The fight over Chicago’s electricity franchise has sunk pretty low. It’s almost as though the hick pitching radio ads for Commonwealth Edison scripted the whole show.

The situation used to be pretty clear. Commonwealth Edison’s contract to provide electricity to the city expires in 1992, and it was assumed it would be renewed. But then a study was done in 1987 that showed the city might be able to provide its electricity cheaper by itself–without Com Ed and its stockholders. That’s when politicians, community organizers, and ad men began their fight for consumers’ loyalty.

U.S. Representative Dan Rostenkowski was first. In 1987 he sponsored an amendment that now prevents cities from issuing tax-exempt bonds to buy existing electric facilities. Rostenkowski explained that the federal government couldn’t afford this kind of tax-exempt bond anymore, though his amendment did exempt investors on Long Island, New York, and in Austin, Texas. The amendment makes it extremely unlikely that the city will ever attempt to municipalize Com Ed because it would probably have to buy the company outright–a hopelessly expensive proposition.

Angered by Rostenkowski’s move and by steadily increasing electric rates, community organizers quickly formed a movement. The Chicago Electric Options Campaign (CEOC) has 12 official member organizations, including the Citizens Utility Board, the Illinois Public Action Council, the Logan Square Neighborhood Association, the Chicago 1992 Committee, and the South Austin Coalition Community Council.

CEOC organizers don’t actually want the city to buy Com Ed. They do want the city to terminate its franchise agreement with the utility by December 31, 1989, the last possible day it may do. so. Terminating the agreement would force Com Ed into negotiating with the city–and presumably organizers–about electric rates. Their first attack was a referendum last spring in the 47th Ward, which asked, essentially, whether electric rates ought to be lower. When that was successful, they chose to push similar referenda in 13 other wards on November 8. The wording of the referendum from the 32nd Ward was typical: “Should the City of Chicago seek lower electric rates by taking actions such as purchasing power from the lowest-priced sources available, acquiring power sources in the City, and/or joining with other communities to initiate a Northern Illinois Power Authority?”

Josh Hoyt, who takes credit for thinking up the referendum idea and for running the 47th Ward campaign, says he was inspired by the success of the home-equity referendum, which ultimately influenced policy. “We chose this tactic because politicians only understand two things,” he said. “Dollars and votes. Votes are their meal tickets. Without the vote, they get no dollars. When you go door to door, you talk their language. They understand that if you can get 5,000 people out on the street collecting signatures, you can affect them.”

Former city worker Al Patterson, now an aide to Alderman Helen Shiller, worked on the referendum in the 46th and 48th wards. “We started back in May,” he says. “We had about 100 volunteers in our wards. We didn’t expect it to be the hottest summer in 40 years. People saw us out there and started joining us.” He says senior citizens were among the strongest backers of the referendum. “A lot of senior citizens were sitting in the dark, afraid to turn on the air-conditioning last summer.”

Another key issue that organizers used was the nuclear threat. “A lot of people did not know that Com Ed had more nuclear plants around Chicago than any other city has in the nation,” Patterson says. He also says they pushed the cost issue hard. “[Com Ed] had a billion-dollar profit last year. A lot of people didn’t know that. We felt that, yes, the electricity was reliable, but it was too expensive.”

Com Ed reacted swiftly. Radio listeners and TV watchers all over the Chicago area were barraged with advice from a drawling pitchman the company called the Observer. The Observer’s Bible Belt twang and supposedly commonsensical, friendly advice flooded the airwaves from spring through fall. Com Ed advertising director Ed Peterson says the character, created by the Leo Burnett agency, is meant to be “a kind of Will Rogers.”

The Observer started off one monologue on municipalization (without once using the word) by saying: “Ya know, back home there’s an old saying that the true test of any relationship is spendin’ time together.” He then went on about fishermen locked together in the same cabin and about how one of two wives has a new husband after seven years–and managed to laud Chicago’s 100-year-old relationship with Com Ed in the process. In another spot he talked about a cab ride and a conversation with the driver about “the city managing its own electric company.” He concluded with, “I said, ‘Well I’m no expert, but seein’ as how the people have already spoken, maybe the problem is that some folks aren’t listenin’.'” Peterson said some people loved the ads” some hated them.

In October Com Ed paid the Democratic polling firm Michael McKeon and Associates to check voter reactions to municipalization and to a sample referendum similar to those on the ballot in November. A poll of 688 registered voters found that 65.7 percent favored the referendum. But when asked whether they supported a city buy-out of Com Ed, 63.6 percent were opposed. (On the obligatory racial note, the poll found that whites opposed the buy-out six to one, while 2 percent more blacks favored a buy-out than were opposed.)

Com Ed’s ad campaign has been expensive. In recent years, the company has shelled out three to five million dollars a year to Leo Burnett. This year Com Ed may spend six million in total ad costs. (Com Ed was forced to reveal more of how much it spends on its advertising after the 1985 utilities act rewrite required stockholders to soak up more of the company’s public-relations costs.)

On November 8, when the referenda were finally voted on, there were no surprises. In most of the 13 wards, more than 80 percent of the voters approved the referenda. Community organizers cheered, but Com Ed spokesman John Hogan complained that the referenda were worded unfairly and that voters simply voted for lower electric rates. “The question on the referendum evaded the issue, obfuscated the issue,” he says. “The voters didn’t even have to read the question.”

Neither side is giving up. The Chicago Electric Options Campaign has distributed pledge forms to mayoral candidates and has asked them to promise to “conduct a complete and thoughtful review of all the electricity options available to the City,” to open that process to public review, and to provide financing for assessing options. So far, only acting mayor Eugene Sawyer has signed one, although Alderman Lawrence Bloom has responded with a letter supporting the pledge.

Hogan says Com Ed will continue to run its ads and will continue the friendly, down-home practice of sending Com Ed flacks to homes and neighborhoods to answer questions about municipalization or any other matter involving the utility. This fall Com Ed started mailing consumers a brochure with their bills. The outside of the brochure is an ominous black, with yellow writing that reads “Candle, candle, burning bright, could be Chicago every night.” Inside it states that municipalization is a bad idea being promoted by unnamed “extremists,” presumably community organizers. Municipalization, the brochure reads, “would stress to the breaking point a City already laden with crisis after crisis–public housing, schools, mass transit, crime–the list goes on and on.” Then it lists eight reasons why it’s a bad idea: electricity might be rationed, businesses might leave, taxes might rise, rates might increase, service would be less reliable, shortages are possible, politicians might foul things up, and money might be taken from neighborhoods to pay for the company.

Hogan says his company is prepared to spend liberally to keep itself independent. “We see this as a long haul,” he says. “The city shows no signs of backing away. We are prepared to do battle over the long haul–even years. If it went to the courts, who knows how long it would take.”

Meanwhile, Chicagoans can expect to hear more from the Observer, according to Com Ed. And community organizers, incensed over the McCarthyesque moniker “extremists,” promise to redouble their attack on he giant utility.

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