By Ben Joravsky
Mayor Daley roared into office eight years ago vowing to crack down on anyone who owed the city money. Now Ralph Creasman understands better than most that the mayor wasn’t kidding.
“I was sitting in my office one day last month when a woman from the city came to the door and said I have to pay $125 for a business license,” Creasman recalls. “A business license? I never heard of such a thing. I didn’t know I needed one. I’m still trying to figure why they came after me, of all people.”
To appreciate his astonishment, you have to know that Creasman is a 77-year-old pensioner who supplements his meager income by working as a freelance illustrator (one of his clients is the Reader). His office is a small, narrow room on the third floor of an unassuming brick building wedged against the elevated tracks at Kinzie and Wells.
He has always, he says, been a man of modest means. “I was born in Nashville, I went to school at the Art Institute, and for a while I lived in Dallas, when I worked in the art department at Neiman Marcus. I came back to Chicago in the early 50s because I liked it here. I was never rich. It’s always been a struggle.”
He lives in Rogers Park in an apartment without a phone and keeps an office because “what clients I have are downtown, so it’s best to be close by if they want to see you.” To drum up work he tries to make the rounds, carrying a portfolio of illustrations drawn many years ago. But most of his time is spent alone in his office, a room crowded with file cabinets and two desks. His only window faces the wall of another building. The building manager says he’s a “sweet old man” who always pays his $300-a-month rent promptly and is at his office almost every day, even Saturdays.
“I keep Japanese prints on the wall because they give me pleasure to look at, and I like to listen to classical music on the radio,” Creasman says. “I used to share this office with another designer–that was his desk over there. We got along even though the room is small. We liked the same kind of music. He retired and moved to Park Ridge. So now it’s just me.
“I’m sort of old-fashioned. I don’t have a computer–I’m against the computer graphic arts, though I know that’s the thing these days. I’m against the fax machine–I don’t have one of those either. It’s not conducive to the way I do business. I like to see the people I’m working with. I sketch my designs on linoleum and then make my cuts and make prints. I do things twice rather than once. When I go, that’s the last of my kind. But I’m not gone yet.”
Creasman was sitting at his desk listening to the radio when he heard the knock on his door. “This woman showed up asking all sorts of questions about how long I’d been in business and where’s my license. I have to tell you, I wasn’t exactly pleasant. I raised my voice. I was abrupt. I wanted to know who she was and what she wanted from me. She said, ‘I’m from the city, and I’m here because you don’t have a license.’ Something like that. I told her, ‘I made $1,700 so far this year’–which is a lot less than she makes, I’m sure of that–‘so why are you trying to take money from me?’ She didn’t answer. We didn’t really have a conversation. She gave me a form, some sort of ticket, telling me I had 30 days to report to City Hall and pay.”
The more Creasman thought about it, the angrier he got. The $125 fee seemed excessive. And it seemed strange that the city should suddenly appear at his door. No one else in his building had been visited. “If the city came by, maybe they were out,” he says. “But no one had been asked to pay a license fee.”
Creasman didn’t have any idea why the city had come after him. He said he didn’t have any enemies at City Hall. “Sometimes you give people a little authority and it goes straight to their head.”
On October 21 Creasman walked along Kinzie to the red brick courthouse on LaSalle, next to the Chicago River. “I went through the security check and got into a line,” he says. “It really wasn’t very organized. They have all these clerks behind their windows in their offices–well, cubbyholes really. They had me fill out a piece of paper and go up to the eighth floor. They just told me to go there, so I went, though I still don’t know what it was that I did on the eighth floor that couldn’t get done on the first.
“Anyway, there was another clerk in another little room waiting for me up on the eighth floor. I told her, ‘What’s your opinion of a guy 77 years old having to do all this?’ She said, ‘You’re yelling at me.’ I wasn’t yelling at her any more than I’m yelling at you right now. I’m a little hard of hearing, so I tend to talk loud, that’s all. Anyway, I went back down to the first floor, wrote them a check for $125, and went back to my office. So yes, I paid it, but no, I didn’t like to. I suppose no one would. I felt I was forced to pay it.”
A few weeks later his business license arrived in the mail. It’s a creamy red certificate with a big city stamp in the middle and a warning on the bottom that reads, “This license must be posted in a conspicuous place upon the licensee’s premises.” Creasman says, “I stuck the certificate up on the wall where the city can see it if they should come back again, though I doubt they will–and I hope they don’t.”
The license bears the stamped signatures of Mayor Daley and City Clerk James Laski. Not surprisingly, Laski’s spokesman is quick to explain that his office had nothing to do with what had happened to Creasman. “No, no, no, we don’t write tickets,” says Peter Coffey. “We only issue the licenses after the fees are paid.”
According to Coffey, the city grants more than 200 different types of licenses, covering everything from liquor stores to groceries. “We basically license every kind of business not licensed by the state. Some licenses cost as much as $1,000. There’s a sliding scale based on the size and type of operation, and the $125 that [Creasman] paid is on the lower end. But, like I said, if you want to know how these people get ticketed, your best bet is to talk to Revenue.”
According to Hugh Murphy, director of the Revenue Department, Creasman was caught in a routine inspection. “We have a staff of about 25 investigators who go out in the field, literally walking from building to building looking for businesses that don’t have licenses or businesses that are improperly licensed. They go out every day. It’s nothing personal against [Creasman] or anyone else. It’s just a routine matter. They happened to be in his building, and he got caught. It’s not unlike the boot crews who go out into the street, only those crews are using handheld computers so the operators can punch in from the street and find out if a car is boot-eligible. We don’t have that kind of technology for the licenses yet.”
Should the city give an old pensioner a break? That’s not a decision for the ticket writers to make, says Murphy. “We’re here to enforce the law. These licenses provide millions of dollars for essential city services.”
But Creasman points out that there’s something sickening about the timing of his bust. The city investigator knocked on his door at roughly the same time the papers were reporting a new City Hall scandal–Alderman Patrick Huels, Daley’s City Council floor leader, had been given a million-dollar loan from a trucking-company owner who had a million-dollar city contract. “Those aldermen and their friends get a helluva lot more than I do, but the city makes sure it’s getting my $125,” says Creasman. “The thing of it that hurts me is they want me to do it again. That’s right–in February I’ll owe them another $125 for next year’s fee. I’ll pay it–at least I hope I’ll have the money to pay it. But that doesn’t mean I have to like it.” o
It’s His Party
How can a Democrat be pro-life and against gun control? Ask Glenn Poshard.
By Ted Kleine
This summer, Glenn Poshard held a rally in Daley Plaza to introduce the big city to his campaign for governor. The Democratic congressman from southern Illinois asked his constituents–some of whom live closer to the Mississippi Delta than to Chicago–to make the five- to seven-hour drive north to cheer on a fellow downstater. Hundreds showed up. There was a husky farmer from Little Egypt holding a can of Sam’s Cola in one hand and a sign reading “Pope County–365 miles from Daley Plaza” in the other. A pair of old guys in baseball caps and suspenders sat in lawn chairs, looking like they’d been lifted off the lawn of the old statehouse in Vandalia and set down in the Loop. And there were workers from the Trailmobile plant in Charleston, who felt that if it hadn’t been for Poshard they’d probably be out of a job.
In January of last year, Trailmobile, a company that makes semitrailers, locked out 1,100 unionized employees during a dispute over wages. The workers asked Jim Edgar–who was born and raised in Charleston–to help end the lockout. When the governor refused, the unionists appealed to Poshard, who’d won a reputation as a prolabor populist for trying to end the lockout at the A.E. Staley plant in Decatur.
“We told Glenn, along with some of the other representatives out of our area, and Glenn responded right back to us,” says Gary Collins, president of United Paperworkers International Local 7591, which represents the Trailmobile workers.
By the time Poshard got involved in April, some locked-out workers had already lost their homes or been evicted from apartments. The plant was bringing in replacement workers from Decatur and Peoria. Union leaders and company managers hadn’t met for two months. Workers had received no raises or cost-of-living increases for the past three years, and they were refusing to consider the company’s offer of another three-year contract with the same terms.
Poshard got on the phone to Trailmobile’s CEO, Edward Wanandi of Lake Forest, and the two men dined at a restaurant near O’Hare. Poshard tried to persuade Wanandi that the company’s relationship with the union was worth salvaging–these are good workers, he argued, and their families are suffering. Wanandi agreed to a series of secret meetings between the company and the union, with Poshard serving as a moderator. For the rest of that spring, the congressman spent his weekends hustling around the state like a diplomat trying to broker an armistice.
“I logged 144 hours in that situation,” Poshard says in his hoarse, emphatic tenor. “A thousand people in the governor’s hometown were locked out of their jobs. I came to Chicago, right over here on the lakefront, and met with their company owner I don’t know how many times. I met with the union and the company in Kankakee, in Champaign, in Charleston. We worked for weeks to get those people a contract and to get the lockout stopped. It’s something I felt I should do.”
In July Poshard finally got Wanandi to sit down with Collins. That meeting ended the lockout: the CEO and the labor leader hammered out a deal that gave Trailmobile’s workers a three-year contract with a guaranteed wage increase of 58 cents an hour–not much, but still a raise. Both the company and the union agree that Wanandi and Collins might never have ended up in the same room if Poshard hadn’t spent three months pushing their chairs toward the door.
“He kept the talks going, and also got us to speak to the owner himself, who hadn’t originally been involved in the bargaining session,” says Collins. Now that Poshard is running for governor, he adds, the union “supports him a hundred percent.”
Southern Illinoisans are fanatical about Glenn Poshard, who has represented them in Congress since 1989. They love the fact that he grew up on a farm outside of Carmi, not far from the Wabash River, and that he became a schoolteacher after finishing his army service. They appreciate the stand he took against the assault-weapons ban–as every rural sportsman knows, if assault weapons go, hunting rifles are next. They’re grateful for his support of unions–until the United Mine Workers came to the region, people in the coal towns were little more than serfs of the big mining companies. And in an area where pretty much everyone is Baptist or Catholic, they’re grateful that Poshard has voted consistently to stop abortion.
“He has tremendous grassroots support down here,” says Joe McGlaughlin of Decatur, chairman of the Macon County Democratic Party. McGlaughlin cites a bratwurst picnic held for Poshard at a local union hall. “There was a tremendous outpouring of the whole spectrum of the Democratic Party: old-line Democrats, labor Democrats, conservative Democrats, liberal Democrats. People like him for his honesty and his view of government as a way to help people.”
In Chicago, Poshard mostly has the support of politicians with blue-collar constituencies. William Lipinski appeared with Poshard when he announced his candidacy on March 10, and southwest-side aldermen Tom Murphy and Mike Zalewski have endorsed him, as have the township committeemen in Berwyn, Stickney, and Thornton.
But a lot of city folks find Poshard’s rural worldview threatening. In an article on city clerk Jim Laski’s endorsement of Poshard, the Tribune noted the “conservative” candidate’s “opposition to abortion and Democratic Party gun control measures.” Some women in the Democratic Party have compared him to Al Salvi, last year’s GOP Senate candidate, because of his unpopular stands on those issues. Democratic state central committeewoman Luellen Laurenti of Normal says nominating Poshard to run against Republican George Ryan–another pro-lifer–would give prochoice Republican women no reason to cross party lines in the general election.
“The Democratic Party has had a platform position of being pro-choice for many years,” says Laurenti, who supports John Schmidt–a former Justice Department official and onetime chief of staff to Mayor Daley–for governor. “An anti-choice position is a no-win position. If Poshard is the nominee, the pro-choice Republican women may just stay with Ryan.”
That attitude, says Poshard, is simply not fair to the state’s pro-life Democrats, who include perhaps the party’s most powerful member, house speaker Michael Madigan. Since being appointed to the state senate in 1984, Poshard says, he’s supported every pro-choice Democrat on his party’s ticket–why, in 1988 he even used up his two weeks’ vacation campaigning for Paul Simon in Iowa. He says he’d appreciate it if the party’s pro-choice contingent stopped using abortion rights as a litmus test to determine who’s a real Democrat. “Are we going to say to the 750,000 loyal, pro-life Democrats who provide the margin of victory for this party in state representative seats, state senate seats, every race statewide, are we going to say to them, ‘Now you have a glass ceiling, beyond which we are not going to let you rise’?”
Poshard calls himself a “whole-life Democrat” who sees protecting the unborn as consistent with the party’s commitment to care for the poor and the elderly. Sure, he votes against abortion, he’ll tell you, but he also voted to fund Head Start and the Women, Infants and Children nutrition program. As a state senator in 1987, he proposed a plan to use income taxes to fund education, the same plan Edgar is pushing now, because it would have helped hard up school districts near his home. Like his opposition to abortion, those stands “all came out of my sense of social justice,” which he learned in the Southern Baptist Church of his boyhood.
A deeply religious man, Poshard says he “grew up” pro-life, “just like I grew up supporting working people, protecting vulnerable people, balancing the checkbook. My ideas about education for children, I grew up with that, too. It came from my family, which was steeped in the Democratic tradition, and it came from my faith. Someone said, ‘You shouldn’t talk about your faith,’ and I said, ‘Well, golly, everything else that I believe in terms of protecting the vulnerable, economic justice, my faith gave me all that, too. That’s where I learned those values.'”
Poshard argues that abortion is a federal matter; as governor he won’t have the power to prevent it. But he will have the power to make it more difficult to get one. As a congressman he voted consistently to limit abortion: he was against including it in federal workers’ health coverage, against allowing states to use medicaid funds to pay for abortions in the case of rape or incest, against criminal penalties for protesters who block access to clinics, and he was in favor of parental notification. In 1995, the National Right to Life Committee gave him a perfect 100, while the National Abortion Rights Action League awarded him a 2. “The question and concern is what will he do if certain legislation comes across his desk,” says Laurenti. “Will he sign a clinic access bill? He voted against that as a congressman.”
On guns–perhaps the other issue that most frightens urban liberals–Poshard recently came out against assault weapons after consulting with former senator Paul Simon, whose old congressional seat Poshard held until redistricting in 1992. As a congressman Poshard voted against the assault-weapons ban, but Simon advised him that sticking to that position would ruin him in a race for governor. Poshard says Simon told him, “You can’t represent all the people in the state holding to the views of the people in your district.”
“In southern Illinois these weapons are not used in crime,” Poshard explains. “They’re collector’s items, they’re for target practice or whatever, so it’s seen as a Second Amendment rights issue, and growing up on a farm and so on, that’s the way I saw it. Up here, where 70 percent of the people live, it’s seen as a crime issue, and I just simply said, ‘I will try to look at it from the perspective of all the people in this state.’ I came up here. I spent time with Danny Davis in his congressional district. We visited the Cook County Hospital. I talked to nurses in the emergency room. I talked to doctors. I talked to people on the street about their children being able to play out in neighborhoods where they felt it was unsafe because of drive-by shootings and stuff. I understood exactly what Paul Simon meant.”
Yet Poshard voted against the Brady Bill, which requires a five-day waiting period and a criminal background check before gun purchases. The bill’s namesake, former presidential press secretary Jim Brady, is from Centralia, a town Poshard once represented in Congress.
Though people in southern Illinois are far more traditional, far more “family values” oriented than any North Shore Republican, they remain in the Democratic fold no matter how kooky they think their party has become on abortion, flag burning, guns, environmentalism, and school prayer. The region has been Democratic since the days of Andrew Jackson, when it was settled by migrants from Kentucky, Virginia, and Tennessee. Poverty and labor strife have kept it Democratic ever since. Johnson County, which has the lowest per capita income in the state, is in Poshard’s district. So is Herrin, where coal miners massacred 23 scabs from Chicago during a 1922 strike (and were acquitted by sympathetic local juries).
“The further south you go, the more Democratic Illinois gets,” says John Jackson, a professor of political science at Southern Illinois University. “Economics really drives politics down here. It’s been economics, eking out a living in the coal mines and on marginal farms. It’s part of the culture.”
Poshard’s father, Louis, was a small farmer who never made it past the third grade. (Only one generation down the line, Poshard has a doctorate in education.) Louis Poshard was a “Truman Democrat” who served on the local school board and was crazy about politics. His loyalty to the Democratic Party was sealed after his father-in-law, also a farmer, had to sell the mineral rights to his land in order to pay taxes during the Depression. The farm yielded 15 gushers, but the family got nothing except a view of some oil wells.
“My grandfather saw his children and his grandchildren grow up in abject poverty in the very shadow of that great oil field,” Poshard said in his impassioned Democrat Day speech at the Illinois State Fair this summer, “with millions of dollars going to major oil companies and not one cent going to his family. That situation sparked a fire in the heart of my father–a fire that embraced one notion and one great party. The notion was justice. The party was Democratic.”
Compared to most people in White County, though, the Poshards were lucky–at least they didn’t have to work in the coal mines. In the 1920s and ’30s, miners were usually old men by age 40, barely able to breathe because of black lung. An early death was the price for supporting a family. The United Mine Workers forced the mining operations to pay better wages and to institute safe working conditions. To southern Illinoisans, UMW leader John L. Lewis was a figure as important as Franklin D. Roosevelt. The miners’ union “was a very visible presence of what organized labor did to lift regular working men and women out of poverty,” Poshard says. “That was a very visible presence to those of us who grew up in southern Illinois and saw that. Well, that’s when I began to form my views on organized labor, and I have stood solidly with them in every case.”
When he was mediating the Trailmobile dispute, Poshard took late-night phone calls from the union’s president at his Washington office and flew to Chicago to talk Wanandi out of his threat to move the Charleston operations to a factory in Arkansas, a right-to-work state. Trailmobile’s general counsel, Timothy McDonnell, says he has “no knowledge” of such a threat, but Chris Mortell, who reported on the lockout for the Charleston Times-Gazette, recalls that the company was “close to moving a couple of times.” Poshard, he believes, stopped that from happening by “putting a little threat behind his office–if they moved, he wouldn’t like it.”
When Poshard talks about abortion or guns, he sounds weary and defensive. But get him on the subject of “working people” and he turns evangelical. During the labor troubles that agonized Decatur in the mid-1990s (4,000 workers at Caterpillar, Firestone, and Staley were on strike or locked out), Poshard’s fired-up populism was an emotional pole away from Edgar’s purring declination of involvement. In the Staley dispute, Poshard conspired with Decatur’s mayor, conservative stockbroker Erik Brechnitz, to pass messages between the company and the union when the two sides were not talking publicly. In contrast, Edgar granted three unionists a 15-minute interview when they confronted him during a visit to the headquarters of the Macon County Republican Party. He responded to their pleas to mediate the dispute by pressing his fingertips together and saying, “This is a federal matter.”
At the time Edgar was running for his second term as governor. He squished Dawn Clark Netsch two to one, even carrying Macon County. For almost eight years now, Illinois has been presided over by a vanilla-pudding moderate who is, as was once said about George Bush, a “warrior for the status quo.” Do voters really want to replace him with a guy who runs around the state hurling himself into labor disputes, like John Madden interrupting a TV ad? Poshard calls himself an “activist congressman,” and he promises to be an activist governor, too. In October he held a press conference to announce that, if elected, he would push for a law granting unemployment insurance to locked-out workers.
“If you come to a stalemate situation, such as we had at Staley’s or at Trailmobile, you’ve got to get involved,” he explains. “You have to become an activist. I don’t think that’s beneath the dignity of a governor to do that, if we’re talking about saving people’s jobs or making sure that they don’t get eliminated in the process of a downsizing operation. You tell me what justifies people being locked out through no fault of their own from their jobs when they’re not on strike, they’re not asking for anything except to negotiate a contract. Why doesn’t the governor step up for that? That’s a matter of simple economic justice.”
Poshard is a protege of Paul Simon, and like Simon he’s a southern Illinoisan trying to win a statewide election with the image of an honest candidate. Though he has a PhD, Poshard doesn’t have the intellectual aura that made liberals fall for Simon. “Rural earnestness” may be a better term for his style–so friendly and avuncular that you almost expect him to hand out candy after you’ve finished talking with him. But he may actually be a cleaner politician than Simon. He doesn’t take money from political action committees, and until this fall he hadn’t missed a vote in Congress for five and a half years. In 1988, when he was first elected, he vowed to spend no more than ten years in Washington. Poshard quit taking PAC money during his first term, when he found himself voting against his conscience and in favor of a major campaign contributor. Because of his no-PAC pledge, he’ll be spending only $1.2 million on the primary, a sum that SIU’s Jackson says is “on the threshold of respectable” but “won’t saturate the airwaves in suburban Chicago.”
The vigorous Poshard is a passionate public speaker and, says one pol, “very down-to-earth, very approachable in person,” which may explain why he has the support of 87 of the 102 Democratic county chairmen. It’s also why he has hordes of downstate constituents walking door-to-door with literature and participating in his “Ten for Glenn” program (invite ten people to your house, show them a ten-minute campaign video, get each to contribute $10). He needs every sawbuck, since he’s set a limit of $2,000 from individual donors.
Poshard’s political style is perfect for the independent-minded farmers and tradesmen in his district, but will it work in Cook County, where two-thirds of the vote in the Democratic primary is cast, and where politics is dominated by TV ads, newspaper coverage, and ward machines? Because this is a five-candidate race, Poshard’s people are saying he can win with less than 20 percent of the vote in Cook if he sweeps downstate. One of his supporters, Democratic state central committeewoman Mary Ellen O’Hara Considine of Chicago, was excited to see former state treasurer Patrick Quinn enter the race because, she figures, the more Chicago lawyers Poshard gets to face the better his chances. Quinn, Schmidt, Jim Burns, and Roland Burris will divide the city vote, while Poshard’s rural support remains solid.
But even if Poshard wins the primary, some party regulars think his no-PAC stand will doom him against a money-bloated party hack like George Ryan. Poshard says he doesn’t care.
“How do you know unless you try?” he asks, drawing a government- class parallel between his courage in resisting PAC money and the Founding Fathers’ courage in resisting the British. “What is it worth to be governor? Is it worth doing what you think in your heart is the wrong thing? It isn’t. I’m gonna tell you something. I’m 52 years old. Do I want to be 79 or 80 years old and looking back over my life and say, ‘You know what? You chickened out. You did something you really didn’t believe in because you wanted this position or this authority or whatever.’ I’m not gonna do that. I’m two-thirds of the way through my life. Why would I do that now?” o
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Ralph Creasman photo by Terri Wiley Popp.