Outside the windows of the Truman College cafeteria, as a balmy breeze wafts through the trees, tennis players and softball swatters congregate, enjoying one of the gentler, more peaceful days of spring. But inside the stuffy cafeteria of the Uptown junior college, it’s all work for 200 or so north-side activists getting down to the serious political business of the day.

This Lakefront Conference, a one-day gathering put together by Kate Peyton and Heather Booth, two veteran political organizers, will–they hope–be the first of many. The purpose of this May 21 meeting is a new and permanent organization that will encompass political groups from eight north-side wards and two special-interest groups, Cook County Democratic Women and the Lesbian and Gay Progressive Democratic Organization.

The first task of the as-yet unnamed group will come to a head in November, when they hope to deliver thousands of north-side votes to the Democratic presidential nominee (most likely Michael Dukakis). After that, they will turn their attention to the special mayoral election of 1989, presumably to support Fourth Ward alderman Tim Evans.

But at the moment, their attention has been diverted to a greater challenge than presidential or mayoral campaigns. Somehow the organizers must soothe the pain and repair the damage left in the wake of the hate-filled, anti-Semitic rhetoric spouted by Mayor Sawyer’s former aide Steve Cokely.

“What we are trying to do is combine the activist organizations that have been working up and down the lakefront since the Harold Washington campaign,” says Peyton, herself cochair of one such group, Network 44. “There are severe limitations to what any one group can do on its own. You can always play a larger role in citywide coalitions. Of course, it’s going to take a lot of leadership to put together a coalition in the aftermath of Cokely.”

Booth remarks: “As one who Cokely [specifically accused of being] part of an ‘international Jewish conspiracy,’ I know that his comments touch a raw nerve.” Booth is director of the Midwest Academy, a school for activists, and a former campaign adviser to the late Mayor Harold Washington. “I respond to Cokely not as a Jew, because anti-Semitism is not a Jewish issue. It’s an issue we all must address. These problems should not be dealt with in isolation. It isn’t just the comments of one mayoral aide we need to address. There is a rawness in our city. And the only way we can rebuild it is with leadership, starting at the top.”

Making their efforts more difficult is the fact that most leaders at the core of the lakefront movement–like the members of the audience at the conference–are white, and many are Jews, even though the area’s black, Hispanic, and Asian populations are growing. On top of that, the unofficial alliance of lakefront activists that helped elect Washington was fragile to begin with.

Its roots go back to the mayoral election of 1983, when Washington, campaigning on such bread-and-butter issues as open government and ethical reform, formed an alliance with lakefront aldermen David Orr (49th) and Martin Oberman (43rd), as well as dozens of lesser-known activists. In that campaign, Washington won close to 40 percent of the white lakefront vote, his strongest base of white support.

All told, he won enough north-side votes to beat Bernard Epton, his Republican opponent, but not enough to convince the lakefront’s more conservative politicians that it was in their own self-interest to support the new mayor. Sure enough, two lakefront aldermen–Jerome Orbach of the 46th Ward and Bernard Hansen of the 44th–sided with Edward Vrdolyak in the ensuing three-year struggle for control of City Hall, an act heretofore unthinkable for lakefront politicians, whose constituents have traditionally been liberal.

In 1987, Helen Shiller, a staunch Washington ally, defeated Orbach. And Hansen softened his opposition to Washington after the mayor took control of the City Council. But along the way, many battles were fought among lakefront Democrats, and many degenerated into silly conflicts over race and ethnicity.

In the 46th Ward, for instance, where two Jews were running against each other for alderman, some of Orbach’s allies spread the absurd rumor, aimed at Jewish voters, that Shiller would use the power of City Hall to try to transform Israel into a Palestinian state. Shiller’s forces called Orbach a racist–an accusation that had no substantiation, considering the large number of blacks who had backed Orbach in his early campaigns.

At times, passions boiled so fiercely that fights broke out even between those who should have been united–Washington’s lakefront supporters–usually for reasons too complicated to comprehend, much less explain. Washington himself–a veteran of many heated campaigns–at times expressed amazement at the ferocity of these lakefront battlers.

For the last five years activists in the 48th Ward, for instance, have devoted amazing amounts of energy to spreading the idea that former Democratic committeeman Robert Remer, as well as former and current aldermen Marion Volini and Kathy Osterman (all public supporters of the mayor), were traitors to Washington’s cause. And in the 43rd Ward, a group of Lincoln Park activists worked themselves info an inexplicable frenzy opposing the (ultimately successful) 1987 aldermanic campaign of Edwin Eisendrath, an affable and liberal public school teacher.

“People on the lakefront are very independent,” says Peyton. “We have a core of people who believe very passionately in their politics and are not afraid to get involved.”

Despite their differences, however, almost all lakefront Democrats recoiled from the depths of hatred Cokely expressed. Until then, they considered themselves an appreciated part of an ethnically and racially diverse citywide political movement. Many of them had earned their spurs working precincts in dozens of hotly contested south- and west-side aldermanic elections, long before the Washington campaign.

And yet, after the Chicago Tribune hit the streets on April 30 with excerpts from Cokely’s lunacies–including the accusation that Jewish doctors were injecting black babies with the AIDS virus–there was a scary silence from many black leaders. Not one spokesperson from such major civil rights organizations as Operation PUSH, the NAACP, or the Urban League voluntarily stepped forward to demand Cokely’s ouster from his $35,568-a-year job as Sawyer’s community liaison. Those black leaders who did dare to comment seemed mostly to make matters worse. Some defended Cokely and castigated his critics, others “explained” his comments. Most uttered vague banalities on the need for interracial harmony and understanding. Only a handful had the courage to demand he be ousted. Not until May 5 did Sawyer finally fire Cokely.

“One of the things that was most disturbing was the lack of strong black leadership,” says Peyton. “I think it’s true that a lot of black politicians were waiting for Sawyer to fire Cokely. But still, the silence was incredibly distressing. I know lifelong Jewish activists who have been involved in every major fight, who have worked on every issue, and they were hurt. I mean, they were really hurt. They wondered: ‘How can I work with these guys, if they don’t back me up?'”

It was against this unexpected backdrop that the Lakefront Conference convened–Booth and Peyton had started their efforts months ago, long before most folks knew Cokely existed. They raised nearly $2,500 for the conference–in contributions of about $20 from over 100 residents–distributed 4,000 fliers, rented space at Truman College, purchased sack lunches from Ann Sather’s restaurant, and secured appearances from aldermen, state senators, and other prominent north-side politicians.

On the agenda were forums on housing, education, AIDS, utilities, and other issues related to the day-to-day struggles of residents of all races. Yet, quite understandably, by the time the meeting rolled around, the Cokely fallout was the main topic of conversation. At the lunchtime forum, “Building Strong Ward Organizations,” one after another audience members rose to vent their dismay, hurt, and frustration at the Cokely affair. “I can’t believe that all blacks think this way,” one speaker lamented. “And yet, when no one speaks up, you wonder. You have to wonder.”

Frequently, questions were directed to Jacky Grimshaw, a key adviser to Washington. As the sole black on the panel, she found herself in the rather awkward and ultimately unfair position of representing the view of the black community. “Cokely reflects what is a real problem,” Grimshaw told the audience. “The reasons we have Cokely out there is because we have experienced problems of disinvestment in housing, education, and community development. Cokely called for inclusion in a racially hostile way that is not reflective of the black community.”

If that is so, listeners pressed, why didn’t black leaders denounce him?

“Let me assure you, there isn’t any support in the black community for [Cokely],” Grimshaw responded. “A lot of people assumed Cokely would be fired. It was a shock to me after several days to realize that nothing had happened. There is a black nationalist community in Chicago that is somewhat small. But there is a black nationalist sentiment that is somewhat strong. To the extent that there was a feeling among blacks that Cokely be dealt with, the attitude was that he’d be punished from within, not without [the black community].”

To many in the audience, that explanation was not enough.

“We have to expect higher standards from our leaders,” said Oberman. “We’re minority politicians. We’re blacks, we’re Jews, we’re liberals–we are all susceptible to the notion that we can’t govern. We can’t afford these kinds of lapses. When Mayor Washington was alive I used to say, ‘We can’t allow one bad contract.’ Some of the mayor’s advisers said, ‘But Daley was worse.’ And I said: ‘I don’t care about Daley. Mayor Daley isn’t our standard.'”

Other speakers pressed for unity, including Orr. In a keynote address, he likened the challenges facing today’s local politicians to those confronting abolitionists and civil rights leaders long ago. “Where would this nation be if John Brown had taken a public opinion poll before he challenged slavery?” he asked. “Where would we be if Martin Luther King had taken a poll before sitting down at a segregated lunch counter? Where is the courage and the moral leadership today? In leaders’ who do not dare to challenge anti-Semitism? In those who would make anti-Semitism on the part of a few blacks an excuse to whip up white racism? We, the progressives, must offer that leadership. Our progressive vision is as relevant and as desperately needed today as it ever has been. We must work to unite this city. And we must have the courage to say what we know is right.”

By and large, however, the gathering left organizers with the uneasy understanding that their hardest work lies ahead. The main need, Booth insists, is leadership in City Hall. Had Sawyer immediately fired Cokely, no furor would have developed, she says. She adds that, in her opinion, Tim Evans should be the city’s next mayor.

“What has happened since Washington’s death is terrible and demoralizing,” says Booth. “It’s not surprising that out of the pain, progressive coalitions fracture, and people who should be allies are at each other’s throats. Many things are needed, one of which is leadership. I think a real healing occurs only with a mayoral candidate that people can rally around and believe in.

“If you look at the newspaper articles, you can see that Evans was one of the first to speak out against Cokely. He didn’t call for Cokely’s resignation at first because he thought Sawyer was going to fire Cokely. I know that in his heart, Evans has principle. One of his advisers wanted to talk about the political pluses and minuses of demanding Cokely’s ouster, and Evans said he didn’t want any of that discussion. He said, ‘What’s right is right.'”

Other activists remain unconvinced. They note that Evans, usually quick to denounce Sawyer, was conveniently out of town and away from a telephone during the crucial early days of the Cokely controversy. Some are bothered by their suspicion that Booth may be using the conference as a vehicle to launch Evans’s north-side mayoral campaign. At the very least, many poilticos wish the new lakefront group would momentarily step back from the divisive arena of local politics and reserve its efforts for November’s presidential election–a campaign so important, it could unite all factions of the local party.

“I’m all for progressive alliances; the people at the conference are my friends, and I hope they succeed,” says Jeff Smith, Democratic state committeeman of the Ninth Congressional District. “But I think you should put the horse before the cart. It’s time we took toward November. If the bombs start falling, it doesn’t matter who’s handing out the garbage cans. And if we don’t have a Democrat in the White House, we won’t be able to pay for those garbage cans anyway.”

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