When the “Rothenberg Report,” a nonpartisan political newsletter, ran a story about the race for Illinois’ Fifth Congressional District, it summed up the contest with the headline “Big Names Versus Polish Name.” The Democratic A-list had lined up behind Rahm Emanuel, the former Daley finance director and Clinton adviser. Meanwhile, Polish civic leaders, journalists, and well-wishers were gathering along the campaign trail to schmooze with Emanuel’s opponent, Nancy Kaszak. In this company Kay-zak became Ka-schak, which is how they’d say it in Gdansk.

Kaszak, a 25-year resident of the Fifth District and a former state legislator, has probably never been as Polish as she is right now. Ethnicity didn’t enter the picture in her early Lakeview days when she first made a political splash by organizing against night games at Wrigley Field (hardly a bread-and-butter issue for Poles on the northwest side), or when she was general counsel for the Park District while Harold Washington was mayor.

In 1987 Kaszak ran unsuccessfully for alderman in the 46th Ward. It was her last race until 1992, when she ran as a good-government liberal for state representative. Elected in a startling upset over incumbent Al Ronan (with a bit of help from Alderman Richard Mell, who’d fallen out with Ronan), she compiled a liberal record in Springfield, never, so far as anyone can remember, leading the charge for any specifically Polish cause.

But in 1996, when she ran her first race for Congress, she began to make the rounds with Polish civic leaders and conduct interviews in the Polish press. It was a shrewd move. The district had traditionally been thought of as Polish: after all, these were Dan Rostenkowski’s stomping grounds. Yet the Dems had slated Rod Blagojevich, an American of Serbian ancestry, to regain the seat that scandal had pried from Rostenkowski two years earlier.

In 1996 Kaszak tried to assert her last name by announcing her candidacy at the Pierogi Inn at Lawrence and Milwaukee, her political mentor, Abner Mikva, at her side. (When she was 15 and living in Calumet City she volunteered for Mikva’s first congressional campaign.) This year she upped the ante. Again flanked by Mikva, she entered the 2002 race standing in the Copernicus Center, surrounded by portraits of Polish kings.

Whereas her ’96 campaign literature made only a single oblique reference to her ethnicity and described her parents as “hardworking,” this year she hails from a “tight-knit Polish-American” family. There’s hardly an item in her press packet that fails to mention the Polish-American heritage. In the day I spend with Kaszak on the campaign trail she shakes hands with elderly Poles at the Jefferson Park el stop, gives an interview (through a translator) to WPNA AM Polish radio, and tours the offices of the Polish Daily News.

With the lakefront vote likely to split or tilt toward Emanuel, Kaszak needs strong support further west in the district to beat him. Without a lot of Polish votes, she says during her interview on Polish radio, “I would have great difficulty winning.”

Some think this strategy smacks of opportunism. “During her tenure as a state rep she never sought out the community,” says a Polish-American political leader who supports Emanuel and asked not to be named. “When she ran against Blagojevich she sought us out. We had fund-raisers for her, introduced her to people. Then when she lost she dropped out of sight completely. Then when she decided she’s going to run again she found her roots.”

But Kaszak contends that she’s always been close to her Polish roots. “It’s my ethnicity. I’m third, fourth generation, and just like many people who are third, fourth generation you’re a bit removed from people who are immediate immigrants. But I go to the northwest side and they all look like my relatives. That’s the test.”

The thing is, Chicago’s Poles may need her as much as she needs them. With congressmen Rostenkowski and Roman Pucinski gone, there are no longer any north-side Poles in important public offices, though they still compose a large portion of the city’s white voters. (It’s estimated that the Fifth District is now between 15 and 20 percent Polish.) City Clerk James Laski is Polish, but he hails from the southwest side. There used to be three or four north-side wards that were solidly Polish. Then there was one, the 30th Ward represented by Mike Wojcik. But last year’s redistricting tore it apart, and in the new ward map the 30th is mostly Hispanic. Pucinski’s daughter Aurelia, who as a Democrat was the Cook County circuit court clerk and is now running for the appellate court as a Republican, says north-side Poles feel abandoned by the Democratic Party and are “sick and tired” of their lack of representation.

In Kaszak’s view, the loss of the 30th was the “straw that broke the camel’s back.” Wojcik, who has endorsed Kaszak, agrees. “There’s an ill feeling out there, and she’s probably right when she says it’s going to affect this election.”

Thanks in no small part to a disgruntled Polish constituency, Kaszak, whose paternal grandparents emigrated from Poland, has become something of a cause celebre on the northwest side. When she arrives at 5711 N. Milwaukee, where the Polish American Congress, the Polish Daily News, and a WPNA AM studio are located, campaign communications director Laura Hunter introduces the receptionist to Nancy Ka-schak. The receptionist smiles eagerly, then ushers Kaszak and her staff into a small studio on the second floor. During the wait for a translator, some reporters from the Polish Daily News, which is on the first floor, show up to greet Kaszak. One shakes her hand and says, “We try to run bad stories about Rahm and only good stories about you.”

The ardor of Kaszak’s support on the northwest side prompts a question: how closely do her political views actually align with those of the Polish-Americans she wants to represent? Her staunch support of choice, opposition to welfare reform, and reluctant support of the death penalty (an issue on which she’s wavered some) probably puts her to the left of many of these voters. But Kaszak says policy differences simply haven’t come up. “It’s not something we’re discussing right now. My views are consistent enough with who they are to engender a tremendous amount of support.”

If this is true, if ethnicity trumps ideology among northwest-side Poles, that spells trouble for Emanuel–not only in the primary but also in the general election, where he might have to take on a Polish-American Republican such as Gene Urbaszewski (who’s quick to boast that he’s the only candidate on either primary ballot whose name ends in “ski”).

Kaszak seems to be growing into the role of Polish heroine. After the radio interview she instructs me on the Polish pronunciation of Dziennik Zwiazkowy, the Polish name of the Daily News. “See, the ‘dz’ is pronounced like a ‘j.’ I just learned that.” She smiles and says, “At some point it will start to feel natural.”

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