The Invisible Man

In an election year in Chicago there is always some political neophyte like Ray Smith with good credentials, not much money, and no name recognition who runs for a major office and makes no headway whatever.

Here’s how bad it got for Smith: two Mondays ago, the Sun-Times published its endorsement in Smith’s race for Cook County state’s attorney. The Sun-Times didn’t endorse him, of course; the paper’s choice was Alderman Patrick O’Connor. But the editorial commented: “Creditable campaigns also are being waged by Ray Smith, a former assistant U.S. attorney who promises dramatic reforms, and by Raul Villalobos, a former assistant state’s attorney who emphasizes fighting drugs.”

The Sun-Times was now referring to Smith’s promises of “dramatic reforms” without ever, in the preceding weeks and months of the campaign, seeing fit to tell us what they were.

We say “Sun-Times,” but we mean “Steve Neal.” As political editor, Neal is not only the paper’s principal political reporter but also its only political columnist–two hats that at large papers are very rarely found on one head. Ray Smith isn’t the only one in the race that Neal slighted. He didn’t pay much attention to Villalobos, either, or even to O’Connor, although the most recent Sun-Times poll showed O’Connor “deadlocked” with incumbent Cecil Partee.

On the other hand, Neal doted on Partee.

A big reason our sympathies go out to Smith is that he’s the single candidate for office we’ve met in the flesh this winter, thanks to his willingness to hie himself to the Fullerton el station one cold winter morning to pass out literature. Smith is endorsed by the Independent Voters of Illinois. His campaign manager is former alderman Dick Simpson. Many years ago, these credentials would have drawn him media attention as the race’s reform insurgent. Today they apparently mean nothing.

The Smith campaign’s one big splash was a series of full-page ads last December in the Chicago Daily Law Bulletin designed to introduce himself to the region’s lawyers. If you read the Daily Law Bulletin instead of the Sun- Times you would have known about his reform platform, in which he said he’d:

lobby to amend the Illinois constitution so that voters in any of the state’s five appellate districts could introduce merit selection of judges.

establish a “pretrial diversion program” for first-time drug offenders charged with possession to get them into rehab programs instead of jail cells.

ask law firms to grant their young litigators two-year leaves to work as prosecutors, thus establishing an office of “citizen soldiers” who move on after a few years rather than “become jaded and cynical after too many years in the system.”

Smith promised, “I would be a ‘citizen soldier’ myself, staying in office only long enough to implement the fundamental reforms that I believe are necessary to engender public confidence in the system.” The present race will provide a successor to fill out the last two years of Richard Daley’s unexpired term. Smith promised to run for reelection only once, then return to private practice.

Simpson told us–generously, we think–that Smith’s press conferences have been decently covered by radio, with stations such as WBEZ, WVON, and WGCI also sponsoring “debates” that bring the various candidates together. TV has given Smith airtime on some of those Sunday-morning newsmaker programs; and Simpson said that even the Tribune’s political reporters “have done reasonable roundups of the candidates.”

And the Sun-Times? Smith found out which way that wind was blowing last autumn, when his camp commissioned a poll.

This survey of likely Democratic primary voters by McKeon & Associates turned up the unsurprising news that hardly anyone knew who Smith was. He was the choice of 1.8 percent of those polled. What struck the Smith camp as interesting and hopeful was that only 45 percent of the respondents supported Partee, despite his incumbency and vastly greater name recognition, and that half the voters were undecided. Partee looked vulnerable, and in hopes of turning impressions into reality, Smith’s people passed the results of the poll along to Steve Neal. Maybe Neal would say so in print.

Fat chance. Neal conceded that Partee was “potentially vulnerable”–i.e., vulnerable against stronger opposition than he had. But given the field, “Partee appears to be in a strong position to win the Democratic nomination.”

A headline writer topped this analysis with “Partee seems hard to beat in ’90 Democratic primary.”

The Smith camp shouldn’t have bothered.

In the weeks ahead, Neal frequently contemplated the state’s attorney’s race. Surely, he would eventually give all the candidates’ views an airing.

But not in his January 3 column, a meditation on the unopposed Republican candidate, John O’Malley. Nor in his January 24 column, which he devoted to the saga of Partee’s life. “‘Be prepared and try hard,’ his mother advised him . . .”

On February 1, Neal put on his reporter’s hat and surveyed the field. Here Neal could not avoid a citation of Smith’s qualifications and issues. Indeed, the Sun-Times’s political editor devoted an entire sentence to them:

“Smith, 58, the law partner of former Mayor Jane M. Byrne’s brother, contends the state’s attorney’s office has been too political.”

The next day’s paper found Neal effortlessly shifting gears back to columnist to describe the upper hand Partee still enjoyed. Citing a new poll that put Partee far in front with 52 percent support and Smith in the rear with 2 percent, Neal confided: “Partee has been advised that Smith could yet emerge as his major challenger. When respondents in the Day poll were given blind descriptions of the candidates that included a negative message about the incumbent, Partee’s support dropped to 42 percent, followed by Smith 27 percent . . .”

Perhaps this tells us why no description of candidate Smith would make its way into Neal’s columns. The political editor may have concluded he’d be playing into the candidate’s hands and thus perpetrating an unseemly abuse of journalism.

Days later, the BGA accused Partee of fathering and spurning an illegitimate daughter. Neal would have none of it. One column dismissed the BGA as “a GOP dirty tricks factory.” Another recalled “J. Edgar Hoover’s vendetta against Martin Luther King Jr.” Partee’s opponents were spanked for “seeking to exploit the issue.”

Despite Neal’s preoccupation with Partee, the Sun-Times endorsed O’Connor, which certainly might signal that Neal’s influence in-house is on the wane. Since Dennis Britton became editor, Neal has been put on a shorter leash–he now reports to the metro editor; his copy is more closely read. Unfortunately, the hardest job for any copy editor is to improve the stories that a writer doesn’t write.

We asked Neal why he didn’t examine Partee’s competition. “He’s the state’s attorney,” Neal explained. “I think the primary’s a referendum on the incumbent. . . . It would be nice if we could give coverage to all of the candidates when they make policy pronouncements, but we can’t always do that.”

“I’m concerned that we haven’t achieved balance,” Britton told us. “You can easily say that I am not comfortable with a street reporter also writing a column. I don’t know how you achieve balance that way.”

We asked Neal if he saw a conflict. No, he said.

Neal and Void

“I’m generally the reporter who covers the candidates who are, how to say? not the leaders of the pack,” the Sun-Times’s Andrew Hermann was telling us. “So these complaints, I’ve heard them before, and I’ve heard them from the candidates themselves.”

Hermann has been fitfully covering Ray Smith and other also-rans beneath Steve Neal’s attention. When we talked he was preparing a long-overdue profile of Smith, which finally ran last Tuesday, nine days after Hermann’s paper endorsed someone else, under the apt headline, “Partee foe Smith strains to be heard.” We asked Hermann what he thought of Ray Smith.

“He’s an impressive candidate, really,” Hermann told us. “He has some pretty good ideas. . . . He gets excitable at these forums,” Hermann went on. “He’s not a polished politician by any means. He gets kind of upset and starts speaking faster and faster and jumps to the edge of his chair, and when someone says something negative about him he lets it get to him.”

A few nights earlier, Hermann had covered Smith at WVON’s candidates forum. He looked at the political roundup story that ran the next day to see if any of Smith’s views had made the paper, but Smith had been trimmed out of it.

“I go to these forums,” said Hermann, “and maybe there are a dozen people there. I open up the paper and I read stories about how the voter registration lists are very low, and it kind of makes you wonder how interested people are in this thing and what role the newspaper–the media–are supposed to be playing. Is it the media’s–my–job to drum up interest in politics, or is it the media’s job to reflect how much interest there is?”

Our thinking is that the media’s job is to inform any voters who want to be informed.

“It’s an important job, that’s for sure,” said Hermann. “Every election they start assigning political stories and I want to be involved because in my mind it’s important–plus it gets you out of the office into various parts of the city. But after I’m at it for a while it’s discouraging to read stories that reflect voter apathy, and to go to forums and see there’s nobody there.”

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