By Neal Pollack
One morning last month, Congressman Bobby Rush held a press conference in the Rogers Park Fruit Market, where he compared his beleaguered campaign for mayor to the struggles of Martin Luther King Jr. Talking over piped-in banda music, Rush detailed his plans to commemorate the birthday of the great civil rights leader.
“Just as Dr. King walked the highways and byways, the roads of this nation–particularly in the south–to bring about change, I’m going to walk the streets of Chicago to bring about change….I’m taking my campaign directly to the citizens of this city.”
Rush said a “quiet storm” was sweeping across Chicago that would soon overtake Mayor Daley. “My administration will not be encased in the citadel of City Hall,” he promised, “but will get out to the neighborhoods and talk to people, working people. We will talk directly to people about how to solve their problems.”
The Rush for Mayor Walk for Change, as his campaign was calling it, consisted of Rush, his press secretary, Bess Bezirgan, and a few campaign staffers, followed by about a dozen reporters and cameramen as well as a couple of bodyguards. They left the fruit market and stopped in at Captain Nemo’s, a sandwich shop at the corner of Clark and Jarvis. Rush extended his hand to the man behind the counter.
“Good morning, I’m Bobby Rush. I’m here for change. This is my second stop on my walk across the city. I’m walking to bring my message of change to the city of Chicago and its voters.”
“I’m Steve,” the man said. “I’m the Soup Nice Guy.”
“You want some soup? I got split pea.”
“I’ll take your soup,” Rush said, “but could you put a lid on that? I’m walking for change here. What I really want to do is hear your concerns as a voter of the city of Chicago.”
“Ahh,” Steve said, “I try to stay in the middle. But I got great soup.”
Congressman Rush understood. “I hear your message,” he said.
As Rush walked down Clark Street, a campaign volunteer shouted out: “Every soul to the poll! Time for change!”
The other Rush staffers stared at him.
“Every soul to the poll!” he shouted again. “Time for change!”
The staffers responded with angry glances and fingers drawn across their necks. One emitted a loud “Shhh!” The man stopped shouting.
The Walk for Change, as initially conceived, was supposed to begin at the northernmost point of Halsted and continue south at a clip of a few blocks a day until the congressman had walked the entire length of the street. Later that plan was changed–Rush would walk through the neighborhoods around Halsted, using that thoroughfare as a base. Then the starting point was pushed to the city limits at Clark and Howard, and Rush was set to walk on Clark to Peterson, at least on the first day. Then the route was changed again, starting this time at Clark and Jarvis, and Rush had to walk only four blocks to Lunt.
“How are the blocks being chosen?” I asked Bess Bezirgan.
“We’re going to go where we need to go,” she said. “There’s not a planned schedule. Our objective is to cover as much ground as possible. There are communities all over the city that need our message.”
The campaign initially wanted to visit a different neighborhood every day. On January 19 the walk went into Edgewater, but it didn’t resume again until the following Saturday, when it traveled along Devon from Western to Rockwell. Then Rush stopped walking for change.
That first day, however, the candidate went into laundromats, a shoe store, a hot dog stand, a supermarket, and a travel agency. The people Rush talked to told him what they wanted from city government–jobs, education, clean streets. Rush assured them his administration would provide all these things.
At Touhy he entered the Romanian Kosher Sausage Company.
“I’m just walking the streets meeting the voters,” he told the shop’s lone customer. “Let me ask you, what’s the first thing you want from the city of Chicago?”
“Well, I’m visiting from the suburbs,” the man replied, “so nothing.”
Rush turned to leave, handing the man a button.
“Who was that?” asked the guy working the counter.
“That?” said the customer. “I don’t know. I guess he was a mayoral candidate.”
Since Bobby Rush announced his candidacy in November, he’s left many wondering why he’s running. “I’m not sure he even knows,” says political consultant Don Rose. A recent Tribune poll had Rush receiving only 15 percent of the vote (with 21 percent still undecided).
As of last week, the Rush campaign had raised $232,000, compared to Daley’s $3.8 million. Rush has made little effort to build coalitions or to broaden his appeal outside of the black community. His major endorsements have thus far been limited to aldermen Shirley Coleman and Helen Shiller, congressmen Danny Davis and Jesse Jackson Jr., radio talk-show host Cliff Kelley, and the African-American Police League.
“Campaigns are about addition, not subtraction, and Bobby hasn’t added it up right,” says gay rights activist Rick Garcia, the executive director of the Illinois Federation for Human Rights and a veteran of numerous political campaigns. “He’s made all the mistakes of not broadening his base. He doesn’t even play to his base, truth be told….There’s no doubt that the mayor is a formidable obstacle with his money and influence and high favorability numbers, but no individual is immune from criticism. I thought the congressman would do much better than he has.”
With three weeks left to go until the election, the Rush campaign finally released its first official policy paper on the morning of Tuesday, February 2. Just before midnight on Monday, a fax was sent out announcing a press conference for 11 AM the next day, when Rush would “discuss his vision for the CTA and release his position paper on public transportation.”
The candidate does have an agenda–or at least a rough version of one–but so far it hasn’t been getting out of his downtown campaign office. “What does Bobby Rush stand for?” asks Rick Garcia. “I don’t know. I have no clue. What are the issues?”
The only place where Rush has coherently laid out a platform has been in a candidate questionnaire for the Independent Voters of Illinois-Independent Precinct Organization. Much of it was vague, relying on rhetoric like “our administration will dispense with the current unproductive policy of random business subsidies and downtown boosterism in favor of a coordinated plan of infrastructure development and labor force training.” But Rush did have some specific proposals. He said he wanted to establish independent “accountability mechanisms” to deal with police and city budget matters. In addition, he promised a more “user-friendly” city budget, a reopened municipal reference library, and on-line access to such data as aldermanic voting records and city health statistics. “We will make information much more accessible to the public,” he said.
Rush pledged to create up to 25 “community planning” districts to allow residents to have a say in future development decisions for their own neighborhoods. He expressed concern that gentrification was driving out longtime residents and displacing small businesses. He proposed “ending the overuse of TIFs” and requiring that commercial development projects include provisions for affordable housing in order to receive city subsidies. Developments would also have to provide “living wage” jobs, “so that commercial development does not perpetuate the high proportion of minimum-wage jobs.”
“Daley has been successful at using the resources of government to create an expansive public-relations assault on the minds of the citizens of this city,” Rush told me. “This guy is using the public treasury to promote a Chicago that don’t exist. It’s like a mirage. He’s promoting something that just isn’t there. Look at the neighborhoods. In some instances they’ve gotten worse, because the neglect has been a decade long. Most of Chicago hasn’t benefited from the last ten years of the Daley administration. It’s only a small segment of Chicago.”
He outlined some specific changes he would enact if elected mayor. These included giving citizens more control over the internal workings of the police department and removing all police officers who are found to have abused power. “Right now the police department is more like a patronage army for the mayor as far as the chain of command is concerned,” he said. “From the superintendent on down. There are more political agendas, more political objectives emanating out of the police department right now than ever in the last 20, 25 years.”
He also said he’d increase the health department’s budget and provide more funding to neighborhood health clinics and programs for prenatal care, substance abuse, and HIV prevention. There would be expanded testing and treatment for TB and lead poisoning, and a stronger city ordinance protecting seniors enrolled in HMOs. He would also increase the city’s subsidy to the CTA, roll back recent service cuts, and reduce fares.
In his IVI-IPO questionnaire, Rush said he wanted to get rid of the city’s “fast-track” demolition program and instead focus on rehabbing run-down buildings as low-cost housing. He’d eliminate residential parking zones and buy up privately owned parking lots downtown, turning these into public facilities. He’d replace the city’s blue bag recycling program and return contract oversight to the City Council, effectively ending the mayor’s power to provide no-bid contracts to his political allies. “Open up the books,” Rush said. “Let the glare of the day enter into city government. If you don’t have anything to hide, then open it up. I believe that’s healthy. That moves the city forward. I want to see citizens actively engaged in the process of their government as it was under Harold Washington.”
Regardless of where he stands on paper, Rush didn’t get the endorsement of the IVI-IPO, which has decided to sit out the mayor’s race, even though Daley never bothered to turn in his questionnaire. Rush would seem like a natural choice for an independent political group that grew up in opposition to the old Daley machine. His former association with the Black Panther Party (he cofounded its Illinois chapter in 1968) might hurt his chances among white ethnic voters, but not among most members of the IVI-IPO.
Yet Rush hasn’t courted liberals. His record on human rights was bolstered by a trip to Chiapas last year, but then he emphatically supported the recent bombing of Iraq. And despite his progressive stands on gay and lesbian issues, he’s done little campaigning in those communities. He even blew off a scheduled appearance at the recent showing of the NAMES Project AIDS Memorial Quilt at Navy Pier. Rush has also avoided tackling Daley’s attempt to modify the Red Squad consent degree, the 1982 court order prohibiting police spying. “I would think that would be a real hot issue,” says Standish Willis, chairman of the Chicago Conference of Black Lawyers and a longtime activist against police abuses. “The Red Squad covers so many groups–it allows spying on journalists, Jews, Latinos, blacks, you name it. You’d think that would be an issue that the Rush campaign would challenge Daley on that could appeal to a wide range of people. I haven’t really seen much of a challenge, but I don’t know why.”
The IVI-IPO didn’t endorse Rush because “the members felt that he hadn’t worked hard enough,” according to Brian Kridner, the group’s administrative director. “There were serious questions about his viability.” In his endorsement interview, Rush admitted he hadn’t even tried to pull together the various elements of the old Washington coalition.
Not that it would have been possible, even if he’d tried. Larry Bennett, a political science professor at DePaul University, believes such an effort would have been “15 years too late. Demographically, you can’t simply say this city is a black-white split anymore. It’s become more racially and ethnically diverse.”
Bennett helped write up some of Rush’s preliminary policy positions, but he says he hasn’t seen much good come of his work. “The Rush campaign has been unwilling to grapple with the political or the policy complexity of Chicago,” he says. “It’s time for a new generation of progressive candidate to emerge. The core issues the city needs to deal with aren’t easily explicable by way of the old civil rights mode of analyzing what’s been going on, which is that the white man has been screwing everybody else in the city. But that’s pretty much all we’ve got. I knew that Rush was an imperfect candidate, and I think everybody else did as well, but this degree of imperfection is not acceptable. We were all a little naive.”
The Rush campaign has stumbled from one crisis to another. Indeed, every day the campaign seems to face a fresh disaster. Rush got booed off the stage at an event marking the end of Ramadan. He had his car towed while holding a press conference decrying the Daley administration’s job of snow removal. After the Tribune disclosed that Rush, an outspoken critic of the Denver boot, had $750 in unpaid parking fines, he denied owing the money.
On the morning of January 25, Rush staffers announced the candidate would hold a press conference that afternoon to review media coverage of his campaign. “Somewhere I heard that the media was the eye of the public,” Rush said in a press release. “But some of the media either have glaucoma or are suffering from near-sightedness. There are two Chicagos. The Chicago that you represent is not the Chicago that people in Robert Taylor, Chatham, Pill Hill, Pilsen, Edgewater, Pullman, Roseland, or Lawndale live in. Your lens are distorted. You are writing with poison pens.”
Attacking the media is always a “sure signal that a campaign is over,” says Don Rose. Tim Evans resorted to blaming the press shortly before getting clobbered by Daley in 1989, and Roland Burris’s 1995 mayoral bid used media criticism as a central strategy. Rush’s arrival at the same tactic may have been inevitable. “It was impossible in the first place,” Rose says. “Add to this that there’s no significant fund-raising capacity, there is no strategy, there is nothing resembling a majoritarian issue, and from then on the frustration builds. You can’t make something out of nothing.”
Tensions had been rising between the Rush campaign and the press for at least a month. Rush was angry about a Tribune poll that said he had only 50 percent support in the black community; his campaign’s internal polls indicated support of 80 to 95 percent. “They don’t poll in the ghetto,” Rush told reporters at an earlier press conference. “They don’t poll in the barrio. Where do they take this poll at? It’s wild and preposterous. It doesn’t mean anything. I am going to win. You’re looking at the next mayor of the city of Chicago. Acknowledge it. Accept it. The only poll that counts is the poll that people actually involve themselves in when they show up on election day.”
At 4 PM, Bess Bezirgan appeared before reporters to say the press conference would begin soon. Then she added a request: “I ask you to be respectful and address your questions to Congressman Bobby Rush. Not to Bob, not to Bobby. He’s an elected official, and we ask that you respect that.”
Rush took to the podium, backed by state senator Rickey Hendon, who’s running for alderman in the 27th Ward, Rush’s sister Geraldine Laury, who’s running for alderman in the 2nd Ward, and Dorothy Leavall, president of the National Association of Black Newspaper Publishers.
“I want to take a pause today to talk to you, the media, about your unfair and biased reporting of the Rush for Mayor campaign,” he said. “In essence, I want to talk to you about being fair. About fairness. On the one hand, you have criticized us for allegedly not getting our message across. Yet on the other hand, you have either filtered or distorted our message, or don’t report it at all….In the words of the other Chicago, ‘Your rap is strong, but your words are wrong.’
“This psychic game that you’re attempting to play on the minds of the citizens of this city must come to a screeching halt. The media is used to distort, discredit, and misdirect the masses of the people. They did it to Dr. Martin Luther King, they did it to Malcolm X, they did it to Fred Hampton, they did it to Mayor Harold Washington, and they are attempting to do it to me.”
He singled out for criticism the Chicago Sun-Times, which he called “nothing more than a propaganda tool for the administration,” because the city had helped the paper secure property for a new printing facility in the 11th Ward. He was especially incensed, he said, by a puffy profile the paper had run on Streets and Sanitation commissioner Eileen Carey, who is the sister of Jeremiah Joyce, a former state senator and a top Daley political organizer.
“Don’t get me wrong,” he continued. “This is not a gripe session. I can handle this. I can handle constructive criticism. I understand Chicago politics. The Washington years taught us much. But it’s wrong of you, the media, to continue this game of charades with the voting public. I’m tired of the media in this town playing hide-and-seek with the relevant issues of my campaign. Our message is getting out, and it must get out….I want you to know that this campaign does have heart. It speaks to the hearts and minds of the poor, working-class, and middle-class people of this city. We’re concerned about safety on the streets, growing cases of police brutality, the erosion of city neighborhoods and public transportation, the 54 percent high school dropout rate, and the lack of real economic development opportunities for job creation in our community. There are indeed two Chicagos, and there are two sorts of media, one for the status quo and the other for the rest of us.”
After brief comments from Hendon, Laury, and Leavall, who cited a Richard Roeper column as an example of “biased” coverage–he had called Ahmad Rashad a “lackey” of Michael Jordan–Rush took the podium again.
“The Rush for Mayor movement is sweeping across the city,” he said, “in churches, synagogues, barbershops, and grocery stores. From corner to corner, people in this city have heard our message of hope and vision for systemic change in the way this city does business. As an African-American, I know that we’ve faced these types of assaults before. But we’re not battle weary. We just want to say that we’re going to fight back, and keep on fighting all the way to City Hall. Until the Sun-Times provides fair reporting of not only this campaign but to communities of color throughout this city, I am asking all Chicago to…”
Rush held up a pair of scissors, as all Chicago would see that night on the news. Laury held up a copy of the Sun-Times. Rush’s voice and hands started to shake. “I’m asking all Chicagoans to cut the Sun-Times out.” He tried to cut the paper but couldn’t. Laury shifted the newspaper. They both fumbled. “Cut it out…”
Still, the paper wouldn’t tear.
“I’m asking all Chicagoans to cut it up. The Sun-Times, in fact.”
Finally, he started slicing into the tabloid. “To all Chicagoans–they can cut it out. Thanks.”
Reporters then pressed Rush on questions of policy, as they’d been doing since he’d announced his candidacy. Channel Seven’s Andy Shaw asked Rush how he intended to pay for restoring CTA service cuts and passing a better living-wage law, promises he had made in his first campaign commercial, which had just aired the night before.
“Increasing the city’s contribution to the CTA and lobbying the state and federal government for more money,” Rush replied. “But this press conference is really about fairness of the media coverage of my campaign.”
Victor Crown of the monthly magazine Illinois Politics asked Rush if he intended, if elected, to retain Ed Burke as chairman of the City Council’s Finance Committee. Rush refused to answer.
Another reporter said, “I think the public is going to have a hard time understanding why you called a press conference to complain about what we do when you won’t explain any of your views.”
“The purpose of this press conference was to expose unfair reporting by the media,” Rush maintained. “Subsequent press conferences will deal with my own agenda. I have dealt with issues affecting this city. I have dealt with positions in terms of this campaign. Just because I get short shrift from members of the media don’t mean that I haven’t dealt with them.”
Once the press conference was over and Rush had left the room, Victor Crown shouted to Rickey Hendon, “Mr. Hendon, do you support retention of Ed Burke as Finance chair?”
“Hell no,” Hendon said. “Is that direct enough for you?”
“There was a great opportunity in this campaign to expose the corruption of the Daley administration,” Crown told me later. “The airport deals, the cronyism, the pinstripe patronage, the fact that the city’s budget is $4 billion where four years ago it was only $3.5 billion. The Rush campaign has failed utterly in discussing these issues. Daley is now being allowed to make it seem as though this was all good.
“Bobby has not done the job, and the job is so easy to do. Anybody on his staff could put together an event today about cronyism and corruption. How you can allow these things to go on and not speak to them is beyond me.
“His campaign people told me he didn’t want to seem too militant. But when you’re running against Daley you’re already a militant. Why don’t you go for it all? I said, ‘Why don’t you guys go for it?’ They said, ‘Well, we’re going to.’ I said, ‘Fine, you call me back when you go for it after the campaign is over.'”
In the week that followed, Rush pushed no issues at all, except in a public letter to Mayor Daley calling for debates before the election. “The mayor’s seat is not a monarchy,” he wrote, “and the citizens deserve to see democracy at work and democracy at its best.”
Then came the reports that racist graffiti had been written on elevator walls at Rush campaign headquarters and that his campaign had received bomb threats. On Saturday, January 30, Rush told reporters that three people had attacked a staff photographer on the el; the photographer had broken his leg while trying to get away. “There is an environment in this city that says it’s OK to intimidate and harass people with a different point of view,” Rush said.
The press release accompanying his Saturday appearance said, “This is a tragic escalation of an ongoing campaign of intimidation and harassment against the Rush campaign and an attempt to sidetrack the ‘Bobby Rush for Mayor’ movement.” Bess Bezirgan even accused the police department of a cover-up because it concluded that the attack on the photographer had been an ordinary mugging rather than a politically motivated assault. “Frankly, we don’t have a whole lot of confidence in the Chicago Police Department,” she said. “They’ve bungled other investigations. Look at Ryan Harris. We have asked the U.S attorney’s office to investigate because we don’t agree with what the police are doing.”
Mayor Daley, who has basically ignored Rush throughout the race, all but accused his opponent’s campaign of a setup. “Pretty soon they’ll be throwing bricks through the windows,” he said.
Several reporters spent a recent Saturday afternoon walking around Uptown with Rush and staffers from Helen Shiller’s ward office. Rush stopped in at low-income apartment buildings, residential hotels, several laundromats, an African restaurant, a hair salon, a popcorn shop, a steak house, a discount clothing store, a rib place, a dry cleaners, and a currency exchange.
As the sun went down, Rush chatted with patrons of a chop suey parlor on Sheridan Road.
“I know you, Bobby Rush,” one woman said. “Come over here and give me a hug.”
The proprietor, a middle-aged Chinese woman, was taking an order over the phone.
“You want eggroll?” she asked the caller.
“How you doin’, Ms. Eggroll?,” Rush said. She looked up at him and laughed. She seemed a bit confused.
“Ms. Eggroll, is it all right if we put a sign up in your window? Come out here, Ms. Eggroll. What about taking a picture with me, Ms. Eggroll? Hah! Ms. Eggroll!”
Together they posed for a picture, and he pinned a button on her.
“Vote for me, Ms. Eggroll,” he said. “Bobby Rush, on February 23. I’m only one vote short!”
She laughed again.
“Good-bye, Ms. Eggroll!” Rush said as he headed out the door.
The Walk for Change was obviously losing steam on January 18. The TV cameras had melted away, and the candidate was getting tired. After all, he’d been campaigning for nearly two hours.
He arrived at Pallo’s Barbershop near Clark and Greenleaf. The place was just being opened by its owner, Pallo Pollard, a retired Belizean boxer.
“Bobby Rush!” Pollard exclaimed. “I’ve been knowing you a long time!”
“My mother was a beautician in Chicago,” Rush said, “so I know some of the challenges you face every day.”
Pollard said he was honored and invited the candidate inside. He showed Rush his many boxing photographs. “That’s Muhammad Ali,” he said. “That’s Joe Frazier. That’s Sonny Liston. And that one over there is me.”
“You were a mean-looking dude,” Rush said, and they both laughed.
“I’ve been following you a long time,” Pollard said.
Rush checked out Pollard’s gun rack, his photos of Belize, and dozens of Polaroids showing people after their haircuts.
“Is this your work?” Rush asked.
“Those are 20 years old.”
“Yeah, man, but those styles are coming back. Those big Afros.”
“Afros,” said Pollard.
“The Afro, man!” said the congressman. “Those were the days!”
Pollard decided to show Rush his back room. On the door was a hand-printed sign: “No Bad Words.” Behind the door were two pool tables.
“Man!” Rush said. “I used to hang out in places like this all the time!”
He removed his winter jacket and instructed Pollard to rack ’em up.
“I could use a break,” he said.
“You gonna play this guy, congressman?” asked an aide.
“No, man, I ain’t gonna play no guy with a pool table in the back of his shop.”
“I don’t play,” Pollard said. “It’s for my brothers and my friends.”
“Right!” Rush said, as he enlisted a security guard to play against him instead.
Rush sank two balls on the break, and his people cheered. But he missed his next shot, as did the guard. Rush missed again, and the guard missed too. Suddenly, they’d both had enough. Rush posed for a photo with Pollard, then abruptly split, saying he had to get back to the Walk for Change.
A few seconds later, he charged back into the poolroom.
“I can’t walk out of here without trying this,” he said.
He picked up a pool cue with his right hand and held it behind his back, gripping the tip as he lined up a trick shot. He carefully tapped the cue ball toward the 11. His staff watched, holding their collective breath, as the 11 bounced off the far bumper and cruised smoothly across the felt. For a second, it looked as though the congressman would pull off a miracle.
“Ohhhh!” exclaimed everyone in the room.
The ball missed the pocket, glancing off the rail, and floated harmlessly toward the center of the table.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration by Kurt Mitchell.