(This is an opinion column and not reflective of any of the clients that I worked with. This is a glimpse of my year while working in some very fascinating races, all of which I learned a great deal. This is the view from my eyes, the conversations going on in my head, and a salute to all who work in some capacity of politics as I have. I love Chicago and its people. I have great hopes for 2013.)
I have been working in the political field since my childhood Alderman Ed Vrdolyak ran for Mayor of Chicago in 1986. I was a volunteer at his campaign office located near the Lakeshore campus of Loyola University of Chicago. I was in charge of “getting the vote out” on campus, way before the term GOTV even existed. “Back on Track with Vrdolyak” was our slogan.I remember signing out A/V equipment from Loyola to play the videos of Vrdolyak debating the other candidates he was running against. To this day I have yet to see a better debater. Before judging me for working on this campaign you need to understand where I came from.
I came from a blue-collared family from the community of Hegewisch on Chicago’s south-east side. I am the oldest of two children. My father is first-generation Irish and my mother is first-generation Mexican. Both sides of my family were in the steel industry. My father and his three Tarrant brothers were all Local 1 Ironworkers, as were my male cousins later on down the line. My Grandfather Mendoza worked for 35 years in the Wisconsin Steel Mill in the “coke” plant. Our roots were definitely union. While growing up in Hegewisch and attending St. Florian’s Elementary school with a dozen other Tarrant cousins who also lived near us, our “Alderman” was like a mayor. When he would drive by we would all point at his car. He was the keeper of our neighborhood. He would wave at us kids or talk to us. We used to walk to school, walk to the A & P Grocery store, or play down the street at a friend’s yard. Mothers would share their yards with others to allow them to dry their laundry out on the lines. It was a community of hard-working people. We were Hispanic, Irish, Polish, Black, and a recent surge of Italians moved in too. Our Alderman Vrdolyak held it all together. We admired him.
I knew very little about “city hall”. To me, the Alderman was city hall. My father and my family would attend his events. That was a given. All was good. If we were not involved in his political events then we were involved in union events. If someone died there would be a “benefit”. My father attended many, many benefits in the 70’s. Men fell off of buildings quite often. I’m not sure there were such stringent safety features as they have today. For example, he actually climbed up buildings while constructing them. It was not until around the time that he built the Sear’s Tower that I first saw the “lift” which takes the workers up to the highest levels. And there were also the times that he or someone was running for “B.A.”- or business agent. Those were MEGA parties. Once he combined my 10th birthday with his run for business agent. We had 10 paratroopers jump out of a plane (all ironworkers) over our yard at our barbecue party that day. There had to be over 100 people, mostly union. We had the kid piñata to break open. Later in the evening they had the “adult” piñata to break open. There were tiny bottles of liquor in them, like the kind that they had on airplane flights. By the time the adults participated in their piñata affair they were in very “festive” spirits, so there were occasional hazards to the sport of the adult piñata. It was not such a bright idea to give a drunk man a bat and ask him to start swinging. For us kids this was the 70’s version of the WWE.
My whole adult life I have been raising money. I have always had it in the back of my mind that I am doing it to make a difference. If I was raising money via federal or state grant writing, I was writing to help low-income, first generation student’s transition from high school to higher education. I myself was the first to attend college. I wrote for exchange programs between an urban university in Chicago and a university in Mexico City which allowed the exchange of these two groups of architectural students to study one another’s worlds. All the while though I remained involved in politics. It seems there is always that need to stay politically astute when you work in the city of Chicago. An additional necessity; food, shelter, water, and politics.
2012 was no exception.
In the beginning of 2012 I was learning all I could about the near west side of Chicago. I had three political clients, all who had districts or wards which encompassed one another. I drove around a great deal on the west side, in areas probably most people would scoff at. I wanted to learn more about the needs of this area. My burning question was why has this area remained the same for so long? Why hasn’t anything changed?
My Aldermanic client was trying for years to get a new supermarket opened in an area defined as a “food desert”. The mere fact that we have such a term is pathetic, in my opinion. Without a real supermarket, this west side community relied solely on the “corner” stores. These corner stores were not the type you would see in Mayberry. They were mostly liquor stores, which also sold lotto tickets. The price of essentials like milk and, what they called fresh produce, was 3 times the price at a regular supermarket. So this poor area suffered all the more. They could get a bag of Cheetos much cheaper than an apple.
My other client had run for mayor of Chicago in 2011. After losing she decided to run for Illinois State Senate. I called her “my lady.” She was my first female client. She would be running against another African American female who was a 12-year veteran legislator and very well-rooted on the west side. Everyone said that it would be a long-shot, but my Lady’s passion, like the Alderman, was the common bond that I appreciated a great deal. I do not accept clients based on electoral “wins”, but more that they are in line with my own priorities. I find if you believe in the person, you are best equipped to serve their organization at your highest capacity, no matter what your role is.
Always reflecting back to my south-east side roots I wanted to see those days of old for this community. I wanted to see the safety for the kids to play in playgrounds and to walk to school. I hoped to see the safety to walk to the grocery store or the freedom and means to participate in the park district. I hoped to discover a bond between the families who are all doing their best to raise their children as a community. If it could work on the south-east side in the 70’s with Blacks, Irish and Mexicans in the mix there should be no reason it cannot work on the near-west side. There were definite elements of this happening already on the near west side, so I do not want to paint the picture as all doom and gloom. But it is 2012 and my reflections were from 35 years ago. There should be even more improvements on the west side. Why has it not changed?
The primary was in March of 2012. The Alderman was running unopposed for committeeman. The committeeman role is a curious thing in Chicago. For the first time I witnessed the true value of it. A state representative seat in the 10th district had become suddenly vacant and the committeemen of that district were given the charge to “appoint” a successor. There was no special election needed. The committeemen have a “vote” which is considered weighted. Their weight is determined by the last electoral outcome of that ward. For me 2011 and 2012 were my first hands-on witness to this process. It is both mysterious and magical. I do not agree with the process, however it has existed way before me and probably will continue. Many good-hearted souls gathered themselves to present themselves to the 8-9 committeemen in front of a public forum. The media was there in mass. It was speculated in both the State Representative appointment as in the 2011 State Senate appointment there was the “favored” prospect. Sure enough, in both cases the favored one won. This led to my third client. I had to agree, though, he was a good choice for State Representative. After all he was also my friend. So yes I was biased. At the same time I was elated to have what I called “my west-side dream”. This was going to make the difference. An Alderman, a State Representative and a Senator. Whoa.
Come February we finally broke ground for the new supermarket to be located in the near-west side in the food desert area. This was an incredible time. Even though it was bitter cold out, as many as 75 residents of all ethnicity came to witness this historic moment. The media was there in full-force. All three of my clients were in the front line with their shovels to the ground. I was so proud of them. I imagined the resources that would come pouring in for these wonderful residents.
My Alderman, being in an uncontested race for committeeman, put all his efforts into the State Senate race of my Lady client. After all, a portion of his ward touched on the 5th senate district. His ward organization did as much volunteer work as possible to help her gain momentum. In the months of February and March I was literally working out of my minivan. I had each client’s literature, signs and buttons, banners and walk cards each in designated storage bins in the back of my van. I was a rolling operative. And just in case, I had some Obama material. There was also a special fundraising section in my minivan. I could provide a pop-up fundraiser should the need arise. I had sign-in sheets, blank name badges, 12 clip boards, manila envelopes, and a few in-kind sheets. I had red and blue table cloths, drink tickets and duct tape. There were at least 20 sharpies and 20 pens. Of course everything was made in the USA. I also had an extra business suite and my media credentials in case I needed to “get in” somewhere, or as it says on the back side of the credential, in case I had to “cross police lines”. That never happened, but I daydreamed it would. Like Olivia on Law & Order.
While at the state senate campaign headquarters I was introduced to the most disciplined and passionate group of people I had ever met. It was unusual because they were not from political backgrounds. The unusual part is most were not paid. They were literally supporting the candidate because they believed in her. Their spirit and work ethic was something I greatly admired. They accepted me overwhelmingly. No one really had a title, everyone played a part though. I did little fundraising, but more research and acted as a communication director or anything else that was needed. We made a trip to Dirksen Federal one day, to present a letter to the US Attorney to review some alleged ethic violations of our opponent that our research had uncovered. It was a first for me. My role as a communication director came face-to-face with full-blown, unbridled, west-side politics that day. There was a quaint group of 50 “thug” types sent by the opposition, literally trying to cause a fight with any one of us at Dirksen. Even the candidate’s elderly mother was threatened. This was their tactic. We just needed to remain calm, cool, and near an armed guard. That move on our part to present the letter was the most effective thing we could have done, although it carried risks. Shortly thereafter, my Lady candidate began gaining the endorsement of nearly every paper. And though the dollars were flying in for the opponent, my Lady of progress was making a difference. Much later after the primary the federal government was actually taking steps towards addressing the points we made in that letter.
The collaboration between my Lady’s campaign and the Alderman as well as the appointed, but now running, State Rep was a magical combination. As I hopped from one office to another I was energized by all of the possibilities. The strong volunteerism from the Alderman, the unity and determination of the State senate hopeful, and then the fascinating organization of a strongly backed State Representative who inherited an army of the best from Springfield. Each group had its strong points. Each operated in different ways. They all had victory on their minds. They were all thought to be the progressives. I was very proud of this.
Surprisingly both the 5th Senate district and the 10th State Rep District had some of the highest incomes on their north-eastern sides. As my Lady candidate said once in an interview “I have the homes of the Pritzkers and the Crowne family on one end, and Bo Bo the ex-felon on the other”. Hers is a district that also contained the highest ex-con residency in Chicago. We shared many conversations about how to tackle such an extremely diverse district. What would the variance of issues be with such extremes? All of this kept me awake many nights. This is partly the problem of why things stay the way they are I believe. The boundaries of these districts seem haphazard, but in fact they were made to promote discord. If there is anyone who might be able to tackle this situation, I felt it was my Lady candidate. She was an activist most of her working life and had the tools to give it a whirl.
My State Rep came from his district and raised his family in the area. He put himself through school as well. We both were in shock and awe of having such a machine running his race. My fundraising efforts for his race reminded me of the video game Pac Man. When I was working on his race, I was in that mode like where the Pac Man digests the fruit and begins to pulsate and glow and is untouchable, eating up all enemies in its way. This was not just any campaign. This was the crème de le crème. When the “help” arrived we had approximately 9 weeks to election day. We were told there would be a minimum of eight mailers. Eight mailers for a race that was basically on auto-pilot to victory. I realized this was not just about a guaranteed win, but it was a statement. My call-time seemed to have lightening results. My candidate would check each day to see what mail came in and lo and behold our efforts achieved high returns. Most memorable was when I requested “just a few people” to help me do a mailer for one of my events. I decided I would bring in a pizza to thank the volunteers who would be helping me. I figured we may get 5 people. Driving over I figured to fold a few thousand invites with the 5 people and myself may take a good 4 hours. I walked in to find about 80 people already doing the task at hand. Suddenly my large pizza looked like a personal pan. So this is how it goes, I thought to myself. Ask and you shall receive.
Once I was discussing with the manager of the State Rep race ways to get my fascinating candidates into the more affluent areas of their districts. The truth of the matter was that no one on the north-east side of the districts knew my Lady candidate nor much of my appointed State Rep. The manager listened to me carefully. He never said very much but he was always thinking. I probably was one of the very few “outsiders” that this Springfield crew tolerated. They did not really need me, but my friend the State Rep requested I be a part if his team. The manager had little reaction to my proposed dilemma of exposing the State Rep to the affluent areas, so I went home. That evening the manager called me and said “I need you to take the Rep to the affluent areas on Saturday. You can bring your senate Lady candidate too. And by the way we got Chris Kennedy”. “What do you mean?” I asked. “He will be knocking doors with you” he said. I gasped. “Are we talking merchandise mart Chris Kennedy?” I asked. “Of course” and he hung up.
I slept very little throughout February and March. I worked non-stop but when I was not out working or taking care of my family, I was thinking and thinking. I was planning and envisioning solutions for this west side dream. Support was rolling in for my State Rep. My Lady candidate was high in the polls, with not much money coming in. All were making waves and making the news in a good way. After our Chris Kennedy door knocking experience we had one last event for the State Rep. That evening he and I spoke about our hopes and dreams for the district. I thanked him for all, and we knew we needed to plan for the election night party. We are not far apart in age but that night we were like kids. We shared our joy for what was ahead. I envisioned lots of job fairs and work force training. He agreed. With the help of my alderman client we could build an incredible west side force. Our hearts were all in the right place.
The night of my last event I was exhausted and could not wait to lay in my bed. Within an hour of getting home, my poor son who was only 9 years old developed a terrible 24 hour flu. It was awful. He had to lie on the couch and I had to put a garbage pail next to him. He was vomiting non-stop for 12 hours. Being a mother of four this is a catastrophe in the making. Number one, I could not get sick. Number two, none of the other kids could get sick. Election day was one week to the day. By the morning I ran out of Gatorade. He needed more Motrin. I asked my 25 year old to keep an eye on him for 15 minutes while I went to the nearest store. It was a bright sunny day. I felt frazzled though, as I had been up for several nights in a row, most recently assisting my little boy from the couch to the bucket. I glanced at the newspapers in the store as I always did. Spot checking for any one I knew, first off. Then making sure none of my client’s opponents were mentioned in any good way. A quick glance at the National Enquirer just so I could make some sort of small talk that was not political should I run into a person from outside my Chicago bubble. Derrick Rose purchased a condo in Trump Tower. I wondered what ward that was…
My friend, who I will call operative friend No. 1 (O.F.1) called my cell as I was rushing back to my rolling operative minivan. “Hey are you on your laptop” he said. “No why” I asked, waiting to hear about a poll or that someone endorsed my Lady again. “It’s about your guy” he said through very labored breathes. “What’s wrong with you” I asked as I stopped and leaned against my minivan. “Kelly, go home. Your candidate was arrested”, he said. I stared at the pavement. What on earth kind of joke was he playing I thought at first. “Kelly,” he repeated “go home. Go home now.” He hung up. I looked at my Android phone. The screen had gone to a blank white color. The text and the call feature were inoperative. So this is what they call having your “phone blow up.” There were so many calls and texts trying to come in at once that my phone was “blowing up”. I got into my van and drove half paralyzed. I flipped on AM radio. I could not understand the words. No way. He must have been tearing down our opponents white man/black man signs. People get arrested for that now. He should have known better. We could spin this. The radio said something about a bribe. There’s no (expletive) way, I thought to myself. Not him. No way.
My west-side dream was blowing up into tiny floating pieces into the blazing sunlight.
I walked into my home. My poor son looked helpless. I gave him his Gatorade and felt his warm head. I turned on the television. He began to vomit again. I looked back at the TV. There was a head shot of my friend, my State Rep client. There was the media, reporting live with the backdrop of Dirksen Federal. The same place I had been a week prior delivering the letter of all letters with my Lady client. I heard the word bribe again. I saw a snap shot of his family walking into the court building. I turned around and moved my weak son over. “Mommy needs the bucket” I told him. I began to vomit. I was not sick. I was shattered.
So, perhaps this is why nothing has changed.