By Jeffrey Felshman
I had no luck finding a job when I moved here in late 1983, but there were plenty of jobs to be had when election season started in early ’84. I got one passing out leaflets for Jerry Meites’s campaign for 43rd Ward committeeman. I didn’t know what Meites stood for, didn’t know what a ward committeeman was, didn’t bother reading past the slogan “Meites to Unite Us.” I just passed out the leaflets. It was a job; it paid $5 an hour. Then I met the candidate. He was pushy, arrogant, full of himself. I quit.
Meites lost, and that was the last I’d heard about him until the spring of 1996. An entity called Independents for a Qualified Judiciary ran a full-page ad in the Reader that said: “If You Want to Vote for Qualified Judicial Candidates, Don’t Use the Sample Ballot Printed in IVI-IPO’s Brochure!”
That sample ballot, a familiar sight at election time, listed endorsements from the liberal good-government group Independent Voters of Illinois-Independent Precinct Organization. But this ad claimed that a high percentage of the endorsed candidates had been found to be unqualified by both the Chicago Council of Lawyers and the Chicago Bar Association; depending on the district, that number ran anywhere from 25 to 50 percent. The ad said, “IVI-IPO’s overall record on the subcircuits is so poor that its sample ballot is not credible.” Meites’s name was listed among the current and former IVI-IPO members who’d signed on to the ad. He was also chairman of the group.
So Meites was still around, and so was the IVI-IPO. Throughout the 80s the organization had been prominent in every campaign and had something to say on every issue. You couldn’t live here without hearing that mouthful of initials. You couldn’t miss their ads, couldn’t avoid the leaflets with their endorsements in bold lettering. They were like a third party, except a word from them carried more weight than one from any Chicago Republican. Their spokespeople were quoted extensively in the newspapers, sometimes scolding, sometimes lauding, always positioned as the voice of virtue in the city’s political mess. They weren’t professionals–the IVI-IPO was a collection of amateurs, all volunteers, concerned citizens who wanted their politics clean and politicians worthy. Yet in recent years they’d faded from view. The ad attacking them was the first I’d heard of the group in a long time. What ever happened to the IVI-IPO?
I called Meites. He had a lot to say. “How about we meet for lunch?”
The ceiling of the waiting room outside Meites’s office must be 30 feet high. Floor-to-ceiling windows provide an imperial view of Chicago, the capital of local politics, where even aldermen are stars in the firmament.
There was nothing imperial about Meites himself. He looked pretty much the same as the last time I’d seen him–a little chunkier, face a bit more florid. We went to a Chinese restaurant on Wells called the Silver Palace, which was packed, and loud. Meites had to raise his voice to be heard over the chattering lunchtime crowd–and he’s not quiet to begin with.
“I’m rarely asked to speak up,” he said, “especially about IVI. Most of them want me to shut up.”
In 52 years the IVI has had more than its share of windy lawyers, but Meites still stands out. Since joining in 1978, he has served on the organization’s board and as the state chair. Now he’s perhaps the most unpopular man in the group. He’s also the ideal member: intelligent, dedicated, sincere, committed, hardworking, fanatical.
Meites told me the IVI-IPO’s current leaders were trashing the very ideals the organization had been founded to uphold. “We toady up to, cozy up to politicians, instead of being like the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval on them, being people who observe them. Now we want to be in with them, we want them to like us.” In the process, he said, the group has become what it’s always hated–an insiders’ game.
Meites knew all the stories and thought it essential that they be told. “Expose this dirt to the sunlight,” he said, and maybe it would get cleaned up. Two hours later he was still talking.
He told amazing tales of dirty politics involving the group whose slogan is “Good Government–for a Change.” There were problems with the Federal Election Commission, he said, and censorship and dirty tricks. Meites, who lives in Lincoln Park, claimed most of the dirty tricks came from some members in Hyde Park (the Hyde Park chapter is the largest and oldest in the IVI-IPO).
Meites said the first dirty trick took place in a 1978 state senate race. Carol Moseley-Braun was the only candidate endorsed by the IVI-IPO in a race against Lewis Caldwell and Barbara Flynn Currie, but “there appeared, mysteriously, a few short days before the election, a piece with the IVI logo saying Barbara Flynn Currie is the only endorsed candidate of the IVI-IPO–cast all your three votes for Barbara Flynn Currie.” A Tribune article seemed to back him up, but not entirely: it found the Currie sample ballot to be “similar” to the IVI sample ballot but without the organization’s name. “[The Currie sample ballot] calls for the endorsement of all IVI-backed candidates, but substitutes Currie’s name for that of Mrs. Braun,” the Tribune said. While Currie owned up to producing the sample ballot (“I simply wanted to give the voters a list of candidates I’m supporting”), Meites thought she was put up to it by some IVI-IPO members. Ultimately, the flyer didn’t have much impact–Braun won and went on to bigger things.
But that was only the beginning of the phony campaign literature, Meites said. He brought up an infamous 1991 incident, when IVI-IPO board member (and Fifth Ward committeeman) Alan Dobry was seen posting anti-Semitic tracts on lampposts and on a synagogue in Hyde Park. Dobry, who’s Jewish, said he’d found the tracts in black areas of the Fourth Ward, where Alderman Tim Evans was being challenged by Toni Preckwinkle. The tracts, allegedly created by an Evans backer, attacked Preckwinkle, whom Dobry supported. Dobry claimed he was exposing this dirt to sunlight. Meites doubted it.
“We saw seven versions of the ‘hate lit,’ and it was very clear that it could not possibly have been printed by anyone who were these mythological young black people.”
“Because of the sophistication. You had to be very, very knowledgeable about the history of anti-Semitism. You know, this wasn’t a bunch of ‘you dirty kikes’–it was more sophisticated than that. And no one can find any of this stuff up in the black precincts. People drove around looking for it and couldn’t find it. And people remembered the phony literature incident from ’78.”
(Lois Dobry, who’s married to Alan, is on the IVI-IPO board now, and she says Meites is not only wrong but “obsessional.” When asked about his fake-literature charge, she responds by laughing. “That’s wonderful!…[The tract was] illiterate. It’s handwritten, and we had put up with it for two campaigns. And [when] it showed up in the third campaign, we said, ‘This is it! Enough of this!’ But we didn’t produce it.” She does admit, “It turned into a very nasty situation.”)
Maybe the tracts couldn’t be found in the black precincts because Alan Dobry had taken them all. The tracts weren’t sophisticated; in fact, they weren’t particularly anti-Semitic, just the usual ravings that are sometimes posted at election time. But the tract’s charge that Toni Preckwinkle was married to a Jew (she isn’t)–and the implication that this was a bad thing–definitely qualified as dirty politicking. Dobry’s embarrassment led to his dismissal from Preckwinkle’s campaign. She beat Evans.
Dobry admitted he’d made a mistake in judgment by posting the tracts. But he wouldn’t resign as ward committeeman, even after the Sun-Times and Illinois Democratic chairman Gary LaPaille called on him to do so. And he wouldn’t resign from the IVI-IPO, though Meites had called on him to do so. Meites made life miserable for Dobry. Every time Dobry entered a meeting, Meites greeted him, “Hello, ‘Racist’ Dobry.” Every time Dobry stood up to make a point, Meites would say, “The chair recognizes ‘Racist’ Dobry.”
Phony campaign flyers still show up around Hyde Park, Meites said. In 1995, “at 3 AM on election day, there mysteriously appeared a piece on pink paper–only in black precincts of the Fifth Ward, none of the Hyde Park precincts.” The flyer–allegedly produced by a group called the African-American Gay and Lesbian Association of Kenwood and Hyde Park–said this organization “supports and loves Barbara Holt” because she “will continue the legacy of openness and acceptance of our lifestyle in Hyde Park and the city of Chicago. Barbara has a long record of inclusiveness of alternative lifestyles and does not represent the ‘holier than thou’ attitude that the other candidate seems to be afflicted with.” Meites said the “other candidate,” Janet Oliver-Hill, was favored by some IVI-IPO members. He insisted the flyer was bogus, though he was impressed by its thoroughness–“even an address listed.” Kevin Knapp, editor of the Hyde Park Herald, later discovered there was no such group at that address.
“This campaign was absolutely a near south chapter, IVI-IPO campaign,” Meites claimed. “Maybe, in a very myopic way, it’s good politics, if you think that there are people who are going to follow those appeals. But that is so far beyond the pale of what we’re supposed to be doing.
“The near south is a special issue,” he went on, “that’s the only part of it where there’s racism. The rest of it, there’s chicanery and ineffectualness, but the near south is pure, unadulterated racism, is what goes on down there. They would deny it–it’s not that they’re racist, it’s that they use it for their own political advantage.”
By and large, Meites didn’t think it mattered much what the IVI-IPO did, in Hyde Park or anywhere else. The group itself didn’t matter much anymore, he said. Even with the packing of endorsement sessions, or political tricks, “left to our own devices, we would have endorsed the same people anyway. Where it does sometimes matter is with the judges.”
In 1991, legislation creating 15 new judicial subcircuits was signed into law by Jim Thompson. Created at the urging of IVI-IPO (among others) to increase diversity on the bench, the immediate result was more candidates, more races, and more confusion. Few voters outside the candidates’ families knew who the candidates were; few voters knew what subcircuit they were in. Most would continue to vote in the traditional way: look for the Irish name and punch the card next to it. The more conscientious voters would rely on endorsements and ratings by bar associations or by the IVI-IPO.
Judicial candidates have been evaluated by the IVI-IPO since the 1960s (between 1984 and ’88 the group relied solely on recommendations from the Chicago Council of Lawyers). But the creation of the subcircuits politicized the IVI-IPO’s endorsement process. In the past, the group relied on the findings of its judicial evaluation committee, which tried to reach informed opinions not only by interviewing candidates but through independent and anonymous peer reviews. With the creation of the new subcircuits, the IVI-IPO began to hold endorsement sessions instead. These were open to all members and subject to deal making, packing, and other abuses, Meites said. In order to be fair, independent, and impartial, judges are supposed to be separated from such politicking.
Meites partly blamed himself for what he believed had become an endorsement process that favored friends of IVI-IPO board members. He’d supported the creation of subcircuits, and, he said, “I came up with the idea that we should really go after the judges for money [a fee of around $500 is now required for a photo and bio to be printed with an endorsement in the IVI-IPO brochure]. But only after we had endorsed them through a process that was legitimate.”
The process changed again in 1994, and Meites wasn’t the only member to object–most of the lawyers in the group opposed a new rule that limited the scope of investigations conducted by the IVI-IPO’s judicial evaluation committee, of which Meites was the chairman at the time. He said the rules were changed because a candidate for subcircuit judge running in the 1994 primaries was supported by board members but not recommended by his committee. “The membership voted not to endorse their person,” Meites said. “Two days later, [board member] Aviva [Patt] brought in the standing rule.” That rule prohibits the judicial evaluation committee from conducting interviews with candidates and disseminating “opinions” (as opposed to “factual information”). “Aviva said that [opinion] was hearsay, and libel, and things like that, so all we should have is where they went to high school, where they went to college, where they went to law school, what their job is, and we can decide from that.”
The IVI-IPO board voted the rule in. As a result, Meites said, the membership can’t make an informed decision–without independent and anonymous peer review, members are swayed to the candidates of the board members’ choosing.
“Why do they do this?” he asked. “Money. The judges are the biggest consistent source of money. The judges have a hard time getting heard through the noise of campaigns. You don’t see judges with 30-second commercials. In my opinion, IVI’s greatest efficacy is with the judiciary. The lower down the ballot, the more effective we are. No one voted for Bill Clinton because IVI endorsed him, or Dick Durbin, or Rod Blagojevich, for that matter.
“But people definitely look [to] IVI for judges. They honestly believe that IVI has done what they say–a thorough, painstaking evaluation. Well, here it is–” Meites produced sheets of paper from his briefcase. “What kind of a committee is four people evaluating 31 judicial candidates?” Five years ago there were 13 people on the judicial evaluation committee.
After the rule change, Meites wrote protests to the organization’s newsletter, “Action Bulletin,” but none were printed. The IVI-IPO had always stood against censorship, Meites said, yet internally it had silenced opposition. As a result, he’d started sending letters to the membership, arguing the question at meetings, and writing letters to the editor of the Hyde Park Herald. Finally, he’d taken out the Reader ad. In the meantime, IVI-IPO’s membership was sinking. Many of its famous names–Martin Oberman, David Orr, Larry Bloom, Mike Shakman (of the Shakman decree, which outlawed political hiring and firing in government jobs)–had quit.
Our water glasses were empty, and our plates were long gone. Meites said he had more, much more, to tell, but he had to get back to his office.
As Meites struggled into his trench coat, a beefy gray-haired man approached, noting cordially, “We couldn’t help hearing what you were saying over at my table. You were speaking in a pretty loud voice.” Meites nodded and apologized for having disturbed the man’s lunch, but the man went on, “That’s not why I came over. You were talking about some very sensitive things. You should watch out.” The man turned away to rejoin his table, and Meites, taken only slightly aback, shook his head and said, “I’d broadcast these things if I could.”
And he would, but who would put him on the air? His charges, though not unfounded, are mostly unprovable. Many other lawyers contacted for this article agree with Meites about the IVI-IPO’s endorsement process for subcircuit judges (Leon Despres said he was “distressed about it,” Rob Warden called it “a sham,” and a judge who preferred to remain anonymous said, “They’re just like the Machine”). Current state chair H. Robert Bartell says the process had to be changed because of Meites and his “viciousness.” Lois Dobry says, “Meites has said a whole range of things [about the process], most of which are not exactly true.” She points out that Meites would like the process to be similar to that of the Chicago Bar Association, but “all those judges that went down in Greylord, they were all approved [by the CBA].”
The IVI-IPO is not gone, but it is largely forgotten–a minor presence in Springfield, barely mentioned in the press even at election time. The organization has become marginal, like liberalism and independent politics in general. Despite the countless efforts of politically independent men and women to open up government to people outside of the two major parties, power is now more concentrated in the parties than ever before.
This latest fight within the IVI-IPO has been going on since 1989, or since Meites was the state chair. Many of the members who see things his way have left the organization in disgust.
Bartell says that the IVI-IPO and its dissidents agree on 95 percent of the issues. Then why are its members so intent on slinging mud at each other?
“There are 29 liberals in the state of Illinois, and 15 aren’t on speaking terms with the other 14,” says Sherwin Swartz, who joined the IVI in 1953, served as its political director in the 70s, and quit in 1986.
At some point the term “liberal” became a euphemism for “pathetic chump.” There’s little room in politics for saints or martyrs, so there are fewer professed liberals. Lois Dobry says, “The best words to describe us are ‘independent-progressive.'” Right in the mainstream. Since fewer than half of us vote, most of the electorate can be described as “independent.”
What do labels mean anyway? Not much, says Martin Oberman, the former 43rd Ward alderman and current president of the Chicago Council of Lawyers. “When I was in the [City] Council, I was cast as this superliberal, and I was the lowest spending alderman there.” He recalls, “The city didn’t charge churches for water. I thought this might be illegal, and we’d save a few million a year, so I turned to [independent 44th Ward alderman] Dick Simpson, who was like a father to me there, and I asked, ‘Shouldn’t we charge them something?’ And he responded, ‘I have more confidence in the church spending that extra money wisely than in the city.’ Sounds like Newt Gingrich, doesn’t it? That’s what I mean–the terms liberal and conservative don’t communicate with anything anymore.”
“What it means to be an independent or a progressive is less clear today than in the past,” says state senator Barack Obama. Consequently, “IVI’s mission is less clear than it was.” While Obama was glad to be endorsed by IVI-IPO, he says, “I would have won with or without their endorsement.
“Independent politics had more meaning during the years of the Daley Machine, but a lot of those victories against the Machine have been won.” Obama says there’s no longer one machine–there are many. “There are fiefdoms,” he explains.
“The parties are so polarized now, it’s difficult for an independent, liberal group to separate from the Democratic Party,” Obama says.
Swartz claims the IVI-IPO’s independence ended in the 1980s: “Enough of them got power drunk and said we can become the Democratic Party. It’s become an adjunct of the Democratic Party. I object to the fundamental hypocrisy. They call themselves independents–who are they independent of? They’re independent of the independents!”
So Swartz quit. “I put a major emotional and financial effort into IVI, but I won’t send any more money. I don’t have to launder money through them to the Democratic Party.”
But Lois Dobry believes, “It’s only if you can take over the Democratic Party that you’re gonna make any big changes.” As it did during the years of the first Mayor Daley, IVI-IPO has cast its lot with only a few aldermen–Toni Preckwinkle, Joe Moore, Helen Shiller, and Ricardo Munoz. Though Oberman says, “We’re back to one-man rule in this town,” he also adds: “It’s not heavy-handed now.” Unlike his father, Richard M. Daley never turns off the microphone on dissidents in the City Council, and he ignores the IVI-IPO entirely.
Swartz says, “City government is just like it was when the old man was there. There’s just as much patronage, just as much graft, just as much corruption. The kid has it better than the old man [because] there’s no independent movement. Who’s around to point a finger?”
Oberman says the IVI-IPO’s fingers are just pointing in the wrong direction, picking fights with each other instead of with Daley. “If they continue with this silly finger-pointing, they won’t make a difference.”
Carol Zavala, who quit the IVI-IPO in 1994 after 23 years, says Bartell and the other board members arrayed against Meites are “dysfunctional people and don’t have much else in their lives. They’re not normal. IVI used to have intelligent, educated people on the board who respected the bylaws and constitution. There were so many good people available–Sheldon Gardner, Mike Shakman….But these people on the board now, what they espouse is not what they do. Bartell has no real philosophy; he just needs to have recognition–he gets to meet elected officials! That’s what he’s in it for.”
On the other hand, Rick Garcia, political director of the Illinois Federation for Human Rights and a former IVI-IPO board member, thinks Meites is “crazy” and says Bartell is “deeply committed, intelligent, and I have a high regard for him.” But Garcia echoes Zavala. “There are so many dysfunctional personalities in there, they pass a new rule and bylaw for every individual in the organization.”
Ask former IVI-IPO lobbyist Janet Czarnik about the history of the group, and she’ll chuckle, “Tracing the genealogy of the IVI-IPO is like tracking the history of a plague.”
That makes 1944 year one of the plague. Voters for Victory was founded then by lawyer Adlai Stevenson, newspaper publisher Leo Lerner, and Paul Douglas, Fifth Ward alderman (and later U.S. senator) and author of the book Amateur Democrat. Voters for Victory became the Independent Voters of Illinois the following year.
The nascent IVI was mostly ignored by the regular Democrats, but within a couple years it was actively courted. A restive electorate flush with victory over the Nazi war machine was in no mood to take marching orders from the Machine. Democrats were pitched out of power in the U.S. Congress in 1946. Even Richard J. Daley lost an election for Cook County sheriff.
Distraught by what he termed a “disaster,” theologian Reinhold Niebuhr called a meeting in Washington, D.C., out of which came the Americans for Democratic Action. This group of liberal intellectuals resembled the IVI–though not technically part of the Democratic Party, the organization became its liberal wing. IVI preceded the Americans for Democratic Action by two years, and for a time Illinois was the only state without an ADA chapter.
An alliance between the Cook County Democrats and independent liberals, like those in IVI, produced Adlai Stevenson’s victory in the 1948 governor’s race. In late ’51 the IVI gave Stevenson an award; the following year it pushed him into running for president.
The “Draft Stevenson” movement was initiated by IVI members Leo Lerner and Marshall Holleb, Sidney Yates’s law partner and brother-in-law. On February 21, 1952, IVI placed a full-page ad in the Sun-Times announcing its push for Stevenson’s candidacy, against the wishes of the candidate. Stevenson had championed the idea of the amateur politician–his army of volunteers came to be known as “Adlai’s Amateurs”–but in 1952 he thought he was still too green to handle a presidential race. Intelligent, witty, and rich, Stevenson had become a national liberal icon in just six years, but he was fairly certain that anyone running against Eisenhower in 1952 would be a loser. He turned out to be right.
IVI’s leading role in the Draft Stevenson movement was good for the organization, says Sherwin Swartz. “In 1952 the Democratic Convention was held here, and IVI set up a Stevenson for President Committee. It really was an independent committee–Stevenson didn’t want to run. But they were in the forefront of the campaign and they wound up with a shitload of new members.”
Most of the new members took the “independent” in IVI literally, he says, but the IVI wasn’t truly free of the Democratic Party until the 1955 mayoral race between Richard J. Daley and Robert Merriam, the liberal Fifth Ward alderman who’d switched to the Republican Party to run against the Machine. “There were people in IVI who came from a little coterie of liberal Democrats to the independent label,” Swartz recalls. “The board voted 28-7 in favor of endorsing [Merriam], all the crypto-Democrats walked out, and from 1955 to 1983, once Harold Washington became mayor, they were truly independent.”
Leon Despres was chairman of the IVI’s political action committee until he succeeded Merriam as Fifth Ward alderman, becoming the first IVI member to seek public office. “I encouraged them to become more active in campaigns,” Despres says. “We looked for our own candidate [to run in the Fifth Ward], and I was it.”
Throughout the 1960s the IVI provided just about the only meaningful opposition to Richard J. Daley. For middle-class professionals shut out of the Machine, the IVI was just about the only game in town until 1969, when the Independent Precinct Organization was formed by a group of volunteers who’d worked on Eugene McCarthy’s presidential campaign. Governed through a series of town meetings, the IPO became a north-side complement to the mostly south-side IVI. The IPO “was essentially Dick Simpson’s operation,” says Lois Dobry, “and it focused around getting him elected and following through with all the ideas that he had.” The main idea, she says, was participatory democracy, carried out in nightly meetings between the alderman and the citizens. “Dick went to a meeting every night. If you wanted to be a Dick Simpson type of alderman you were going to live a very active life indeed.”
The IPO had early success with aldermanic candidates Simpson, William Singer, and Richard Friedman. Then it experienced a drop-off. By the late 70s, both the IVI and the IPO had problems with money and declining membership. “We had a lot of crossover membership,” Dobry says. “It seemed ridiculous to have two organizations.” The groups merged in 1978, two years after the death of Richard J. Daley.
The IVI-IPO actually had some clout at the state level. Independent Democrats and liberal Republicans streamed into Springfield until 1982, when a new law reducing the number of elected officials in the state legislature inadvertently helped to concentrate power in the two major parties. “The cutback was a Pat Quinn special,” Meites says. Before its adoption, “the house districts were the same as the senate districts, but three members were elected to the house from each district…and no party was allowed to run more than two people in a district.” The result was that both parties had a presence in Springfield from any given area. Candidates representing a minority view within their parties, or a minuscule party within their districts, still had an opportunity for a vote in the statehouse. “They elected a ton of independents to the legislature,” Meites says. “Some of the best legislators were Republicans from Chicago and Democrats from Du Page.”
Meites says the system was thrown away for political advantage in a time of taxpayer revolt. “Pat Quinn said that we’re wasting a tremendous amount of money–we should cut the legislature back by a third. Cut the house districts in half so that they’re responsive, because they have half as many people to represent, and we’ll save a ton of money.”
After the measure became law, Meites said, the costs of the legislature “increased dramatically” while the body’s independence diminished. “It had become much more under the thumb of the party leadership.”
While the cutback hurt independent politics in the statehouse, Harold Washington’s election in 1983 put the IVI-IPO at the center of Chicago’s political map. If nothing else, city politics was exciting back then, maybe a bit too exciting. In the ’83 campaign, Richard M. Daley’s supporters shouted about Jane Byrne, “Ditch the bitch and vote for Rich.” Bernard Epton’s infamous “Before it’s too late” was buttressed by “Epton, Epton, he’s our man. We don’t want no Af-ri-can,” and the slightly more tolerant “Go get ’em, Jewboy!” The Washington campaign came up with the comparatively benign “It’s our turn,” yet that slogan excited the electorate more than any other.
The turn that blacks had been waiting for also became the IVI-IPO’s turn. The mostly white organization claimed credit for pushing Washington over the top with its influence on the lakefront (though IVI-IPO liberal stalwarts such as Martin Oberman supported other candidates in the Democratic primary, Washington’s vote totals in the lakefront wards were just high enough to justify the group’s claim). Washington thanked the IVI-IPO, and membership shot up the following year.
Meites was one of the lakefront liberals who had worked in the Washington campaign. “IVI never had much of a minority membership,” he says, “but for that one year it did.” Most of the new members did not renew their memberships the next year. Many joined the “networks,” ward-based organizations put together on the north side by Washington supporters. “People joined both,” Meites says, but “people didn’t know what to do with either. The networks were more active in the short term, but there was Council Wars and people were declaring their interest based on being anti-Vrdolyak. And the opportunity to build some sort of lasting progressive organization, which would have existed after Washington died, was lost. Of course, no one was thinking of that possibility. And people who had become very excited by politics, and were new to it, joined the networks. And then the networks died, and they never joined IVI.”
Meites says the IVI-IPO became Washington’s rubber stamp. “While Washington was mayor, IVI became a total apologist for him, to both his and its detriment. I thought we should criticize him when he was wrong, because if he was wrong 20 percent of the time he’s still right 80 percent of the time, which is a lot better than anybody else.” But there was little regard for gray areas in Chicago politics back then–you had to be either for or against Washington. “There were so many IVI board members, former board members, who became administration officials, people in the press depicted [IVI-IPO] as Washington lapdogs. We’d gone from watchdogs to lapdogs.” After Washington’s death, his coalition fractured and passed from power. But the IVI-IPO, says Meites, is still a lapdog. Only the lap has changed.
The IVI-IPO’s membership has never been large–about 4,000 at its height, as opposed to about 700 now–but it comprised an elite core of committed political observers and activists. Even before Richard J. Daley revived the Cook County Democratic Machine, people joined the IVI to fight the good fight–though they often found themselves fighting each other. Yet these squabbles didn’t dilute the group’s influence. For a time the IVI-IPO proved the axiom that dissent strengthens democracy.
Now the more they scream at each other, the more they’ve wound up talking to themselves. They’ve gone on retreats, which haven’t helped. They’ve brought in conflict resolution managers, and the conflicts escalate. The issues range from major to picayune. The alternative would be to shut down debate, but this would be truly hypocritical for an independent political organization.
David Igasaki, a board member for 25 years, says the arguments have become more personal in nature than ever before. Last January Igasaki said, “Things have become so personal that it’s become much more difficult to compromise on issues.”
Difficult? It’s damn near impossible. And throughout 1997 it’s gotten worse.
The IVI-IPO has a view of the el tracks from the seventh floor of an office building at Lake and Wells. The group won’t be there long, however. The building is going condo.
Robert Bartell says there’s still a machine running Chicago, but this one operates through privatization. Limiting patronage is meaningless if city services are contracted out to businesses. “The Machine has been driven underground where people can’t see it, and they kind of like that it’s all working,” he says. “They like the sausages; they just don’t want to know what’s in the sausages.”
Bartell makes his living as a commodities trader. He’s been a member of IVI-IPO for nine years. He’s entering his fourth one-year term as state chair, a record for the group, and he’s been dealing with the wrath of former state chairs for most of his tenure.
In 1995, reporter Jorge Oclander wrote a short article in the Sun-Times headlined “Loss of Clout Dims IVI-IPO’s Fate.” It included shots at Bartell from former state chairs Sam Ackerman and Rich Means. Ackerman and Means told Oclander that Bartell was using the IVI-IPO to play machine-style politics. Bartell responded that Means and Ackerman “thought they knew the ‘one way’ to do things and derided people who had even a minor disagreement with them.” Following this dispute, Oclander concluded that the IVI-IPO’s “future and its influence are waning.”
Two years later, the IVI-IPO is still around–only the name of its principal attacker has changed. I ask Bartell if any of Meites’s grievances are legitimate. He answers, “Jerry believes there’s one true way to do things, and the other way is the wrong way.” Bartell says Meites is playing nasty politics. “He excoriates people that don’t agree with him. Jerry’s style is to viciously attack.” How about his criticism of judicial evaluations? “This is a personal vendetta by a man who thinks he should be running not only this organization but, I think basically, the world.”
Bartell concedes that he and Meites actually agree on most issues. Both believe that the current system of electing judges is wrong and that a merit system appointing them should take its place. And both agree that an independent political group is now more important than ever before.
Board meetings are open to all. They’re held in a conference room one floor below the group’s office. Last January’s meeting started with Meites taking the board to task for not actively supporting a Republican bill eliminating straight-ticket voting, which had been an IVI position for years. The board listened, and Bartell agreed to meet later with Meites to come to some sort of compromise. Conflicts? What conflicts? I talked to Meites the next day, calling the group’s ability to work together on issues “impressive.”
“That was a show,” Meites answered.
“They acted that way because a reporter was in the room. They put on that show for you.”
During January the IVI-IPO began its annual fund-raising appeal to members. At the same time, each member received a letter from Meites enumerating some of his many complaints against the Bartell administration. Soon after Meites sent out his letter, Bartell and the newly hired executive director of IVI-IPO, Barbara Sepanik, held a press conference at City Hall. (Meites had referred to Sepanik as a “patronage hire”–before taking the job she’d worked for Alderman Joe Moore. She’s since quit.) The pair were announcing the IVI-IPO’s endorsements in the next month’s special elections for aldermen in the 17th and 25th wards. I asked Bartell about the Meites letter.
“This is all about control,” Bartell began. “Jerry Meites wants to drag the organization down–he wouldn’t be doing this otherwise. He spends $2,000 to piss on the organization during our fund drive.” Bartell exploded. “If he can find a thousand new members, I’d step down happily. But he can’t, because he’s a fuckin’ nut case!
“What are we? Good government nerds? He’s a liar! I’ll say it, L-I-A-R, eight hundred times! I’m sick of it.”
At the next meeting, the board voted on a proposed bylaw limiting access to the membership list. Members wishing to contact other members at their own expense would need board approval. Meites said the bylaw violated the IVI-IPO’s constitution, which allows members to challenge board decisions by filing petitions signed by 5 percent of the membership. How could anyone challenge the board if it controlled the membership list? Meites threatened to sue and brought along the text of what he said was a precedent-setting case involving the Young Republicans of Philadelphia. That case was won in 1903. The bylaw passed.
In February, the group’s endorsed aldermanic candidates, Teresa Fraga and Chuck Kelly, were trounced. Marc Loveless, an IVI-IPO member who was Kelly’s campaign manager, complained, “I asked IVI to provide poll watchers for election day and they said they couldn’t. They told me straight out it was because they didn’t have the people.”
But that was not the worst of it, Loveless said. The Kelly campaign held a fund-raiser, and “none of the board members showed up. Not one. Nor did the staff person.” Loveless said that when he joined IVI “I thought they were opposed to machine politics. But they’re opposed because it’s not their machine. They’re a carbon copy of the Machine.
“I don’t agree with Jerry Meites on practically anything, but he should be able to speak. The current leadership’s trustworthiness is questionable, and you can see it in the way they run the meetings. It’s a game.”
Another board meeting takes place on May 28. Meites can and does speak. He’s there to call for a repeal of the bylaw limiting access to the membership list, and his appeal is on the evening’s agenda, though it’s scheduled for the end of the meeting. Meites moves to discuss the matter earlier, but as soon as he begins to speak half a dozen people stand up and walk out the door.
Meites is about as sensitive as a shovel. If he cared what people thought of him, he wouldn’t be showing up at meetings where he’s so obviously despised. What he sees as issues are not issues to most of the people in the room. When he talks, most of them chew loudly on doughnuts, snicker, and groan.
“This bylaw will harm the organization and cause harm to the organization’s membership,” Meites says.
Annoyed, Saul Mendelson, the 80-year-old parliamentarian of the group, stands to make a point. “We didn’t need a bylaw like this until he began his guerrilla warfare against the organization. He does this sort of thing in every meeting, and I suggest that we not waste time on this; we’ve got to get down to business.”
Meites raises his hand. “A point of personal privilege: I haven’t even been in a meeting since February.”
Bartell calls for order. “We’re not going to prolong the meeting for these personal attacks–”
Meites cuts him off. “Saul just personally attacked me.”
A woman whispers, “This is so silly, so ridiculous,” and departs through the back door of the conference room.
Bartell calls for a vote to change the agenda. The motion is defeated. The agenda remains the same. Meites compares the actions of the board to Richard J. Daley’s turning off the microphone on Leon Despres: “IVI is turning off the microphone on its own members.”
The vote on the bylaw is held at the end of the meeting, which has dragged on for more than three hours. During speeches, David Igasaki loses his cool, yelling and throwing papers. He gets the Meites treatment. He’s openly laughed at. Pieces of doughnut fly from the mouths of chortling people. No wonder so many have quit–I want to quit and I’ve never even joined. “You’re not gonna stay to the end?” Bartell asks sardonically as I get up to leave.
The bylaw was reaffirmed by a vote of nine to five. In June, Meites, along with Igasaki and 11 other members, filed a lawsuit to overturn it. In July, Igasaki, Meites, and allies Terry and David Rader ran for the board. In campaign statements sent to the membership from the IVI-IPO office, Meites attacked his opponent, Aviva Patt. David Rader said, “The current leadership has betrayed the founding values and principles of IVI-IPO.” Igasaki charged, “Decision making has become shrouded in secrecy.” Terry Rader, wife of David and an IVI-IPO member for 13 years, wrote, “Under these leaders, the organization has truly lost its way. In February, they and their supporters…passed a bylaw which prohibits me, as a minority board member, from using the organization’s membership list to communicate with you unless the board permits it….And, of course, open access to the newsletter ended similarly about five years ago.”
In contrast, Bartell’s campaign statement ended on a conciliatory note: “I would like to close by saying that as State Chair I am proud to have fostered an atmosphere where some of the past board derisiveness has lessened. I believe that in IVI-IPO we agree on 95 percent of the issues, and perhaps disagree on 5 percent. Let’s all work together on the 95 percent and help make the world a better place.”
The campaign statements were sent to members from the IVI-IPO office several days after the ballots went out. The dissidents lost.
Their lawsuit will be heard this week. Lois Dobry calls it “harassment” and predicts it will be thrown out of court. Afterward, she says, the IVI-IPO will sue Meites and the others for court costs. “Jerry calls everybody names–he calls me names, he calls all of us evil. He always takes the attitude that he is morally right, the rest of us are morally wrong….I’m sorry for him. He used to be rather normal, but he has become so obsessional.” As for the organization, Dobry says, “Will we once again become the dominant political force that we were? The answer is no. But will we survive? Yes. And,” she laughs, “I hope Jerry gets better.” o
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration by Mike Werner.