By Ben Joravsky

It’s hard to imagine, but the most influential player in state politics this year might have been an unknown activist named Claude Walker, who’s spent the last 20 years of his life devoting long hours to the fringe campaigns of various populists and progressives.

Then one day last summer he got a call from house speaker Michael Madigan, the master of mainstream politics, asking him to work on behalf of a Democratic challenger in a downstate legislative district. Walker agreed, and as a result Illinois politics won’t be the same.

“The campaign Walker ran for Madigan was the most decisive in the last election because it gave the Democrats control of the house,” says Victor Crown, editor of Illinois Politics, a monthly newsmagazine. “He helped them win a race no one expected them to win. The strange thing is, I still have a hard time imagining Claude working with Madigan.”

Walker’s always been a bit of a maverick–the first and only Democrat in a family of Du Page County Republicans–who began his career in the late 1970s going door-to-door on behalf of antimachine crusaders such as Mike Holewinski, David Orr, and a south-side state senator named Harold Washington. “I worked on Harold’s ’77 mayoral campaign, which I’m sure most people don’t remember he ever ran,” says Walker. “We got clobbered. We got clobbered a lot in those days.

“In 1984 I got the bug and ran for state rep in Rogers Park–against Lee Preston. I didn’t have any money, so I figured I’d run a grassroots effort. I rang about 10,000 doorbells in four months. I was Mr. Grassroots, going to shake the hands of every voter. I got about 33 percent of the vote. They clobbered me in the western edge of the district where the machine was strong. You’ve got to respect someone who can get out the vote.”

By 1990 Walker hooked up with Patrick Quinn, the master of cage-rattling politics. “Pat never had any money so he had to be resourceful,” says Walker. “When he ran for office we did a press conference a day, anything to raise issues and get attention.”

When Quinn was elected state treasurer in 1990, Walker became his special assistant for consumer affairs. He worked with Quinn until last spring’s Senate primary loss to Richard Durbin. “I was out walking the dog one Sunday morning trying to figure out what to do with my life, and when I got back my wife says, ‘You’ll never guess who called–Mike Madigan,'” says Walker. “I didn’t believe it. I thought it was a friend playing a prank. I was thinking, why would he call me? Then the phone rings and it was him, calling again. He said, ‘I hear you might be interested in working on a campaign. How quickly can you get down to my office?’ I zoomed down to 65th and Kedzie, and next, there I was, meeting with Madigan.

“It was sort of unreal because I’d never worked for the regulars. I mean, when I ran in ’84 I was basically the Harold Washington guy running against the big, bad machine. But Madigan was very charming, very engaging. He offered me a sandwich and we chatted for a while, and then he got to the point.”

The situation was simple: the Republicans had taken the house in the ’94 elections and Madigan wanted to take it back. He was down 64-54 and to regain his speaker seat he needed to win six seats. Five suburban seats looked winnable–the decisive sixth swing district would have to be downstate.

“He had settled on the 75th District, which roughly runs from Ottawa to Kankakee, a mix of factory workers, farmers, and white-collar suburbanites then represented by a Stephen Spangler, a first-term Republican,” says Walker. “Spangler was the classic right-winger, a darling to the Christian right, antichoice, against women working–a guy from a different era.”

The Democratic challenger was Mary Kay O’Brien, a Coal City lawyer and former Grundy County prosecutor. “He said O’Brien had a lot of strengths but she needed a good manager,” says Walker. “The thing is, he didn’t want to tip the Republicans that he was involved because he knew they would then send in big money to help Spangler. He said, ‘Can you run a stealth campaign, can you fly under the radar?’ Then he smiled and said, ‘I know after working with Pat Quinn you like to hold press conferences, but you can’t do that here.'”

The next day Walker drove to Coal City and met with O’Brien. “She said she was down 15 to 16 points in the polls, but I could tell she had a lot of zip,” says Walker. “She said she’d been ringing a lot of doorbells, which scored points with me, and that she came from a big family that had been in the area for decades so she had a lot of friends.”

Within a few weeks Walker had a campaign office in Coal City and a temporary home in the local hotel; his salary and expenses were paid by Madigan’s Illinois House Democratic Majority Committee. “The first thing we did was a friend-to-friend program,” says Walker. “We had Mary’s friends write letters to their friends basically saying, ‘I’m a friend of Mary’s and you’re a friend of mine, so vote for her.’ We built from our support with unions and prochoice people.”

On election day they sent campaign workers into more than half the precincts. “It was a basic get-out-the-vote campaign–Dick Simpson meets Mike Madigan,” says Walker. “We made sure the people who said they’d vote for us actually voted.”

O’Brien won almost 53 percent of the vote. “I was in the La Salle County courthouse to watch the tallies come in,” says Walker. “By the time I got back to the Coal City headquarters it was three in the morning and the office was deserted. You could tell there’d been a huge party. I smoked a cigar and had a rum and Coke and quietly toasted the victory.”

O’Brien’s win transformed state politics by giving Madigan control of the house. “With Madigan in control you’ll see more pork-barrel projects go to parts of the state other than Du Page County,” says Crown. “You’ll see more movement on affirmative action, gender equity issues, public education. You won’t see [Governor] Edgar push things through like the Meigs Field deal. Of course, Madigan’s only got a 60-58 margin, and there’s another election in ’98. Still Walker’s due some credit for the change. The strange thing is that he usually runs insurgency campaigns, and the O’Brien campaign was more of a network thing. Has he turned over a new leaf?”

Have you, Walker?

“I like to think that I’m resourceful–that I can adapt to the circumstances. It’s funny–a few days ago I got a call from Quinn begging me to help him organize a protest at the county building over the board’s proposed tax hike. I didn’t want to do it, but Pat said, ‘Come on, it’s my birthday.’ So I made some calls and when we got off the elevator we saw eight TV cameras waiting and Pat’s face lit up. So much for stealth tactics.

“But you know how it is with us itinerant organizers. I feel like the lead character in the movie The Organizer. It opens with the organizer jumping off a freight train as it rolls into town late at night. He organizes the workers and has a romance with a local beauty and then at the end of the movie he gets back on the freight train and heads out of town. Just like me. Only I didn’t have the romance with the local beauty. So I’ve got my resumé out, waiting for that old freight train whistle to blow.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Claude Walker photo by Randy Tunnell.