Bobby Rush’s enemies smell blood.
Last year, in a mayoral bid that even one of Rush’s supporters–Cook County Board president John Stroger–calls “a stupid political judgment,” the congressman was flattened by the Daley machine. He won only 28 percent of the vote citywide: more significant, he lost the Second Ward, where he’s committeeman, and barely eked out a majority of the black vote. (Rush’s alderman, Madeline Haithcock, is now running against him for the committeeman’s job.)
Was this stomping a sign that voters are ready to end Rush’s career in Washington? State senators Barack Obama and Donne Trotter think so. Both men are anxious to move up to Congress, and they think 2000 is the year for the coup that will get them there. They’re working hard to finish off the politically wounded incumbent.
“Congressman Rush exemplifies a politics that is reactive, that waits for crises to happen then holds a press conference, and hasn’t been particularly effective at building broad-based coalitions,” says Obama, a Harvard-educated lawyer who promises to be more effective in cooperating with whites and Latinos.
“We’re living in fantastic economic times,” says Trotter, who wants to use the skills he perfected as a Springfield wheeler-dealer to snare money for the district. “Bobby, what have you brought back to our community?”
(Retired policeman George Roby is also in the race, but has no apparent chance of winning.)
Rush doesn’t believe the mayoral race was a referendum on his work in Congress–“On more than one occasion, I’ve heard people say, ‘We prefer you in Congress, not City Hall,'” he said–but he knows it’s why he’s being challenged. “They’re misreading the tea leaves,” Rush said at his 95th Street campaign headquarters. His office there has the temporary feel of all such offices, containing only a paper-strewn desk, a few chairs, and a huge framed photo of John Coltrane. “They think I’m vulnerable. I’m not concerned about it, but I am running as an underdog.”
The last few months have been difficult for Rush, for reasons deeper than the fact his job’s at risk. In October, Rush’s 29-year-old son, Huey Rich, was shot to death. Last month his father, Jimmy, who’d provided a model of self-improvement that Rush has followed all his life, died at the age of 72. Rush suspended his campaign for a week and went down to Georgia for the funeral, where he read a poem for his dad he’d written himself.
“With less than six months between the burying of my son, Huey, and my father, I know my faith is being tested,” Rush said in a prepared statement the day after his father died. “However, it is only that faith and the loving support of my wife, family, and friends that supplies me with the strength to keep going.”
From Rush’s personal pain has come political action. As an urban congressman, he’s always advocated gun control–he’s cosponsored 31 bills, including the Brady Bill and the assault weapons ban. But after Huey died, he went on a media tour to condemn the “glorification” of guns. His was an irresistible story: the ex-Black Panther who’d posed with a pistol and served time on a weapons charge before learning firsthand the evil that guns do. Rush was in Newsweek and People, on National Public Radio, Queen Latifah, and Today.
“I will probably increase my involvement in trying to change the culture of violence in America,” he says. “I believe that this glorification of a gun is something that has to be dealt with. Many males don’t feel as if they’re empowered unless they’re packing.”
Rush started his crusade on New Year’s Eve, with a “cease-fire campaign” that urged people to end the practice of firing bullets into the air at midnight. It worked, he said: in 1997 and 1998, three people died during the night; this time there were no deaths. In Congress, he intends to introduce a bill that would make it a federal crime to kill or maim someone in a drive-by shooting. But he knows more gun laws aren’t going to cure the violent nature of this gunfighter nation, so he’s also going to push for conflict-resolution programs. Boston, he says, has a model plan that involves schools, churches, police, and young people.
In his Black Panther days, Rush had advised black men to arm themselves for self-defense. Now he says that the guns he thought would be aimed at blacks’ oppressors did their damage inside the community.
“I have been there and I have changed my attitude,” he says. “At one time, I advocated the use of guns. It was more political in nature, and aimed at patterns of racism that existed then.”
(Rush’s opponents cried hypocrisy when a Washington fund-raiser for him was hosted by Representative John Dingell, who’s an ally of the National Rifle Association. Dingell is also ranking Democrat on the Commerce Committee, on which Rush sits. “We fight bitterly on the issue of guns,” Rush says. “I differ with him on that issue. I differ with him on other issues. They’re reaching for straws if they criticize me for that.”)
You might say Rush has been running as an underdog his whole life. He dropped out of high school to join the army, but now holds two master’s degrees. (“My father told me, ‘You wanted to read so bad and study so much that you said you wanted to die in a classroom,'” Rush says.) Once hunted by the Chicago police, he served ten years as an alderman. He’s fought off a stammer to become a fluid, if not dynamic, public speaker. Rush is so devoted to self-improvement that he’s an acolyte of Tony Robbins, the motivational speaker who asks his followers to “awaken the giant within.”
Rush wants to raise up the people of the south side too. When he was invited to speak from the pulpit of Southwestern Baptist Church, he urged the congregation to buy computers and hook up to the Internet, so knowledge would flow into their homes. Making a religious connection for his audience, Rush compared Web access to the printing of the Bible, which allowed all Christians to read what only the “high-class, superelite” priests had seen.
“At one time, the Bible was only read and understood by a very few people,” Rush says. “These folks intimidated those that didn’t have access to the Bible. God in his wisdom created the printing press. Then the Bible was mass-produced, so common ordinary folk snatched the power from the elite. I look at the Internet the same way. If we are computer literate, we are on the same level as Bill Gates, the richest man in the world. We are on common ground with the wealthy and powerful. You can bring the libraries of the world to your living room, whether your living room is on South Michigan Avenue or in the richest suburbs.”
In Congress, Rush has worked hard to connect the south side and the Internet. As a member of the telecommunications and finance subcommittees, he helped write legislation that created the E-rate–a tax on long-distance carriers that funds the wiring of schools and libraries. So far it’s raised $23 billion. Rush brought a Federal Communications Commission official to Chicago to give school officials a seminar on getting a piece of that money. The First District wound up with $20 million.
“My schools in the First District were some of the first to be wired,” he says.
Putting computers in local schools not only raises them to technological parity with suburban schools but also shows parents how much the machines can do. Rush worries about the “technophobia” of families that own a 52-inch TV set but can’t find money for a PC.
“You have to raise the level of consciousness that a computer is important,” he says.
But while Rush praises the power of education for grade-school students, he shows a suspicion of folks who get too high, especially if they’re trying to take his congressional seat. “He went to Harvard and became an educated fool,” he says scornfully of Obama, and declares, “We’re not impressed with these folks with these eastern elite degrees.”
Obama’s overeducation left him with an “ivory tower” outlook, Rush charges. In a debate on Cliff Kelley’s WVON radio show, Rush, the old street fighter, talked about leading marches to urge punishment for Gregory Becker, the off-duty cop who killed a homeless man in 1995.
“It’s not enough for us just to protest police misconduct without thinking systematically about how we’re going to change practice,” Obama said in measured, mellow tones.
Rush jumped on him.
“We have never been able to progress as a people based on relying solely on the legislative process, and I think that we would be in real critical shape when we start in any way diminishing the role of protest,” he argued. “Protest has got us where we are today.”
A week later, Rush was still rankled by Obama’s suggestion that the black community’s protest days are past.
“Barack is a person who read about the civil rights protests and thinks he knows all about it,” he said. “I helped make that history, by blood, sweat, and tears.”
Rush’s campaign for mayor hurt him most by showing his opponents where he was weak. Rush did win his congressional district overall, but in the 19th Ward he received only 13 percent of the vote. A lot of cops and conservative whites live out there, in Beverly and Morgan Park, and they haven’t forgiven Rush his past, even after 30 years.
“I think it sends a message to our young people that you can be a big-time rabble-rouser and be in a position of importance later,” says Ted Hollander, a Beverly accountant. “What incentive does that kid have to behave? He went way beyond the bounds of legitimate dissent. If we’re going to say the seat should be occupied by a black person, I’ve got to believe there’s someone better.”
John McNamara, the Worth Township Democratic committeeman, says Rush only looks out for the district’s black neighborhoods. McNamara also has precincts in William Lipinski’s and Jesse Jackson Jr.’s congressional districts, and he says both are much easier to reach when a constituent has a problem.
“We haven’t seen him in our area,” McNamara said. “You have to work for your whole district.”
Rush says he doesn’t ignore his white precincts: he brought back federal money to resurface 95th Street, helped Evergreen Park get a new zip code, and is working to put a post office in Alsip. Nonetheless, Obama has seized on the southwest side’s estrangement by opening a campaign office there.
Losing the mayoral race has shown Rush who his friends are. Senator Dick Durbin came in to help Rush announce a $1.5 billion federal plan to demolish and rebuild the Chicago Housing Authority’s biggest projects. “Bobby Rush was the advocate for the tenants in the Chicago Housing Authority,” Durbin said. “He fought to make sure there will be good public housing to replace this housing. He also led the fight to make sure 50 percent of the contracts would go to minorities. I don’t jump at the prospect of getting involved in primaries with good Democrats running, but I jump at the prospect of endorsing Bobby Rush.”
President Clinton has also endorsed Rush. But then, there’s speculation in the district that Stroger’s support means even Mayor Daley secretly favors Rush’s reelection. The board president and the mayor are allies, and Daley is said to fear Barack Obama’s appeal as a citywide candidate. Stroger will only say that Daley is “not actively opposing” Rush.
One of the congressman’s first campaign events this year was a “Clergy for Rush” rally at Fellowship Missionary Baptist Church. Over 100 ministers gathered in front of a banner that proclaimed, “We Are Sticking With Bobby!” Five of them came to the microphone to praise Rush. Send him back to Congress so he can build up more seniority, they said. Reward him for sitting down with the CTA and saving the Englewood el branch. Vote for Bobby because he found funding for the Amtrak ticket center and saved 200 jobs. When Rush finally spoke, it was on one of his main selling points in this race: his seniority. If the Democrats take back the House, Rush will chair one of the subcommittees of the Commerce Committee.
“I didn’t like seniority when I first got [to Congress],” he joshed. “But the longer I stay there, the more I like it. You can have more degrees than a thermometer, but if you don’t have seniority, you’re at the end of the line. It means everything in Congress.”
Rush seems to be winning the most pastoral endorsements, and that’s key in this race, because as pastors vote, so vote their congregations. Rush has been hitting the churches hard, and he’s found support on both sides of the pulpit. At Evening Star Missionary Baptist, pastor O.C. Morgan called Rush “our friend,” then invited the congressman to pose for a group photo with the congregation.
“He cares about the people,” gushed parishioner Ella Nash, who shook Rush’s hand. “If he takes time to come to our church, it means he cares about the people.”
Nash lives in Lake Grove Village, an apartment complex at 35th and Cottage Grove. When the complex was up for sale a few years ago, Rush stepped in to make sure it was purchased by a local owner–the Chicago Community Development Corporation–rather than an out-of-town company intending to milk it for a profit.
“Congressman Bobby Rush is for the people of all different levels, people like me that’s living off the $25-$30,000 incomes,” Nash said. “The congressman grew up, he lives in the area, so he can understand what we’re trying to establish. He’s just an everyday person.”
If Rush wins this race, it’ll be for the same reason he lost the mayoral race–because he’s so much a part of the south side. He flopped as a citywide candidate because he couldn’t see beyond the needs of his own community. As a congressman, he doesn’t have to.
The First Congressional District seat is a bellwether of black leadership in Chicago. When Rush took it from 74-year-old Charles Hayes in 1992, his victory was seen as a sign that the militants who’d come of age in the late 1960s were taking over from the preachers and funeral directors who led the integration marches in the days of Dr. Martin Luther King.
For Clee Lowe, a Barack Obama supporter, the fight against segregation is over. Blacks have legal equality. Now the community needs leaders who’ll work for economic equality.
“Rush is part of the old guard,” Lowe said. “I’m not going to stand here and say his time has passed, but we’ve got to look at what’s good for the whole district. Senator Obama, he is of a new generation. What we are saying is that we are poised and ready to meet the challenges of a new generation, which are more economic.”
When Obama makes a speech to an unfamiliar audience, he usually starts with a joke about his exotic name. “The first thing people ask me is, ‘How did you get that name, Obama?’ although they don’t always pronounce it right,” he tells voters. “They say ‘Alabama,’ or ‘Yo Mama.'”
He got the name from his father, a Kenyan exchange student who came to the University of Hawaii to study in 1959 and married an American girl. He went back to Africa a few years later, leaving Barack to be raised by his mother and grandparents. Obama tells the story of his upbringing in his memoir, Dreams From My Father, which was published in 1995 by Times Books. Though his family was white, the world saw Obama as black, and he worked hard to fit that image, trying to build a black identity by watching Soul Train, playing basketball, reading James Baldwin, Ralph Ellison, and Langston Hughes. Yet he was uncomfortable sharing in his black friends’ condemnation of “white folks,” because those were the folks at home.
“Away from my mother, away from my grandparents, I was engaged in a fitful interior struggle,” he wrote. “I was trying to raise myself to be a black man in America, and beyond the given of my appearance, no one around me seemed to know exactly what that meant.”
Obama migrated to the mainland for college, eventually graduating from Columbia University, and came to Chicago’s south side in 1983 to work as a community organizer. He had some big successes–forcing the Chicago Housing Authority to clean up asbestos in Altgeld Gardens, persuading Mayor Washington’s office to open an employment training program in Roseland–but after a few years he got an offer too good to refuse: admission to Harvard Law School. Obama was the first black student to head the Harvard Law Review, an achievement so big it was written up in the New York Times. Yet after earning his degree, he came back to the south side, to teach at the University of Chicago and run Project Vote, a registration drive that added 100,000 names to the rolls. He returned, he said, because “if you’re interested not only in politics in general, but interested in the future of the African-American community, then Chicago in many ways is the capital of the African-American community in the country.” He jokes that his willingness to move “from Hawaii to Chicago” shows he’s even more committed to the city than many natives.
“I really have to want to be here,” he said in an interview at the downtown offices of Miner, Barnhill & Galland, where he practices. “I’m like a salmon swimming upstream in the south side of Chicago. At every juncture in my life, I could have taken the path of least resistance but much higher pay. Being the president of the Harvard Law Review is a big deal. The typical path for someone like myself is to clerk for the Supreme Court, and then basically you have your pick of any law firm in the country.”
Obama’s detractors rap him because he didn’t grow up on the south side. He points out that he’s spent most of his adult life there, his wife is from South Shore, and he’s raising his daughter as a south-sider. His enemies also say he’s too white and too bright. Part of it–although they won’t say it publicly–is that he grew up with a white mother. Part of it is his demeanor. His lanky, Lincoln-esque body is usually stiff and upright, and he speaks in a stentorian baritone that sounds like a TV newscaster’s (Lester Holt’s, to be specific). But the main reason is that he’s associated himself with Harvard and the University of Chicago, two strongholds of white power.
“Barack is viewed in part to be the white man in blackface in our community,” says Donne Trotter, who detests Obama. “You just have to look at his supporters. Who pushed him to get where he is so fast? It’s these individuals in Hyde Park, who don’t always have the best interests of the community in mind.”
Lu Palmer, a radio talk show host and chairman of the Black Independent Political Organization, dismisses Obama as arrogant and compares him to Mel Reynolds, who went from a Rhodes Scholarship to Congress to prison.
“When Obama first hit town, my recollection is that he came here running some voter registration drive,” Palmer said. “He came to our office and tried to get us involved, and we were turned off then. We sent him running. We didn’t like his arrogance, his air.”
Palmer had another run-in with Obama in 1996, when he tried to dissuade the young politician from running to replace state senator Alice Palmer (not a relation). Palmer was resigning to seek Reynolds’s old congressional seat, which was won by Jesse Jackson Jr.
“I said, ‘Man, you sound like Mel Reynolds,'” Palmer said. “There are similarities. If you get hung into these elite institutions, and if you so impress white folks at these elite institutions, and if they name you head of these elite institutions, the Harvard Law Review, that makes one suspect.”
Obama says that when “Congressman Rush and his allies” rip him for going to Harvard and teaching at the U. of C., they’re sending a signal to black kids that “if you’re well educated, somehow you’re not keeping it real.” He refuses to be ashamed of his education. In January he held a fund-raiser for black educators at Honeysuckle’s, a nightclub on 87th Street. It attracted people who don’t believe the Ivy League is poison. “I’m glad he went to Harvard,” said Lula Ford, who used to be principal of Beethoven Elementary School in the Robert Taylor Homes. “I want all children to go to Harvard, especially from the south side of Chicago.”
Obama’s also got a response to people who criticize him for joining elite white institutions: it shows he can be a mover in anybody’s world. Congress is pretty much an elite white institution, after all.
“My experience being able to walk into a public housing development and turn around and walk into a corporate boardroom and communicate effectively in either venue means that I’m more likely to be able to build the kinds of coalitions and craft the sort of message that appeals to a broad range of people, and that’s how you get things accomplished in Congress,” he says.
Obama is gunning hard for the white vote, which makes up about 30 percent of the district. He’s criticized Rush for not looking outside the black community for support during his mayoral campaign.
“We have more in common with the Latino community, the white community, than we have differences, and you have to work with them, just from a practical political perspective,” he says. “It may give us a psychic satisfaction to curse out people outside our community and blame them for our plight. But the truth is, if you want to be able to get things accomplished politically, you’ve got to work with them.”
There are whispers that Obama is being funded by a “Hyde Park mafia,” a cabal of University of Chicago types, and that there’s an “Obama Project” masterminded by whites who want to push him up the political ladder. His campaign disclosure forms show that he’s getting money from some of Chicago’s most prominent white liberals: $1,000 from former FCC chairman Newton Minow; $250 from ex-congressman Abner Mikva; $1,000 from 1998 gubernatorial candidate John Schmidt, who sits on his campaign finance committee. Authors Scott Turow and Sara Paretsky have chipped in money, and so have some of Obama’s old Harvard law professors.
Obama says he’s gotten more money from black donors than any of his rivals, because a large chunk of Rush’s cash is coming from political action committees. Half of Obama’s finance committee is made up of “African-American businessmen, most of them under the age of 50,” he says. “They’re looking for a transition in political leadership that reflects their growing sophistication and their involvement in all levels of the economy.”
Besides those buppies, Obama’s also got the support of black aldermen Ted Thomas (15th Ward), Toni Preckwinkle (4th), and Terry Peterson (17th). Peterson, who appeared with Obama at a press conference to condemn bidi cigarettes–hand-rolled, highly carcinogenic smokes from India–likes the senator because “he’s brought back resources to my community.” Obama provided money for a job-training program in Englewood, an expansion of Auburn Park, and a play lot at 75th and Union.
“He called me and said, ‘Alderman, what kind of things do you need in the 17th Ward?'” Peterson said.
The other knock on Obama is that he’s still getting his legislative chops in the minor league of the Illinois senate. He’s not ready for a promotion to Washington. Rich Miller, the publisher of Capitol Fax, a Springfield newsletter, says Obama hasn’t compiled much of a legislative record, partly because he’s turned off other senators.
“Barack is a very intelligent man,” Miller said. “He hasn’t had a lot of success here, and it could be because he places himself above everybody. He likes people to know he went to Harvard.”
Obama was a leader on an ethics bill that limited the gifts legislators can take from lobbyists and ended the practice of using campaign funds for personal use. (The senator’s always been Paul Simon pure when it comes to taking gifts. He says he’s one of “three or four” senators who won’t let lobbyists buy him dinner.) He also worked to double the personal exemption on the state’s income tax, figuring this would help low-income families. Republicans, who love tax cuts, willingly went along. Now Obama wants the state to institute an earned income tax credit for the poor. He also has introduced legislation to require drug companies to charge Medicare the same rates as their best customers, which would lower the cost of medicine for seniors. And he is asking the secretary of state’s office to compile statistics on traffic stops, to see if minority drivers are targeted more than whites.
Obama has promised that as a congressman he would turn south-side colleges into “technology centers” that would instruct local schools in computer use. He also has plans for broad antigun legislation that would ban sales at gun shows and increase the tax on bullets by 500 percent.
“He’s had some really good ideas,” Miller admits, noting that Congressman Jan Schakowsky of Evanston was also considered a self-righteous goo-goo in Springfield but came into her own in Washington. “He’d probably make a pretty good congressman.”
Ironically, Trotter’s favorite example of Obama’s legislative ineptness was a case in which the senator worked very, very hard to win over his colleagues. Last year Obama sponsored a bill that would have reformed child support payments to the poor by making sure the custodial parent received 67 percent of the money paid into his or her account. Right now, that parent gets only 25 percent, with the rest being split between the federal government and the state government as reimbursement for welfare payments. The bill passed the house and senate, but Governor Ryan vetoed the measure. Freshman representative Julie Hamos of Evanston persuaded the house to override the veto. In the senate, Obama was the sponsor. His override campaign failed by one vote, with a number of Republican senators voting “present.”
“To me, when someone votes present, that means nobody’s sat down with them and talked to them about the bill,” Trotter said.
But others say Obama performed magic by even getting the bill to the governor’s desk. Ryan was against it all the way. Senate president James “Pate” Philip was against it. The chairman of the senate’s Public Health & Welfare Committee was against it. But Obama pushed it out of committee and then off the floor.
“No one could have tried any harder than Barack Obama,” said Senator David Sullivan, a Park Ridge Republican who cosponsored the measure. “He did yeoman’s work on that bill. We were able to get seven Republican votes to join us. He personally lobbied not only senators but probably state representatives and the governor. It would not have gotten out of the senate in the first place without Barack.”
The “present” votes, Obama speculates, were cast by Republicans “who were embarrassed, who knew this was something they should be voting,” but didn’t want to defy party leaders. A compromise bill that would give parents 50 percent of the child support money is now before the General Assembly. It’s supported by Philip and Ryan and is expected to pass easily. Trotter’s still not impressed.
“Effective is getting it passed in both houses and getting it passed into law,” he said.
Obama didn’t help his record in Springfield when he failed to come home from a Hawaiian vacation to vote on the Safe Neighborhoods Act. His vote wouldn’t have made a difference, but Obama’s been a strident supporter of gun control, so a lot of voters thought he’d disappeared when his voice was needed most. Obama takes his family to Hawaii once a year to visit his 80-year-old grandmother, Toot. Both his parents are dead, and Toot is the only living relative he knew growing up. This year he almost canceled the trip because the fight over the Safe Neighborhoods Act went on until December 22. The Obamas managed to get out of town on Thursday, December 23, and planned to fly back the following Tuesday, so Barack could be in Springfield when the legislature reconvened the next day. But on the day of the flight, Obama’s 18-month-old daughter came down with the flu. He decided to stay in Hawaii one more day. If Malia seemed to be recovering, the Obamas would go home together. If not, Barack would fly out alone. On Wednesday Malia was well enough to fly, and the family returned to Illinois.
“I made an assessment based on the fact that I didn’t want to leave my wife and daughter alone without knowing how serious her condition was, and my assessment was based on the fact that this was a largely political vote, in the sense that either Pate Philip was going to agree to a compromise, in which case the bill was going to pass, or there were going to be negotiations taking place,” he says. “We put our families through so many sacrifices in this process anyway that every once in a while you have to make a decision in terms of what you think is best for your family, and I think that this was one of these decisions. Politically, I took a big hit.”
Obama was castigated by the Tribune’s “Inc.” column (the headline: “D-U-M”), and by callers to Cliff Kelley’s show on WVON. He had to answer for his missed vote at a January candidates’ forum in the Tulley Park field house.
“If you initiate a lot of ideas and at the time of a vote you’re not there, how can we count on you?” Kevin Tyler asked.
Obama gave a curt answer. “If you look at my record in Springfield, I don’t miss votes. I missed one as a result of my daughter being sick. That’s an exceptional situation that doesn’t arise often.”
Tyler didn’t buy Obama’s excuse.
“If you tell me this is one of your issues, and then you miss the vote, that concerns me,” Tyler said afterward. “With that in mind, I’m very reluctant to support him for anything. I think he’s biting off a little more than he can chew. He’s got some good issues, but he’s too green.”
The dapper gray-haired man in the three-button suit, lime green shirt, and loden bow tie takes the microphone and prepares to interrupt lunch at the Atlas Senior Center on 79th Street.
“Who is he?” an old woman asks, pausing over her macaroni and cheese. “Is he an alderman?”
He is Donne Trotter, the best-dressed man in Illinois politics, and he is about to give the hungry crowd a spiel composed for senior citizens.
“Good afternoon,” he begins. “I’m state senator Donne Trotter. I’m running for Congress in the First Congressional District, against Bobby Rush. I’ve worked for more funding for the low-income heating program. I supported the Assisted Living Bill, to ensure that nursing home standards meet hospital standards. I know the language of getting the job done. The federal government has a $1.7 trillion budget. I ask each and every one of you, ‘Where’s our money?’ We need someone who can go out there and get our money.”
When Trotter’s done with his speech, an aide brings him a pile of Census 2000 T-shirts. He announces he’ll hand them out as prizes to folks who answer questions about south-side politics.
“I knew there was going to be a catch,” grumbles a man sitting in the corner.
“Can anyone name the senator from this district?”
“You,” someone calls.
“Give the man a T-shirt.”
“Who’s your congressman?”
“Do we have to give a T-shirt for that one?” Trotter cracks, but he hands one over. By now the seniors are warming to his impromptu game show.
“Let me ask you another question. Who’s gonna be your next congressman?”
“You!” a man shouts, raising his hand to receive a prize.
“Rush!” cries a dissenter.
The first man gets a T-shirt.
After the giveaway is over, Trotter moves around the room, shaking hands.
“Are you related to Reverend Trotter?” asks one old man.
“He was my grandfather,” Trotter says proudly.
“I know the Trotter family,” the old man notes, after the senator has moved on. “The Trotter name is well-known in Chicago. His auntie was the wife of Joe Louis.”
Donne Trotter is a member of one of the biggest, oldest clans on the south side, a family that beat everyone else to Chicago by a generation or two. Trotter’s roots in this town go all the way back to 1900, when his great-grandfather, a Choctaw Indian named Granville Trotter, arrived here from Oklahoma. The senator says Granville and his wife had “13 kids who begat another 13 kids who begat another 13 kids.”
Trotter’s grandfather, Walter Trotter, was a prominent minister in Hyde Park, and his cousin Larry is a bishop at Sweet Holy Spirit Full Gospel Baptist Church. Combing through the voter rolls, the senator’s staff decided to invite all the Trotters they found to a fund-raiser.
“They all came because they wanted to be part of this Trotter crusade,” Trotter says.
Trotter lives in South Shore, at 84th and Yates, but he grew up in Grand Crossing, around the corner from Ralph Metcalfe, the Olympic sprinter who represented the First District for many years. He was a Boy Scout with Metcalfe’s son, Ralph Jr., who later ran for alderman. He remembers when the Palm Tavern was the hangout for “Billy Eckstine and all the jazz greats,” and when the Rosenwald Building, now a flophouse, was home to the black middle class.
Trotter’s slogan is “Chicago’s Native Son.” (He was actually born in downstate Cairo, his grandmother’s hometown, but he was brought up to Chicago before he started walking.) It’s yet another dig at Obama.
“The truth is, you can’t really say you know a community unless you’re from there,” he says. “I was raised the same place my grandfather was raised, same place my father was raised, same place I raised my children. With that comes a certain amount of affection and love for the community. I think this is a neighborhood that doesn’t need to be torn down and bulldozed over.”
Trotter graduated from Du Sable High School, then spent a few years away from Chicago. He attended the College of Artesia, an experimental school in New Mexico, but quickly got in trouble for protesting the living quarters the black students were assigned. He says, “This is New Mexico, they can do what they want to do. ‘We kick Indians and niggers in the ass.'”
Trotter was expelled, but his protests reached the school’s donors, who withdrew their support, forcing it to close. From there, he drifted around the west–to Berkeley, where he studied at the University of California and worked on the Black Panthers’ free breakfast program; to Los Angeles, where he played flute and sax, billing himself as “Rahsaan Don” after Rahsaan Roland Kirk; to Tucson, where he worked as a carpenter. He was living in Tucson (he says he was once known as “Tucson Don”) when he got a call from Ralph Metcalfe Jr., asking him to come back to Chicago. Ralph Sr., the congressman, had been complaining about police brutality, and Mayor Richard J. Daley was running a quisling against him. Trotter thought he’d spend a few months on the campaign and then head back to the desert, but his work organizing “Young Chicagoans for Metcalfe” impressed state representative Lewis Caldwell, who offered him a staff job. Soon Trotter was a “perennial campaign manager”: he ran the younger Metcalfe’s campaign for Third Ward alderman and organized a precinct during Harold Washington’s winning campaign for mayor.
In the meantime, Trotter earned a degree in history and political science from Chicago State and a master’s degree in health law and policy from Loyola. He was working as a hospital administrator when, in 1988, state representative Carol Moseley Braun decided to run for Cook County recorder of deeds. Trotter won her seat, served two terms in the house, and was elected to the senate in 1992.
In the legislature, Trotter has a reputation as “a really good operator,” says Rich Miller of Capitol Fax. “Trotter tends to work more behind the scenes to advance his legislation. He’s a guy who knows how to pass legislation.”
As a freshman representative, Trotter’s first assignment was getting an assault weapons ban passed. It was considered a hopeless task. The Republicans hated the bill, and so did the Democrats from downstate hunting country. Trotter sat down with his opponents and told them, “I know you can’t vote for this bill, but can you at least not actively oppose it?” It took three legislative sessions, but he got the bill passed, only to see Pate Philip kill it in the senate.
“Those were times when gun control was a dirty word,” said Chris Boyster of the Illinois Coalition Against Handgun Violence. “I guess he was a crusader at that time of the day.”
Trotter was also one of the architects of KidCare, the health insurance program that has provided medical treatment to tens of thousands of poor children. (If he’s elected to Congress, he’ll propose that Medicare be extended to all Americans who need health insurance.) But he really likes to brag about the pork barrel projects he’s secured for the south side. Last year’s Illinois FIRST program made every legislator smell like roses, and Trotter takes credit for millions and millions.
“I brought back a half a billion dollars to rebuild the Dan Ryan, $45 million just for Chicago State alone–$26 million for a new library, $19 million for a new convocation center–$75 million for redoing the south end of Lake Shore Drive, $6.5 million for redoing the Jackson Park field house. Another $4.5 million to redo the Rainbow Beach field house–my community, my beaches–$3 million for the DuSable Museum, another million for ETA, our theater group. Another million for the Addie Wyatt Center–and the list goes on and on.”
If he can do that with the state of Illinois’ piddly $44 billion budget, just think of what he can do when he gets to take part in the federal government’s $1.7 trillion-a-year spending spree. America has fantastic prosperity right now, and Trotter wants to make sure his beloved south side enjoys some of the good times. Rush can’t bring home the bacon because he’s lost touch with the district–“Bobby doesn’t work this community no more”–and because he doesn’t have the political skills.
“We have had a congressman who has made his reputation based on jumping on the table shouting for change,” Trotter argues. “I have not seen the fruits of any of that jumping on the tables shouting for change….I don’t stand on tables shouting for change. I sit down at tables and learn how to negotiate change.”
He’s dismayed that the district has no neighborhoods aside from Hyde Park where people can live, shop, eat, and go to the movies. In his day, 47th and King was “the mecca of Black Metropolis, where everything used to happen. You’d go there, you’d shop, you’d eat, you’d party, pick up your girlfriend, leave your wife. You’d do all that right there.”
Now everybody goes up to Rush Street and Greektown, because there’s nothing but bars, wig shops, and sub shops in their own neighborhoods.
“There’s no movie theaters around here,” Trotter complains. “There’s one at 87th and the Dan Ryan. That’s zero street, and this is 3200 east. Where’s my show?”
Trotter wants to bring in tax increment financing districts and small-business enterprise zones, especially to Grand Boulevard and Park Manor, two neighborhoods he thinks are in danger of going the way of Englewood. He wants the schools to teach classes in entrepreneurship, so young men and women will start businesses on the south side. He argues that with all the colleges in the area, there’s no reason it can’t become a center for high tech. Trotter cites Innovative Technology Systems on 103rd Street as an example of the businesses he wants in the district. The company, which installs telecommunications cable, started up only a year ago but now has 120 employees and expects to do $35 million worth of business in 2000. President and CEO Al Jackson said Trotter set up job fairs so the company would hire local workers.
“He’s provided us with the environment we need,” Jackson said.
Trotter’s biggest problem is that even though he’s the slickest, most charismatic of the candidates, he doesn’t have a striking image to present to voters. Rush is the former Black Panther, the champion of black progress. Obama is the rising young star, the brilliant Harvard lawyer who can plead the south side’s case to the white establishment. Trotter is simply a competent legislator, and perhaps not distinct enough from Rush to justify throwing out eight years’ seniority and starting over. His own polls show he’s “a clear second choice for all the voters,” which means nobody hates him but nobody’s crazy about him, either. As a result, Trotter’s financial situation is dire. In February he held a “Trottin’ With Trotter” fund-raiser at Hawthorne Racecourse and asked voters to “bet on me!” Not many have. He’d raised only $48,380 through the end of 1999 and had taken out $20,000 in loans. That makes his goal of $250,000 look pretty remote.
“There’s no question that we are being outspent by both our opponents,” he said. “We think we can do a good deal with less, through a volunteer organization and through carefully targeted expenditures.”
Trotter, who has a lot of experience in ward politics, planned a grassroots campaign. But it was dealt a blow when his most powerful patron, county board president John Stroger, endorsed Rush. When the congressman announced for reelection, Stroger appeared at the press conference and told reporters “the timing isn’t right” for a challenger. The move surprised Trotter because he and Stroger come from the same ward. When Trotter formed an exploratory committee last January, Stroger “told me to keep on doing what I’m doing. Then, after the mayoral election, he came out for Rush.”
Stroger, though, says he never encouraged Trotter.
“From the very first time that Don talked to me, I told him that I didn’t think we should take [Rush] on as a sitting congressman,” he says. “It would give the impression to people that they were punishing him for running for mayor.”
Stroger says Rush has done “a great job for the district,” citing his work on the redevelopment of Bronzeville. Also, the district needs his seat on the telecommunications subcommittee to secure more licenses for minority-owned television stations. Some observers think Stroger has yet another reason for quashing Rush’s rivals. He’s grooming his son Todd, a state representative, to take the seat someday.
So without money or powerful backers, Trotter has plastered the south side with signs–blue-and-yellow “Trotter for Congress” placards are stapled to the plywood on every abandoned building in the district, it seems–and gone out hunting votes one by one. On a recent Saturday, he went out knocking on doors in the 21st Ward. It’s in his senate district, so he was a visiting star.
“Hey, Trottie!” a young woman called from her car. Trotter rushed out into the street, where he gave her a hug and a window placard.
A few blocks away, on Yale Avenue, Trotter was making his way up the sidewalk, shaking hands and greeting folks as “my brother.” First he talked to Darryl Daniels, who was outside washing his car even though the temperature was 20 degrees.
“I haven’t seen anything of Bobby Rush,” Daniels said. “Where’s he been hiding?”
“Bobby Hutch,” Trotter cracked, handing Daniels a campaign brochure.
Then the senator stopped at the house of a young man who’d recently been released from “the system” and was having trouble finding a job. Trotter told the man he’d try to make it illegal for employers to ask “have you ever been convicted of a felony?” on job applications.
“One of the things we’re going to be looking at in Congress is this double jeopardy thing,” he said. “Once you’ve done your time, you should be welcome back to the community.”
Trotter offered to refer the man to an employment program.
“I can’t promise you a chicken, but I might get you chicken wings,” the senator said.
As Trotter walked away, he explained that for a lot of guys one trip to prison can turn into a life sentence. Guy comes home, can’t get a job, so he gets back into crime. “That’s one of the reasons our community’s been the cannon fodder for the penal industry,” he said. “They set you up where your only friends are those people who are going to get you back. They count on them doing something to come back.”
A cold dusk was coming on, so Trotter decided to head to his Jeep and drive back to his campaign headquarters. On the way there, he was asked whether he and his wife would move to Washington if he wins, as Obama would do.
“Aw, heck no!” he exploded. “That’d be suicide. You serving these people. How you gonna know what they need?”
And how, too, would he find time to eat at Army and Lou’s, to see a show at the Hyde Park theater, to hang out at Izola’s and Captain’s Hard Time, to swim at Rainbow Beach? He may have been Rahsaan Don and Tucson Don in his wandering days, but now he’s south-side Don.
“This is my city,” he said. “Someone who’s not from here, you can get a love for it, you can appreciate it–but I’m just as much a part of the city of Chicago as the city of Chicago is part of me.”
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photographs by Nathan Mandell. Barack Obama, Bobby Rush, Donne Trotter on cover. Inside: two uncredited photos..