Years from now pundits may say that this year’s race for city clerk launched the career of the man who became Chicago’s most prominent black politician. Or they may say it ended the career of a bright but foolishly ambitious young man.

Joe Gardner, a former political aide to Harold Washington and now a Water Reclamation District commissioner, is running for clerk in the February 26 election. If he wins, it will be an upset, for his chief opponent, incumbent Walter Kozubowski, is blessed with the support of Mayor Richard Daley.

To win, Gardner must depend on a strong turnout of black voters–an unlikely event, according to most polls. And even if blacks defy the pollsters, their vote may be split. Two other black men are in the clerk’s race: Charles Knox, a follower of Lyndon LaRouche, and state representative William Shaw, whose identical twin brother Robert is alderman of the Ninth Ward and an outspoken critic of Daley.

Gardner also hopes to win at least half of the Hispanic and 20 percent of the white vote. He is not building his campaign on pride and symbolism. He wants to prove that whites, Hispanics, and Asians will vote for a black candidate in this post-Washington age of political subservience and blind loyalty. “I know it’s a gamble, but I can’t be afraid to take risks. If you want to serve, you’ve got to run. And I want to serve.”

The office Gardner seeks is low-profile. The clerk serves as the official custodian of city records and as the distributor of motor-vehicle stickers as well as hunting, fishing, and liquor licenses. The office has a budget of $5.3 million and a staff of 142.

In the days of Richard J. Daley’s rule it was considered the Polish seat in City Hall (black candidates were slated for treasurer). Kozubowski’s predecessor, John Marcin, held the job for more than 20 years. Mayor Michael Bilandic finally dropped Marcin from the ticket in 1979, after newspapers reported that he was holding city funds in a non-interest-bearing account in a bank on whose board of directors he sat.

After several other more prominent Polish Democrats declined the job, the party slated Kozubowski, then a southwest-side state representative and member of Alderman Edward Burke’s 14th Ward regular Democratic organization. In 1987 Washington endorsed Gloria Chevere, a banker and lawyer, over Kozubowski. But the Tribune and Sun-Times endorsed Kozubowski, arguing that he had computerized the office and kept it free of scandal. The election was close, but Kozubowski won.

This time around Kozubowski should be more vulnerable. According to an article by John Kass of the Tribune, the clerk’s office is the subject of a federal investigation for “ghost payrolling.” (Kozubowski, whom we could not reach for comment, told Kass that “he has cooperated with investigators and that he has done no wrong.”)

In addition, Kozubowski’s chief deputy, Daniel Burke, Alderman Burke’s younger brother, has announced that he will keep his $57,000-a-year job even though he was recently elected state representative. “I don’t see how Burke will have the time to do both jobs effectively,” says Gardner. “He’s going to wind up shortchanging his legislative constituents or the city. It’s double-dipping, pure and simple. He’ll be drawing more than $90,000 in salaries.”

There’s some irony in the fact that Daniel Burke has emerged as an issue in Gardner’s campaign; Gardner and Edward Burke have been adversaries ever since the early days of Council Wars, when Burke, along with former Tenth Ward alderman Edward Vrdolyak, led the antiadministration majority bloc of 29 aldermen.

In those days Gardner, a former organizer for the Woodlawn Organization and Operation PUSH, headed the city’s old Department of Neighborhoods. He organized neighborhood forums (featuring the mayor and key aides) in communities throughout the city, including many white ones. To offset the public-relations benefits of the forums, Burke and Vrdolyak went after Gardner.

It was leaked that Gardner had been arrested in 1977 for carrying a gun for which he had no permit. The controversy passed after Gardner explained that he had needed the gun because he was working in high-crime areas. But Gardner never forgave Alderman Burke, whom he accused of leaking the arrest record. “I pride myself on my ability to get along with other people and build coalitions, but I have to admit I don’t like the man. He did things during Council Wars that were unnecessary. He did things that hurt people.”

During the budget negotiations of December 1983, Burke and Vrdolyak forced Washington to cut the Neighborhood Department’s staff (it has since been phased out). Washington then asked Gardner to become his top political aide. In retrospect, Gardner wishes he hadn’t taken the job. Washington had vowed to use his influence in the February 1984 elections to defeat a dozen or so Democratic committeemen and replace them with “independents” who would oust Vrdolyak as chairman of the party. But the mayor didn’t have the money, organization, or popularity to back up his tough words. When the elections were over, Vrdolyak still controlled the party–as most experts had predicted he would. And Gardner was blamed. “There was really no way I could win. Harold set it up like we were going to beat Vrdolyak, when realistically we couldn’t. Anything short of that looked like a big defeat.”

After the 1984 elections Gardner went to work at the Chicago Housing Authority as its deputy executive director, in charge of community services and tenant outreach. At the time the agency, after years of fiscal mismanagement, was threatened with federal takeover. Critics charged that Washington had dispatched Gardner to the troubled agency to organize tenants for the 1987 campaign. “That was another losing proposition,” says Gardner. “I remember Basil Talbott of the Sun-Times told me that once I went to work for the political office, I would be labeled as a hack. And he was right. I think the label is unfair, and I defend my record at the CHA. I really tried to get tenants more involved in running the agency, and I didn’t coerce anyone to vote for Harold. But I know the reality of politics in this town. This is a tough city, and you’re going to take some knocks.”

In 1988 he was elected to the Water Reclamation District. By the summer of 1990 he was actively planning to run for clerk. “I like my job with the district, but I see a lot of similarities between what I did at Neighborhoods and what I can do with the clerk’s office. I can use the office to keep residents informed about what city government is doing. I could hold neighborhood meetings and publicize the voting records of aldermen. I could show how much each neighborhood is getting from the city budget. I could keep track of ordinances so a person could see how they affect his ward. Information is power. And the clerk controls a lot of information.”

Gardner also thought being clerk would have given him an opportunity to emerge as Daley’s chief City Hall rival. Then Shaw stepped into the race.

“I was planning to run before Gardner,” says Shaw. (Gardner denies that contention.) “Instead of asking me why I’m a spoiler, people should ask Gardner that question. I’m more qualified for the job. He should be the one who drops out.”

The contest revives old rivalries. Like his brother Robert, William Shaw is a recent convert to the politics of black independence. Unlike Gardner, the Shaw brothers supported Jane Byrne over Washington in 1983’s mayoral election. And until Robert Shaw’s recent emergence as a critic of Daley neither had been known as a champion of good-government issues.

William Shaw, however, says it’s unfair to hold him or his brother accountable for past actions. “People change and grow,” he says. “I’m in this race to the end. I have a lot of ideas for opening the clerk job up. I’ve got the most years in government. I’m the most qualified candidate.”

For some time now, leading black activists and politicians (including former mayor Eugene Sawyer) have met with Shaw and Gardner in an attempt to persuade one or the other to drop from the race. At times, the result was the stuff of comedy. “We had one meeting at Operation PUSH with several people,” says Gardner. “Only it wasn’t even Bill who showed up. It was Bob. The two look almost exactly alike, although I can tell the difference. After a while, Bob said, ‘I’m Bob, not Bill.’ Someone said, ‘Well, what are you doing here?’ And Bob said, ‘Your office called me.’ It was sort of a joke.”

Gardner claims his campaign is more credible than Shaw’s. So far Gardner has been endorsed by such white and Hispanic politicians as County Clerk David Orr, 22nd Ward Alderman Jesus Garcia, and former school board president George Munoz. Shaw has pretty much limited his campaigning to black wards.

Nonetheless, if Shaw takes even a sliver of the black vote, Kozubowski should win.

What’s more, Bridgeport resident Edward Murray looks like a good bet to upset Miriam Santos, Daley’s candidate for city treasurer. And if Daley, Kozubowski, and Murray win, then the top three administrative positions in City Hall will be held by white men from the southwest side.

“We have to think of coalition building. We have to think about representing the whole city,” says Gardner. “This is not a time to slide backwards.”

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