There are about 20 candidates on next week’s Democratic primary ballot who have decidedly bad reputations. They’re usually referred to in the daily newspapers as “followers of right-wing political extremist Lyndon LaRouche Jr.” The Democratic Party of Illinois is handing out thousands of palm cards that shorten the label to “LaRouche extremist,” backed with several nasty allegations about the still more abbreviated “LaRouchies.”

There’s been lots of publicity about how worried these candidates make the Democrats. (In 1986 two LaRouchies won statewide primaries; the ensuing confusion may have cost Adlai Stevenson III the governorship.) There’s also been some publicity about the Democrats’ accusations against them, generally along the lines of calling them racist cultists, and occasionally someone mentions one of the zanier aspects of the LaRouche view of the world, such as its call for the colonization of Mars, or its claim that the queen of England and the Anti-Defamation League are leaders in a vast narco-terrorist conspiracy. But almost the only articles I’ve ever seen relating the candidates’ own statements are the Sun-Times’s Sunday overviews. And there’s almost never any distinction made between the candidates. Democrats fret that people confuse Sheila Smith and Sheila Jones; but with neither well defined in the public eye, how can we help being confused?

It’s not all the dailies’ fault. The candidates and their organization have made it pretty clear that media contact will happen on their terms or not at all. They sometimes issue press releases or hold press conferences, but they don’t offer position papers on state issues or even biographies of all their candidates, and it’s almost impossible to get them by phone. It took weeks for the IVI-IPO to get any information out of them–weeks after IVI’s endorsement deadline. Indeed, Gerald Pechenuk, the LaRouche organization’s candidate for committeeman of the Fifth Congressional District, told me flatly, “We’ve gotten this far without the media.”

But these people can be taken on their own terms. They do have some public positions; some of them do have public histories.

Take Rose-Marie Love, the candidate for secretary of state. That office is best known for patronage, and so Love’s candidacy is wholly appropriate. She used to be a county health worker and a precinct captain for 24th Ward committeeman and alderman Bill Henry. In 1986, amid Council Wars, Henry threatened to run for a major office and disrupt the Democrats’ slate unless they put Love on the County Board ticket. So they did; Harold Washington endorsed her too, and she won, only to fade promptly into obscurity. Come 1990, with Henry in legal hot water, the Democrats happily dumped her, claiming she’d skipped too many meetings and slept through the ones she attended. She said they were racist (a common complaint in 1990) and opposing her for her independent views, which won her some support. But most black independents just laughed: she’d been a regular most of her political life and had never, in their view, shown much independence in the first place.

Then there’s Sheila Jones, the LaRouche candidate for governor. Jones’s name certainly ought to sound familiar by now. She’s run three times for mayor, and once each for the U.S. House and Senate. What’s more, she was the 1986 effort’s campaign manager. In fact, her campaign stands in the 1987 mayoral race were sometimes quoted. She called for massive AIDS testing and quarantines for those who tested positive, a moratorium on debts to Wall Street firms, a major effort to step up exports to the third world, and a small transaction tax on the Board of Trade to pay for it all. She’s also, the LaRouche campaign office points out, a music teacher who’s worked as far away as Jordan in that capacity and last month directed a black history musical right here at the DuSable Museum. The campaign asserts she’s been a leader in a Milwaukee teachers strike, in an NAACP youth organization under Martin Luther King, and in quite a few civic groups I’ve never heard of, such as the National Anti-Drug Coalition, the Coalition Against Genocide, and the National Political Congress of Black Women.

Anthony Harper, who’s running for lieutenant governor, is also described as a leader by his campaign bio: founder of the African-American Awareness Project, producer of the aforementioned DuSable Museum musical, and district representative for the Stockton local school council. Harper, now 34, has earned a real estate sales certification, worked as an “entrepreneur,” and won 21 bouts against 5 losses as an amateur boxer, according to the campaign.

Or consider Thomas Beaudette, the candidate for treasurer. His bio fondly recounts his successes while in the Navy as a founder of “Dads for Life.” In 1988 he’d entered “a court battle to prevent the abortion of his child,” and the resulting fame led him to begin the organization, which was featured on the Today show.

There are other candidates about whom less information is available–Mark Bender for example, who’s running for comptroller, and a variety of congressional and state committee candidates such as Pechenuk. But they have reasons for this. Their hopes for victory rest on voter confusion (as the dailies often point out), and furthermore their mentor has already said everything that needs saying. According to Pechenuk it’s pretty straightforward: “We’re campaigning overall on the fact that here’s LaRouche–here’s what he said, he’s been right. He’s been attacked and called names–here’s who attacked him and what they said. Take it or leave it.” I wanted to write about individual candidates, not labeled “LaRouchies,” but Pechenuk was unyielding; his one concern was that I get the label right: “the LaRouche wing of the Democratic Party.”

Very well then, what does that wing stand for? The Democratic leadership asserts that the “LaRouchies” are basically racist, anti-Semitic cultists and conspiracy theorists. They cite “a reign of terror directed at the Socialist Workers Party and the Communist Party” in the mid-70s. It’s all very amusing: what are regular Democrats doing sticking up for socialists and communists? And accusing a party whose leading candidates are black of racism? The presence of the LaRouche candidates on the ballot has already turned a number of hallowed verities upside down.

But what if–just for the sake of argument–you take the LaRouche candidates at their word? What if you assume they aren’t con men or cultists, and look at their platform? Well, it turns out to be a lot more substantial than the lunatic space cadet image implies.

When LaRouche ran for president in 1992 with James Bevel, a well-known leader of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in the 1960s, as his running mate they issued a book explaining their program. Without any particular ostentation they titled it The LaRouche-Bevel Program to Save the Nation: Reversing 30 Years of Post-Industrial Suicide. And they made in it a lot of genuinely serious policy proposals. True, the book is full of conspiratorial and extremist gems. Take, for example, this revelation from Mr. LaRouche: “The proposal for health care from both the Bush and Clinton camps is to kill people, in effect, by denying medical care they need, in order to create a fund to appear to carry the health insurance of the survivors.”

But the bulk of the book consists of a coherent argument for a new national and world economic order whose centerpiece is an enormous public works program. LaRouche argues that the health care crisis results from a scarcity of hospital beds and proposes to add hundreds of thousands of them. He advocates vast water projects, construction of high-speed rail lines as the foundation of the country’s transport network, nuclear fission as a “bridge to fusion power,” and investment in great projects abroad–in middle Europe, worldwide, and in space. How does he propose to accomplish these things? Unfettered free trade and tax cuts a la the usual right wing recipe?

Hardly. LaRouche calls NAFTA “Auschwitz below the border.” He doesn’t call for tax increases but doesn’t focus on cuts either. His tax program focuses on penalizing “speculation” such as the futures and stock markets, and rewarding “productive” activity such as farming and manufacturing. LaRouche proposes to pay for all these activities as government programs. By abolishing the Federal Reserve he proposes to restore direct governmental control of the money supply, and then he’ll stop selling treasury notes to Wall Street firms and start making treasury credit available to these public works, and to productive industry. He estimates more than six million jobs will be created through this work, the majority in the public sector. This sort of government takeover of the credit markets has parallels both in many countries’ nationalization of their banks, which resulted in hyperinflation, and in Stalin’s massive public works programs, which did not.

It’s not tough to parlay these ideas into local equivalents. Presumably Jones or Harper, for example, if either became governor, would push vigorously for public works programs and just as vigorously for strictures on the futures industry and the state’s relations with Wall Street. (Of course, the Illinois legislature, particularly Michael Madigan’s house, is well-known for its ability to deny opposition governors what they want.) Beaudette as treasurer would have substantial opportunities to trouble the banking world, and he, like Harper, has a real shot at victory, at least in the primary. As for hot-button issues, Jones has stated opposition to gambling–an obviously unproductive activity–and she supports school vouchers.

The LaRouche program on the infrastructure is rich in detail, and the above summary really doesn’t do it justice. But there is, of course, more. Despite LaRouche’s overriding concern for worldwide peace and prosperity (those and the space program are his three major goals), his cultural views are as reactionary as his reputation makes out. He vehemently attacks environmentalism on progrowth theoretical grounds, treats homosexuality as a part of a cultural conspiracy, and in several places implies opposition to feminism and abortion. (This last at least is consistent with bitter attacks on the death penalty and a tendency to call his opponents “neo-Malthusians.”) Presumably Jones would fight for these sorts of concerns as well, as could Love, in the secretary of state’s role as state librarian. Meanwhile, although there’s little evidence in this book of the “racism” the Democratic leadership accuses LaRouche of, his educational program is taken straight from the Great Books program: Renaissance and Enlightenment literature and art, Euclidean geometry and 19th-century German physics, and classical music. However, Pechenuk asserted that this program depends more on a recognition of tradition than on claims of Western superiority. In fact, he used examples from many cultures to argue for a restoration of the pre-Romantic tuning of musical instruments.

The followers’ tendency to treat LaRouche as a polymath is, of course, something the Democrats are drawing on. It’s not just the complete faith in the leader, the conspiracy theories, the call for federal control over education and an enormous amount of economic activity–all those things that make people flash “fascist!” It’s the wild range of LaRouche’s views: drugs, education, family structure, world affairs are all grist for his mill. These people must be nuts, in other words–they hold political views about art and music! But don’t a lot of us? And aren’t presidential candidates expected to speak at length on nearly every subject?

In fact sizable chunks of the LaRouche program sound like familiar aspects of a past Democratic mainstream. Mayor Richard J. Daley, after all, was a cultural conservative who opposed the ERA, gay rights, and changes in the schools, as well as a great builder who pushed big projects and public works and the employment that would result. While he probably wouldn’t have felt at home with the LaRouche style, or with the radicalism of LaRouche’s thinking, a lot of LaRouche’s conclusions would hardly have disturbed him. In that sense, this primary pits the Democrats of the 1990s against their own ancestry. And maybe that’s the best reason the party could give to vote against the “LaRouchies.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Illustration/M.K. Brooks.