By Ben Joravsky

In the old days of Harold Washington’s reign, it was so much easier for a candidate like Sally Johnson to run for office.

Want to be a member of the Water Reclamation District’s board of commissioners? No problem. Make your pitch directly to the boss. Tell him about your years in the trenches of grassroots activism and remind him of his need to promote black women through the ranks. With Washington’s blessing will come the support of hundreds of thousands of black voters, enough votes to win the Democratic primary for a low-profile office.

For better or worse, however, without Washington it’s every woman (black, white, or Hispanic) for herself; so Johnson finds herself struggling through the cold months of a long campaign counting down to the March 17 Democratic primary. Despite her years in grassroots and independent organizing, she’s a relatively unknown candidate, whose main issue, affirmative action, hurts as much as it helps. “It’s politics, post-Harold,” says Johnson, who owns and operates Chicago Architectural Windows, a window-installation company. “We’re learning as we go.”

Johnson grew up on the 1200 block of North Bell, graduated from Tuley High School, attended Wright Junior College, and by the late 1960s found herself married, with two children, and raising hell as a community activist in West Town. Those were the days long before there was even talk of gentrification, when West Town’s working-class blacks and Hispanics, now slowly being priced out, were first moving in.

“We formed a group, the Allies for a Better Community–we were organizing blacks and Puerto Ricans around housing needs, going to change the world, or at least West Town,” says Johnson. “I remember we had a big meeting at Josephinum High School and [planning commissioner] Lew Hill from the city was there and he was talking and all of a sudden he stopped to say, ‘I have an announcement–Dr. King just died.’ These are the sad and glory days I will always remember.”

By the 1980s she had been in and out of several political campaigns, including Washington’s unsuccessful 1977 mayoral run. After Washington was elected mayor in 1983, he hired Johnson to be his commissioner of the Office of Inquiry and Information. “For me those Washington years were the most vivid times in my life,” she says. “All of the activism and marching and protests finally paid off, and for once we could see a victory. To be part of his cabinet–I just can’t find words to explain how happy I was.

“Harold wasn’t around long enough to impact the city. On my wall I have a copy of his ‘Action Agenda for Chicago.’ He didn’t get a chance to implement it. In some ways people forget. I was at a park on the south side and they were featuring some posters of great leaders painted by students. Someone had painted a portrait of Washington, only they called him George Washington. They didn’t even know his first name.”

After Washington died in 1987, Johnson withdrew from activism and politics. “I was devastated by his death. I didn’t do much of anything for two years. I lived off of my savings, I traveled a lot. I discovered Africa–it’s my passion. I’ve been to Senegal, Ghana, Morocco, Egypt, Ethiopia, Kenya, Nigeria, Gambia, Liberia. I helped start the Harold Washington Hospital in Dakar, Senegal. It’s now over ten years old. There have been almost 40,000 babies born there.”

She got into the window-installation business in 1990. “A friend gave me the start-up money,” she says. “At first it was just me and my family. I bought the windows and my son, Michael, installed them. We’ve grown since then and have become fairly successful. I concentrate on the private markets–two-flats and six-flats all over the city. But we’ve always had a hard time getting big public contracts.”

According to Johnson, there’s an “old-boys’ network” that locks out women entrepreneurs. “After being in business all these years I began to ask myself, ‘Why can’t I get these public contracts?’ We bid and bid and bid, but nothing. Sometimes we’re even the lowest bidder. I decided to run in part because of that disparity. I feel that politicians on all levels are getting ready to dissolve affirmative action. There’s no parity out there. I feel that we need someone on the inside to look out for women. We’re the head of households, we raise the children. But we don’t get the business.”

In many ways, the Water Reclamation District–whose commission of nine oversees the treatment of wastewater in Cook County–is the ideal target for a first-time candidate. “We own and operate seven waste treatment plants,” says a commission spokeswoman. “Basically, everything that goes down the drain ends up in one of our treatment plants.”

The district has a budget of almost $871 million and some 2,100 employees, and it dispenses millions of dollars in contracts. All in all, it’s a politician’s dream: clout, cash, and anonymity.

“Face it–no one’s really heard of the district,” says Victor Crown, editor of Illinois Politics, a monthly newsletter. “It’s one of those cushy, anonymous offices, like the Cook County Board of Commissioners. You get about $40,000 a year, so the pay’s pretty good. You don’t have to do much of anything. You have one or two staffers. The pols love it.”

A survey of relatively sophisticated voters found none who could name the district’s current president–not even Crown, who probably knows as much about Illinois politics as anyone in the state. “Is it Nick Melas?” says Crown. “I don’t know.”

The fact is, Melas used to be the president, until he was ousted from office in the 1992 primary. The current president is a northwest-side Democrat named Terrence O’Brien; 14 Democrats are running for the four vacancies on the board.

In such low-profile elections most of the advantages go with the party-backed candidates, in this case Gary Marinaro, Gloria Majewski, Patricia Young, and James Harris. Their names will be prominently displayed on palm cards distributed by precinct workers, as well as splashed on bus signs.

For the other candidates the difference between a win and a loss is often a matter of luck. “You hope that you get a good placement on the ballot,” says Crown. “You hope that people just like your name.”

Johnson’s main chance is to distinguish herself from the others by hammering hard on the need to preserve affirmative action.

That issue, of course, can backfire. “For every black or Hispanic voter you might pick up, you might lose a white one,” says Crown. “You can’t make everyone happy on it.”

Indeed, Republicans are masters of the race game, able to stir white resentment by attacking affirmative action. It doesn’t really matter that affirmative action helps as much as hinders the GOP cause (the Republicans hold on to their legislative majority in Congress by siphoning blacks and Hispanics into specially created majority-minority districts). They justify their assaults on affirmative action by declaring their allegiance to Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream of a color-blind society–though most Republican leaders, like Newt Gingrich, were on the other side of the great civil rights battles of the 1960s.

“The Republicans can afford to be hypocritical on this ’cause it’s such a great wedge issue for them,” says Crown. “Look what’s happening to Mayor Daley on the police and firefighter exams. He tries to advance blacks and Hispanics and he winds up with all these cops sitting at the Dunkin’ Donuts complaining about Daley.”

As it is, local Republicans are chortling over the possibility that the Democrats may emerge from the March 17 primary with three black pols at the top of their ticket: Roland Burris for governor, U.S. Senator Carol Moseley-Braun, and Cook County Board president John Stroger.

No wonder the GOP recruited Aurelia Pucinski to desert the Democrats (her family’s party for over 50 years) and run as a Republican against Stroger; with a well-known white-ethnic name at the top of their local ticket, the Republicans have one more reminder–if any more are needed–that the party of Lincoln has become the party of white people.

Johnson will try to avoid the race game by emphasizing gender politics; she intends to press hard on how much affirmative action benefits women of all colors.

“I’ll be going all over the city to press my point,” she says. “I won’t run a negative campaign. I don’t want to compete against anybody. I want to talk about how women are not getting considered for contracts. I want to get the word out that women need to join together. They need someone at the Water Reclamation to watch the contracts and affirmative action goals.” o

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo by Cynthia Howe.