Joseph A. Morris, the Republican candidate for president of the Cook County Board, has a proposition: when the Cook County Jail becomes overcrowded, rent boats. “We have riverboats–we could have prison boats. We could take some mothballed commercial vessels, park them at some appropriate location, and march several hundred inmates on board. We could feed the prisoners, give them beds, and take them to the courthouse when necessary. When the glut goes away, the boats would go on to another use.” Morris, a tall, bulky man wearing a gray suit, starched shirt, red bow tie, and Reagan-era White House cuff links, makes this suggestion midway through a meeting with the editors of the Star, a south-suburban newspaper.
“Um, interesting,” says Myra Guindon, the paper’s political columnist, who doesn’t know what else to say. Does his idea make sense? Or is it wacky?
Morris goes on and on, running 20 minutes over his self-imposed limit. But he leaves the impression he usually does when he speaks: that he’s the brightest, most articulate man ever to seek the County Board presidency, if not office in metropolitan Chicago.
“Joe is bringing incredible creativity to this undertaking,” says Larry Horist, executive director of the United Republican Fund, who helped engineer Morris’s capture of the party nomination. “The Democratic candidates in this race are trying to manipulate the levers of government. Joe is saying, ‘Do we need the levers? What are the levers for?'”
Yet Cook County is heavily Democratic, and it’s been nearly 30 years since a Republican has won anything much beyond a law-enforcement position, like sheriff or state’s attorney. To pull off an upset, a Republican has to carry several disparate constituencies–the suburbs, the lakefront, and the bungalow belt–and many doubt that Morris, a lawyer and former Reagan administration official, can accomplish that.
His views on issues such as gun control and abortion are so staunchly conservative that even his supporters fear he’ll be dismissed as an antediluvian of Pat Buchanan’s stripe. “Joe is a very unusual man,” says one Republican moderate, “but he’s going to destroy himself by being portrayed as the right-wing ideologue. I’m afraid for him.” Morris also often comes across as a stuffy University of Chicago debater, which he once was. Then there’s the question of whether his notions, like floating jails, are at all practical.
But he isn’t a stock Republican. He’s a Gary native from a family of Jewish Democrats who’s fluent in Spanish and who speaks passionately against discrimination. And sometimes the atypical sells well in politics. In big cities from Los Angeles to New York to Jersey City, voters, in a throw-the-bums-out mood, recently cast their lot with conservative Republicans. So Morris may have a chance.
“Joe may be a hard sell,” says Loop lawyer Paul Fisher, Morris’s campaign chairman, “but the voters are saying there’s something wrong with the political system. Regular politicians disappoint them by running government for their own selfinterest. They’re eager for something different–and that’s Joe.”
“I’m campaigning by shaking hands and kissing babies, though sometimes I get confused and kiss hands and shake babies,” Morris told the Woman’s Republican Club of Evanston the same day he met with the Star editors. “But more than anything this is an idea-oriented campaign. We are alive on the plane of ideas.”
Morris’s plans for county government call for smaller government, fewer taxes, more crime fighting, and more democracy. He describes his plans as Jeffersonian, and if implemented they would have significant consequences.
If elected, Morris intends to ask the state legislature to approve a convention to write a county charter. He’d like to see voters elect five delegates from each of 17 county districts, creating a chamber of 85 representatives empowered to write a new charter. “I’m so fond of debate, I’d put everything on the table,” he told the women in Evanston.
Morris would of course bring his own agenda to the gathering. The most pressing item on it is abolishing most county offices, including the assessor, the recorder of deeds, the treasurer, and the Board of Tax Appeals, as well as the trustees of the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District. The lone survivor would be the state’s attorney, whose office Morris wants to remain independent.
He believes these changes would increase accountability as well as save money. “Now people get service from county government, but they don’t know who to contact when it’s good or bad. No one’s answerable. I respectfully submit that even the most attentive and conscientious citizen is hard-pressed to keep track of the array of leaders we have now. That’s a recipe for obscurity, and obscurity is the playground of folly, waste, and corruption.”
There are now 27,000 county workers, 12,000 of them directly under the County Board president’s thumb. In their ranks Morris sees plenty of do-nothings. “There’s a lot of featherbedding in county government. Take a walk through a county building, and there are many people with no work to do. The waste is palpable. But there are also hardworking and committed public servants in county government. My intention is not to go in there with a meat cleaver and fire people willy-nilly. What I propose is to institute a serious system of management reforms, like performance evaluation and merit pay.” He foresees trimming the board-controlled ranks by 10 percent.
He would also shift spending priorities within the $2 billion county budget toward law enforcement, bolstering the jail and the sheriff’s department. And he would set up a county police force, a “Scotland Yard of the Chicago area,” that would incorporate all the local police departments. (His floating-prisons idea comes from New York City, which converted barges and ferries into jails.)
Morris is not enamored of the 1,000-bed Cook County Hospital, calling it “a shameful provider, which treats its clients like cogs,” though he respects hospital director Ruth Rothstein for managing to regain the accreditation the facility lost briefly three years ago. He also praises County Board president Richard Phelan’s move in January to establish an AIDS treatment and research clinic in partnership with Rush-Presbyterian-Saint Luke’s Medical Center, labeling it “an orphan operation that I will continue.”
Morris has a history with County Hospital. In 1992, after Phelan used an executive order to lift the 12-year-old ban on abortions at the hospital, Morris helped represent the five Republican commissioners who fought the order in court. He also argued the commissioners’ appeal before the Illinois Supreme Court in October. He thinks Phelan’s use of his position was “offensive,” but then Morris opposes abortion. “I’m prolife on principle,” he says, noting that if elected he would rescind Phelan’s order. One Saturday last month Morris delivered the kaddish, the Hebrew prayer for the dead, in front of a Western Avenue abortion clinic.
Morris has two plans for health care for the poor. If President Clinton’s health care plan passes, he says, “Cook County will not be allowed to pay for indigents and will be come the provider of last resort.” He would then “privatize the system,” selling off Cook County, Provident, and Oak Forest hospitals. If the Clinton plan fails, he says, “Cook County remains responsible,” and he would let the disadvantaged shop among hospitals. “We have a lot of noncounty facilities with empty beds, and they’d do a much better and more humane job for the disadvantaged.” But at a higher price, says the county Bureau of Health Services, which in a recent study pegs the cost of this kind of plan at $612 million more per year than the current program. Given how uncertain enactment of the Clinton plan is, Morris thinks it only makes sense to cancel Phelan’s plans to build a new county hospital, now in the draft stage and projected to cost $566 million.
Morris contends the Phelan administration has turned the county into a tax monster. He says that between 1990 and 1993 taxpayers were hit with a 43 percent increase in taxes for county services. But Phelan’s office says that in his first two years the county property-tax levy increased only 28 percent, reflecting spending to enlarge the County jail, open Provident Hospital, fix up County Hospital, and finance a new juvenile court building. A 0.75 percent sales tax and decreased obligations have since lowered the levy; in 1995 it will be only 16 percent more than it was in 1992, the first year Phelan’s levy was in effect.
But Morris continues to use the 43 percent figure. “There’s no justification for such an increase,” he says, pledging to roll back the residential tax rate as well as the sales tax.
Morris wants to let outsiders bid to run all the county operations they can. He’s willing to privatize the County Jail, for instance, as long as it costs taxpayers less. He wants trash collection and tax assessment performed by outside companies, and he wants to sell off abandoned property that’s in county hands for industrial use, though David Carvalho, a special assistant to Phelan, says most of that property consists of patches of land that adjoin expressway ramps. Morris wants the county to take possession of tax-delinquent houses and two-flats, which are now sold at scavenger sales, and “rehab and refurbish them, and put them back in the hands of home owners. I like the immigrant model. You are earning a little money, enough to buy a two-flat. Your whole family lives there as you, little by little, accumulate capital. We should exploit the possibilities for poor people to do that.”
Morris is troubled by “an increasing acceptability of violence in solving our problems,” but he sees a limited role for himself as the county chief in countering the trend beyond pumping more county resources toward police functions. “My mission will be to get out of the way for parents, churches, and teachers to do their jobs.”
He dismisses a Phelan-backed law banning assault weapons and a recent proposal to curb ammunition sales advanced by Cook County clerk Aurelia Pucinski and Palatine mayor Rita Mullins, as “feel-good measures that do nothing about crime.” He doesn’t see a need for new laws, only for tighter enforcement of existing ones, especially those concerning young people possessing or trafficking in guns.
For years Morris has been active with B’nai B’rith and its discrimination-fighting offshoot, the Anti-Defamation League, yet he has misgivings about the human rights ordinance passed by the County Board last year. “I am a fierce opponent of bigotry in all its forms, but I have serious problems with laws that put rules on people’s personal motivations.” He doubts the value of making private employers subject to the law. “Discrimination is morally wrong, but it should be your legal right,” he argues. “You should have to pay for such abhorrent behavior in the marketplace.”
When asked whether he’d extend health benefits to gay and lesbian partners, he pauses. “Oh, that’s interesting. That’s a very interesting question.” Finally he says, “Well, it seems that here the government is in the role of an employer. What you’re raising is not a social-policy matter. It should be a question of [union] bargaining. I wouldn’t be opposed to making benefits available to a nontraditional partner.”
Unlike Phelan and two of his Democratic opponents, Morris is running only for board president, not for a commissioner’s seat. He argues that being a full-time CEO is work enough. This year, for the first time, county commissioners will be elected from single-member districts under a remap adopted late last summer. Even if Morris had wanted to be elected commissioner from the north-side city district where he lives, it’s unlikely he could be.
His style would likely transform the County Board chamber into an even more fiery theater than it is today, with all its well-publicized set-tos between Phelan and commissioner Maria Pappas. Morris argues that the County Board must start acting like a true legislative body, and to that end he would introduce the annual budget six months before it’s due, which would allow for full debate. “That boggles the minds of my friends in the county building,” he says, laughing. “People will pick my budget apart, they say. Well, so what? This is the people’s business!”
At present there are 6 Republican county commissioners out of 17. In the fall election the Republicans will probably win six seats, though they might lose one. If Morris is elected, he’ll be working against a Democratic majority. But he has a ready answer as to how he’d accomplish his goals. “One of the hidden secrets of county government is that the president has one of the most powerful vetoes in the nation,” he explains, because it takes four-fifths of the board to override it. “The veto has almost never been used, but I’d use it. If the Democrats are willing to deal with me, to listen to my plans, fine. But if they aren’t, I will veto their bills, their big-spending bills. I’m willing to use my veto pen to shut the county down.”
Morris’s grandfather, also Joseph Morris, was a Chicago native who started out running a lunch wagon for workers building the U.S. Steel mill in Gary. He moved into the city in 1906, the year Gary was incorporated, becoming a restaurateur and insurance man and founding a company that bottled soda water, ginger ale, and seltzer. An active Democrat, he was chairman of the city party for a year, quitting in 1922 to run for justice of the peace.
His son, Herbert Morris, was an attorney with a small practice who in the 1950s set up a firm that constructed school buildings in Gary and other northwest Indiana towns. He married Joseph’s mother, Marian, the daughter of a U.S. Steel accountant, when he was in his mid-30s. “My mother and father thought they were going to be childless for biological reasons, but then I came along. He was 50, and she was 36.”
Herbert, a lean, cerebral man given to bow ties, had a taste for both public issues and Jewish affairs; he served two terms as president of the local B’nai B’rith. From his youngest years, says Morris, “I was very much my father’s project.” His father turned the dinner table into a debating society. “I drank in the gospel of Thomas Jefferson, which had to do with limited government, with people solving their own problems. My father carried with him an appreciation for the underdog and the common man, for immigrants, for people who through stick-to-itiveness make it in the world.”
Father and son even had Socratic dialogues going over what Ann Landers had to say in the morning paper. They also broached the subject of sex. “My father was concerned about my future sex life. I don’t remember us talking about the biology of human reproduction, though he had to have had a hand in my knowing. He definitely conveyed the proposition that sex is good–he touched on the pleasurable aspect, the fun aspect–and he also drummed home the sense of responsibility, that you cannot hurt someone, that you must respect someone. Over time a sexual ethic was implanted in me.”
When Morris was a preschooler, his father, convinced that Spanish was an important tongue to master, bought him language records. Later on “we had Spanish weeks, when all our home conversation had to be in Spanish.” His father set up a special cubicle in the library of his law office, where Morris started out doing menial chores like alphabetizing records; by high school he was doing legal research.
By then Morris had a reputation for being brilliant. “It was frightening having someone so bright in your class,” recalls Ida Santaquilani, one of his English teachers at Horace Mann High School. “You just had to give in and realize that he knew more than you did.” By the time he was a senior he was president of the debate club and a member of the history, chess, human-relations, Latin, and Spanish clubs. On Sundays he taught in the religious school at Temple Israel, a liberal reform congregation with a rabbi who was a civil rights activist.
Steve Wilson, a bassist with the Lyric Opera orchestra and Morris’s best friend from childhood, says Morris posted twin 800s on his SATs. Morris disputes that. “I was close, though I don’t remember my precise scores.” He does remember that he emerged from the exams thinking one math question was “poorly framed” and wrote a letter about it to the Educational Testing Service. “Six months later they wrote back and said, you know, you’re right.” When he was considering which colleges to apply to, his father let him tour schools on the east coast by himself so long as he stayed with relatives and called home every night. He was accepted at Harvard, Yale, Princeton, and Dartmouth, but he elected to attend the University of Chicago, where he felt “the access to topflight faculty would be easy.” It was also a haven for conservatives, which suited him just fine.
In high school he’d been troubled by the 60s-era Democrats, and in 1968 “I had this epiphany.” He says he realized that the Republican Party of Nixon and free-market economist Milton Friedman was the modern repository of Jeffersonian ideals. His conversion didn’t sit well with his father, an Adlai Stevenson Democrat and an early supporter of Richard Hatcher for mayor of Gary. Long debates ensued. “My father would say, ‘Yes, free markets are great, but they don’t work.’ ‘Conservatives are fine, but these people have racist and anti-Semitic agendas.’ Over time I would develop my rebuttals.”
His father became disillusioned with Hatcher after he became Gary’s first black mayor, believing Hatcher actively encouraged white flight. In 1972, his father was so sickened by the indignities Mayor Richard J. Daley endured at the Democratic National Convention that while watching the proceedings on TV he turned to his son and said, “Horror of horrors, I am now a Republican!”
U. of C. was an enormous tonic for Morris. “He didn’t just cross the state line, he entered another world, a very heady place,” says Ralph Lerner, a professor on the university’s Committee on Social Thought. “He was a very active participant here.” Morris was chairman of a group called Students for Capitalism and Freedom; Milton Friedman himself was the faculty sponsor. There were fierce debates between traditional conservatives and libertarians at the weekly meetings, with Morris in the center as what he calls “the fusionist,” staking out the common ground. He also wrote a weekly column for Chicago Rap, a conservative campus paper, and was captain of a U. of C. debate team that beat Oxford University in competition in London.
On campus Morris cut quite a figure.
This was the end of the hippie era, and here he was strolling the Midway with a proper haircut and wearing a dark suit and white shirt. “We speculated that he’d been born in a bow tie,” says Martin Northway, a Chicago writer who edited the Rap. Actually Morris began wearing a bow tie regularly only after he’d entered law school, when his father died after a short battle with lung cancer. “He was a great father and a great man. All he wanted was to be a good citizen and a good Jew.” Morris inherited his father’s collection of bow ties and one morning tried one on. “It just felt right.” He’s been wearing one ever since.
At U. of C. law school Morris stood out. “Not that he was a great student, but he was a remarkable student,” says professor Richard Epstein, who instructed him in contracts. “He had a very powerful persona and was quite a good speaker.”
Morris entered Republican political circles. While still an undergraduate he’d been a precinct captain for John Leonard “Bunny” East, the Fifth Ward Republican committeeman. As a law student in 1974 he became research director for a blue-ribbon ticket of Republicans running for county office, topped by Carl Hansen for County Board president and Peter Bensinger for sheriff, a slate that failed. He clerked for independent Republican Sheldon Gardner, who headed the civil division for state’s attorney Bernard Carey, and he trailed Philip Kurland, a U. of C. constitutional scholar, to Washington, where Kurland helped the Senate settle a dispute over the razor-thin election of a new senator from New Hampshire. When Morris came back to Chicago in 1976 he was elected president of the county Young Republicans.
After law school he hired on with Rothschild, Barry, & Myers, a law firm with which Kurland was associated. Morris spent five years there cutting his teeth as a litigator. He describes his tenure in positive terms, but Edward Rothschild, a senior partner, is less than glowing about Morris. “All I want to say is he is not eligible for reemployment here,” he says, but refuses to give specifics. Another partner, Norman Barry, calls Morris “a very competent attorney. But then we don’t hire anybody here who isn’t exceptionally talented.”
In 1981, after Ronald Reagan was elected, Morris headed east to help realize the conservative vision. For eight years he was a hotshot in the federal hierarchy. He served as lead lawyer, managing a department of 50 attorneys, for the Office of Personnel Management, an agency overseeing the hiring and compensation of nearly three million federal workers. He left in 1986, becoming a delegate to the UN Commission on Human Rights in Geneva, Switzerland. But not for long. Jeffrey Zuckerman, chief of staff for the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission under Clarence Thomas, had come under fire from civil rights activists, and that May the Senate Labor and Human Resources Committee rejected Zuckerman’s shift to the job of general counsel. Morris returned to Washington as special counsel to the EEOC for several months: “I came in as a stopgap.”
Morris helped prepare Thomas for his reappointment. “One of my jobs on his reconfirmation was to find out if there was anything unsavory about him, and in that regard I did some due-diligence work. No issue of personal behavior surfaced at all.” Morris, whose office was located next to Thomas’s, had “endless conversations” with his boss and found him to be a model of rectitude. “He was not given to the use of four-letter words even in private conversation. People would say ‘Oh, shit’ around him, but that wasn’t his style.” Morris considers Thomas “an excellent lawyer and a friend. To this day I have the highest opinion of him. In the great Clarence Thomas divide, my statement reads, ‘I believe Clarence Thomas.'”
Morris moved next to the U.S. Information Agency as chief of staff. Soon Attorney General Edwin Meese, in the wake of the Iran-contra scandal, asked him to head the office of liaison services within the Justice Department. “The department had gotten into trouble because stuff was going on that justice wasn’t reviewing. We were trying to put in a structure to ensure communication on things like foreign affairs, to make sure the attorney general wasn’t blindsided.”
During his tenure in the capital Morris met many of the era’s major players. Reagan, he says, was “witty, decisive, and much smarter than he’s ever given credit for.” Meese was “an excellent and highly underrated attorney general who, unfortunately, turned into a lightning rod for Reagan.” Morris also became acquainted with William Bennett, the highly opinionated education secretary and drug czar with whom Morris is often compared. Though he respects Bennett, he differed heatedly with him when Bennett refused to support getting rid of the education department, arguing that it afforded him a bully pulpit. “The federal government has virtually no role in schooling and by and large propagates educational bad ideas,” says Morris.
Morris was seen as a comer. “He was somebody much brighter than the positions he was in,” says Paul Weyrich, president of the Free Congress Foundation, a conservative think tank that convened a monthly discussion group where Morris sometimes appeared. “He was so far ahead of most people you see in government. If he’d been five or ten years older they’d have given him a cabinet position. As it was, he was just under the cut.”
In 1987, when Robert Bork was up for confirmation to the U.S. Supreme Court, Morris called up his old mentor Philip Kurland and asked for a Bork endorsement. According to Morris, Kurland was incensed at the request; the professor later came out against Bork, charging that he was a right wing apologist. Kurland and Morris have barely spoken since, and Kurland refuses to return phone calls about Morris.
In the waning months of the Reagan administration Morris elected to return to Chicago. “Had I stayed I suspect I would have ended up in the State Department. But I never considered government service to be the be-all and end-all. In the long term, family life, religious life, and commercial life are more important.” He wanted to be close to his ailing mother and stake out an independent legal career in Chicago.
In September 1988 he became general counsel of the Mid-America Legal Foundation, a Chicago-based group advocating the principles of free enterprise; the Washington Legal Foundation, a similar concern, had decided to rejuvenate the group by hiring Morris and injecting funds. Morris took off on what he considered a mission. He filed a brief with the Indiana Supreme Court in favor of executing a young woman convicted of killing an elderly neighbor when she was 15. On behalf of the American Legion and the Veterans of Foreign Wars, he brought a suit against the Art Institute over a display by student Scott Tyler that contained alp American flag spread on the floor; though unsuccessful, the suit garnered loads of publicity.
The Mid-America board members were concerned that their lawyer was pursuing social, not economic issues, but they grew livid about his spending. A subsequent assessment by the Washington accounting firm of Bond, Beebe, Barton & Muckelbauer showed that Morris’ had run Mid-America $136,000 into debt with such expenses as a larger office space and accommodations at the Bush inaugural. Morris wrote in a letter that he felt authorized to run up a debt in order to “reenergize” Mid-America. He now says the Washington Legal Foundation had obligated itself to bankroll Mid-America to the tune of $200,000, a commitment it never fulfilled. He also insists that Mid-America was out of debt when he departed, unless you count the rent due on the office lease. Neither Daniel Popeo, chairman of the Washington Legal Foundation, nor M.P. Venema, current chairman of the Mid-America board, would comment. In any event, Morris quit in March 1989.
That June his mother died, and shortly after that his marriage to Deborah Owens, a onetime congressional press secretary who’d gone on to head the federal missing-children program at the justice Department, broke up. “That was not a good year,” Morris admits.
With other U. of C. alumni he established the law firm of Morris, Rathnau & De La Rosa, where he has specialized in employment, contract, and constitutional law. He also set up the Lincoln Legal Foundation to continue his activist agenda. In 1990 Lincoln Legal lodged a friend-of-the-court brief with the Illinois Supreme Court in support of keeping an antitax amendment championed by the National Taxpayers United of Illinois on the ballot. In 1992, when the village of Arlington Heights tried to condemn a historic building that housed the Arlington School of Music, the school sued through Morris and Lincoln Legal. The case is now on appeal. “Joe’s done his damnedest to fight our cause,” says Nico Anagnostopoulos, the school’s owner. “He’s our Perry Mason.”
Morris is best known to the public as a guest on Channel 11’s Chicago Tonight. “Originally he was brought in as a political commentator, but it turned out he could deliver well-reasoned views on economics or women’s rights,” says host John Callaway. “Plus he’s one of the better-spoken people in the history of the world.” Morris turned into one of Callaway’s most frequent guests, which led to cohosting duties with former Harold Washington aide Jacky Grimshaw on a dinner-hour political program on WBEZ called Equal Time.
When Morris returned from Washington, the local conservative movement consisted largely of duchies that were frequently at odds. The divisions widened with the 1990 primary challenge to Jim Edgar by Steve Baer, the brash former executive director of the United Republican Fund. After his defeat, Baer retreated to the business world, and Morris set about to heal the rifts.
He and other conservatives began holding monthly meetings as the Fort Dearborn Group in the Loop offices of the law firm Rudnick & Wolfe. The gatherings drew –and continue to draw–big shots such as the United Republican Fund’s Larry Horist, Illinois Pro-Life Action League executive director Joseph Scheidler, and Joseph Bast, founder of the Heartland Institute, the leading local think tank of the right. Over coffee and rolls, participants make announcements, debate issues like drug legalization and school choice (almost everyone agrees on the wisdom of vouchers), and entertain remarks from candidates and officeholders.
Morris moderated the meetings from the first. “Joe has a tremendous ability to synthesize various viewpoints so that we all can understand the core disagreements,” says his campaign chairman, Paul Fisher, a Rudnick & Wolfe partner. “He’s very patient and very open to see the nuances of an issue that he hadn’t seen before.” At the Fort Dearborn meetings the city’s conservatives felt themselves coming together with Morris as the fusionist, just as he’d been in college. “Joe was able to bring about working relationships, taking a fractionalized situation and fixing it,” says Fisher.
One thing that came out of these meetings early last year was the Illinois Educational Choice Coalition, an organization backing school vouchers that has every significant conservative in Chicago, including Morris, on its letterhead. In the fall, when the Chicago public schools seemed bound again for financial disaster, the coalition aggressively pushed vouchers as a necessary component of any solution fashioned in Springfield. Democratic and moderate Republican legislators refused to go along, though the idea of vouchers did get a lot of coverage.
The coalition was dealt another blow in February, when its former executive director, Dyanne Petersen, pleaded guilty in Oregon to heroin smuggling and was sentenced to nine years in prison. Morris wrote a letter to Petersen’s judge on her behalf. “I knew her in the context of being a good employee, and I was going to stand by her to the extent that I knew her.”
Morris had volunteered to be the Republican standard-bearer against Carol Moseley-Braun in 1992, but party officials had turned instead ” to Rich Williamson. That November Fisher talked to Morris about making a race for County Board president. “I had become increasingly convinced that no one in county government had bothered to step back and think about underlying ideas,” says Morris. “To get to the big issues of freedom and tyranny–what we had dealt with during the Reagan years in Washington–you have to start at the local level, and there was this disconnect between national and local philosophy. There was no local philosophy, at least no conservative one.”
Despite Morris’s relative obscurity, his supporters felt he had a shot at winning the nomination. “There didn’t seem to be a major figure who wanted to run,” says Fisher. “If [state’s attorney] Jack O’Malley had decided to go for it, why would anybody else have wasted his time? But O’Malley didn’t want to, and once past O’Malley there aren’t a lot of 800-pound Republican gorillas out there.”
But there was a chimpanzee. In September party officials, particularly aides to Governor Edgar, tried to persuade Don Haider, the moderate GOP mayoral candidate in 1987, to run. Haider managed to negotiate a leave of absence from Northwestern University, where he’s a management professor, but in the end decided against running because his family had misgivings, he didn’t have the necessary enthusiasm, and Edgar wouldn’t commit $100,000 in intial financing. Edgar’s aides next romanced former Evanston mayor Joan Barr. When those negotiations broke down, Manny Hoffman, the Republican county chairman, turned to Rita Mullins, the Palatine village president.
The choice of Mullins–who was hardly a favorite among sitting county commissioners, since she was already challenging Richard Siebel for a County Board seat–exacerbated party divisions. And late last summer Hoffman had angered the commissioners by presenting a Republican version of a remap when the incumbents were in the midst of working out an acceptable redistricting plan with the Democrats. “We advised Manny not to put out his plan because we thought it would rile up the Democrats, which it did,” says Carl Hansen. “Fortunately we got most of what we wanted in the end.”
Morris, who’d stayed out as long as Haider was considering running, geared up to run. Hoffman’s difficulty in recruiting moderate candidates for board president and other slots forced him to delay a slatemaking session, and Morris’s supporters delayed it even longer with some parliamentary maneuvers that gave them time to organize.
The Republican committeemen–30 from the city, 50 from the suburbs–convened on November 29 at the Congress Hotel. Morris’s supporters–including Hansen, Siebel, Schaumburg’s Donald Totten, and John MacNeal, the 48th Ward committeeman–figured he had an outside chance at winning an endorsement. But it was not to be. In nominating Morris, MacNeal allegedly said, “Nobody gives a tinker’s damn about the women’s vote.” He denies it. Proxy votes put Mullins over the top, but the committeemen had also decided that her nomination wouldn’t be binding on ward and township organizations.
That was the least of Mullins’s problems. She now had just two weeks to present the requisite 6,300 signatures to the Cook County clerk to qualify for the ballot. But friendly committeemen and the United Republican Fund had already been circulating Morris’s petitions, and by the December 13 deadline Morris had 11,000 signatures. Mullins had only 7,400. MacNeal promptly challenged Mullins’s signatures. By mid-January an exhaustive check of voter-registration signatures had shaved Mullins’s signatures to 6,400, and it seemed unlikely that she’d survive once city signatures were studied. On January 18 she withdrew, leaving Morris as the Republican candidate.
But can Morris win the general election? His boosters–even Manny Hoffman now embraces him–say yes. “He’s the only candidate who can bring real reform to the county board, because he’s got such a totally different vision of government,” insists Horist. “He’s antitax, antispending, and he has no reason to protect the power structure–because his cuts aren’t going to offend some alderman he owes.” And, Horist adds, “Joe is not a brittle ideologue, an Islamic Republican who would rather die for his cause than succeed. He doesn’t get deranged by people who don’t agree with him.”
There have been several recent mayoral triumphs by new-breed conservatives on Democratic turf: Richard Riordan in Los Angeles, Rudolph Giuliani in New York City, and a former investment banker named Bret Schundler in Jersey City, where only 6 percent of the electorate is Republican but where people bought Schundler’s message of lower taxes, privatization, and vouchers. Horist is sure Morris will join them.
Certainly there’s excitement on the right. Campaign chairman Fisher has budgeted the general election at $1 million, an amount finance chairman Sondra Healy, board chairman of Turtle Wax, is confident she can raise. Edwin Meese is keynoting a fund-raiser for Morris on March 9.
Contrary to conventional wisdom, his backers say Morris will appeal to minorities, especially on the issue of crime. “More than whites, blacks and Hispanics are afraid to go out on the streets or send their kids to schools,” says Fisher. “They will buy Joe on making their neighborhoods safe, unless they mistake what he’s saying as code language for racism.” Joseph Scheidler adds that Morris’s candidacy will ignite an electoral crusade by fundamentalist churches and by “people who believe in morality, decency, and order.”
Yet Morris has several pronounced negatives. Mullins skewers him for his idea of folding all county offices under the board president. “Joe doesn’t want to be County Board president,” she says. “He wants to be king.” Mullins, who has refused to endorse Morris, also says his proposal to cut services to the forest preserves ignores the fact that many people use and love them. And she doubts that he can appeal to women given his prolife position and his past association with Clarence Thomas. Other Republican women are also unenthusiastic. Connie Peters, the committeeman for Wheeling Township, says she doesn’t know whether she’ll back Morris or not. “I’ll cross that bridge when I come to it,” she says sharply.
Many observers also think Morris’s drawing-room demeanor will hurt him. “Joe isn’t going to connect with voters,” says Peter Giangreco, a partner in the Strategy Group, a Democratic consulting firm. “With his bow tie and his way of talking, people are going to say, this person’s not like me. He’s not even a chablis and cheese guy–he’s a Dom Perignon guy.” His experience on the national and international stage may also make him a tough fit at home, a difficulty Morris acknowledges. “I’m going to be the only County Board president with a foreign policy,” he joked to John Callaway at Christmastime.
Morris’s larger problem has to do with being a Republican in Cook County. Voter registration in the county is roughly two-thirds Democratic, estimates Paul Green, a political science professor at Governors State University. Normally a Democrat will carry the county by 300,000 votes or more, says Don Totten. Even a poor Democratic candidate can prevail; in 1986 Adlai Stevenson squeaked past Jim Thompson by 19,000 votes in the county, and two years later the hapless Michael Dukakis won 200,000 more votes than George Bush. Except for law-enforcement positions such as sheriff and state’s attorney, the last time a Republican won a major county-wide contest was in 1966, when Richard Ogilvie was elected County Board president–and he’d been sheriff. To pull off an upset, says Green, Morris must win both the suburbs and the lakefront big and manage a slim victory on the northwest and southwest sides. “His chances are very, very slim,” says Green. His chances are further hurt by a hole in the Republican slate: no candidate for sheriff.
But, wonders Totten, “what do we have to lose with Morris? You look at the history of our major candidates. We haven’t had a woman, but most of them have been moderates–and none of them got more than 40 percent of the vote. And the more liberal they were the less votes they got. In my mind it’s time to try a conservative like Joe and see what happens.”
Totten figures Aurelia Pucinski would be Morris’s strongest opponent because she’s run county-wide before and done well. Giangreco thinks Pucinski would be weak against Morris because “she’s basically been a hack her whole life” and he could capitalize on his outsider status. Most observers say John Stroger presents Morris the same advantage, and there’d be the potential–one Morris scorns–of winning votes from disaffected whites. In Giangreco’s assessment, Maria Pappas would be able to undercut Morris’s outsider position. John Callaway relishes the prospect of a Morris-Pappas contest: “The notion of moderating a debate between the two of them appeals to me immensely. It would be a festival of ideas.”
Even if he loses, Morris wants to stay in politics. “He’s what the William Bennetts and other political figures of that type look like on the way up,” says Horist. “There’s an exceptional quality to Joe that sets him apart and puts him on the track to greater things.”
On the eve of what will surely be a fevered year, Morris appears relaxed. In April he’s marrying Kathy Kolar, a manufacturer’s representative. He prides himself on staying true to his thinking, on being altogether rational. He’s at ease with his image. “People tell me I come across as Mr. U. of C., but I’m resigned to it. I see myself as a fairly normal person. I don’t think I’m condescending–I try to play it straight and not speak over people’s heads. It would serve no purpose for me to change myself, since it would only come across as phony.”
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Kathy Richland.