farmers in Madison County or seniors in Rock Island or church people in Peoria and say, ‘Get on the horn and call your legislators.’ We don’t want someone who will just argue the Evanston point of view; we want someone who can organize, lobby, and build widespread support.”

Most observers say the race is too close to call. Bowman is neutral (“I have friends in both camps,” he says.)

Schakowsky expects to score heavily among seniors and voters from Chicago’s precincts. Baum is strongest among the longtime Mikva backers–one of his supporters is Mikva’s wife Zoe–the people most likely to vote.

There’s also the matter of race. For reasons having little to do with logic, Evanston’s Democrats are engaged in a smaller, pettier version of Chicago racial politics. It goes back to 1982 when Greg Kinczewski, another Mikva disciple who happens to be white, ousted Thomas Fuller, a longtime Machine loyalist who’s black, as chairman of Evanston’s Democratic Party. Fuller took the loss hard, blaming it on an invasion of “Mikva elitists.”

In 1985, two Democrats–Donald Borah, who’s white, and John Norwood, who’s black–ran for mayor, split the Democratic vote, and enabled Republican Joan Barr to win. Four years later, Barr and Norwood ran one-on-one. Despite the fact that the job is a mostly symbolic part-time position, many white voters apparently could not bring themselves to vote for Norwood. Barr won decisively.

Both Baum and Schakowsky supported Norwood in 1989. Norwood supports Schakowsky, but Edna Summers–a longtime leader in Evanston’s black community–supports Baum. Blacks comprise roughly 20 percent of the district’s electorate; their votes could determine the outcome.

“I won’t even try to make a prediction on who wins,” says Bowman. “When it’s all over I plan to hold a unity breakfast for both sides. This is a very valuable seat; it’s the progressives’ seat. We have to keep our forces together.”

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