History tells us that up to 98 percent of incumbent congressmen get reelected, but that doesn’t deter people from running against them. Sometimes the challengers are simply the opposition party’s sacrificial lambs. Sometimes they are earnest reformers who hope to persuade the electorate of a need for change. Sometimes they are egotists convinced of their ability to outshine the incumbent.
Sometimes the incumbents are bright, honorable people who serve their districts and the nation well. Sometimes they are dunderheads. Sometimes they are corrupt. Sometimes they are loudmouths, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. It makes no difference. All but a handful go back to Washington.
Gus Savage of Illinois’ Second Congressional District is no exception. He is, well, irascible, to put the best face on it, and only halfheartedly supported by his constituents. Yet he was elected to Congress in 1980 and he has been reelected four times since. This time around, he is being challenged by a former Rhodes scholar. Mel Reynolds, 38, made a run against Savage in 1988 and got 14 percent of the Democratic primary vote. This time Reynolds thinks he can actually win; his last poll showed him getting 44.6 percent of the projected vote, Savage 39.2 percent, the rest undecided.
Five-term congressman Augustus Alexander Savage, 65 years old, has been a thorn in the side of white Chicago since the 1940s. Whether organizing sit-ins in restaurants that didn’t serve blacks, demonstrating for fair housing, helping found the Chicago League of Negro Voters in the 60s, or playing an important role in electing the city’s first black mayor, he’s been seen as an abrasive, controversial personality.
“He’s a great guy with the best intentions in the world, but he’s a little bit crazy,” says an old friend who would rather not be identified. “You can always count on Gus to be on the right side, but you can’t always count on him to say the right thing. He’s pretty scrappy.” A supporter who has known Savage for 30 years, Hurley Green, publisher of the Bulletin newspapers, laughs as he says, “People of Gus’s stature are often very vocal.” Savage is a slight man, about five and a half feet tall, about 150 pounds, though no one provides his actual weight and height. His district office assistant told me, “That’s too personal. They never put that in books.”
Savage’s father was a steelworker, his mother a domestic, both lured up from the south by the jobs that World War II created. Savage grew up scrapping on the streets with both whites and blacks. After graduating from Wendell Phillips High School, he served in the Army and then entered Roosevelt College on the GI Bill. Roosevelt had been founded a year after World War II by former Central YMCA College faculty and administrators who were angered and shamed by that school’s refusal to admit black veterans. Now there was a college in Chicago not only open to blacks, to Jews, to Orientals, but whose enrollment policy welcomed students such as Savage, who had done poorly in high school but could pass minimum test requirements. The only other such college in the country was City University of New York. Not surprisingly, Roosevelt, like CUNY, became a haven for young radicals.
There were probably more political discussions in the cafeteria of Roosevelt in those early years than in any other restaurant in Chicago. The city’s civil rights movement arguably was hatched there, and Savage and fellow student Harold Washington were among its leaders. Washington was the calm, orderly, intellectual one, president of the student council. Savage was the angry young man. While Washington was forming an attachment to the Democratic machine, Savage lambasted it. “He was always opposed to the status quo, whatever the status quo happened to be at the time,” another old friend remembers, also asking for anonymity.
In the late 50s, Savage went south to help build the radical Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, and back in Chicago he led black transit workers in claiming a larger voice inside their union.
After graduating from Roosevelt, he enrolled at Chicago Kent College of Law, but after a year he was asked to leave. Savage had gotten into a scrap with a professor, and in the 50s, you didn’t sass your professors and get away with it, particularly if you were black.
So he turned to journalism, working first for a west-side paper and then as editor of the Bulletin, then owned by the Southtown Economist. But he couldn’t get the paper out on time, says Hurley Green, who worked for Savage and then took over his job and eventually bought the Bulletin from Bruce Sagan. “He would come to work at four o’clock on Wednesday afternoon and the paper was supposed to be at the printer by six or so. He never made it.” After two years, Savage was fired. He free-lanced for a couple years while he raised money, then started a chain of papers of his own, the South Side Citizen Newspapers, which he managed to run profitably until he was elected to Congress in 1980.
At first a lukewarm supporter of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Savage fell out with him over King’s tactics for his Chicago campaign of 1965. The argument was whether King should go into the west side with his slum housing program or into a middle-class south-side community. Savage and others said the west side was too raw and unorganized to accommodate the kind of program that King was trying to set in motion. At a retreat in Lake Geneva for King and about 100 civil rights workers from Chicago, this writer among them, Savage and a few others fought a hard battle with King but lost. King made no gains in Chicago and left with the local civil rights movement in disarray.
One reason King won that tactical argument was that the sides were not evenly drawn. King’s lieutenants–James Bevel, Andrew King, and others–were sure, accomplished speakers. They had come from the perilous south, where they’d learned to keep their cool under all circumstances, think carefully, and out-strategize the white establishment. Savage had had his scrapes with tough, often brutal Chicago cops, and had been arrested a few times, but his life had never been endangered. He’d grown up a street fighter, not a cool orator. He didn’t impress King, the coolest of them all.
After King left Chicago, Savage began what became a 15-year pursuit of political office. He ran five times, unsuccessfully, for alderman and congressman. Other independents were winning races against the machine, but Savage seemed not to have that touch. Finally in 1980, white congressman Morgan Murphy decided not to run for reelection in the Second District, which by then was 70 percent black. Several blacks entered the race. Leon Davis, who was one of them, says of the man who beat him, “He ran on Jane Byrne’s coattails. He brought her into the black community and was responsible for getting Jesse Jackson and other black leaders to support her. The black community, of course, eager for change, supported her. Savage and Byrne were so close that she gave the eulogy at his wife’s funeral when she died in 1981. Gus went to her in 1980 and asked for her support. She called in all the committeemen, one by one, and twisted their arms. He won.”
While Savage is widely known in the black community for his long history in civil rights, white people in Chicago–and in Washington–are more likely to regard him as a shameless race baiter, someone who interprets any criticism of him as an attack on him as a black man. To those of us with longer memories this behavior is unexpected–Savage once moved comfortably in integrated circles. Perhaps the change can be attributed in part to Jane Byrne’s turnabout against him and against the black community in general. She abandoned Savage in the 1982 primary and supported regular Democrat Eugene Barnes, head of the CTA and an Uncle Tom in Savage’s book. Enough committeemen in the district with ties to Byrne secretly supported Savage to return him to office.
Timuel Black, a longtime civil rights activist who is now serving on the Black-Jewish Dialogue, which was established to repair the damage done two years ago by the Steve Cokely incident, is a friend of Savage’s. “Gus is an anomaly,” he says. “When you look at his voting record, it’s perfect, but when you try to examine some of his behavior, you’re completely puzzled. There may be times when he feels people are picking on him because he’s black instead of because he’s progressive, but it’s not easy to understand. Sometimes there are people you just can’t understand. Gus comes down straight on the side of the angels on the issues of war and peace, but when you get to domestic issues, race becomes the major issue. It is, sometimes, but not all the time, and not always the way Gus sees it.”
While Savage has never inspired a large election-day turnout, or received more than 52 percent of the primary vote (a low vote total indeed, for an incumbent congressman), he does command a loyal core of support. State senator Howard Brookins, who until January was in the race against Savage, says he believes that Savage’s remark to a TV newsman last fall, “Get the fuck out of my face,” will “get him elected.” One supporter admits, “Gus is just saying what we’d all like to say.”
Like so much of what he does, Savage’s campaign to retain his office seems to defy convention. Numerous phone calls to his campaign office went unanswered. Someone suggested I call late at night. The people in his district office say they know nothing of his campaign. They don’t even have a copy of his itinerary. And his Washington staff has been told not to talk to the press except on express orders from the boss. After a couple of weeks, I finally got an answer at the campaign office at 5 PM. The woman who answered the phone said, “I’m just a receptionist and can’t tell you anything and there’s no one else around.”
There seem to be no posters, bumper stickers, or buttons anywhere in the district. One observer said, “If he is campaigning, you couldn’t call it a high-profile campaign.” Hurley Green says, “He doesn’t campaign in the ordinary sense. He just goes out in the street all the time, all year, talking to people wherever he finds them.” He appears at picket lines, at political rallies, at antiapartheid rallies, prochoice rallies, rallies against American policy in Central America, rallies covering the gamut of liberal causes, especially those that involve black rights. He also occasionally holds a meeting in the district or downtown–for example, with black contractors who need assistance in getting more federal business, or last Friday’s hearing on economic development, which was a function of his role as chairman of the Subcommittee on Minority Business of the House Small Business Committee.
It is not unusual for veteran congressmen to campaign so casually, but few have any reason to get strenuous–many are running unopposed. Savage, on the other hand, has always won renomination by small majorities or mere pluralities, and in 1990 he finds himself for the first time one-on-one against a single significant opponent (a supporter of Lyndon LaRouche is also in the race). Presumably, last year’s headlines from Zaire–where a Peace Corps worker accused him of sexual harassment–will not make his race easier to win, and possibly a certain fatigue with Savage’s usual means of handling these awkward situations has set in. Some of us, says a constituent, are “tired of hearing Gus use racism to explain everything.”
Mel Reynolds accuses Savage of being a loudmouth with only the race card to play. “He thinks he can win by tying me to the Daley machine and white people, but the fact is that he’s running against an independent black and that’s not going to work.” Well, Reynolds may laugh off Savage’s charge that he is the candidate of the whites, but I heard it repeated by many of Savage’s supporters, including two black newspaper publishers who presumably control the contents of their papers.
In January, the New Republic called Savage “one of the wonders of the Congressional incumbency machine. On Capitol Hill, the five-term Congressman is widely considered a buffoon.” But his claim that he’s constantly being attacked because he’s black plays well enough in large parts of the black community. A prominent black businessman who prefers anonymity says, “Throughout the black community, that approach has a strong appeal. I must admit that even I succumb to it at times. I see something and immediately I say race and then, because I consider myself a fairly intelligent person, I look again and say, no, that’s not race.”
Savage’s alliances with Louis Farrakhan and with Lu Palmer and Conrad Worrill, leaders of the black nationalist Black Independent Political Organization, all antiwhite and anti-Semitic in their speeches and comments, have paid off well in votes, it seems, since their followers are among the most active voters in a district that has had a low voter turnout for years. Most Savage supporters I talked to believe that he is maligned by the media and says what he says in self-defense. Robert Williams, an aide to Savage for several years, says, “What bothers the media is that Gus is so outspoken and critical of them. But it’s a fact that the white-dominated media often paints the black community in a negative light and Gus is always pointing that out. They don’t like him for that.”
When the same media portray a black in a positive light, he is apt to be accused by other blacks of being in the media’s pockets. The white media have bent over backwards to give Reynolds positive coverage. The Sun-Times and Tribune have endorsed him. Crain’s Chicago Business, with a tiny readership in the Second District, featured Reynolds on page four of its January 29 issue. This attention has tarred Reynolds among Savage supporters as the white man’s candidate. Howard Brookins says, “Reynolds’s office is filled with Daley people.”
Reynolds’s campaign manager is Charles Kelly, a former aide to Harold Washington, and his political director is Preston Love, former deputy campaign manager to Jesse Jackson. There are no Daley people on his regular staff, Reynolds insists, though a few of his volunteers do work in the Daley administration. However, Brookins says it is clear that the “white politicians have bought and paid for a novice who hasn’t even been a block captain, or a community leader, even a member of a recognized church in the community. There’s something wrong. His whole staff comes out of City Hall. And that tells you they’re being supplied to him to get rid of Savage.”
James Dyson, secretary of the Hotel Employees & Restaurant Employees Union, which supports Reynolds, says, “Yes, Reynolds does have broad support. He can do what Gus can’t. He can make coalitions. Harold Washington had the same broad support–whites and Hispanics–and he wasn’t branded a racist or accused of being the white man’s candidate. And the mayor of Chicago is reaching out to everyone. Do we want a mayor who doesn’t reach out?”
Savage does seem to know how to manipulate opinion. Hurley Green says, “This is no race. You can’t beat Gus. He’s so vocal. Gus is a campaigner everywhere he goes. He goes into taverns, churches, wherever people are, glad-handing. It’s BS, but people like that. Certainly in a debate, you couldn’t beat Gus. And he has risen to some important chairmanships [actually, all he chairs is the Minority Business Subcommittee]. He’s not all bad.” Green’s papers will endorse Savage.
The businessman quoted earlier continues: “Everything that anyone says critical of Savage, he immediately says it’s because he’s black. It’s just a crutch that he uses to inflame things and then to make it very hard for blacks to criticize him because then he slings around words like Uncle Tom and Oreo cookie and all that. That’s part of the problem, certainly not limited to Gus Savage. In general, if one black criticizes another, he’s ostracized. To some extent, I’m guilty of this kind of thinking myuself. Here I am saying I won’t talk on the record. You just can’t get rational discussion around that; it’s all emotional. Savage has hooked up with Farrakhan as a way of insulating himself from criticism. He doesn’t try to find out what the problems are in his district and do something about it. It’s all screaming and yelling. He just uses race for every single thing. He has done zero for the district. If the district had not had a congressman for the last ten years it would have been just as well off, maybe better. I think to have somebody like that representing you is a big negative in terms of how people think about you. People say, ‘Is this what those people elect as their representative?’ The view of the district gets distorted. It prevents people who might want to solve the problem from ever getting involved. This racism is a complex thing. Given the history of this country, we’ve had an atmosphere that is conducive for an opportunist like Gus to get created and win.”
Nate Clay, publisher of the Chicago Metro News, believes that the race card may be played out. “I think there are a lot of people who have grown weary of Gus Savage always shouting racism to cover up all his inadequacies. I believe you’re going to see a backlash against it this time around. Gus has been a walking embarrassment for ten years for this district and a lot of us think he should not be continued in office with his embarrassing antics and his failure to serve his constituents.” Clay’s paper will endorse Reynolds.
Mel Reynolds is neither left nor right of Savage politically. He is asking for votes on grounds that he can serve the district more effectively. The opinion that Reynolds is an arrogant egotist is not entirely limited to Savage’s ardent supporters; one liberal political activist who says he’ll vote for Reynolds even if he doesn’t much care for him described how “we asked him to run for alderman in one of the south-side wards and he brushed us off, saying, ‘I’m not starting down at that level. I’m going to be president.'”
A brash remark, yes, but also the voice of a new generation of blacks. Also a remark by a man who is willing to play by the rules, because he expects to win by them, not be stymied. A story Reynolds tells about his time at Oxford University as a Rhodes scholar is revealing of the difference between him and Savage. At the end of his three years there, eight exams taken over three days stood between Reynolds and graduation. First was a special lecture on the law, to be delivered by one of the most celebrated professors on campus. Reynolds was the only black in the lecture hall. The professor was having trouble explaining a point. Suddenly, he found the solution. “It’s like having a nigger in the woodpile,” he said. The class broke up with laughter; now they understood. Reynolds was mortified. “What do I do?” he now asks. “In America, a black student would have raised hell. I thought, if I get up and leave, I miss the lecture and maybe do poorly in the exam.” One graduates from Oxford only by passing every exam.
“I stayed,” Reynolds says, “but I didn’t hear another word. I was too consumed with this thing.” Yet he passed; he got his degree. And later he got an apology from the professor–a private apology, though, not the public one he asked for. Gus Savage would have handled this incident differently. At whatever cost, he would have challenged that professor at once.
A solidly built man whose body recalls his days as a basketball star–six foot four and a half, 215 pounds–Reynolds is attractive despite a mouthful of teeth that testify to his poverty-stricken childhood. He speaks softly, clearly, with an earnestness that can be off-putting. One of his supporters says, “I try to tell him about that. He never smiles.”
Actually, one-on-one, Reynolds does smile, even laughs heartily, though he displays little sense of humor about himself. He says he doesn’t smile much in public because he is self-conscious about those crooked teeth, but there might be more to it than that. Reynolds seems always to be speaking from a soapbox, lecturing quietly, almost sternly, eagerly talking politics. He hasn’t got time for a politician’s jokes, he is dead serious about his message. At dinner parties, in classrooms, in his offices on 103rd Street, he talks politics and race to anyone who will listen.
He doesn’t drink or smoke, unlike most politicians, doesn’t eat red meat, tries to exercise regularly, and gets up every morning at dawn. He is on the phone at seven.
On Sundays, until he started campaigning, Reynolds joined his mother, stepfather, and assorted brothers and sisters, of whom he has seven, at First Baptist Congregational, the west-side church to which his family has belonged for years. Now he speaks at whichever Second District church will invite him.
There is in Reynolds’s seriousness, puritanism, and piety an ambition so overarching that it is a little bit frightening. This is a man so determined to overcome those early days of poverty and discrimination that he can say to someone, quite seriously, “I’m going to be president.” Yet he is a highly educated man who is immensely proud of the moderation that his education has taught him. Reynolds told me he would be happy to turn 60 still a member of the House of Representatives from Illinois’ Second District. He said a congressional district is just the right size for serving a community while engaging in a larger political world. He said specifically, “I do not want to be mayor of Chicago.”
Reynolds was born in 1952 in what he describes as the poorest town in the poorest county in America, an all-black town called Mound Bayou, Mississippi. When he was seven years old and his parents had moved to Chicago, leaving behind Mel and his twin brother and their grandmother because there wasn’t money to buy fares for the whole family, the three of them picked cotton for 75 cents per hundred pounds. When the cotton season was over, his grandmother worked for a dollar a day in a white home whose toilet she was not permitted to use. “She had to go out in the woods or walk a mile,” Reynolds recalls.
He often tells the story of watching a couple of Klansmen beat a black man bloody on the road near their house. “It was in the 50s, when the Klan realized that it wouldn’t have the full force of the law behind it anymore. They felt the only way to beat [the courts] was to beat us up, burn us out,” Reynolds says. He doesn’t quite believe the turns his life has taken. He can still smell the “dark, dank outhouse behind our shack that we got to walking over planks set over the mud.”
When he was nine, he and his brother and grandmother joined the rest of the family in an apartment on Chicago’s west side. His father died soon after and his mother went on welfare. “We lived on the welfare checks and the money my grandmother earned cleaning floors at Goldblatt’s,” he says. Another story from his childhood that seems to haunt him is the one about the midnight raid by welfare workers looking for any man who might be living in the house. “We had a side door, a backdoor, and a window you could reach from the first floor,” Reynolds recalls. “They knocked at all of them at the same time. We let them in. They came in with their flashlights in our faces. All the boys were in one bedroom. They looked under the beds, asked whose shoes those were. We were frightened to death. They terrorized us for an hour and a half and then left. Just like South Africa. White men in hats.”
Reynolds was a basketball star at Mather High School, but his academic record was lackluster. Shortly before graduation, a coach from the old Mayfair City College saw Reynolds play and invited him to come to Mayfair. Coach Don English says, “I couldn’t offer Mel anything but an opportunity to go to school. But he needed that. He could get into Mayfair even though he didn’t have a good high school record.”
“I was not prepared to be in college,” Reynolds says. “The years that have excluded parents and grandparents and great-grandparents from the mainstream contribute to a kid not being prepared to learn. I had a loving but completely uneducated family.” In addition to his classes at Mayfair, and the jobs he took to pay his expenses, Reynolds spent hours in the Chicago Public Library catching up on his learning. He graduated from Mayfair with honors, having learned to write well enough to become editor of the school newspaper. He was also president of the student body. He won a Ford Foundation scholarship to Yale.
But being a Yalie wasn’t as easy as being a star student in a city college. After a few months he dropped out, came back to Chicago, and worked until the following fall, when he enrolled at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. There he felt comfortable, and did so well that William Schwayder, his philosophy professor, suggested that he apply for a Rhodes scholarship.
“Reynolds was a member of my honors philosophy class,” Schwayder recalls. “He was not one of the best philosophers, but it seemed to me that he was more interested in the law. He seemed to me to be the perfect candidate for a Rhodes. He was that kind of bootstrap person they like. He was an athlete, had good character, had worked his way up out of difficult circumstances, and he was intellectually sound, a prototypically good candidate. He had a high level of aspiration and pretty fair success at overcoming the obstacles in his life.”
Between 1907 and 1963, there was not a single black Rhodes scholar from the United States. Reynolds says he learned that former Rhodes scholars from the south were so outraged by the 1907 choice of black poet Alain Locke–who’d been supported by former scholars from the north on the selection committee–that they extracted an agreement that there would never be another. The ban survived for 56 years. In 1963, a California black received the award, and in 1968, after Martin Luther King Jr. died, there was what Reynolds sarcastically calls an explosion. Five out of the 32 scholars that year were black. In 1974, Reynolds became the first black Rhodes scholar from Illinois.
Studying law at Lincoln College at Oxford, Reynolds also played basketball, a sport that was catching on in England. Oxford wasn’t easy for him. “Here I was, this boy from Mississippi and the west side of Chicago, wearing a scholar’s gown around campus, having to wear it to formal dinner six nights a week. The freshmen had to give the prayer in Latin before the meal. I just memorized it, never knowing what it said. At Oxford, it’s one-on-one instruction. You always have to be prepared. You can’t sit at the back of the room and daydream.”
The demands of academics and tradition weren’t Reynolds’s only challenges. When his grandmother died, he immediately came home and stayed for several months. Money was another problem. Notwithstanding Schwayder’s view of Rhodes scholars as boot-strap people, Reynolds says that most of them come from wealthy families. He had no funds other than his scholarship, which, he says, never went far enough. And there were racial problems. “It wasn’t easy,” Reynolds says. “The racism there is more subtle, but I could feel it all the time. They just expect you to fail. You really have to learn to overcome that feeling.”
In 1979 Reynolds graduated from Oxford. By now, he says, he was living a life so different from his childhood that he could scarcely believe it. He returned to visit his family. His mother was a cashier at Rush-Presbyterian-Saint Luke’s Medical Center and his stepfather was a neighborhood maintenance man. They had bought a house on the west side not far from the place where Mel had lived as a youngster. One day he called Bobby Shriver, whom he had become friends with at Yale. Shriver, the son of Eunice Kennedy Shriver, invited him for a weekend at the Kennedy family compound at Hyannis Port. “Try to envision this,” Reynolds says, laughing. “I am sailing off the coast of Hyannis Port with Bobby Shriver, his younger brother Timmy, and Senator Kennedy. Kennedy says to Timmy, ‘I’m going to run for the presidency. Are you going to take the year off and help me?’ They banter back and forth about it. I couldn’t believe it. Here I am, sitting there, and the Kennedys are talking about running for the presidency. Very casual, very private. I waited for the right moment and then I said to the senator, ‘I’d like to help.'” Kennedy put through a call to his campaign manager, Paul Kirk, to tell him to expect a call from Reynolds. That fall, Reynolds joined Bobby Shriver on the road campaigning for his uncle.
Reynolds worked throughout the Kennedy campaign, all over the country. It was, he says, the turning point in his life. He had thought periodically of going into politics, but the future seemed dizzyingly unlimited. He could earn big money. He could go wherever he wanted. A black Rhodes scholar in 1980 could pretty much write his own ticket. But in the spring of 1980, right after the Pennsylvania primary, Reynolds had a conversation that he says shaped his future.
“I was coming to Washington for a couple days after the Pennsylvania primary. Mrs. Shriver and Bobby picked me up at the airport, and as we were driving to their house in Georgetown, I told them about something that happened in Philadelphia that really bothered me. An elected official who held a congressional seat called to threaten us. I took the call because I was running the urban affairs office. He said to me that he’d heard from a reliable source that the voting machines in his area would be malfunctioning on election day, but he knew some people who could guarantee that it wouldn’t happen. It would only cost $4,000. We needed to win in that city bad. I said, ‘I’m not in a position to discuss this with you,’ and passed it on to Ron Brown, who was the deputy national campaign manager and in Philadelphia for the primary. [Brown is now chairman of the Democratic Party.] That was pure and simple extortion. I said to Bobby and Mrs. Shriver, ‘I don’t really want to be any part of all this.’ And Mrs. Shriver turned to me and snapped, ‘It’s for just that reason that people like you ought to be in this.’ I thought about that. She was right.”
The Kennedy campaign over, Reynolds took a job with IBM in Connecticut as head of a marketing team peddling mainframe computers. It was time, he had said to himself, to earn some money. But politics was in his blood. When word went out that Jesse Jackson would begin a run for the presidency in 1983, Reynolds immediately tried to join the campaign. While he had never met him, Reynolds had long admired Jackson from afar. But now he couldn’t get through to anyone, and finally he asked Ron Brown for help. “I thought it would be a historic campaign and I was determined to be in on it,” Reynolds recalls. In November of 1983, shortly after Jackson announced his candidacy, Reynolds joined the campaign. His advance work for the New Hampshire and Massachusetts primaries was so successful that he was asked to join Jackson as his traveling assistant. “I did all kinds of things because it was such a small staff,” he says. “Whatever you may think of Jesse Jackson, you’ve gotta know he is the hardest-working man in politics. He is up before anyone else and goes to bed after anyone else.”
Once the ’84 primaries were over, Reynolds went back to school, this time to the John F. Kennedy School at Harvard University to work on a master’s in public administration. But throughout that year, his mind was buzzing with an idea. In ’85, with his classwork nearly completed, Reynolds founded American Scholars for World Hunger, a program to take black college students to Africa to help in the refugee camps created by famine and to be exposed to that world. He spent most of a year raising money and making arrangements, and in the summer of ’86 he took 20 students to the Sudan. The program was ended after one year by civil war in the Sudan.
In the fall of ’86, Reynolds returned to Chicago to stay. He moved into South Shore and set about getting to know the community and establishing a political base. He became involved with and later joined the board of People for Community Recovery, an all-black environmental group attempting to prevent more landfills from being established on the southeast side, which “already has more than its share of landfills,” Reynolds says. He also joined the NAACP, and in February of ’89 was elected to its local board. The Reverend Elmer Fowler, president of the Chicago NAACP, says, “Mel is very conscientious, very dedicated, very energetic and willing, which you don’t find in a lot of people. Most people are not willing to give their time to causes. But that’s where Mel is. We are going through some changes in the NAACP, and Mel is one of those younger people I’m depending on to rejuvenate the organization.”
In 1988, Reynolds decided to make a run against Savage. Savage’s supporters called him a carpetbagger. Reynolds remembers once being asked by a Harvard professor, “Would you run against a candidate who you felt was doing a good job in that office?” Now he says, “No. I like winning, but the reason I wanted to win, want to now, was because I thought I could be more effective than the incumbent. Gus isn’t the only congressman who’s not doing his job, but he is in the district I chose to live in and I feel the people in this district are suffering so much because he’s not doing his job. Not doing anything at all. It’s not abstract. You have to ask how many federal dollars are coming into the district. What is being done about the terrible toxic waste problems we have in the district? Has anything been done to curb the highest infant mortality rate in the state? How many businesses have gotten small-business loans? This is all measurable. You get zero all the way with Savage. I know, having been close to Senator Kennedy’s operation and several congressmen, what can be done.”
Reynolds came in third in a five-way race in ’88. It was a rough campaign. His office was vandalized–computer records were stolen and the windows were broken. His car was twice vandalized. He was accused of sexual tricks. When it was over, Reynolds went back to his alma mater, the University of Illinois, and volunteered to help recruit minority students. He visited high schools to speak to students about college and in May of 1988 he was invited by the president of the university to join his staff. Up to that time, the university had been dipping into various funds to pay for scholarships for minority students, but those funds were drying up. Reynolds proposed a program that was eventually called the President’s Leadership Program, designed to recruit corporate money for summer jobs and scholarships for minority students. Between the time the program got under way in September of 1988 and the following June, when Reynolds left the university, the program raised $400,000 and collected promises of 80 summer internships.
Reynolds cannot easily attack Savage on the traditional reform issues. The AFL-CIO, the Chicago chapter of the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists, and Council 31 of the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees have all endorsed Savage because of his voting record. Philip John, the acting executive vice president of the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists, says, in an almost reverential tone, “Savage has been a friend to labor. He has one of the highest ratings by the AFL-CIO on health issues, minimum wage, support for black South Africa, all the issues that are important for us.” William Perkins, political director for Council 31 of AFSCME, says, “Savage had a voting record well over 80 percent. It’s not that we don’t look at other things, but the voting record is the most important. If a candidate supports our positions, we have to support them.” And while the Illinois Public Action Council did not make an endorsement in the district, executive director Robert Creamer pointed out that Savage had a 100 percent rating with the Americans for Democratic Action. Had Savage asked for IPAC’s endorsement he would have received it, Creamer says, because he has a number of strong supporters on its board. But IPAC, an integrated social action group, is not one that interests Savage. He doesn’t ask for endorsements by the downtown papers, either.
Where Savage gives Reynolds the opportunity to attack his voting record is where there is none. For example, when the minimum wage bill, crucial to a low-income district like the Second, came up for a vote last year, Savage was in Zaire, making headlines. Reynolds says, “There was such a stink made about his absence for that vote that he made sure he was there when it came up again. But this time around, the minimum wage had been drastically reduced.”
Savage’s supporters try to turn the minimum wage issue back against Reynolds. Harold Rogers, local district administrator for First District Congressman Charles Hayes, says he has heard Reynolds “hedge” on the higher minimum wage advocated by the Congressional Black Caucus. Reynolds insists he has not hedged on that issue, nor on the right of labor to organize, which Rogers says he also hedges on. Rogers says, “On the issues, you don’t know whether you can count on Reynolds or not. We know we can count on Gus.”
Rogers, John, and other supporters insist Savage is a strong leader on issues vital to the black community. In 1986, Savage sent his constituents a long list of bills he had sponsored or cosponsored. Reynolds questions whether he actually initiated the five bills he claimed to have sponsored. One of them was a minority set-aside amendment to the military funding bill of 1986 that entered the Congressional Record as the Conyers-Savage Amendment. Cedric Hendricks, former legislative aide to Representative John Conyers of Michigan, remembers that both congressmen wrote amendments. Conyers “was able to put some teeth in the amendment because of his membership on the House Government Operations Committee so that the Defense Department had to follow through.”
In his November ’86 newsletter to the district, Savage tells the story this way: The amendment was originally introduced by Conyers in ’85, passed by the House, but killed in conference. “Undaunted,” Savage’s newsletter says, “Congressman Savage introduced a more strongly worded version of the same amendment. Following a fiery and impassioned oratory delivered by your Congressman in support of the amendment, an otherwise hushed House of Representatives passed it by an electronically recorded vote of 2 to 1.” The newsletter goes on to describe how Savage’s leadership in Conference led to the amendment’s passage in the Senate.
Assuming that Savage’s “fiery, impassioned oratory” did indeed put this amendment over the top, and assuming that it offered significant help to blacks, Hispanics, and women, it is nevertheless one of only two major pieces of legislation that Savage has put through in his ten years in the House. The other brought Chicago a multimillion-dollar federal office building that is now being built with $40 million in minority set-aside contracts. Among the beneficiaries of the set-asides is Globetrotters Engineering, a minority-owned business that has contributed heavily to Savage’s campaigns.
Reynolds points out that there is little if any defense business in the Second District to benefit from the Conyers-Savage Amendment, and that the new federal building is located downtown, not in the district. Nor is Sonicraft, Inc.–a minority-owned business that Savage persuaded the Navy Department to maintain a contract with in 1985. That same year, Jerry Jones, Sonicraft’s president, cochaired a fund-raiser for Savage.
Savage’s newsletters released during the 80s reported him attracting a total of about $700,000 in federal funds to his district–these for job retraining. Reynolds comments: “There are 500,000 people in the district. That amounts to something over a dollar per person over ten years.” In 1989 alone, First District Representative Charles Hayes brought into his district between $4 and $5 million for antipoverty programs, according to his district administrator.
Savage’s portfolio is filled with bills to which his name has been added along with dozens of others, and bills of the magnitude of his six to honor boxer Joe Louis, and a bill renaming the Social Security building in Chicago for Harold Washington. In the “Record of Achievement” Savage sent his constituents in 1986 (he hasn’t compiled another since), he listed a fact-finding mission to the Soviet Union “to study that nation’s urban mass transit systems and to observe first-hand the differences between the U.S.S.R.’s culture, economy, and form of government and ours.” He claimed to have “spearheaded a massive ‘Put America Back to Work’ jobs demonstration outside the U.S. Steel South Works plant located in the 2nd Congressional District.” In addition, he’d “delivered a detailed report to Operation Push calling for a major change in U.S. foreign policy in Central America after completing a 10-day fact-finding mission in Cuba, Nicaragua, El Salvador, and Guatemala.” And he’d been arrested and jailed for “leading an antiapartheid demonstration at the South African consulate in Chicago.”
Recently, Savage was one of the few congressmen who publicly opposed the invasion of Panama.
All this may be leadership of a sort. Little of it affects his district, but then Savage is, by his own lights, a representative of “an international movement,” not merely a congressional district.
The fact is that Savage does not really run on his congressional record; he runs on his reputation as a civil rights leader. As Lu Palmer describes it, “Savage has a long, unbroken, distinguished record in fighting for black liberation.” Most voters in his district know of his activities on their behalf. Wesley South, owner of WVON radio, says, “The Second Congressional District is extremely fortunate to have a congressman of the caliber of Gus Savage. This race is like a little boy and a man. I don’t know how many community projects Gus was in. He’s the one who took King up to Lake Geneva when he came to the city, and he was the one who apprised him of what was going on, acquainted him with the political system here . . . and he was the one who started the activity for a black mayor back in 1974 with [state senator] Dick Newhouse as the candidate. On the night Mayor Daley died, he called black leaders together to get a black successor, and he is the one who talked Harold Washington into running. [About half a dozen people make this claim.] So he has been out there in the forefront, has produced, and is still producing.”
No one, not even his strongest detractors, challenges Savage’s contribution to the civil rights movement, though South’s claims are considerably inflated. But some do question his motives. Leon Davis says, “He’s been an opportunist and a hustler as long as I’ve known him, for more than 20 years.” Davis says that in 1962, when Savage owned the South Side Citizen Newspapers, he published a story saying that a liberal independent running for alderman had been dropped by the independents. “It was totally untrue. He concocted that story out of sheer jealousy. He was losing his own race for alderman and Phil Smith was clearly ahead. All our candidates [choices of the Independent Voters of Illinois] won that year, except Smith, and it was only after Gus ran that story that Smith’s race fell apart.”
Savage’s newspapers undoubtedly helped his reputation as a civil rights crusader. He regularly reported his own activities. In 1980, after he was elected to Congress, he sold the papers to his friend and employee William Garth, but the papers are still fondly referred to as “Gus’s papers.” Garth has expanded the original chain of three papers to five and is Savage’s biggest booster in the district. Trying to explain why Savage had arranged for the notorious Steve Cokely to attend the 1988 Democratic Party Convention, Garth first said it didn’t happen. “Cokely never was at that convention,” he said. Then he changed his mind and said the convention took place before Cokely’s opinions–such as his charge that Jewish doctors were injecting black babies with the AIDS virus–came to light and he was fired by Mayor Eugene Sawyer. But Cokely had been saying such things to black groups for a couple of years before the Anti-Defamation League pointed them out to the media. Surely, by the time of the convention, Savage had the measure of the man.
Asked about the incident in Zaire, Garth said, “They knew that girl had a mental problem from the beginning. Just because he won’t bend to what they want, they’re trying to destroy him.”
Since Howard Brookins dropped out in January, Reynolds says the money and other kinds of support his campaign requires have increased dramatically. Behind him are many of the political powerhouses in the district: former mayor Sawyer, who’s the 6th Ward committeeman; 34th Ward committeeman and Cook County Board of Appeals commissioner Wilson Frost; 16th Ward committeeman James C. Taylor, who supported Savage in ’88; Thornton Township committeeman and state representative Frank Giglio; and Calumet Township committeeman Frank Rita, the former mayor of Blue Island. “I think he has a good chance of winning,” says Frost. “We have 61 precincts in our ward, about 10 percent of the district, and we will carry those precincts for Reynolds. We have always carried those precincts for our candidates.”
Savage has never run better than he did in 1988, his last primary, which he won with 52 percent of the vote. But 1988, says Nate Clay, was not a normal election year. “You have to consider what was going on then–Harold Washington’s death and the frenzy to keep that legacy alive, the presidential election with Jesse Jackson running. Gus made himself an integral part of both. Still, he only got 52 percent of that vote, which says there is a hard-core resistance to Gus out there.”
Clay says, “I’m told that Gus has the lowest [vote] totals in the entire Congress. It’s just that he is loud and visible and he knows how to arouse the emotions of a vocal supportive minority.”
Doesn’t the support of all those ward bosses tie Reynolds to the Democratic machine? Doesn’t it mean, as Lu Palmer says, that Reynolds “is on the wrong side”? Well, yes, to the extent that there is still a machine in Chicago, Reynolds will be indebted to it if he wins. But the days when black ward bosses were strictly controlled by a white machine and forced to vote against the interests of their communities are gone forever. Harold Washington also had the support of the old-time ward bosses. On the issues vital to the black community–health care, welfare, affirmative action, civil and voting rights, South Africa, and so on–there is very little difference in the views of the various black political groupings, except for those of a few isolated conservative Republicans. The issue over which black political figures diverge is nationalism, separatism, and here Reynolds parts company with Savage. But nationalists, aside from Savage, are seldom elected to public office because there is simply not enough support for them in the black community.
Reynolds enjoys the support of a number of ministers, a crucial element in elections in the black community. Dr. Carroll Felton of Kelly United Methodist Church, chairman of the 402-member African-American Clergy Network, is chairman of Clergy for Reynolds. He has signed up 66 ministers. Felton has known Reynolds since 1984, when they met in Pittsburgh while working for Jesse Jackson’s presidential campaign. Felton says, “Here is a young, creative person who has not only a command of the needs of the district but also a broader perspective about the issues in the state and the nation. His understanding of issues is very clear. And he draws people to him, creative people and grass-roots people, too.”
Reynolds’s campaign chairman is the redoubtable Al Johnson, of Al Johnson Cadillac, a powerhouse fund-raiser who has helped many black political figures over the years, including Harold Washington. If the election were held tomorrow, says Johnson, “Reynolds would get 55 percent of the vote.
“Here is a young man,” says Johnson, “who has done most of the things that the leadership asks of our kids. Stay in school, get an education, and return to the community to make a contribution. He came back into the community and worked to get scholarships for local boys and girls. And he took a bunch of youngsters to Africa a few years ago not only to expose them but to help people in that country who were in need. He is a people person, but at the same time he got major corporations to finance that Africa project. We are lacking in congressional representatives who can influence others to take care of some of the needs of the community. Mel has that kind of skill. He’s a lawyer, a Rhodes scholar, and he has the human touch. I’ve never met a young man more dedicated and sincere. That’s why I support him, why I’m out begging money for him.”
Reynolds says endorsements don’t matter much. “It’s what you do day to day in the precincts that makes the difference.” But he’s quick to point to the endorsement of the Hotel Employees & Restaurant Employees Union, 40 percent of whose 13,000 members are black, many living in the Second District. James Dyson, the union’s secretary and a member of Reynolds’s fund-raising committee, says, “In Mel Reynolds, you have a rare opportunity to elect a young man who has literally gone from picking cotton to being a Rhodes scholar. That is a remarkable journey. You don’t get to be a Rhodes scholar by being mediocre. We have to send messages to young people that they can do things. The terrible thing in this campaign is that some people have tried to make a negative issue of Mel’s education.”
(Being a Rhodes scholar is not a mark of distinction to everyone in the black community. Lu Palmer says, “If they offered it to me, I’d turn it down, considering who Rhodes was.” Cecil Rhodes made his fortune in South African diamond mines. Others ask whether the man on the street can identify with a Rhodes scholar. Dyson says, “That is a very dangerous sign. We need to send our best people to Congress. We don’t have many people as talented as Mel. And some people are saying that he’s an ‘Oxfordian’ and make it a negative. What signal are you giving those kids who are trying to go to college? One of the first things Nelson Mandela said when he got out of prison was he told those kids, ‘You will go to school tomorrow.’ And here are people saying that a Rhodes scholar shouldn’t be running for office. That’s scary. The message they’re giving is don’t go out and try for a Rhodes scholarship because then the community won’t accept you. That’s insanity.”)
Unlike many of Reynolds’s supporters, Dyson was willing to talk at length about Savage. “The district has the highest mortgage foreclosure rate, the highest infant mortality rate, and Savage never did anything about these things. He represents a type of politician from another era, but there’s an evolution occurring now. We’re going to have to send more qualified people to Congress. You can’t compare Gus Savage with Mickey Leland [the Texas congressman who was killed in a plane crash in Ethiopia] or Bill Grey [a congressman from Pennsylvania]. And that’s all aside from Savage’s personal demeanor, about which nothing more needs to be said. Now we have a chance to send one of our very best. Gus dismays me. He wraps himself in a cloak of racism. If you don’t support him, you’re a racist. Here’s a black person running against him, but if you support him, you’re a racist. It’s sad. Before I decided to go with Reynolds, I called our union lobbyist in Washington to get a reading on Gus. They told me that no one would work with him because of his rhetoric. He can’t build any bridges.”
Some people question whether the record of Mel Reynolds is full enough to qualify him for the job he is seeking. Others, like Al Johnson, think it’s stellar. But elections are not won on records. What counts, as Nate Clay says, is having the support of the right people at the right time. In 1984, Harold Washington asked Leon Davis to run against Savage, but he could not openly endorse him because of his long relationship with Savage. He would help Davis, but he would remain neutral. In that race also was Glen Dawson, the white conservative candidate of then alderman Edward Vrdolyak in the Tenth Ward. Davis’s campaign manager says that Davis lined up impressive support among money people, ministers, and politicians. Then supporters of Savage who were close to Washington convinced the mayor that if he didn’t endorse Savage the split black vote would elect Dawson.
Davis’s backing dried up overnight. He stayed in the race and came in third. Gus Savage won that election with just 45 percent of the vote, and there’s no Harold Washington to tilt the table toward him this time.
Despite all the advantages of incumbency, anyone betting against Mel Reynolds in the Second District March 20 is seriously risking his money.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Marc PoKempner, Bill Stamets.