Ray Hanania on the Outside

No one invited him, but because his office is just across the street, Ray Hanania, Democratic candidate for the Illinois House of Representatives, 38th District, showed up last week at the massive rally in Daley Plaza. He stood unnoticed on the fringes of the crowd that was whooping it up for Bill Clinton, Al Gore, Carol Moseley Braun, Richard M. Daley. There was a touch of envy in his heart, but not for the party’s giants.

His gaze strayed to the press corps. “The first thought I had was that normally I would be up on that media cart writing down their quotes,” he’d tell us later. “And I felt kind of unusual.”

We wrote about Hanania nearly a year ago, just after his seven years as a Sun-Times political reporter came to a thudding halt. The paper said he’d resigned; he said he’d been banished. Miriam Santos, the city treasurer, was feuding with Mayor Daley, and the mayor’s office, certain no woman could maneuver so shrewdly without a Svengali in the shadows, decided the master manipulator must be her friend Hanania. The Sun-Times, which took Santos’s side, wanted to stand up to Daley with clean hands.

Hanania sued the paper for $2 million and filed a union grievance. The suit was thrown out of court, and the grievance ended in one of those secret settlements that each side promises the other to describe as “amicable” until hell freezes over. Hanania turned consultant and launched the Urban Strategies Group, a big name for a one-man shop above Daley Plaza. An overnight celebrity, Santos didn’t look back; in the cruelest send-up of last April’s Gridiron show, the Tribune’s Jessica Seigel warbled, “Don’t cry for me, Hanania. The truth is, I had to leave you. I’m glad I knew you, but I outgrew you. It’s just a new way for me to screw you.”

The 38th District runs along both sides of the Cook County-Will County line in the southwest suburbs. The area’s so Republican that no Democrat bothered to file for the primary, and afterward party leaders asked Hanania if he wanted to take a shot. It wasn’t as if Hanania had too many other things to do.

“I loved journalism. I did. And I loved writing,” he told us. “I loved being a reporter and I really miss it–and I’d give [politics] up in an instant if I could be a reporter covering politics like I did the last 15 years. But you know what? I think of having an opportunity this year to do some good. It’ll be like putting a reporter in the statehouse.”

He even talks about publishing a statehouse newspaper. “I still am a journalist before I’m a politician,” he explained. “If I’m elected, I’m going to be treated like a reporter. There’s a natural wariness to these [political] guys. My views on public access and public information aren’t going to change just because I’ve crossed the line. I don’t really think they’re going to trust me as much as someone raised in the political system . . .

“I don’t know if they’ve ever had a former reporter down there, with his finger on the button. I give it to [voters] straight. I say, look-it, who would you rather have down there, a reporter or a politician? We may be low, but we’re a few steps above a politician.”

Hanania’s running against Republican Larry Wennlund, an assistant minority house leader who’s already been endorsed by the Tribune, the Sun-Times, and the Southtown Economist, where Hanania once worked for seven and a half years. He’s not surprised, though being a reporter himself he’d thought that just maybe . . .

Hanania made a splash last June when he accused Wennlund of taking $32,500 from riverboat interests at the time he was voting to legalize riverboat gambling. But there hasn’t been much ink lately, aside from a solid piece in the local Star last Sunday. Hanania says he’s particularly ticked at the Economist.

“They hardly wrote anything I gave them, and they wrote the one thing that was cute. I said, ‘Maybe we can meet in a park district ring and discuss the issues there.’ It was like, ‘Oh, that’s funny. Let’s do a couple of graphs.’ They haven’t even done a profile of my race yet–the editorial board never bothered to talk to me. I honestly expect a community newspaper to be involved in community races, and all you see is community papers writing about who’s going to be the president of the United States. They don’t get to who their local candidates are going to be. I hate to think I was like that 15 years ago when I started at the community press.”

Hanania says he can win because the 38th is a new district and half its voters don’t think of Wennlund as their incumbent. Whereas Hanania enjoys a certain celebrity, less for anything he ever wrote or anyone he ever dated than for the call-in show on WLS that he ran until he filed for office. “It’s just enormous the number of people who say, ‘You’re the guy who was on the radio Sunday morning!’ And my hardest battle is making the connection between the guy who’s running for office and the guy who was on the radio.”

Wennlund’s strategy has been to outspend Hanania hands down–“Being the quick-witted reporter I am, I started referring to him as Larry ‘Deep Pockets’ Wennlund,” said Hanania–and ignore him. “So finally I had a roast last month,” Hanania told us, “and as a joke I put out a press release and said my opponent wouldn’t debate me–and that’s because he has an undistinguished record in the legislature and, as a joke on top of it, he’s a lousy dresser. And he responded angrily to my charge he was a lousy dresser.”

A wordsmith, Hanania composed the campaign motto, “Let’s give Illinois politics a wake-up call” and the billboards “Elect Ray Hanania for state representative. UH HUH.” These appeals to a galvanized citizenry have not fetched celebrity Democrats to his side. Have you campaigned with Braun? we asked him. “No,” he said. “I’m not exactly the most popular magnet with other candidates. This may go back to ‘Oh, Mayor Daley doesn’t like him. The Sun-Times fired him.’ I sent out letters to people asking if they’d come to my fund-raisers, and I only got two responses from politicians–Maria Pappas and David Orr.”

Hanania is Pappas’s paid consultant.

A weird campaign sidelight involves a group calling itself Parents Against Pornography that’s been picketing a video store in Orland Park that Hanania ran with his wife Melissa until she took it over in a 1990 divorce settlement. Demanding removal of the small adult-video section, PAP has denounced Hanania as a pornographer unfit for public office. What’s odd here is that the store doesn’t belong to Hanania (though he and his ex-wife are very close) and it isn’t even in his district. “They expect me to cry to him, ‘Ray, I can’t stand it!'” Melissa Hanania told us. It’s a curious matter that the Tribune wrote about in one of the few articles anywhere this fall on the Hanania-Wennlund race.

“I can’t even get any press in the Sun-Times, and I know they love me,” Hanania mused. “We’ve amicably resolved our dispute amicably. It’s an amicable resolution amicably resolved amicably. But do you think that amicable newspaper would write about me amicably? No.”

What’s in an Endorsement?

Acting is cathartic, said George Will on This Week With David Brinkley, offering his theory as to why some folks will cast a vote for Ross Perot and not worry that they’re wasting it. We’ll go Will one better. Voting is existential. Face it–your vote doesn’t really matter. It’ll never decide a significant election in your lifetime. But voting declares you a serious citizen–and more besides. A lot of 60s counterculturists woke up to their new selves in 1980 when they found themselves on the side of Ronald Reagan.

A newspaper endorsement is even more self-conscious. You can be sure some people who work there felt annoyed and embarrassed by the Tribune’s decision to endorse no one last Sunday for the U.S. Senate. Since somebody’s going to be elected anyway–so the argument goes–isn’t it our duty to identify the lesser of the two evils? We don’t think it is. Symbols aside, it’s not especially cosmic who becomes the next junior senator from Illinois. Having defined the Senate election as a choice between a candidate (Carol Moseley Braun) who shows “a deeply disturbing lack of knowledge about national policy” and another (Rich Williamson) who’s run “a campaign of racial division,” the Tribune properly put its own dignity first by kissing off both of them. Sure, one will win, but so what?

As the presidency is different, an endorsement duly appeared. The editorial was intellectually irrelevant. It made a case for George Bush and against Bill Clinton. But both it and a series of run-up editorials on Bush and Clinton ignored the most powerful argument out there, the one against George Bush. It’s an argument that touches on Irangate and Iraqgate and Empty-Suitgate and concludes like this: After 12 years of Republican administrations the country’s in a spiritual funk and economic crisis. A change of guard now is appropriate. We either have a two-party system or we don’t. A change’ll be good for democracy, good for the Democratic Party, and good, ultimately, for an exhausted Republican Party.

If you fault the Tribune for making no attempt to rebut this line of reasoning, your mistake is to view a presidential endorsement as a serious bid to sway minds. Editorial writers know better. The Tribune’s endorsement has much less to do with electing George Bush than it does with the Tribune’s desire to affirm its own values and roots.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/J. Alexander Newberry.