On a sunny Wednesday morning in mid-October, as Dearborn Park boomed with the sounds of construction, Joseph E. Gardner, commissioner of the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District and candidate for mayor, made the first major policy statement of his campaign. He chose as his location the South Loop School, a model facility that sits across the street from brand-new houses flanked by shiny street lamps and well-kept lawns, only blocks from a similar near-south-side complex where Mayor Richard M. Daley now lives.
Gardner’s campaign had scheduled the press conference for 10:30 AM, and precisely then the doors of the school opened and out came the principal, several teachers, and members of the local school council, along with representatives of the school crossing guard. Gardner’s campaign staff and advisers also milled about as the candidate approached the podium. The press conference was ready to begin, save one small problem. There was no press.
“We’ll wait another five minutes,” Gardner said. “Maybe someone got lost.” It was highly possible, since the construction on nearby Roosevelt Road made the school almost impossible to find. Several Gardner staffers hit the streets to direct reporters the right way. A reporter from City News showed up, as did someone from the Sun-Times. The school representatives and Gardner advisers arranged themselves in a neat semicircle for a photo opportunity, but another problem presented itself. There were no photographers. “Check to see if we have a camera,” Gardner said to an adviser. “If we have one we’ll start; if we don’t have one we’ll wait a minute.”
When the conference finally began, sans any photographers but Gardner’s own, he made his statement over the bedlam of drills, jackhammers, and rumbling trucks. Mayor Daley had “dropped the ball” on public education in Chicago and now sought to “wash his hands” of it, Gardner said. But school reform must be given more time to work; school privatization is untested and unproved in districts as large as Chicago’s. Gardner ended the conference with the proclamation that his campaign was going to “privatize Rich Daley.” The Sun-Times reporter asked a few quick questions, and the students vanished back into the building. No coverage ever appeared. When asked later for an opinion of the event, the reporter summed it up in one word: “Stupid.”
One month later the atmosphere surrounding Joe Gardner was very different. Yet the press conference at a packed south-side restaurant was called not by Gardner but by Congressman Bobby Rush, who was announcing his decision not to run for mayor. “Daley is in office today only because the progressive movement allowed itself to be divided by the Sawyer-Evans split,” Rush said. “We can all learn from that. I am committed to seeing we do not make that mistake again. There is no way Daley can be defeated with more than one African American candidate in the race. There is no way Daley can be defeated unless we win the February Democratic primary. Unity is of paramount importance. My commitment to unity is more important than my mayoral ambition. This is about creating the necessary conditions for victory in February 1995.”
Rush then endorsed Gardner, calling him “the unity candidate.” He criticized black leaders who were attempting to draft Attorney General Roland Burris for an independent run in the April general election. “It is a doomed strategy that is creating confusion and draining precious resources,” he said. Then he introduced Gardner, who came out onto the stage to chants of “Let’s go, Joe!” Gardner pinned a button on Rush, and they pumped their fists in the air. He gave a short speech and opened the floor for questions. They were almost all for Rush.
“If we are to move forward as a city,” Rush said, “some of us will have to sacrifice our own personal ambition, and we will have to sacrifice other things and come together. Joe is a person who comes from our movement, who understands our movement, who embraces the principles of our movement, who worked very, very closely with Harold Washington. He understands government, and he’s a person that we can unify around.”
Later Rush said, “The true indication of unity is that I’m stepping up to endorse the candidacy of my friend Joseph Gardner.” Meanwhile, Gardner stood by sheepishly, waiting to answer questions for himself. Few came, but perhaps now more will. Since August Gardner had hoped that he would be the candidate to emerge from a selection process fraught with infighting and indecision. At least for the February 28 primary, that process seemed to be over. Joe Gardner had held on.
He’s 48. He’s separated from his wife of 12 years, and has an 11-year-old daughter and two teenage stepdaughters. He was born in Detroit and moved to Chicago with his mother when he was eight; his grandmother later joined them. He’s lived on both the west and south sides, in Woodlawn and Lawndale, and for a time in public housing as a teenager. He went to Mount Carmel High School, and when he graduated in 1963 earned an academic scholarship to Loyola University. After college he went on to receive a master’s in social work at the University of Illinois’ Chicago campus. In 1971 he joined the Woodlawn Organization as a community organizer. He stayed at TWO, eventually becoming the grass-roots group’s vice president, until 1980, when he went to work for the National Housing Alliance. He served as Operation PUSH’s executive director from 1981 to 1983. Then, like so many others in independent politics at the time, he became involved in Harold Washington’s 1983 mayoral campaign.
Gardner had helped organize the boycott of the 1982 ChicagoFest. The boycott served as a major publicity springboard for Jesse Jackson, but it was also one of the events galvanizing Washington’s campaign. Gardner felt the energy from the boycott, and when Washington declared for mayor he took charge of the campaign’s field operations.
After Washington’s victory, Gardner was appointed to head up the city’s Department of Neighborhoods, which under Jane Byrne had been just another flak-catching apparatus that ignored the needs of communities and community groups. Gardner became the first community organizer, and the first political figure in Chicago spawned by the “neighborhood movement,” to be named a city commissioner. In a 1983 Reader article he discussed the series of meetings he meant to hold with community organizations that would change the way the city dealt with neighborhoods. “These won’t be gripe sessions,” he said. “We don’t want to hear about the streetlight that hasn’t worked for 15 years. We want neighborhood organizations to develop and present their own policy recommendations, so we can begin to redirect the city’s agenda and budget to respond to these issues. Now is not the time for programmatic responses, though; we must show we are accessible.” He also outlined a plan for neighborhood sovereignty, saying, “The city can’t do it for the neighborhoods. The city can give to organizations as they develop. We can assist their empowerment. We can cut the red tape. But the organizations themselves must take the initiative and do the work. The city must not and cannot do it for them.”
His department spent only one-tenth of one percent of Washington’s budget, but it became a focal point of opposition attack. The City Council refused to approve Gardner’s appointment, largely because anonymous sources had tipped off reporters that Gardner had once been convicted and served a year of supervision for carrying a handgun in his car. Gardner replied that the arrest had happened while he was heading up antigang programs at the Woodlawn Organization and after he and his family had been threatened by gang members.
Gardner became tired of the way the council was treating him, and claimed his position had been misunderstood. “This department never had any clear direction or policy line,” he said in a 1984 Reader article. “It was seen and used largely as a political animal. Historically, it has been used to reward friendly aldermen and punish those who have strayed out of line. That’s how Byrne used it, and that’s why they believe we’ll do the same thing. They’re wrong and have no evidence to support their fears, but that’s what they think.” Understaffed and underfunded, the various “outreach” offices of the Department of Neighborhoods were ineffective. Gardner was never confirmed, and the department disappeared.
Gardner headed Washington’s political office for a while, and then took a $60,000-a-year job with the Chicago Housing Authority as deputy executive vice president for tenant services. He held the job for two years before mounting a winning campaign for the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District in 1988. In 1991 he lost a race for city clerk to the now-jailed Walter Kozubowski, who owed his political life to 14th Ward alderman Ed Burke, a notorious Washington opponent. Gardner lost votes to another black candidate, state representative William Shaw, who claimed at the time that Gardner was a Daley plant in the race. Shaw’s brother, Ninth Ward alderman Robert Shaw, said about Gardner, “Daley has weighed Joe Gardner, bought him, and now intends to sell him to the black community in February.”
Gardner lost that race, but easily won reelection to the Water Reclamation District this year. His office on Erie Street is large but not lavish, decorated mostly with good-government and community-service plaques and pictures of his kids and himself with various politicians. He has a few books lined up on a shelf, including some thriller paperbacks plus The Making of a Drug-Free America and Municipal Sludge Management. Directly across from his desk is a framed picture of Harold Washington, signed in January 1984. It reads, “To Joseph Gardner–a fine public servant, good friend and loyal supporter.” In this setting, Gardner reflects on why he got into politics in the first place. “To me, politics is a means to an end,” he says. “What I got into government for was to formulate good policies. But I’m not Don Quixote. Just because I want to have things be right and good for people doesn’t mean I can do it unless I’m willing to get down into the muck and get my hands dirty in the grime of the political process.”
Gardner has been floated about as a potential mayoral candidate since 1991. After the April election of that year, Richard Daley had pretty much mowed down his black opposition, defeating the strongest leftover candidates from the Washington era. In just two years, he had knocked off former mayor Eugene Sawyer, former alderman Timothy Evans, Cook County commissioner Danny Davis, and retired judge R. Eugene Pincham. In the wreckage of those defeats, few potential candidates stood unscarred. Gardner was one of them.
But even back then, Gardner had a rap to beat. In a 1991 preelection interview in the Hotline, the daily tip sheet of the American Political Network, Chicago pundit David Axelrod, Daley’s chief media adviser, put the spin on Gardner, a spin that still sticks. “There’s a guy coming up who could do what Harold Washington did,” Axelrod said. “His name is Joe Gardner. He’s running for city clerk now. He’s bright, he’s young, he can walk with kings, and he can walk with the poor. A number of us have tabbed him as a potential mayor after the reign of Daley. But you need some discontent, some turmoil, some corruption to help Gardner. Even if it were there, Gardner would not be in a job to capitalize on it. . . . He’s currently a commissioner of the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District. No one’s going to get elected mayor from the Water Reclamation District.”
Gardner announced his candidacy on Sunday, August 28, at an annual picnic he throws. About 1,500 people showed up in Grant Park to hear Gardner say about Richard M. Daley’s economic development proposals for the city: “We don’t need any more of Rich Daley’s Mickey Mouse solutions. The Daley administration is wrong if they think the solution is to build a theme park in somebody’s neighborhood. We need to work for real, substantive change.” At a press conference later in the day he said he wanted his early announcement to galvanize a citywide effort to vote Daley out of office: “This hopefully will be a catalyst to building a broad-based, multiracial coalition.”
Continuing media coverage of that afternoon fastened on one element of that coalition: Wallace “Gator” Bradley, a former gang member who’d helped organize last year’s controversial gang summit and who now stood with Gardner as he announced he was running. Gardner’s immediate response to questions about Bradley’s presence was “Gator’s a friend, a person who I’ve worked with over the years.” He also said, when asked if he would seek support from organized gang members, “I don’t separate people on the basis of gang membership or nongang membership as long as members and leadership are engaged in positive things.”
The Bradley controversy was fanned by a press blitz in September about 21st Century VOTE, a south-side political-action group whose members have strong ties to Larry Hoover, jailed leader of the powerful street gang the Gangster Disciples. Bradley had been described in a February Tribune article as a “reformed burglar and stickup man” and former “enforcer” for Hoover, who apparently advised him to get out of organized gang life and into activist politics. He currently serves as director for United in Peace, an anti-gang-violence group, and works as a “gang specialist” at the social service agency No Dope Express. He’s also running for Third Ward alderman and is a political adviser to 21st Century VOTE.
Dale Eastman, reporting in New City on last fall’s gang summit, pointed out that many members of 21st Century VOTE were lugging around dog-eared copies of Mike Royko’s Boss. “If it weren’t for the color of their skin and the fear that they clearly engender, the 21st Century VOTE organization could have come right out of the pages of ‘Boss,'” Eastman wrote. “Their counterparts during the elder Daley’s time were the precinct captains saddled with the task of getting out the vote–a similar door-to-door campaign that often consisted of educating someone about their right to vote and who to vote for on their own front stoop.”
This September, Tribune reporters John Kass and George Papajohn recognized a similar phenomenon. “Like the best ward organizations from the city’s past,” they wrote, “the group has embraced the classic strategies of providing jobs and community services, such as neighborhood cleanups.” Kass and Papajohn researched the criminal records of the group’s founders. They found that one had been charged with participating in the gang-rape of a woman found murdered in the basement of his apartment building.
The same day that Tribune article ran, ABC World News Tonight started a two-part series on the Gangster Disciples. Peter Jennings called them “one of the meanest and cleverest street gangs in America,” and went on, “The police department in Chicago has not been able to stop the Gangster Disciples from making millions and millions of dollars peddling illegal drugs. They have seen the Disciples terrorize entire neighborhoods. And now the Gangster Disciples are moving into politics in those very same neighborhoods. They say they’re a force for good.”
Over the next few weeks, media outlets such as CNN, the Los Angeles Times, and London’s Observer produced their own looks at the Gangster Disciples and 21st Century VOTE, turning up very little new information. The Tribune’s George Papajohn, however, published excerpts from a 1981 Larry Hoover memo in which he told Gangster Disciples members that “through business and politics, we can build an economical base that will insure us boundless power and wealth.”
Salim Muwakkil, writing in the Sun-Times, attempted to cool the heated rhetoric against Bradley and 21st Century VOTE. “Lost in all the media demonizing are the questions: What would we have these black youth do instead? Are we indignant because they are performing outside of their job description of gang-banger? Would we rather they stick to drive-bys instead of driving voters to the polls? Do we perennially deny these young people any possibility of redemption?” He observed, “Both Gator and 21st Century VOTE are walking a path paved by the American tradition of ethnic assimilation. It’s a path traveled by the Irish, Italians, Jews and other immigrants who learned the lessons of the underground economy before mastering the mainstream. It’s a peculiarly American tale and it shapes the context for some of our most potent cultural myths. But now that African-Americans are the protagonists in this assimilation narrative, we suddenly want to close the book.” The headline on Muwakkil’s piece didn’t help matters. It read “Even Ex-Cons Deserve Chance at Redemption.”
Joe Gardner was hit immediately by the media for his association with Bradley. The same weekend he announced his campaign, the Sun-Times ran a report, “One Weekend Under Fire,” in which it found that of 61 reported shootings in Chicago on a recent weekend, 40 percent had been “gang-related.” Sun-Times columnist Dennis Byrne then called Gardner the “surefire winner of this week’s bad timing award.” Byrne wrote: “It’s bad enough having to include gangs in people’s lives in the neighborhoods, but to find sympathetic voices from public officials, demanding that a place be found for them on a public platform, is asking too much.”
Gardner and Bradley both replied with letters to the editor. Without once mentioning Bradley, Gardner’s letter said: “I am committed to reach out to our wayward youth and to provide a positive alternative to gang activity. By giving our youth access to the political system, I want to broaden their horizons. I want to redirect their energies from gang-banging to fighting for leadership that is accountable to the citizens of Chicago.”
On September 4 John Kass reported that after Gardner announced, “the elders of the city’s black politicians kept their distance.” Kass wrote that Lu Palmer, “the godfather of the black independent political movement,” had backed away from Gardner, and that other leaders such as Pincham and professors Conrad Worrill and Robert Starks also checked their support. Kass quoted former Sun-Times columnist Vernon Jarrett on Bradley: “For him to be on the platform, to be listed and singled out by Joe Gardner as one of his sponsors, well, I did not receive a single call saying it was a good idea.”
Two weeks after running Kass’s critical piece, the Tribune carried a letter from Gardner: “I do not now, nor will I ever, support gang killings or other negative gang-related behaviors. I will, however, unapologetically reach out to individuals who seek a positive alternative to gang activity.” Gardner thanked a number of people for their support, including Palmer, Starks, and Worrill, and then asserted: “Wallace Bradley has no official role in my campaign. He is not on any committee. He is not a spokesperson and he will not play any leadership role in my campaign.”
In an interview more than two months after the event, Gardner dismissed the Bradley brouhaha. “That was purely and simply an impromptu thing,” Gardner said. “He was there, we were getting the stage organized, and he wanted to be there to show his support. Quite frankly, I was somewhat surprised by how the media made a big issue of his presence. I think that some of my statements and views about working with street gangs have been distorted. I have said, and I still say, that if young people want to put down negative things and get engaged in positive things, we have to open our hearts and our doors to them.”
The progressive political community was out in force at Reza’s restaurant in River North the night of October 19, a few hours after Joe Gardner’s press conference at South Loop School. They gathered, at $50 a plate, in honor of the 50th birthday of Cook County clerk David Orr. Several prominent politicians spoke briefly at the fund-raiser, including U.S. Senator Paul Simon and also Gardner, who thanked Orr for a “long, devoted career of progressive public service.” But away from the speaker’s stand, no one was talking about Orr’s almost-certain reelection. Instead, people were buzzing about another race, the mayoral one, and Orr’s name rolled easily off their tongues.
Angel Correa, a northwest-side Hispanic activist, pulled no punches–Orr was his man for mayor. He said he and others had been bringing Orr around to Latino voters, having him attend parades, benefit softball games, and police dinners, getting his face known. “It might be low-key right now, but let me tell you one thing: once that man announces for mayor there’s going to be all kinds of Hispanic press there,” Correa said. “That’s when, boom, it’s all going to hit. We’re just in the background, feeling it out, but if he says, ‘OK, we’re going to do it,’ then, hey, we’re here. Slowly but surely it’s building, believe me, and we’re out there talking to a lot of people. Believe me, there will be a lot of people out there behind him. There’s a lot of hardworking people who are waiting for the signal. But he’s gotta give us the word. If he’s ready, we’re ready.”
When Harold Washington died in 1987, Orr, then a Rogers Park alderman and the vice mayor, presided over the City Council for seven days during the tumultuous fight to name Washington’s successor. The evenhanded way he handled the situation brought some to believe that he was the next great progressive hope for Chicago. As the jockeying for position in the 1995 mayoral election heated up, Orr’s name was at the forefront of the rumor mill. At the Reza’s fund-raiser, Alderman Joe Moore, Orr’s political protege in the 49th Ward, said Orr was interested in running for mayor but he wanted to make sure that there was money available and that community groups were willing to organize a grass-roots voter registration effort. Most importantly, Moore said, Orr would run only if he had no black challengers. That included potential candidates like Bobby Rush and Roland Burris, and the only declared opponent to Mayor Daley, Joe Gardner.
The possibility of Orr’s candidacy troubled black leaders. His record led some to believe that he would be fair to black political interests, that an Orr administration would be open to many points of view. At the same time there was the question of race. A progressive white mayor was still a white mayor–so went the feeling among nationalists.
Richard Barnett, a west-side political activist who got a taste of political equity during the Washington administration, was one of Orr’s most outspoken black advocates. “I would like to see a black mayor,” Barnett said, “but there isn’t one, and I’m smart enough not to let my heart overrule my head. I’m smart enough to say that if there’s no black on the scene, then we should get someone who we can give support to because they deserve it. When David Orr was mayor for seven days, never once did he show disrespect for the black community over the mourning of Harold’s death. In fact, if you were here December 1 and 2 in 1987, you saw that he was just outvoted in trying to bring a reasonable solution to that situation.”
Barnett added, “You’ve got a lot of people in the black community like myself who would not speak out like I am, who would not rock the boat. They would not want people saying, you’re not being whatever for the race. But you see, I feel that if I call myself a black independent, that I’ve got to use my head, not my heart. My heart says yes, let’s get a black mayor. My head says no, there’s no one on the scene.”
Other black political figures were more guarded in their support for Orr. Sixth Ward alderman John Steele, a consistent opponent of Mayor Daley, said, “My ideal is that you don’t exclude anybody. You have to listen to all these people who are running and decide who the best person is to accomplish the goal of beating Daley. Any system that excludes someone because of race is not a system I would want to see. I would lean toward a black candidate but I don’t want to lose sight of the prize. I’ve been saying, let’s talk to everyone, let’s open up the process. That’s all I’m really saying, not that I’m 100 percent for David Orr or 100 percent for Joe Gardner.”
Steele said he could not support Orr if there was a viable African American candidate for mayor, and the statements of other black political leaders made it clear that, viable or not, there would be one. In June Lu Palmer said, “I do not see a major effort out of the black community for any white candidate, even David Orr. There’s never been a white mayor who’s given me the impression that he or she is concerned about our concerns. I don’t think our community has any confidence in a white candidate.”
The Reverend Al Sampson, head of the Metropolitan Council of Black Churches, was more vitriolic. Sampson, who has long been one of Chicago’s more outspoken black nationalist voices, was once named by Harold Washington to serve on the board overseeing the city colleges. He came to Chicago from Cleveland, where he’d worked for Carl Stokes, the first black elected mayor of a major American city. In his book Fire on the Prairie, Gary Rivlin says that Sampson “was part of a rump group within the Stokes campaign that acted as an independent watchdog against the taming influences of white sympathizers and the black middle class.” Sampson had this to say about Orr’s candidacy: “That’s nonnegotiable. David Orr can’t come in the back door of the black community. He can’t call black leadership together. He has not been consistent in mailings and support. He’s done a good job in the county, but he has not learned to respect black leadership. He’s not Joe Gardner. Joe Gardner can afford to ask us to vote for him. Joe has been fighting and struggling with us for quite a while. David Orr has not been honest with black leadership. He has not given us our respect.”
Conrad Worrill put it more simply, saying, “David Orr is not in my formula.”
Is there a formula, any formula, for creating a candidacy that can beat Daley? There are a few issues, such as the privatization of schools, the management of the city college system, and the funding of neighborhood health clinics, where other candidates might differ fundamentally from Daley, but none seems capable of supporting a citywide movement. Certain clarion calls–for more minority city workers and more blacks in City Hall–strike other “progressives” more as a business-as-usual dividing of spoils than a rallying cry.
The one overarching stance that might work is opposition to what Robert Starks calls “political suburbanization.” Starks says that Daley ignores the inner city politically, economically, and socially, while favoring projects like riverboat casinos and an expanded McCormick Place that bring in tourists and weekend spenders from the suburbs. Neighborhood renovation, boosts for small businesses, and the construction of affordable housing stay on the back burner, Starks says. The Daley camp counters that downtown is the engine of the city, and if it falters Chicago stops in its tracks.
This debate is an old and vital one; but would it stir up, let alone ally, voters now geographically and racially divided?
Last month Orr talked about what a “progressive” platform means to him.
“The key from a progressive point of view is what kind of leadership the mayor provides,” he said. “If you’re really talking about being tough on crime, it would mean tough on public education, jobs, and neighborhood economic development.
“Vast infrastructure improvements in the neighborhoods won’t do us any good if there aren’t any jobs. It doesn’t do any good to give people a new street or new gutter that they can lie in. We should give them a new street or gutter that they can build.
“Hundreds of millions of contracts are going to firms outside of the city, or to Chicago firms that don’t hire much in the city. We can’t control how Marshall Field’s spends its money or how Sears spends its money, but if you’re going to spend billions of dollars on public works the goal should be to encourage more contracts in the city of Chicago for Chicagoans. That’s real economic development. We want a mayor who is more sensitive to that.
“The bottom line is what everybody agrees upon is that too much energy has gone to elite forces, noncity forces. We should be doing all we can to build in the city, stay in the city, and hire in the city.”
But as a practical matter, Orr was challenged, a Republican legislature was just voted in. Doesn’t Chicago more than ever need a mayor with clout and connections, who knows how to go to Springfield and do business?
Orr dismissed this argument. “Whatever connections and clout Daley has, it has not seemed to help Chicago very much in legislative pursuits,” he said. “Daley’s always been a conservative machine Democrat, and he’s gotten nowhere even with proposals that Republicans are sympathetic to. It has little to do about whether or not you’ve got a little bit of clout here and there. It’s about whether you need to fight for it. It’s much less to do with connections. It’s more with, ‘Who stands for something, and will they fight for what they stand for?'”
Orr dropped out of the mayoral fight on October 27, without ever formally joining it. “The way to beat Daley is a single, unified candidacy that brings in people of all racial and ethnic groups,” Orr said in the Sun-Times. “It looks like it would be difficult for me to achieve that. I have no interest in running just to run. I am not interested in dividing the base.” Orr also said the decision was personal. He said he wanted to spend more time with his three young sons.
The day before withdrawing, Orr called friends and supporters, including Joe Gardner, to tell them the news. Orr boosters were gloomy after the calls. “I am just so sad,” said Richard Barnett. “David called me before it came on the media because he knew how important it was to me. We can’t stand four more years of Daley. The damage Daley can cause in four more years is outrageous. I hope Joe Gardner and Bobby Rush and those clowns who are in there know what they are doing, because they have done our community a disservice.” By clowns, Barnett meant blacks who preempted Orr by toying with a race they couldn’t win. He still held a slim hope that Orr would get back in. “We don’t need any more defeats. We need a victory. With an Orr defeat of Daley our community would get a similar feeling to what we got when Harold defeated Daley and Byrne. We wouldn’t have a black mayor, but we would have someone who was fair.”
But other blacks were relieved that Orr had made up his mind. Now they could go more easily about the business of finding a consensus black candidate.
A consensus had appeared within reach at a “Dump Daley” rally held Saturday, October 15, at Bethel AME Church at 45th and Michigan. The church was packed, although many of those attending were members of Lu Palmer’s organizations, Chicago Black United Communities (CBUC) and the Black Independent Political Organization (BIPO). This was another in a series of rallies that Palmer had scheduled through the years, but the mayoral race was heating up and conversation was becoming urgent. Going back to July, at Black Expo, and August, at the Bud Billiken parade, informal polls had identified no clear grass-roots choice for mayor in the black community. Now a group called the Organization to Elect a Black Mayor was working hard, polling blacks at shopping centers and intersections all over the city. But the results had not been tabulated; the people had not yet spoken.
It remained important to black leaders that the community members have a say. No one had forgotten 1987, when City Council leaders cut the deal that made Eugene Sawyer mayor. “I feel very strongly,” says Joe Gardner, “that whoever emerges from this process, the people have the opportunity to have some input. I am not an advocate of five or six, quote, key leaders sitting in the room and brokering a relationship as it was tried with Tim Evans and Gene Sawyer back in 1987. That didn’t work very well. We’re still reeling from the impact of that.”
Despite the lack of a unity candidate, political energy was high at the rally. “We are here today to begin a movement to dump Daley,” Lu Palmer said in an opening speech. “There are specific reasons why Daley must go. I call him public enemy number one. And Daley must go!” Volunteers passed out a ten-item “bill of particulars” that Palmer called “the black community’s indictment of Richard M. Daley.” It said, “We hope that you would use this list as the basis of any discussion of the mayoral election, whether on a call-in radio show or in a face-to-face discussion.” Robert Starks, who drafted the document, wanted to see it become part of the opposition platform.
Starks’s indictment covered familiar ground: the privatization of public functions, the decline of the public school system, and the closing of inner-city health clinics. It criticized the Daley administration for putting a high priority on such projects as McCormick Place, the United Center, casinos, and the downtown circulator, rather than on neighborhood redevelopment. It blamed the administration for problems in the city colleges, a lack of affordable housing, the conduct of the police department in black neighborhoods, and the decline of the number of black employees in City Hall and public works jobs. “We know that we could multiply this by ten and still not have done enough,” Starks said.
The central event of the rally was the “roll call.” Here is a true test, said Palmer, of who’s willing to help defeat Daley. Those in attendance included former alderman Clifford Kelley, now a WVON AM talk show host; state representatives Monique Davis, Lou Jones, and Coy Pugh; and state senator Rickey Hendon (now a candidate for city clerk). Cook County commissioner Danny Davis attended, but John Stroger, now chairman of the Cook County Board, did not. Neither did county recorder of deeds Jesse White, and he and Stroger were loudly booed. Aldermen such as William Beavers, Lorraine Dixon, Jesse Miller, and Dorothy Tillman did not attend; but Jesse Evans, Ed Smith, and John Steele showed up and Arenda Troutman sent a representative.
As for Joe Gardner, he attended but was introduced not as a mayoral candidate but as a Water Reclamation District commissioner. When his name was called, Gardner stepped to the center of the stage, and to chants of “Let’s go, Joe!” pumped his fist to substantial applause. He presented the Chicago Black United Communities with a $100 check. Others gave money as well, and as the checks and bills flowed in it appeared that the financial support was there for a challenge to the mayor.
It’s been nearly two months since the rally, and the Organization to Elect a Black Mayor still has not released its long-promised survey. Salim Muwakkil, writing in In These Times, observed that such polling is unlikely to turn up definitive results. “Chicago’s recent history has fractured the city’s black community, leaving it incapable of electing a candidate on its own,” he wrote. “Although the city’s black voters demographically are capable of electing a mayor without the support of other constituencies, such a feat would require the kind of unifying black candidate who is nowhere to be found.”
Meanwhile, the names of other potential mayoral candidates have been seriously advanced. Illinois’ outgoing attorney general, Roland Burris, was not present for the October “roll call,” but he sent a representative. Congressman Bobby Rush sent a letter of apology to Lu Palmer. Rush could not be in Chicago that weekend, Palmer said, because he was escorting exiled president Jean-Bertrand Aristide back to Haiti.
A week before the November 8 elections, Bobby Rush held a press conference at the Bismarck Hotel to rail against the possibility of public school privatization in Chicago. More than a dozen journalists attended, and they weren’t interested in Rush the congressman. A radio reporter put his microphone on the podium. “How ya doin’ Mr. Mayor? I mean, Bobby,” he asked. The journalists all laughed. Rush paused for a second. “Don’t get me started,” he said. “I’m telling you–you almost got me there.”
Rush introduced various members of a committee that he’d gone with to examine Baltimore’s school privatization program. Suddenly, a man and a woman appeared in the back of the room and started passing out fliers. Rush aides tried to stop them. They were staffers for William J. Kelly, Rush’s Republican opponent, who now entered the room himself. “This is a public meeting,” one of the staffers said. “No, this is not a public meeting,” said a Rush aide. “We paid for this room.” Kelly, a Bob Roberts clone whose earlier claim to fame had been his arrest in Chicago after heckling President Clinton about a “middle-class tax cut,” was staging a raid.
Kelly’s point of attack was a pair of Internal Revenue Service liens against Rush that totaled $55,000. He pushed his way to the front of the room. “I have a tremendous amount of respect for these individuals who care about their children’s education,” Kelly said. “They are here because they care about education, and what they have is a representative in Congress who doesn’t care about education, who doesn’t care about jobs, who doesn’t care about preventing crime, and he shows his disrespect for those people who are standing up beside him because he doesn’t even care about them enough to pay his own federal income taxes.”
Rush glowered on the podium and shuffled papers while the people standing next to him shouted Kelly down. “If you cared about education, you would have found another forum to present this information!” one shouted. The Kelly staffers started shouting, “Bobby Rush won’t debate him! Bobby Rush won’t debate him!” They began to scuffle with Rush’s aides, and one of the Kelly people smashed a water glass on a table.
Kelly and his people were escorted from the room, and Rush started to speak again. “We will continue our press conference, thank you so very much, William Kelly, my friend and loved one, for your comments. We will continue our press conference despite an interruption by an individual who basically is looking for press attention and doesn’t know how to get it on the issues.” As Rush began to denounce school privatization, the reporters there shook their heads and snickered. They didn’t care about education, either. “We must stop playing three-card monte with our schools and other problems this city is confronted with,” Rush said.
Rush opened up the floor for questions. The first reporter asked, “Bobby, I have a Photostat that shows a lien against you by the IRS.” Rush broke in, “Let me tell you, I have a lot of respect for your question and a lot of respect for the individuals in the Chicago press, but this press conference was called for one reason. And I’m not going to allow the acts of my Republican opponent to divert our attention from talking about real issues.” The next question also was about the IRS liens. “Those allegations will be addressed in the appropriate time and place,” Rush said. “When will that be?” the reporter asked. “We don’t get to question you that often.” Rush said he would call another press conference, but as this one dragged on it became clear that the reporters would ask about nothing else.
When Rush started in again on school privatization, one reporter said, “Sounds like you’re running for mayor, Bobby.” Rush responded, “I’ll make that announcement at the appropriate time also.” The conference ended soon after that and Rush left the room. Reporters chased after him, shouting questions. One said, “Congressman Rush, please answer. Nonpayment of taxes is a serious public policy question.” A reporter who stayed around to partake of the free Danishes said, “That’s a textbook example of how not to run a press conference.”
Bobby Rush’s press may not always be favorable, but he draws a crowd, and his phantom candidacy was as much of a political factor this autumn as Gardner’s real one. “It’s not had a major impact on my campaign so far,” said Joe Gardner, “but it’s just like you’re walking down the street and there’s footsteps behind you. I’m aware of his presence although he’s not exactly a candidate. If he were a candidate, then we would go face-to-face, toe-to-toe, and debate the issues. Out of that process, I think one of us would emerge as the person who has the most broad-based popular support.”
Earlier this year, Rush called Conrad Worrill, one of his harshest critics, and asked for a meeting. Worrill had distrusted Rush since Rush defeated the black incumbent, Charles Hayes, in the 1992 First Congressional District primary. At the time Rush was the Second Ward alderman, and Hayes had been implicated in that year’s congressional check-kiting scandal. “I couldn’t figure out why he wanted to meet with me,” Worrill said. “But I shared with Rush why many of us were very disappointed in him in terms of taking Charlie Hayes out of the game. He admitted to me that he was tired of being alderman, and that he wanted to get a jump start on other people who might have wanted Hayes’s seat. He told me that he loved being a congressman, and that he wasn’t interested in being mayor.”
Rush first started making mayoral noise in mid-July. During a taping of the WMAQ AM radio show The Reporters, he accused the city’s news media of handling Mayor Daley “with kid gloves.” When asked if he would run against Daley, Rush said only that there would be a candidate who represented “the progressive forces of the city.”
In late September he formed a “citizens’ committee” to explore the possibility of a mayoral campaign. “There will be only one African American and/or progressive candidate,” Rush said at the time. “That’s an ironclad principle.” Joe Gardner replied, “Bobby Rush and I are in constant communication. We will be together on this one.” The committee included former Washington administration officials Grayson Mitchell, Brenetta Howell Barrett, Ed Bell, David Cantor, Milan Fitts, and Anthony Gibbs Jr., Cook County commissioners Jerry Butler and Maria Pappas, 16th Ward alderman Shirley Coleman, and 46th Ward alderman Helen Shiller. Also on the list were Uptown political activist Walter “Slim” Coleman and business leaders Ronald Gatton, Thomas McCleary, Dorothy River, Sam Toia, and Tom Tunney, owner of Ann Sather restaurant.
The committee kept its ruminations about Rush’s candidacy to itself, and Rush stayed on the offensive against Daley. But by November the tax question was dogging Rush, and it also began to affect Gardner’s campaign. The day after Rush’s press conference, Gardner attended an event with other black elected officials who were gathered to show their support for gubernatorial candidate Dawn Clark Netsch. He was repeatedly asked by the Tribune’s John Kass to respond to William Kelly’s allegations against Rush. “John Kass tried to get me to say that a person who owes taxes is not qualified to run for mayor,” Gardner said later. Instead he told Kass, “I think people, including the media, should leave him alone. . . . It turns off votes and increases the level of cynicism.” He also said, “Bobby Rush and I are friends. I’ve sat here and almost been his press secretary defending him on these income tax charges. It’s too important to the future of the city and the people we purport to represent.”
The day before the elections, Rush held his promised press conference to defend himself against the tax charges. Rush called them a media concoction and a conspiracy, and compared himself to slain Black Panther leader Fred Hampton. “This is reminiscent of another concocted, phony, and fabricated story by the Chicago media 25 years ago after the assassination of Fred Hampton, when it portrayed nail heads in a rear door as bullet holes,” he said. Rush also said his treatment by the media was similar to “the darkening of O.J. Simpson’s picture by a national news magazine.” He invoked Popcorn Willie, a south-side folkloric character who doesn’t back up his words with actions. “My name is not Popcorn Willie,” he said. “I will not be intimidated by the press, nor by the powers that be. I was not intimidated by Mayor Richard J. Daley and I will not be intimidated by the son. I’m not intimidated by the press, and I’m not intimidated by slanderers and falsehoods.”
The next day John Kass reported that Rush had paid off one lien of more than $27,000, while another about as large remained outstanding. He also reported that Rush owed $1,900 in back state taxes, and that he had settled with the city by paying $2,500 for $6,000 worth of overdue parking fines.
Rush has been widely criticized by black political elders for his 1992 congressional campaign against incumbent Charles Hayes. He’s attacked for making the race at all, and accused of cozying up to Cook County sheriff Michael Sheahan, former alderman of the 19th Ward, and Cook County assessor Thomas Hynes, that ward’s committeeman, in order to win it. The 19th Ward, which stretches to the city limits on the southwest side, is a traditional stronghold for regular Democratic votes. It’s also part of Rush’s First Congressional District, and it provided him with almost half his narrow margin of victory over Hayes.
Rush’s campaign was run by the Strategy Group, a political consulting firm that had by then moved David Wilhelm from the Chicago political scene to the chairmanship of the Democratic National Committee. Wilhelm is a protege and ally of Daley media adviser David Axelrod. According to Federal Election Commission documents, Rush received $2,000 in ’92 from the Manilow family. Lewis Manilow is one of Mayor Daley’s big financial backers and he’s the stepfather of Edwin Eisendrath, a former 43rd Ward alderman whom Daley helped place in a high-ranking job with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Rush also accepted several thousand dollars in donations from wealthy backers with political and financial ties to Daley.
This year Rush supported Albert Hofeld in the Democratic primary for attorney general of Illinois over former alderman Martin Oberman, who had the support of most of Harold Washington’s former allies. Rush also endorsed Michael Sheahan over black candidate Tommy Brewer, now a Gardner adviser, in the Democratic primary for Cook County sheriff. Sheahan, who won the primary easily, lost Rush’s ward, the Second, by only 213 votes out of nearly 7,000 cast. In the 1987 mayoral primary, by contrast, Harold Washington received 97 percent of the Second Ward vote.
“We are convinced that Bobby Rush is in the race to split the black vote to assist Richie Daley, said Lu Palmer. “We will never support Bobby Rush. It just doesn’t follow.”
Speaking on his office phone one afternoon, Joe Gardner was asked by a friend about the rumors surrounding Bobby Rush’s ties to the mayor. Gardner responded that he simply wasn’t sure how deep the connections ran, or if they ran at all. “You see, that’s part of Daley’s strategy,” Gardner said. “I knew he [Daley] was going to put someone in. I just didn’t think it was going to be Bobby. I thought it was going to be some woman from the administration, like Valerie Jarrett. I never thought it would be Bobby.”
On election night, as control of the U.S. House and Senate and the Illinois house swung over to the Republicans, and as Dan Rostenkowski was losing his congressional seat to a political neophyte, Gardner and Rush made the rounds of the local television stations to proclaim victory in their own races and decry Mayor Daley.
“He has not provided the leadership that Democrats need and deserve from the mayor of the city of Chicago,” Rush said on Channel Five. He added, “I remember in 1983, 1984, 1986, Harold Washington took a personal responsibility to make sure that Democrats won. . . . That was leadership, and that’s what this city wants, and that’s what Democrats in this city want.” Channel Five anchor Ron Magers looked at Rush and kidded him, “Well, ya didn’t declare, but ya sound a lot like a candidate.”
Later in the evening, Dick Kay, the station’s political analyst, weighed in with his judgment. After naming all the candidates and potential candidates, Kay said, “There’s not enough time for anybody to mount a serious challenge against Daley, who already has an organization, so I don’t think he’s in any trouble at all.”
Voter registration trends in the city would certainly seem to favor Daley. The preliminary voter rolls showed that registration citywide was 1,349,196, the lowest general-election count since 1920. In October, a study by the Chicago Urban League, the Metro Chicago Information Center, and Northern Illinois University presented voter turnout averages for city, county, and state elections since 1980. The study, published as the Metro Chicago Political Atlas–1994, found that although 85 percent of Chicago’s blacks of voting age were registered, only 50 percent of those actually voted. Only 80 percent of the eligible whites were registered, but on average 70 percent of those turned out. The Sun-Times concluded from those numbers that Mayor Daley could then “win reelection even if he gets no votes from blacks.” The Sun-Times also quotes the survey’s observation that “if African-American and white voter turnout were equal, it would be very difficult for a white candidate to win a citywide election.”
In the 1987 mayoral election, 58.5 percent of voting-age blacks turned out, according to the study. By 1991 this turnout had dropped to 29.4 percent in the Democratic primary and 26.9 percent in the general election. Thirty percent turned out to elect Carol Moseley-Braun to the United States Senate in 1992, and in this year’s primary 32.9 percent of the potential black vote came out as Roland Burris bid unsuccessfully for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination.
Last month’s elections deflated even the most enthusiastic boosters of black electoral power. Richard Barnett said a larger black turnout nationwide would have prevented the Republican takeover. “There was no one in the election yesterday to energize our community,” he said the day after. “Yesterday shows the Democratic Party how important the black voter is. We’ve always been that backbone of that large percentage of their power. We’re forever being used.” Barnett also sounded increasingly desperate about the upcoming mayoral race. “I don’t think ’95 is the year,” he said. “It could have been, but now it’s too little too late. When you jump out there and run and lose, you look stupid. You haven’t done your homework.”
The mayoral race began to change just before election day. The previous Saturday, Joe Gardner received a call from Lu Palmer, who said he wanted to meet with him about the mayoral election. They met that day and the next at the home of Roland Burris. The meetings were attended by Burris; his son Gardner; Palmer; the Reverend Al Sampson; Gardner’s campaign manager, Paul Davis; and Eddie Read, the president of CBUC and BIPO. Palmer told Gardner he simply didn’t have the ability to mount a winning campaign and asked him to pull out of the race. Only Burris could pull the funds together and gain broad voter support, Palmer said. For his part, Burris said that to mount a credible challenge to Daley he would need another 100,000 black voters on the rolls and a guaranteed $3 million in campaign funds.
Gardner’s own war chest didn’t amount to more than $45,000.
The idea of a plebiscite to identify a consensus candidate was not working out, Palmer said later. “I still philosophically agree that the choice has to come from the people,” he said, “but since no vehicle drove up to collect that people’s decision, then I just feel that we’ve got to move ahead. . . . I have said to Joe that I simply believe that Roland has a better chance of defeating Daley. Our bottom line is to dump Daley. We are going with the candidate that we believe has the best possible chance. I just don’t think that’s Joe Gardner.”
But Gardner refused to drop out. On November 10, Roland Burris held a press conference to say that he wanted to run for mayor, if not in the primary then as an independent in the April general election. Burris’s name had been in the air all year, but in June, on the heels of his gubernatorial primary loss, he pulled out of consideration. “I am not running for mayor of this city,” he said. “I am not running for mayor of Chicago. I am not a candidate. . . . I don’t know what all the talk is about.”
In November Burris said, “People are asking me to come to their aid. They advised me–and this is a statement that was very profound–when you wanted to be governor, that was their thing. We supported you. . . . You didn’t make it. Now, the community wants you. This is our thing. Now it’s your turn, Burris, to answer our call.” Lu Palmer told the Sun-Times, “We have no doubt about the fact that he’ll run . . . we have his commitment. I’m saying we’ve drafted him.”
Burris has the most name recognition but the least progressive credentials of any of the proposed candidates. He’s a former vice chairman of the Democratic National Committee and a three-term state comptroller. He’s politically comfortable with Governor Jim Edgar, a Republican, and close to many of the same financial interests that back Daley and Edgar. Conrad Worrill said he was sure Palmer had his reasons for endorsing Burris, but also said, “I’m clearly for Joe Gardner. I don’t know what Lu Palmer is doing.” He added, “I’m having difficulty understanding what’s going on in the African American community with regard to the mayoral election. Joe Gardner has been out there for two years, working hard and fighting the right fights. Bobby Rush sat in my office this summer and told me there was no way he was running for mayor. He said that he loved being a congressman. Roland Burris openly said months ago that he was not going to run for mayor. If somebody has been out here working and struggling and has officially announced, I don’t understand the problem.”
The problem, in some eyes, was that no matter who ran against Daley the race would be hopeless. The Tribune’s Thomas Hardy, summing up the mayoral situation in mid-November, wrote: “A handful of politicians must figure on the basis of last week’s results that Mayor Richard Daley will be vulnerable after six years in office. But it is hard to discern how they reach that conclusion.” About Daley’s opposition, Hardy wrote, “The longer the three black mayoral hopefuls dicker, the less time they will have to match Daley’s fundraising and organizational abilities.” Daley, meanwhile, was preparing to lead a 30-vehicle caravan to Springfield to lobby for his crime bill. He was not yet deigning to discuss his race for reelection.
For a week after last month’s elections, Bobby Rush stumped around criticizing Daley and teasing the press. In a November 9 press conference he said again that the mayor was squarely to blame for the Democratic losses. “There’s not a dime’s worth of difference,” Rush said, “between the Republican policies and Daley’s policies on crime, jobs, education, and economic development. Our mayor is doing nothing more than masquerading as a Republican in Democratic garb.” Then Rush said, “Because Daley has failed the leadership in this city, I declare, right now–” and he paused as the reporters caught their collective breath and waited for the announcement to finally come “–right here and right now that today we face the dismantling of public education as we know it. Today I’m issuing a call to all citizens of Chicago to join forces and rally together to save public education from the Daley-fueled demon known as privatization.”
And Joe Gardner was finally getting some attention. He held a press conference at his campaign headquarters on November 10. All the major television stations were there, and they had sent their chief political correspondents. The dailies, many community newspapers, and several radio stations had also sent reporters. When asked about his get-together with Burris and Palmer, Gardner said, “I don’t want to comment on the substance of the meeting. It’s been my position and my posture from the outset to meet with anybody and everybody necessary to coalesce the progressive forces in the city of Chicago, so we can achieve our one single objective, which is to beat Rich Daley.” He also said, “I wanted to catalyze the process, to energize the process, and I guess I energized it so well that I got two other guys interested in running.”
When asked how one candidate would emerge from the fray, Gardner talked about a “poll” he and Rush were conducting that would be one of a number of “objective criteria” that would help blacks make a decision. When asked what those other criteria would be, Gardner said, “I challenge leaders in the community. Those people who say they are really committed to the defeat of Rich Daley have got to step up to the plate and help us achieve a consensus. This is not the Roman games where Roland and Bobby Rush and Joe Gardner get out in an amphitheater and wrestle. . . . I’m issuing a clarion call that the leadership of the city of Chicago have to decide.”
Gardner added, “We are now, in order to run a viable campaign, we’ve got to run a two-minute offense. Time is waning. Thanksgiving is around the corner, Christmas is around the corner. In the next ten days this situation has got to get resolved, or the chance to defeat this man becomes less and less. This is not an ego trip. I’m in here for one reason, to defeat Rich Daley. In the next ten days, a decision has got to be made.”
In the back of his mind, he concedes, was the idea of dropping out himself.
But it was Rush, not Gardner, 11 days later if not 10, who abandoned the race that he, like David Orr, had never formally entered. Even now, however, as Gardner stood alone to challenge the mayor, unity did not favor his ambitions. Whatever the support of the established black leadership might be worth, many of those leaders still withheld it. Some were even spreading rumors.
“It’s clear that Bobby has been playing games for Daley all along,” said Lu Palmer, who continued to back Roland Burris. “It just seems to me that his move yesterday reinforces it. It’s extremely disturbing, because now there’s questions being asked about Joe Gardner in that same context.”
Why is Gardner given almost no chance to win, even by some of his supporters? What’s wrong with him? He has few, if any, negatives on his record, he seems to grasp the pertinent issues, and he has broad political connections. But Gardner doesn’t excite people. The reason the black community doesn’t coalesce behind him is not his politics, his ideas, or some whiff of scandal, but its own inertia. And Gardner doesn’t seem to offer an antidote to that. As Richard Barnett put if after David Orr dropped out, “Joe Gardner is one of the nicest young men you’d ever want to meet. But he can’t energize us.”
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Kurt Mitchell; photos/David Schulz.