When they decided to call their meeting, the organizers figured 40, maybe 50 voting members would attend. But as the minutes ticked down to starting time, all the seats were taken, and a line of people without seats–attendance was estimated at roughly 200–snaked around the wall of the carpeted conference room and out the door.

It was June 25, and they were there for a session of the Independent Voters of Illinois-Independent Precinct Organization called specially to determine whether the group would endorse Republican Jim Edgar or Democrat Neil Hartigan in November’s gubernatorial election.

“It was the biggest turnout of the last ten years,” says IVI-IPO state chairman Jerry Meites. “I’d like to think I had something to do with that.”

He may be too modest. For better or worse, Meites, elected last August over IVI-IPO member Marc Lipinski, has reinvigorated the group–even his critics give him credit for that.

Contributions are up–this year the organization raised roughly $70,000 and will break even for the first time in years. Paid membership is at about 900 and rising, Meites says. Their annual fund-raising dinner drew 300, and both Hartigan and Edgar have eagerly vied for IVI-IPO support. Not bad for a liberal organization in the era of Reagan-Bush.

And yet Meites’s reign has drawn as much criticism as praise. It’s not unusual for the group to be rocked by factionalism–liberals just love to fight one another–but this brawl is more bitter and personal than most.

“I don’t want to be too critical because I’m still very much involved in IVI-IPO, but if Meites says he’s reached out to me that’s nonsense,” says Lipinski. “He has never reached out to me–not in a genuine way that I can trust or believe. He can raise money, no question about that. But he’s vindictive. Jerry and his allies have abused a lot of good people in this organization. That hurts.”

The most frequent accusation–denied by Meites–is that Meites bent IVI-IPO rules to try to get the group to endorse Edgar.

“Jerry despises Hartigan because Hartigan is backed by [43rd Ward Committeeman] Ann Stepan, who is one of Jerry’s bitterest enemies,” says David Slavsky, former IVI-IPO political action chairman and a Hartigan supporter. “Jerry tried to change the rules to help Edgar get the endorsement. And that’s not right.”

In some ways, the rift goes back to the 1960s, when the IVI-IPO–originally the unofficial liberal wing of the Democratic Party–first began endorsing “moderate” Republicans as a response to machine politics.

“The old heroes of the IVI were liberal Democrats like Paul Douglas, Eleanor Roosevelt, and Adlai Stevenson,” says Meites, who at 35 is barely old enough to have more than a fuzzy memory of these politicians. “We even supported Daley when he ran for mayor in ’59. That started to change in the 1960s, as Daley became more entrenched.”

Outraged by the killings of Black Panther leaders Fred Hampton and Mark Clark, the group endorsed Republican Bernard Carey over Edward Hanrahan for state’s attorney in 1972. They also endorsed Charles Percy for senator in 1972 and 1978.

“There were strong feelings against organization Democrats,” says Meites. “We have never been afraid to endorse Republicans. Over the years we’ve done it many times. Being independent means not being wedded to one party or another.”

Some say that the resolve to remain independent started to waver, however, after Harold Washington was elected mayor in 1983. Many IVI-IPO members were old friends of Washington’s; some of them went to work for him at City Hall. For some IVI-IPO members, the litmus test for an IVI-IPO endorsement was simple: support Harold, and the IVI-IPO will support you, no matter what you may have done in the past.

For instance, when Lipinski and other IVI-IPO members backed Toni Preckwinkle in 1987 in her aldermanic campaign against Washington floor leader Tim Evans, they were criticized as “Hyde Park elitists.”

The point is, once an “independent” has been elected, there’s no real reason to fight City Hall. “In some ways, I think we were a victim of our own success,” says Meites. “A lot of the reform measures we advocated–like open records–are now accepted by the regulars. The lines aren’t so clear anymore.”

Many independents now find themselves allied with Democrats they once fought. When state representative Woods Bowman and Alderman David Orr first won election about ten years ago, they were challenging the 49th Ward organization headed by Neil Hartigan. Now both Orr and Bowman rank among Hartigan’s most fervent supporters.

“After a while it’s silly to divide the world into independent and regular,” says one longtime IVI-IPO member. “Is Hartigan a hack because he supported Richard J. Daley? That was 30 years ago. Hartigan’s changed since then. We’ve all changed since then. For God sakes, let’s move on.”

Meites, however, remains a traditionalist, and to a degree feels that endorsing Hartigan violates the credo of a good independent. “There’s still a machine, and they still employ machine tactics,” he says. “In their own way, Slavsky and Lipinski are moving closer and closer to the Machine guys.”

Slavsky, however, sees his alliance with Hartigan as evidence of political maturity. “I eagerly support Neil Hartigan because I think he’s the best candidate,” he says. “In some cases you have to ask yourself whether you become irrelevant if you hold all politicians to unrealistically high standards. Not all candidates are going to be David Orr. Maybe it’s better to try to influence the candidate who can win.”

In 1989, the IVI-IPO infighting exploded during the Meites-Lipinski race for state chairman.

“It was a bitter campaign, and it stirred a lot of interest,” says Meites. “The election is done through the mail, and usually 20 percent of your members will return their ballots. This time we got well over 50 percent, and I won 318 to 159.”

After the election, he says, Lipinski and his supporters rejected many peace offers: “They wouldn’t help with fund-raisers. They wouldn’t do any work. When I put out my hand, they bit it off.”

Others say that Meites let the victory go to his head and that he has become a little dictator.

Tensions heightened as the governor’s race approached, and both sides tried some unusual tactics.

“We brought in about 40 new members to IVI who would vote for Hartigan,” says Slavsky. “There’s nothing wrong with that. You should always try to expand membership. But when Jerry found out, he mobilized his anti-Hartigan cronies.” This is where the rule bending comes in: “Usually we endorse our gubernatorial candidates in August or September, after the third-party candidates have had a chance to file. This time there was a suggestion we move the endorsement session to June.” Because there’s a waiting period before new members can vote, the Hartigan supporters would be excluded.

Meites denies he was behind that effort, adding that he voted against the schedule change.

“Of course he voted against it–but only after he saw it had enough votes to win,” says Slavsky. “That way his hands were clean of the whole affair. He’s no dummy, that Meites.”

“I’m glad David doesn’t think I’m a dummy,” Meites counters. “David’s not a dummy either. The fact is, I voted against the proposal because I was against it. I also have problems with their packing scheme. It may be good organizing, but it’s machine tactics. We’re supposed to be an independent organization. That is why people listen to us when we make our recommendations. How can we pretend to be independent when our membership is filled with Hartigan staffers?”

The squabble set the stage for what should have been one of the group’s most exciting endorsement showdowns.

“There might be a fight,” one insider said before the meeting. “Cheryl Olken-Patrick is supposed to run the meeting because she’s the political action chair. But Jerry thinks she’s too pro-Hartigan, so he may move to have her ousted as chair. Cheryl says she’s not giving up the gavel without a fight.”

Olken-Patrick did relinquish the gavel, but she did so without a fight (she said she had laryngitis). A former 44th Ward aldermanic candidate named Jim Masini–who has not stated publicly a preference for either Hartigan or Edgar–ran the affair.

Which was sort of dull, as these things go. Hartigan trotted out his big liberal guns–Orr, Bowman, Alderman Danny Davis, state senator Dawn Clark Netsch, and state representative Barbara Flynn Currie included. But debate was limited to only two speakers from each side, and there were none of the spontaneous eruptions that make for the best IVI-IPO debates.

Meites did note that Hartigan was against judicial merit selection, a long-standing IVI cause. But Bowman quickly responded that Hartigan only opposed merit selection for circuit court judges.

Someone else said Hartigan was not prochoice–which Currie denied.

“Well, he used to be against abortion,” someone said. “How can you trust someone who keeps changing his mind?”

Trust me, Bowman said, you can trust Neil Hartigan. Besides, Bowman continued, how can a bunch of liberals support a “moderate” Reaganite (whatever that means) like Edgar?

No one knew how to answer that question, and to their credit, Edgar’s supporters didn’t really try.

“I can’t think of a lot of good things to say about Edgar,” said one Edgar backer. “I just don’t like Hartigan.”

One woman suggested that the group endorse neither candidate. Her proposal was soundly defeated, however, and Hartigan was endorsed by a margin of 116 to 58.

“I don’t want to gloat,” said one Hartigan backer, “but we kicked Jerry’s butt.”

If Meites was suffering, he refused to let it show.

“I’m the state chair, so I’m supporting Hartigan–I’m loyal to the group,” says Meites. “In a perfect world, maybe we wouldn’t have supported either candidate. But the world’s not perfect. Look at it this way. If you have to go to an eye doctor, who do you go to: the guy who makes your vision blurry, or the guy who makes you blind? You go to the blurry one, because blurry is better than blind.”

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