By Ben Joravsky
The great “rainbow coalition”–one black, one Hispanic, one Pole–sits unrecognized in the back of a coffee shop on Ashland Avenue, pondering the age-old quandary of office seekers everywhere: how to gain attention when no one seems to care.
“We’re the Mod Squad,” says Zsa Popielarczyk, who mercifully likes to go by her first name. “We decided to form a coalition because why not? It makes so much sense.”
Her allies, Frank Avila and Mel Johnson, nod along as the waitress pours more coffee. Indeed, what they’re doing seems so obvious it’s a wonder more candidates don’t try it. “Instead of fighting alone we figure, ‘Hey, let’s fight together,'” says Johnson. “We’re the underdog, and the underdog’s got to be smart.”
The office for which they’re running–commissioner of the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago–is one of the most obscure in local politics. Yet it’s sort of the soul of the machine. For Water Reclamation and offices like it (and all of Cook County government for that matter) have always solidified the regular Democratic organization, giving it quiet, unnoticed venues for contracts, favors, and jobs.
Not surprisingly, they’re running for a very popular position. In the March 21 Democratic primary, for instance, there will be 16 candidates vying for the three six-year terms (there are also two-year terms to be filled). Incumbents James Harris, Terrence O’Brien, and Harry “Bus” Yourell are the favorites, if only because they have the support of so many ward organizations.
“There’s two ways to run for this,” says Avila. “You either get the organization’s support, in which case you have a lot of precinct captains passing out your palm cards. Or you run on your own.”
Most candidates take option two because they have no choice. Johnson knows a lot of politicians, being the son of Sally Johnson, a former aide to mayor Harold Washington. But none of them is willing to back the former CHA policeman and longtime youth league basketball coach (his teams have played in park and church leagues all over the city). “I’ve been around politics all of my life so it’s only natural that I run,” says Johnson. “I’m running for Water Rec because I want to be a voice for the community. So many people don’t know about the district and yet they’re taxed for it every year. I tell the people wherever I go, ‘I’m no puppet. I’m not part of anyone’s machine. I want to be a voice for the people.'”
But wanting to run is not the same as winning. To do that, Johnson needs a hook. Enter Frank Avila. A Mexican-American born and raised in Chicago, Avila graduated from Harrison High School and the University of Illinois before getting a job as a civil engineer for the city’s Department of Public Works. For the last 30 years he’s worked on a variety of public and private projects–he says he helped build both the Sears Tower and the Standard Oil Building.
His love for politics comes from Teresa Avila, his 88-year-old mother, who used to be a precinct worker in the First and 46th Ward Democratic organizations. “I worked some precincts in the 46th with my mother,” says Avila. “I helped elect Billy Marovitz when he was just a young man running for state rep. Back in the 70s I also helped elect Chris Cohen alderman.”
In 1998 Avila unsuccessfully ran for Water Reclamation commissioner. That’s when he met Sally Johnson, another unsuccessful candidate. “Sally and I would see each other at various forums and we got along,” says Avila. “I thought it would be a good idea to run with someone like Sally. She would give me connections to her community and I could give her connections to mine. When she told me Mel was running, I thought, perfect.”
It was Avila’s son Frankie who suggested they bring in a woman. “Frankie said we should look for a lady, preferably of Polish background because that’s a pretty big community,” says Avila. “Sally Johnson said, ‘I know just the person. I met her in another campaign.'”
Enter Zsa, the daughter of Polish refugees who moved to Chicago in 1950 when she was two. Her father, Joseph, was a butcher in the stockyards; her mother, Felicja, was a cleaning lady for the local bank. Zsa graduated from Gage Park High, worked as a legal secretary at various downtown firms, and in 1987 became a precinct captain in house speaker Michael Madigan’s all-powerful southwest-side 13th Ward Democratic machine.
“Madigan’s office is three blocks from my house,” says Zsa. “I started with them out of curiosity. I walked in one day to see what it was like and walked out as a precinct captain.”
She says she was one of only three women in the organization. “It was mostly me and the boys. I circulated petitions, brought in the voting tapes, and went door-to-door to meet the people–‘warm bodies,’ we called them–and bring out the vote.
“Madigan ran it like a military organization. It was hard work. We had to sell ads for his ad books and tickets for his fund-raisers. We had meetings every Saturday morning at 8:30 and he’d give us a pep talk. He ranked us according to how well we did, meaning how many people in your precinct voted. If you ranked high you could go in and ask him for favors. If you didn’t rank high you didn’t bother asking for favors. I ranked somewhere in the middle.”
That was good enough. “Through Madigan I got a job with the Illinois Development Finance Authority, which oversees bond issues,” she says. That was in July 1994. A few months later she was let go. “They brought in a new director and I got lost in the shuffle,” she says. “After that I quit Madigan’s organization. I felt he could have prevented me from losing that job. All he had to do was make a call.”
After that she went to work for the Park District and Truman College. “I got those jobs on my own–without any clout,” she says. “I just applied. Hey, sometimes it really works that way.”
Last year she decided to run for alderman of the 13th Ward. It was the ultimate act of apostasy and the regulars responded with a heavy slap. “I needed about 290 signatures to make the ballot and I got 400,” she says. “But when they were done with me I didn’t have enough. They sent people door-to-door to get voters to sign photocopied affidavits claiming they had never signed my petitions. I had a hearing and they brought in three people to testify against me. My lawyer pointed out that two were city workers–you know, they might have had a conflict of interest. But I still lost. Afterwards my lawyer said, ‘You didn’t really expect to make the ballot, did you?’ I said yes. He said, ‘Well, next time you’ll know better.’
“I wasn’t disillusioned. I learned a lot, though my education didn’t come cheap. Actually, I enjoyed it. They had three lawyers come up from Springfield to handle that case. I figured I must have been some sort of threat for them to bring out so many lawyers.”
(Neither Madigan nor 13th Ward alderman Frank Olivo returned calls for comment.)
The run for Water Reclamation District commissioner is her chance for a quick rebound. Working with Johnson and Avila she managed to round up so many nominating signatures that the regulars didn’t even bother trying to knock her off the ballot.
The next step in their campaign–ballot position–was beyond their control. “Being first on the ballot is real important because every voter sees your name,” explains Johnson. “Everyone wants to be first, even the incumbents.” Ballot position is determined by a lottery overseen by Cook County clerk David Orr. It took place in January and all the candidates were there.
“They put our names in these empty medicine bottles and put the bottles in this fish tank,” says Johnson. “Frank said, ‘You draw for us, I think you’re gonna be lucky.’ So I went up there and pulled a bottle and handed it to Orr, and he opened it and he said, ‘Well, it’s a slate and I can’t pronounce the names.’ We knew right away we had won because it is really hard to pronounce Zsa’s name.”
On March 21 their alphabetically arranged names (Avila, Johnson, and Popielarczyk) will be the first three names voters will see under the office of reclamation district commissioner. “Those names will just roll off the voters’ tongues,” says Johnson. “Well, maybe not Zsa’s name, though I know how to pronounce it. Hey, when you’re in the rainbow coalition, you’d better know your allies’ names.”
Peague Moves Down the Dial
One of these days Richard Pegue may find a home at some high-powered radio station and broadcast to a vast audience that loves his dusties show. Until then, Chicago’s great dusties DJ must perch wherever he can. Last month he settled on the spot where he began his radio career three decades ago: WVON, 1450 AM.
He now reigns there in the early hours of Saturday, from midnight until five, spinning R & B, 60s and 70s soul, doo-wop, swing, blues, and whatever else comes to mind.
“Am I happy?” he says, pondering the change. “Put it this way–I’m still on the air, so I’m happy.”
Pegue (profiled here in August 1998) has been deejaying south- and west-side dances, parties, and social events since his days at Hirsch High School in the late 1950s. He’s also been a fixture on various black radio stations around town as the host of an early-morning weekend show in which he takes calls, passes on gossip, plays requests, makes corny jokes and snide cracks, and wows listeners with his encyclopedic knowledge of songs and singers.
For the last 14 years his overnight show played on WGCI, 1390 AM. But in early January the station took away the slot and put in religious programming.
Pegue reacted quickly, working out a deal with program managers at WVON that let him start on the air at midnight January 22. “I won’t miss a show,” he told listeners during his last broadcast at 1390. “I’m just moving down the road.”
His first show was a little shaky. The studio was cramped, he didn’t have enough room for his massive collection of singles, LPs, and CDs, and he experienced a few equipment snafus.
“Go easy–I’m still trying to learn how to drive this car,” he said in his opening remarks. “It’s been a long time since I’ve been at this address. This is where it all began 32 years ago. I started here in May 1968.”
As always, he began his show with Marvin Gaye’s rendition of the national anthem (recorded live at the 1983 NBA all-star game). Then he kicked into “Living in America” by James Brown, followed by “Having a Party” by Sam Cooke.
His selection, he explained, would be somewhat limited until he had time to unpack and sort his collection. “I’m not complaining,” he said. “I just love playing dusties, especially when it’s cold outside.”
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Dan Machnik.