At seven o’clock on a dark and cold January morning, the only people walking around the Davis Street el station in Evanston are early risers and lunatics.
And Edwin Eisendrath, looking natty in a blue cashmere coat. He’s got a flier in one hand and a smile on his face as he approaches a woman who’s rushing to catch her train.
“Hello, ma’am,” he says, handing her a flier. “I’m Ed Eisendrath, and I’m running for congress in the Ninth Congressional District. I hope you can vote for me in the March 20 Democratic primary.”
The woman looks startled. Apparently she’s never heard of Ed Eisendrath; she doesn’t know that he’s the well-to-do 32-year-old upstart who in the middle of only his first term as 43rd Ward alderman had the guts or audacity–depending on your point of view–to challenge Congressman Sidney R. Yates, one of the city’s most venerated politicians. The woman doesn’t know these things, but she asks the same question that many political insiders are asking:
“Why are you running?”
“My opponent has never held a town meeting,” Eisendrath replies. “I think it’s time for a change.”
It’s the only line he has time to utter before she passes, a line he’ll repeat again and again to the blurring figures that rush through the turnstiles. He’ll greet commuters for an hour before hopping into his car to speed off for another appointment, one of a dozen he has to keep that day.
Inside the car, he’s got the radio tuned to an all-news station, and it’s blaring. As he talks, he gets excited. The more excited he gets, the louder he talks. I ask him if we can eat some breakfast. But it’s hard to worm a word in once Eisendrath gets excited.
“Did you know that Illinois is 48th out of 50 states in federal return on tax dollars?” he yells. “If this man has so much clout, where are our tax dollars?”
“Edwin, please–I can’t even hear about this stuff until I’ve had some coffee.”
He turns the radio off and looks at me for a moment. “I’ve been up since 5:30,” he says. “I won’t go to bed until after midnight.”
He bangs the dashboard. “I’m gonna win this election. I’m gonna win this election, damn it. You just wait.”
The Ninth Congressional District runs along the lakefront from North Avenue up, swinging west at Howard Street to encompass Evanston and Skokie. It’s called the “Jewish district,” though most of its voters are gentiles. Sidney Yates has been its congressman since 1948. The last time a Democrat opposed him in a primary was in 1980, and that guy won all of 16 percent of the vote.
The Ninth has its pockets of Republicans, particularly in Lincoln Park and other silk-stocking areas, and in a general election Yates’s Republican opponent can usually count on roughly 35 percent of the vote (as well as the Tribune’s endorsement–every other year the ghost of Colonel McCormick returns to the op-ed page to rail against surviving New Deal Democrats). But most of the district is as liberal as its congressman. Yates champions free speech, the environment, the arts, subsidized housing, public education, and a woman’s right to choose. On top of that, he uses his position as chairman of a House subcommittee to win the city millions of federal dollars for such causes as shoreline control, landmark preservation, and school desegregation. Many prominent north-side Democrats covet his seat, but for one reason or another–lack of money and endorsements chief among them–they’ve kept their ambitions in check.
But then no other north-side Democrat is as wealthy, confident, or well-connected as Edwin Eisendrath.
In the old days, when they used to go to temple, Edwin Eisendrath and his family sat behind Jake Arvey, the powerful Democratic Party chieftain credited with having elected Harry Truman president in 1948.
That was at Temple Sholom, the big Reform synagogue on the lake, where the city’s wealthiest and most influential Jews worshiped. Such was the setting that Edwin William Eisendrath III was born into. His friends and classmates were the sons and daughters of the city’s elite–the kind of people that ordinary folk read about in the newspapers.
His paternal great-grandfather, a tanner, moved to Chicago from Germany in the 1800s. His grandfather–Edwin the First–started a glove factory and married Louise Sulzberger, first cousin to the family that owns the New York Times. His father is a banker.
On his mother’s side there’s the legendary Mike “Moe” Rosenberg, Eisendrath’s great-grandfather, a hard-nosed west-side scrap dealer who, along with his brother Ike, put together one of the city’s most efficient and notorious political organizations, the great 24th Ward Democratic Machine. The Rosenbergs were classic back-room dealers who never ran for public office. It was they who launched Jake Arvey’s career; he was an unknown precinct captain when they anointed him alderman of the 24th Ward.
Mike’s son, Eisendrath’s grandfather, was Harold, who “did his damnedest to raise money for Israel,” Eisendrath recalls. “In his column, Kup used to call him Harold ‘Israeli Bonds’ Rosenberg. He knew Golda Meir. Abba Eban came to our house. He knew Hubert Humphrey. But Harold didn’t know much about local politics. I’m the first member of the family who could get a pothole fixed since Mike died in 1927.”
Eisendrath was born on February 3, 1958. His parents divorced when he was young; his mother, Susan, married Lewis Manilow, a lawyer, art collector, Democratic Party fund-raiser, confidant of Rich Daley, and–not coincidentally–son of Nathan, a postwar developer who made a fortune building suburbs like Park Forest.
As a child, Eisendrath lived with his father in a sprawling Lakeview mansion. He attended Francis Parker, the private school of choice for many of the north side’s well-heeled liberals. He didn’t rebel against his background (he was no child of the 60s). But, friends say, neither did he let his wealth go to his head.
“He was not a spoiled rich kid,” says Jerry Lehrman, a longtime friend from Parker. “He didn’t care about money; he didn’t care about clothes. He never paid attention to material possessions.”
Along with his younger brother John, he formed a tight-knit group that included Lehrman, Keith Rudman, Peter Bensinger, and Paul Druzinsky. They played poker, football, and baseball, though Edwin wasn’t very interested in sports. He loved classical music. He liked to read. He studied the piano (he still keeps a piano in his Lincoln Park apartment, on which he plays Bach in the morning to “clear my head”). His friends called him a brain.
As he got older, he became more outgoing, and was elected president of his senior class. He was endowed with tremendous self-confidence. All of his friends predicted he would be a success.
“Of us all, Edwin was the best,” says Rudman. “Edwin is the smartest guy I’ve ever known, and that’s including the people I met at Yale. If he can’t sleep and he gets up in the middle of the night, he won’t watch TV, like the rest of us. He’ll read Plato, and like it!”
He went to Harvard. He sang in the glee club. He majored in psychology- social relations. He got As and Bs. “In those days, he had no ambition to be a politician,” says Doug Reifler, Eisendrath’s college roommate. “He was idealistic and had all these strong ideas about how the world could be made better.”
He left college during his junior year to teach in Buckhorn, Kentucky. “I lived in a trailer on the side of a holler,” says Eisendrath. “The kids I taught lived in a Presbyterian mission, and were either orphans or wards of the state.”
In 1981 Eisendrath graduated from Harvard and came home to teach in the inner city. His first full-time assignment was at the Wicker Park (now A.N. Pritzker) Elementary School on the near west side. “I was a disaster that first year,” says Eisendrath. “The kids were wild; they were out of control. I could do much better today. But then I was green. I was being baptized by fire.”
His students were poor blacks and Hispanics; the school was overcrowded. There were three teachers’ strikes in three years. One day a student died in his arms.
“I was inside the school when I heard screaming,” Eisendrath recalls. “He had been knifed and was lying in the snow bleeding. I held him until the ambulance came, then I went to the hospital. He was dead. I told his little brother. I spent time with his family. It was miserable; I’ll never forget it.”
He taught for three years, but something was missing. The strikes and bureaucracy frustrated him. He figured he was as smart as any of the young guys he saw going into politics. He had larger ambitions. He wanted to shape public policy.
He decided to run for alderman of the 43rd Ward, and he had no doubt that he would win. The incumbent, Martin Oberman, was stepping down. Of all the other candidates, Eisendrath had the deepest roots in the community. Bill Singer, former alderman of the ward, and Ann Stepan, the newly elected Democratic committeeman, were among his family’s closest friends.
Most important, he had his gang from Parker. Rudman was now a commodities trader; Lehrman was a lawyer; Druzinsky taught at Parker; and Edwin’s brother John, having worked for a few years in journalism (including a stint as a Reader staff writer) was in Hollywood successfully peddling scripts to television. Together they knew hundreds of 43rd Ward residents.
Eisendrath won 36 percent of the vote in the first election, and found himself in a runoff with Robert Perkins (who now runs the Royal-George Theatre). It was a mismatch. Perkins wasn’t even a native; he’d grown up in Wilmette. Plus he was kind of cold and impersonal.
Eisendrath, on the other hand, loved campaigning. He worked the bus and train stops. He played the piano and sang show tunes to seniors in the CHA projects. He kibitzed with the older Jews who lived in the high rises by the lake. He spent at least $275,000–the money just poured in–more than any aldermanic candidate before him. He bought newspaper ads and radio spots and ran on a platform of better schools and lower taxes.
“I have goals that being an alderman is part of,” Eisendrath said at one debate. “When I’m my grandmother’s age of 94, I want to know that children can read. I want to live here. I don’t want to live in Washington. To the extent I can accomplish the goals I’ve set out as alderman–fiscal reform and public education–I’ll stay. I won’t stay being alderman if I find out I’m not interested. If my work for the ward is not good, then I’ll do something else. Like Willie Mays said, “When it’s not fun anymore, I’ll stop.”‘
In the general election of 1987, Eisendrath trounced Perkins, racking up 62 percent of the vote. His ecstatic backers compared him to the young John Fitzgerald Kennedy. “Guys like Edwin get pushed to the top because they’re so talented,” says Rudman. “Edwin could be a senator or governor one day. As for president, you know he’s got the talent and the drive. Whether he gets the breaks along the way is in God’s hands.”
Eisendrath is late for his afternoon meeting with residents of a 43rd Ward CHA senior citizens’ high rise, so he starts talking almost as soon as he walks into the first-floor activity room.
“How we doing today?” says the former grade-school teacher, his voice booming.
“We’re all right,” someone in the crowd of 50 yells back. “Where were you?”
“Where was I? I was at a meeting. Now I’m here. And how are you all? It’s been a long time. I can’t remember when I last saw you.”
“Try the last election,” someone calls. Several people laugh.
Eisendrath undoes his tie, takes off his jacket, and rolls up his shirt sleeves. “It’s going to be election time again,” he says. “I don’t want you to forget me, so what can I do for you?”
“We need another shelter for the bus stop,” someone says.
“The CTA should do that,” says Eisendrath. “I’ll call the CTA and see what we can do. But come on, let’s talk about other things. How are you? What’s going on in the world?”
“Well, you know about it–you tell us,” someone says.
“The Berlin Wall came down,” says Eisendrath. “Isn’t that exciting? Do you think we can reduce our military budget now that there’s a little stability in Europe?”
No one answers.
“Yes? No? What do you think?” says Eisendrath.
“Yes,” a woman cries.
“Well so do I,” says Eisendrath. “What else? Do any of you take the number 11 bus?”
At least a dozen hands go up–the bus runs right past the housing complex.
“Well, I went to the CTA hearings and told them ‘Don’t cut that line,'” says Eisendrath. “Then I had lunch with a guy on the CTA board. And I told him not to cut that line. It’s the least I can do for you. Isn’t that what government is all about? Taking care of basic needs.”
He pauses for a moment. “Well, let me tell you what I’m doing. I’m running for congress against Mr. Yates, who’s been there since 1948.”
“That’s too long,” says a woman with white hair.
“Well, it’s longer than I’ve been alive,” says Eisendrath. “And I want to know, how many times have you met him? We get his mailings. But you and I pay for those mailings with our taxes. So what do you think about that?”
A man on the far side gets Eisendrath’s attention. “I want to ask if we can get that funeral car moved,” he says, pointing out the window to a beat-up hearse parked across the street. “That thing’s been sitting there for weeks and I don’t need no reminder of what I got waiting for me.”
The crowd howls with laughter, and Eisendrath promises to do what he can to have the hearse moved.
“Any more questions?”
“What do you think about abortions?” the white-haired woman asks.
“What do you care, Gladys,” another woman calls out. “Are you pregnant?”
Eisendrath stifles a smile. “I don’t think a man has the right to tell a woman what to do with her body,” he says.
“That’s not what it says in the Bible,” Gladys retorts.
“Oh hell, Gladys, what’s the Bible got to do with it?” the other woman says. “The world’s changing, Gladys, you gotta keep up.”
Gladys ignores the comment. “If your daughter was pregnant would you want her to get an abortion?” she asks Eisendrath.
“I’d talk to her about it,” says Eisendrath. “But I’d teach her not to get pregnant.”
By now it’s time to leave, although it takes another ten minutes for the candidate to walk through the well-wishers in the lobby.
Outside he is exuberant. “Was I great, or was I great?” Once again he’s shouting.
“You were great,” says Rob Buono, a campaign assistant.
Eisendrath waves his fist in the air. “These are my votes,” he says. “Sidney can have all the politicians. But the people are with me.”
As an alderman, Eisendrath showed promise. He patterned himself after other Lincoln Park independents. He opposed the late Mayor Washington on some issues, and backed him on others. He defied antiabortion radicals and vocally supported the gay-rights ordinance.
As he entered office the transformation of Lincoln Park was nearly complete. Real estate prices in the 43rd Ward had skyrocketed, as developers scrambled to fill every inch of vacant land with town houses, high rises, and strip malls. The old residents–working-class whites as well as blacks and Puerto Ricans–were being priced out.
To his credit, Eisendrath tried to mitigate the impact of this change. He called for property-tax relief for the area’s senior citizens and advocated the construction of low-income housing. He proposed–and pushed through the City Council–legislation that protected a portion of Clybourn Avenue’s industrial corridor from commercial development.
At times his efforts earned him the enmity of local developers, including some of his family’s friends. By and large, however, he slipped through most disputes with nary a scratch. He was personable and friendly, able to charm most of the people he met. His ward office–run by Buono and Joanne Cicchelli–operated smoothly. A bachelor without children, he was able to devote a lot of time to the job. Sometimes Eisendrath surprised constituents by answering his own phone. His main issue was education. He called for cuts in administrative spending and marched in demonstrations demanding reform.
When Washington died in 1987, Eisendrath says, he cried and was awed by the south side’s outpouring of grief. In the City Council election to replace Washington with an acting mayor, he refused to join the coalition seeking to elect a white alderman, and he voted for Alderman Tim Evans over Alderman Eugene Sawyer.
Yet he did play a role in Sawyer’s election. In that infamous all-night City Council meeting, Evans’s allies were trying to forestall a Council vote in the hopes that Sawyer would buckle under community pressure and drop from the race. For a long time Vice Mayor David Orr, an Evans man, refused to call on Sawyer’s supporters during the debate. Eventually, however, Orr called on Eisendrath, who–to the surprise of many–brought the matter to the floor. After a few more hours of debate, the Council elected Sawyer acting mayor.
“Things were getting out of hand; we had Alderman Dick Mell standing on a chair, we had people throwing pennies from the gallery; I thought the time had come to get on with the debate,” says Eisendrath now. “I don’t believe in joining voting blocs. That’s not what being an independent is all about.”
A year later, nonetheless, Eisendrath and his family were solidly aligned with the mayoral campaign of Rich Daley. (Indeed, some of Eisendrath’s campaign literature contains references to Daley that come across as boot-licking: “I fought to get control of the city’s skyrocketing budget, and with the election of Rich Daley as mayor, the city has declared an end to the war on taxpayers.”)
Ironically, Daley’s victory diminished Eisendrath’s role in the Council. He wanted to be chairman of either the education or finance committee, but Daley had promised those spots to others. Without a big committee chair to stand on, Eisendrath could have followed Oberman’s route–maintained his visibility by drawing attention to administrative waste and corruption–but he didn’t want to embarrass Daley: the new mayor was a friend, for whom his parents had raised a good deal of money. Eisendrath was on the inside now. On occasion he voted against the mayor–when, for instance, Daley buried in committee a proposal to fund lead-paint-abatement programs. But he did so quietly and without much enthusiasm.
He began to wrestle with national issues. He saw himself uniting mainstream Democrats with the lakefront elite. The key was public education. He knew the schools needed Head Start programs, smaller class size, better facilities, and higher salaries for teachers. But he wasn’t sure where the money would come from. He didn’t want to be labeled a tax-and-spend Democrat. He knew many of his peers had contempt for the Democratic Party–Ronald Reagan had almost carried the 43rd Ward. He wanted to avoid the old labels. He wanted to be a pragmatist–a “new Democrat,” like Senator Al Gore–the kind of politician favorably profiled in the New Republic.
It was during the summer of 1989 that he started thinking about running for Congress. No one can recall exactly who had the idea first. One thing’s for certain, Daley didn’t discourage it. He never said, “Edwin, please don’t run against Yates.” Why should he? There was nothing special between Yates and Daley. If Eisendrath won, Daley would have a new ally in Washington. If he lost . . . well at least the race would get Eisendrath off his back.
Once again Eisendrath called on his closest advisers: his brother, his mother, his stepfather, former alderman Singer, Stepan and Rudman.
They cautioned Eisendrath not to be premature. Then they shelled out $12,500 to hire a pollster who spent nearly 20 minutes on the phone with each of some 400 sample voters. To their shock, only 35 percent knew that Yates was their congressman. Moreover a majority said they would support a young challenger who emphasized education over a seasoned incumbent.
The poll far exceeded the expectations of Eisendrath and company. Two-thirds of the voters didn’t even know who Yates was! It was as though he were a blank slate. To win the election they’d just have to color that slate–link Yates to the public’s notion of old and venal Beltway politicians.
The more they talked the more confident they grew. They decided that Yates was old and irrelevant–a “New Deal Democrat.” Mostly he just stayed in Washington. He hadn’t held a town meeting in years. The district had changed, and he didn’t know it.
“Democracy is not staying in office for 40 years,” says Lew Manilow. “This isn’t the Soviet Union.”
They would have to wage an aggressive, expensive campaign. They would have to hire a campaign manager, a press secretary, a media strategist, a direct-mail writer, an advertising coordinator, and a fund-raiser. They would bring the district into the modern age of campaigning.
“When we saw those poll results, we knew the race was winnable,” says Eisendrath. “Yates has some advantages as an incumbent. But they aren’t overwhelming. It was a hard decision, but I felt it was right.”
The decision–made in the early fall–was unprecedented in the district. Sure, many politicians coveted that seat–state senators Billy Marovitz and Art Berman, state rep Ellis Levin, and alderman David Orr, to name just a few. They were practically lined up waiting for Yates to retire or die. The conventional wisdom was that Yates was too popular to be beat; and the time-honored practice was to run for lesser office, build a record, establish credentials, and wait your turn.
But Eisendrath didn’t subscribe to conventional wisdom or behavior. He didn’t want to be like the others; he didn’t want to grow old “waiting for Sidney.”
“I don’t want to be a party guy, waiting around for some party boss to give me the nod,” says Eisendrath. “Too many politicians do that and end up being frustrated.”
Manilow adds, “Every politician who’s really made it in this country made it early on. Anyone who says, ‘I’ll wait until I’m 40’ will never make it. You’ve got to have the guts to stand up there and fight.”
Another factor also influenced the decision. The district–whose northern border once stood at Irving Park Road–now pushes all the way to Wilmette. There is a chance that legislative mapmakers will cut it loose from Chicago in 1991’s redistricting. And where would that leave Eisendrath? His base is Lincoln Park. They don’t know him in Evanston and Skokie. If he wants his name known throughout the district–if he wants a jump on all the other would-be candidates–now is his time to run.
No one in the inner circle strongly advised Eisendrath not to run. No one suggested to him that he was too young or inexperienced. No one warned him that the campaign might damage his career. They were the Parker crowd, raised to believe they could, should, and would run the country. They had just elected a mayor. They were used to success. They believed in their guy. They felt Eisendrath was the best and brightest his generation had to offer. At the very least, they felt he was better than Yates–they owned a poll that said so. They truly believed they would win.
As for Eisendrath, he had enjoyed City Council, but he now realized its limitations. He was like Willie Mays, ready to leap from the bush leagues to the majors. Others of his generation had chased a life-style of wealth and acquisition. But Eisendrath had done his duty. He had taught school in the inner city. He had cradled a dying kid in his arms. He had earned the right to make a greater contribution.
At Eisendrath headquarters–a large storefront in one of the new Clybourn strip malls–the candidate is on the phone and has two calls waiting. Behind him, against the wall, are three computers into which operators punch the names and addresses of voters–preparation for a future direct-mail effort.
Into the room bursts Bonnie Buck, the press secretary. She sees Eisendrath on the phone and rolls her eyes with impatience. There’s a problem, she says. Tonight’s press conference on affordable housing–to which Eisendrath has been invited–is really a rally where Sidney Yates will announce a new legislative proposal. The housing activist who arranged the meeting has set them up.
Eisendrath hangs up the phone and turns to Wyatt Closs, his campaign manager. “I’ll need that Congressional Quarterly article on affordable housing.” The article is about another bill–almost identical to the one Yates will propose–that was introduced last year.
“Phone call for Edwin,” comes a voice from another desk. “On line five.”
It’s Josh–the activist organizing tonight’s meeting. Eisendrath picks up the phone. “Listen, Josh, this is unfair and you know it,” he says, cracking his knuckles as he talks. “You know you don’t care if it’s Sid, me, or the man on the moon who gets you what you want. I understand that. But I’m going to be around for a long, long time. I want to have good relations with you, and I think you want to have good relations with me.”
He hangs up the phone and turns back to Closs, who has found the article.
“Beautiful,” says Eisendrath. “We can prove that this is empty campaign legislation. If Yates cared about affordable housing he’d use his clout to get the old bill passed.”
Eisendrath runs to a computer terminal and starts typing up a list of embarrassing questions that Buck will pass out to reporters at Yates’s rally. Like, why didn’t Yates help pass the other congressman’s housing bill? If all goes well, the reporters will ask these questions and the ambush will turn to Eisendrath’s advantage.
“I’ve been on the phone with the reporters and news managers,” says Buck. “I told them that Edwin will be available for comment on the housing story before they go on the air. If they don’t give Edwin equal time it’s unethical. And I’ll call them tomorrow and yell at them, and then I’ll yell at the program directors. And then the program directors will yell at the reporters, and you’d better believe they’ll call Edwin for comment the next time.”
The upshot of these machinations may be a ten-second spot on the evening news.
Within half an hour, Eisendrath has finished his questions. He thinks about getting a quick bite to eat, and then decides against it. In about 15 minutes he’s due at a fund-raiser at the house of a rich Republican. He grabs his coat and runs his hand through his hair. He’s adjusting his tie as he walks out the door.
For all their caution and preparation, Eisendrath and his advisers were caught off guard once the race began. Maybe they were naive; perhaps their lives are too cloistered. Whatever, they didn’t see their candidate as other voters might see him. Apparently it never occurred to them that some people would resent Eisendrath’s youth, wealth, and family connections. Obviously they never realized that hundreds of voters would be horrified by the ambition implicit in a two-year alderman challenging a congressional institution like Sidney Yates.
On November 14–the day he announced–Eisendrath casually let slip his plans to spend about $1 million on the race. Many observers gasped. This, they said, is exactly what is wrong with politics in this country: it has become a game for the rich.
Yates had never raised such money. Yates had never hired outside consultants. Yates had never spent more than a few thousand dollars in any election. For years Yates had managed most of his own campaigns.
Later Eisendrath tried to explain that he probably never would reach his goal of $1 million. But his explanations were in vain. It was a magic sum that stuck in everyone’s mind. Sun-Times columnist Steve Neal wrote a series of critical columns and nicknamed Eisendrath “Little Lord Eddie.” Eisendrath’s opponents everywhere got a chuckle over that.
Also, Eisendrath and his strategists underestimated Yates. Some–like Singer–actually believed that Yates would retire as soon as Eisendrath entered the race. They didn’t figure Yates for the competitive old jock he is (a former semipro basketball player and scratch golfer). He wasn’t going to lose his seat without a fight.
Yates’s ties to the district were deeper than any poll could reveal. So what if two-thirds of the voters didn’t know his name? Most voters don’t know their alderman either. The ignorant are the least likely to vote. Arguably it’s the other 33 percent who count–and many of them have turned out to be fierce Yates supporters.
“Lew [Manilow] is a friend, but it makes me sad to see some of the rhetoric coming out of that camp,” says Richard Gray, a prominent art dealer. “Sidney has represented this district well for over 40 years. He deserves our support, and we should give it to him. I wish Edwin was a little more patient. He’s running a little too soon–it rubs some of us old guys the wrong way.”
To people like Gray, Yates is the epitome of legislative integrity. He isn’t flashy, but he is sincere. He writes his own newsletter, which he sends to his constituents nearly every month. Throughout the years he’s helped hundreds of voters get visas, passports, and federal grants.
These voters don’t care that Yates is liberal–they’re liberals too. They appreciate that Yates’s support for good-government causes goes all the way back to the battles against Senator Joseph McCarthy. Yates supported legislation to protect the environment before it was fashionable. He was the first candidate ever endorsed by the Sierra Club; his voting record is deemed near-perfect by women, labor, and civil rights groups.
“He’s not afraid of who he is,” says Marjorie Benton, cochair of the Yates campaign. “He’s not fashionable in his politics. Other people change with the times. Bush made liberal a bad word, so other politicians are afraid to call themselves that. They call themselves progressives. Not Sidney. You know where you stand with him.”
On top of that Yates has seniority, having served in the House longer than any other representative. He is chairman of the Subcommittee on the Interior and Related Agencies, one of 13 subcommittees of the House Appropriations Committee. He doesn’t introduce a lot of legislation, his supporters say, because he doesn’t have to. His committee has the power to kill or revise much of the legislation that others introduce.
“The Appropriations Committee doesn’t actually write law and attach it to the spending bill,” explained an article on Yates in the magazine Congressional Quarterly. “Instead, says [one congressman], ‘with the power of the purse, we set de facto policy.’ The amount of timber that private companies cut in the nation’s forests, for example, is decided in part by how much the government spends to cut logging roads.”
As for Yates’s age, that doesn’t seem like too big a matter to most voters. His mind is sharp, his body strong; he still logs long hours. Just last summer he successfully beat back Senator Jesse Helms and the radical right on the issue of restricting federal funds for the arts.
True, Yates has never stood tall for independence in Chicago. He has never bucked the Democratic machine. He was out of town and unavailable for protest, for example, when the Chicago police clobbered demonstrators at the 1968 Democratic National Convention.
But then Eisendrath’s young career, as many independents see it, has been no profile in courage either. He stayed neutral in the 1987 mayoral showdown between Mayor Washington and Alderman Edward Vrdolyak. Supporting Washington would have represented an open stand against political bigotry, but it would also have cost Eisendrath some votes: Vrdolyak was popular in the 43rd Ward; that year he won 52 percent of its vote. Republican Donald Haider got 19 percent, and Washington received 29 percent, roughly what he got in his 1983 race against Bernie Epton. The Eisendrath and anti-Washington votes were roughly the same (Perkins was regarded as Washington’s candidate). Perhaps Eisendrath won so decisively because many voters saw him as the “white candidate.”
This criticism of Eisendrath may be a bit unfair. After all, Eisendrath does support affirmative action, a cause many of his constituents find repugnant. Yet many opponents feel that Eisendrath deserves rough treatment because of his negative campaign against Yates. He has called Yates “completely out of touch with the needs of urban America.” He has ridiculed Yates’s record, chiding the congressman for sponsoring such legislation as a bill calling for “National Craniofacial Deformity Awareness Week.” Of Yates’s career he has said: “This is the record of a man who has become a multimillionaire, while the poverty in his home district has increased tenfold in the last decade alone.”
“He’s running on Republican campaign tactics,” says Charlotte Newfeld, a lakefront activist who supports Yates. “He’s using the Big Lie. Last night he made a remark that Sid Yates did a favor for George Dunne so that the Democratic Party would make Sid’s son a judge. That’s ridiculous. Everyone knows that Steve Yates is an excellent judge. I resent that kind of attack.”
In the eyes of many voters, Eisendrath is a spoiled brat without an ounce of humility (as one senior citizen put it, “This is a kid who never had to pick up his socks”), who is hiding his liberal tendencies to win the votes of Republicans.
Unlike his friends, they don’t think of Eisendrath as the next JFK. Instead they think he’s in danger of becoming another Dan Quayle–a shallow opportunist spending his family’s money to advance his political career.
Even his years in the classroom don’t appease these critics. If anything, they resent the fact that Eisendrath mentions his teaching experience so much.
“His attitude seems a little patronizing to teachers,” says Newfeld. “Does he deserve a medal because he went to Harvard and still became a schoolteacher? Teaching school is a very honorable profession. It shouldn’t be treated as a career sacrifice. Besides he only taught for a few years. What’s it say about his love for teaching if, after a few years, he leaves to run for alderman? What’s it say about his love for the City Council if, before his first term is up, he’s running for Congress? How many more times is he going to switch careers?”
The seniors start clapping as soon as Sid Yates walks into the room. It’s a coffee with the congressman–the last of three scheduled for Yates today in various Sheridan Road high rises.
“Before I introduce our congressman I want to tell a story about the time I was at a meeting in the suburbs to discuss Lake Michigan flooding,” says Sheli Lulkin, president of the local condominium association. “I said, ‘I’m from Chicago,’ and someone said, ‘You don’t need to be here–you’ve got Sidney Yates.'”
The crowd claps, and Yates begins ticking off his accomplishments: more money to fight flooding; more money for the arts, the environment, and senior citizens. “A wise man once said that the first casualty of a political campaign is modesty. If I sound immodest, it’s only because there’s a campaign.”
Someone asks a question about prayer in school and aid to El Salvador. Yates says he’s against both. Someone else asks about abortion. “I am and have always been prochoice,” says Yates.
The crowd is still clapping when he walks through the door and into his campaign manager’s car to make the trip to his apartment in a high rise near Addison.
He opens his front door, leading into a living room that’s quiet and deserted. There are no books or magazines. A suitcase rests in the corner. This is the home of a politician who spends a lot of time on the road.
“Let me turn on the water for some tea,” he says. He returns from the kitchen with a cup for me and one for Adrienne Moss, his campaign manager.
“I know Edwin’s family,” Yates says softly. “Lew Manilow once worked for me in a campaign. I knew his father, Nate Manilow. He was a developer. He made a fortune. He built Park Forest.
“Eisendrath says you’re out of touch, congressman,” I say, “particularly when it comes to education.”
“That’s not true. I support all the programs for education: Head Start, hot lunch, vocational schools. My committee funds summer-school courses for teachers. But the specifics of education–how the schools are run–is a local issue, which we don’t and shouldn’t handle from Washington. If he’s concerned about that he should stay in the City Council. I hear he’s on the education committee of the City Council. That’s fine. Then I hear he doesn’t show up for all its meetings. He’s too busy running for Congress. How is that caring about education? Here, read this article.”
He hands me a Tribune story that says Eisendrath missed a crucial vote on funding a school program.
“To me, the committee is the arena,” Yates says. “If I want to stop offshore oil drilling, I don’t file a bill. I put a measure on the funding that says none of these funds may be used for payment of offshore drilling. I did that for California, Florida, and Bristol Bay, Alaska. That’s how you work in the Congress. You can’t miss meetings. That’s where the power is.”
“Eisendrath says that if you’re so great on the environment, how come the Chicago River is polluted?”
Yates looks stunned.
“He says you care more about some rare bird–an owl or something–in California than you do about the Chicago River.”
Yates is speechless. Finally Adrienne Moss breaks the silence. “He sounds like Bush talking about the Boston Harbor. Where’s his Willie Horton?”
“Well, what do you say to that?” I ask Yates.
“Don’t listen to me,” Yates says, “listen to what others say.” He picks up a folder filled with copies of articles and letters. “This is from the Congressional Quarterly, a nonbiased source: ‘Yates is the vicar of the environment.’ Not bad, huh? And look at this letter from the Sierra Club: ‘Mr. Yates is the reason many thousands of acres of public lands have been preserved for future generations. He is the prototype of the environmental legislator.’ And how about this letter from the National Audubon Society, or this letter from the National Wildlife Federation, and, while we’re at it, this letter from Mayor Daley, thanking me for helping the city get money for AIDS programs and transportation.
“No, I don’t understand his candidacy. Why is he running? He has no issues. He says he’s going to spend a million dollars, now he says he never said that. Which time are we going to believe him?”
“But congressman, you’re not poor yourself.”
“I don’t like raising money. They’re going to fly me to a fund-raiser in Hollywood. Jimmy Stewart, Katharine Hepburn, and maybe Robert Redford will be there. I don’t want to do it. He’s forcing me to do it.”
“But don’t you think it’s time you retired?”
“That’s a question for the voters,” Yates says. “I don’t feel old. Someday I’ll step down. I’m 80 years old; I don’t know how long I’ve got. I’ve said all along that when I’m no longer able to handle my job, I’ll retire. I know there are a lot of people eager to run. But I feel good. My health is strong. When my time comes, it comes. But it hasn’t come yet.”
The campaign has blown apart old alliances and disrupted familiar political patterns. Now it’s not independent versus machine, progressive versus hack, black versus white; now it’s young versus old, brash versus venerable. Both sides are on the same end of the political spectrum and both come from the same part of town. Eisendrath’s candidacy has thrown the “liberal lakefront” into a tizzy.
At the center of the brouhaha are Bill Singer, Eisendrath’s campaign chair, and June Rosner, press spokesman for Yates. In the old days they were friends. They live in the same ward (43rd), worked on the same campaigns (Rosner helped manage Singer’s first aldermanic run), and sent their kids to the same school (Parker, of course). Then they started to drift apart. He became a corporate lawyer and befriended Vrdolyak. She stayed loyal to the independents.
Yates supporters see Singer as the behind-the-scenes Rasputin who talked an impressionable young man into waging a foolish campaign. “Billy’s own political career died, so now he’s living out his fantasies through the kid alderman,” says Don Rose, a longtime independent activist who supports Yates. “I’m not sure if Edwin understands he’s getting used.”
In addition, Yates’s backers fear that Singer is spreading distortions throughout the corporate community. “Billy is probably whispering all sorts of things to his friends at the East Bank Club,” says one Yates operative. “He put out a rumor that Yates was going to back out in midterm and turn the seat over to Billy Marovitz. That’s a lie. But we have to deal with that.”
The Eisendrath side accuses Rosner of using her connections as a publicist to turn the media against the alderman. “June gets all sorts of stuff in the papers,” says Eisendrath. “We don’t have half her connections.”
At a recent endorsement session of the IVI-IPO (Independent Voters of Illinois-Independent Precinct Organization), the two camps sat at opposite ends of the room–Singer with the Manilows, Rosner with her coworkers–a bitter chill between them. After the session Singer bustled about trying to convince reporters–most notably Channel Seven’s Andy Shaw–that Yates’s failure to win two-thirds of the votes (he missed by a couple) was somehow a victory for Eisendrath. To his credit, Shaw didn’t fall for it. Nonetheless, Rosner was on the phone the next day with reporters, just to make sure.
The political fighting has spilled over into the genteel art world, where Lew Manilow swings a lot of clout. Manilow was one of the founders of the Museum of Contemporary Art. He’s on the boards of the Art Institute and the Goodman Theatre, and he’s well-known to gallery owners as an important collector; he recently sold a portion of his collection for $8 million. In any other situation he would be a natural ally of Yates, who has long supported federal arts funding and is very popular with artists and arts administrators. Thus there was something of a stir in art circles last November when Manilow sent a letter to many of his friends–including other collectors and gallery owners–asking them to support Eisendrath.
“I wouldn’t call it a shakedown, but I’ll bet it got some response,” says one gallery owner who asks not to be identified. “I doubt if it will affect how anyone votes, though–Lew can’t go into the polling place with you.”
Manilow, on the other hand, is still upset over a letter sent to Art Institute trustees by the executive director of the American Association of Museums. “I was at the trustees’ meeting when that letter was put on our seats by an Art Institute staffer,” says Manilow. “The letter had a card attached to it that said, ‘Museums for Yates.’ But museums can’t be for Yates without losing their tax-exempt status. This letter was sent to 300 museums. The attorney for the Art Institute agreed with me that the letter was wrong.”
The matter didn’t die there. Eisendrath leaked the letter to the press. Later he accused Yates of “shaking down the Art Institute” and filed a complaint with the Federal Election Commission.
“Manilow is so powerful because he’s on so many boards,” says a Goodman Theatre employee. “Anything we do as individuals for Yates will get back to Lew, and he’ll feed it to the papers. It’s not exactly Rumania, but they’ve silenced us a bit.”
All of this power playing by Eisendrath’s side seems to have had little impact on major funders and politicians. In November Yates’s backers bought a full-page ad in both downtown dailies headlined “Thank You Congressman Yates.” It was signed by dozens of dignitaries, including Lester Crown, Irving Harris, Philip Klutznick, and Judd Malkin–four of the city’s wealthiest men. Soon thereafter top congressional leaders, including House Speaker Tom Foley, trotted through town to endorse Yates.
Eisendrath has found few local political allies. Every ward organization except his own 43rd has endorsed Yates. Members of the Democratic Party of Evanston gave Yates over 90 percent of their vote in a recent slating session. And he’s won the support of almost all elected officials–for good reason. It’s in the interest of all the other would-be Ninth District congressional candidates to have Eisendrath trounced.
“They want to see Edwin roughed up,” says Jeff Smith, the Democratic Party’s state committeeman in the district. “They want to see him lose all credibility. They want to punish him for trying to get the jump on them.”
To gain some recognition, Eisendrath has suggested a series of debates, but Yates has turned him down. “We don’t want to elevate him to the congressman’s status,” says a Yates strategist. “We’d just as soon ignore him.”
So every day Eisendrath tries to scheme his way into the newspapers or onto TV. He’s scheduled a series of town meetings throughout the district–an attempt to remind voters that Yates hasn’t sponsored a meeting in years–but so far attendance has been disappointing.
He’s released his financial disclosure statements–in 1988 he earned $40,000 in salary and another $15,000 from investments–and has invited Yates, a millionaire with numerous real estate investments, to do the same. “Yates has never released his disclosure statements,” says Eisendrath. “He accuses me of running a million-dollar campaign, but he won’t come clean.” But neither the press nor the public has shown much interest in this matter.
He’s issued reams of position papers covering everything from cleaning up Lake Michigan to a new national health-care system for children to an eight-point plan for trimming the federal budget deficit without raising taxes:
“I don’t believe this is a time to be creating new fees,” Eisendrath wrote in a position paper titled “Controlling the Federal Budget.” “On the contrary, we should endeavor to create an honest budget that meets national objectives.” He proposes to cut subsidies that “benefit only large agricultural corporations, eliminate most congressional subcommittees, trim military spending [though he doesn’t say how] and invest in education and health care.”
Again, these proposals have engendered no debate–which may be just as well for Eisendrath. Otherwise he would be called upon to explain how he would pay for his health and education programs without raising taxes. Or how he expects to get legislative support for his proposals from the same key congressmen–like Foley–he so recently criticized as members of the Yates old-boy network.
As the race wears on Eisendrath has begun to realize how frustrating it can be to tackle a popular incumbent. He has started swinging wildly. “Yates,” he said at one point, “has had a hollow career.” After a while it starts to sound a little unnecessary and nasty.
It’s unclear what voters will make of all this. No recent polls have been taken, but most observers predict Yates will win at least 60 percent of the vote. He’s already raised more money than Eisendrath–even though many voters think it’s the other way around. “Rosner has successfully convinced the media that Yates is the underdog, when we’re the ones facing the rich incumbent,” sighs one Eisendrath backer. “Usually, the underdog role is the challenger’s advantage. But they stole it from us.”
One thing’s for certain, the election is a major gamble for Eisendrath. He can win even if he loses, provided he establishes himself as the front-runner to replace Yates after he retires. In running, however, he has made some bitter enemies. “I don’t know if I can ever forgive Edwin for the things he’s said about this wonderful man,” says Rosner. “I just hope when this election is over other people remember how Edwin handled himself. I know I won’t forget.”
The lawyers–most of them Republicans–stand sipping champagne in the living room of a Lincoln Park mansion. From the ceiling hangs a chandelier; along the wall runs a mirror–the room has recently been refurbished. Tuxedo-clad caterers serve hors d’oeuvres and drinks while the lawyers, sleek in suits and ties, discuss the day’s closing stock prices.
Eisendrath’s wearing the same blue suit, white shirt, and blue tie he wore for the seniors earlier this afternoon. But here he keeps his jacket on and his tie knotted. He’s somber and subdued, as befits the occasion. These gentlemen (there are also a few wives in attendance) are here by special invitation to meet Eisendrath–candidate of the future.
“I’ve known this guy for a long long time, and I respect him,” says the tall, handsome host. [Actually they only met a few weeks ago–at some kind of celebration.] “I support this guy, and I’m a Republican.”
The guests chuckle, and Eisendrath steps forward to speak. “My opponent was elected in 1948 on the coattails of Harry Truman,” Eisendrath begins. “I believe 40 years is a long time. They say I’m too young, a little too ambitious. I think a little ambition is fine. As for the other guys [would-be congressional candidates], if you don’t have the courage to pick up the bat, you belong in the dugout.”
It’s very quiet in the room. The lawyers watch Eisendrath closely. “I need you to contribute everything you can, and to talk to your friends. I need 50,000 votes. That isn’t many. You probably have that many names in your Rolodexes.”
Someone asks a question about tort reform, and Eisendrath says he’ll seek advice from the best minds in his district, including the people in this room. And that pretty much does it. The lawyers don’t have much to say.
Outside Eisendrath is ecstatic. Once in his car, he can barely contain himself. “That was great,” he shouts. “Fantastic.”
“You were good,” I say, “but you didn’t talk substance. Those guys don’t know you’re a liberal.”
“They were looking at me and thinking, ‘How would this sound to a jury?'” Eisendrath says. “And it sounded great.”
“You didn’t talk to them like you did to those senior citizens,” I say.
“It was a different audience,” he says.
“Yeah, but you didn’t talk substance here. You didn’t tell them that you oppose the Panama invasion.”
“They didn’t ask me that.”
“Yeah, but what if they did?”
“If they did, I’d have told them exactly how I felt.”
“Ah, you’re just telling me that ’cause you know I’m liberal.”
“No, damn it, no! I believe in what I say. I don’t lie; I’ll never lie. You can work with different kinds of people; you don’t have to be so damn ideological.”
He turns his car onto Lake Shore Drive. He has one last engagement–this one in Evanston.
“You keep talking about my background and my opportunities,” he says. “All right, I’ve had advantages. I know I’ve been very lucky. I’ve been given a lot of opportunities. The question isn’t where you start, it’s where do you finish? You have your whole life to fight your fights. And I’m proud of the fights I’ve fought. OK, I went to a private school. But does that mean I don’t care about the public schools? No! I’ve done more time in the public schools than any of my contemporaries.
“Who’s going to be able to talk directly to our generation? Who’s going to be able to tell people like these lawyers that they’ve got to give something to the people left behind? Who’s going to get them to know that the best legacy of the Democratic Party is seeing yourself in each other? I want to do these things. I’m in a position to do them. Watch me, just watch me. I plan to be around for a long, long time.”
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Jon Randolph.