Lagniappes. Best campaign moments.
Not so much about the Bicentennial as it is about life on the Illinois campaign trail…MY life. Six essays from the heart. Lagniappes, tasty little freebies served piping hot from me to you.
Campaign junkies' lives and memories are a blur. I was asked what my favorite campaign moment was. Too many to choose from, many already forgotten. I tried to narrow it down to six to share (before I lose my marbles):
- Percy, Pop & the Polara (1966)
- Harold Comes to the Heartland (1983)
- Quinn Nominated State Treasurer: A War Room Tick-Tock (1990)
- Mary K. O’Brien Flips the House (1996)
- Chasin’ the Trane with Carol (1998)
- The Day I Organized a Presser for Barack…and Nobody Came (2000)
1. Percy, Pop & the Polara (1966)
I once spent a day tooling around in a '64 Dodge Polara with U.S. Senator Chuck Percy.
It was 1966, I was a teenaged political junkie. My dad and Percy were campaigning together. Percy - fresh off an unsuccessful gubernatorial bid - was running hard for U.S. Senate. My dad - Claude, Jr. - was running hard for State Rep. My grandfather - Claude, Sr. - was a veteran Illinois legislator who had lost his seat in the infamous at-large "bed-sheet ballot", and was itchin' for a fight.
Pop and Dad were both "newspaperman", free-market, free-speech guys and proud moderate Republicans; an alliance with Percy was natural. Pop arranged to drive Percy, my dad (and little Claudie) around northeast DuPage to several campaign meet-and-greets, a rally and two fundraisers.
We piled into our shiny black '64 Dodge Polara, an 8-cylinder tribute to - and reflection of - the Space Race (with "jet pod" taillights). Percy sat in the front passenger seat, while Dad drove the rocket-car. In the back-seat, Pop - a semipro linebacker turned publisher turned pol - talked non-stop as Mom and I sat in awe. In those care-free seatbelt-less days, Percy twisted around to listen to Pop. The beautifully-tan Percy chuckled, nodded, and, when he could get a word in, included Mom and me in the conversation.
So smooth, I remember, so eloquent. As Percy met folks outside the National Tea, even a 13-year old could recognize a gifted pol. During his speech at an Addison GOP rally, he noted the presence of "3 Claude Walkers" in the hall and lauded me on my leading of the Pledge of Allegiance. Back at our small ranch house for a reception, Percy wowed our Bensenville neighbors, met privately in our laundry room with Congressman John Erlenborn, and gave my sister Lisa - an aspiring journalist - her first interview.
We piled back into the jet-pod Polara and soared to the River Forest Country Club for a gala dinner, where Percy gave a stemwinder. It was my first campaign fundraising dinner...I still have the program book stashed in the basement.
While the Walkers were suburban GOP, Mom's side of the family was working-class Chicago Democrat. Liberal-minded Uncle Rick wouldn't jump on Percy's bandwagon because Percy was making age an issue against revered incumbent Sen. Paul Douglas. That didn't matter to Pop and Dad, who campaigned hard for Percy. Dad lost his State Rep race (to Pate Philip, who went on to be Illinois Senate President), but Percy beat Douglas and served three terms in the U.S. Senate, including a stint as Foreign Relations Committee Chair.
Later, as a field organizer for the '84 Paul Simon campaign against Percy, I was quick to rebuff fellow Simonites who would use age as an issue. I always thought back to that day on the campaign trail with Percy and Pop.
Long after my dad and grandfather were gone, every time someone got into the jet-pod Polara, Mom would note that Senator Percy sat right there.
2. Harold Comes to the Heartland (1983)
Many exuberant, poignant, meaningful memories of Harold Washington. When he was state senator, I had a chance to work with him on a DC voting rights bill. As a sponsor, he was well-read, passionate, adroit. The bill died; Harold was optimistic. Harold's '77 mayoral was an insurgency without too many insurgents. I rang doorbells for him in the Near Northwest Side, but Keane's and Rosty's machines were invincible. Despite a strong showing in a few African-American wards, Harold was swamped, finishing a distant third. Yet he was optimistic.
But 1983 was a crusade, a damn firestorm. As a "Honky for Harold", I'd wear the famous "blue sunrise" Harold Washington button on the L, drawing grins and sneers. That button was an expression of faith in a vision of open, multicultural government. That button was also an admission that his wit and twinkling eyes had put a spell on us.
My favorite moment of the watershed '83 primary was on a frigid Rogers Park night in the final days of the campaign, when polls had him in third place. The Heartland Café was jam-packed for a Washington Get-Out-The-Vote rally organized by the 49th Ward progressive cadre, and Heartland proprietors Katy Hogan and Michael James. Music blasting, beer flowing, windows fogged-up, the El careening by overhead. People spilling out onto the brick alley.
Electricity in the air as Harold's caravan pulls up in snow flurries. I spot my old pal "Sly" Evans hopping out with Harold; he's part of the growing entourage. Harold enters the Heartland and is promptly engulfed in Rogers Park love. It's a multi-generational, multi-ethnic mob scene; all you can see through the hugs is his grin. The crowd is yelling "Harold! Harold!" He wades in, finally making it to the makeshift stage. So, the plan is for Harold to be introduced by Tobey Prinz, a beloved Rogers Park organizer, activist and rabble-rouser. (The sculpture at Pratt Beach is today named for Tobey. See Gallery #27: Peoples' Republic of Rogers Park.)
Chants of "Harold!" are deafening. A beaming, perspiring Harold climbs up next to tiny, white-haired Tobey. They both try in vain to quiet the shrieking crowd. Everybody's dripping. Tobey grabs the mike. "Ladies and gentlemen!" she yells over the din. "I give you...the next...President of the United States...Harold Washington!"
The place erupts, goes nuts. The whooping crowd presses forward. Grown men weep. The full-throated "Harold! Harold!" inspires foot-stomping. As the feedback screeches from the amps, we all nearly float. The Heartland starts shaking. Suddenly, the air duct hanging from the tin ceiling comes apart and dust starts blowing throughout the Heartland, a people's confetti drop. Harold's bent over in laughter. Hundreds of people have tears, sweat, dust and GOTV zeal in their eyes. A joyous frenzy. One of the best campaign moments ever.
Other lasting memories: the Election Night Victory parties, the Inaugurals, the wake. Seeing my wife speak at Harold's unforgettable Memorial at the UIC Pavilion. I smile every time I think of him saying stuff like, "You want Harold? Well, you sure got me now!" Or "If you go to Zimbabwe and say you're from Chicago, they're gonna ask you, 'Howww's Harold?'"
One of a kind. And for me, that ecstatic night when Harold came to the Heartland will always stir memories of his grin and message.
3. Quinn Nominated State Treasurer: My War Room Tick-Tock (1990)
Grass-roots, bare-bones, improvisational. Those early Pat Quinn campaigns were scruffy no-frills affairs. 1990 State Treasurer was my favorite.
The Party slated Ottawa’s State Rep. Peg Breslin (with whom this author had a sweet moment in the rain years later). Odd alliances formed. Breslin had Madigan and Daley the Younger in her camp; Quinn had the quiet backing of Burke, Banks, Kelly, Lip the Elder. Top African-American pols were split (i.e. Danny Davis for Quinn, Gene Sawyer for Breslin). Polls put Breslin ahead Downstate. But Quinn had been tramping around there for years, pushing causes and candidates. He had networks of activists from Cutback Amendment, CUB & Con-Con petition drives. Breslin was outspending him 3-1 as E-Day neared.
March 20, 1990. Primary Election Night. War Rooms in those days had no easy way to get totals. Patchwork: the wires (in those days UPI, AP, City News, Medill), helpful Ward guys & County Chairs, volunteers, various Boards of Elections, TV. I kept a log (my “War Room Tick-Tock”):
8:32 pm - 1st precinct reported (our pal Mary Ann in Franklin County…Breslin won 86-83). One down, 11,882 precincts to go.
8:50 pm - Blue Frog Victory Bash is rockin’. Lots of media: Mike Flannery, Sylvia Perez, Dan Shomon, Jay Levine, the Trib’s Frank Burgos (who I learn was a Clemente HS classmate of an old girlfriend), AP, Celeste (Garrett?) from Sun-Times, Carol D from WGN-TV, City News…
9:20 pm - AP starts calling races: Edgar, Netsch, Orr, Phelan…
9:45 pm - Jay Levine does live remote from Blue Frog. 13% in statewide, Breslin 59%. Oof. Kick in the gut.
10:15 pm - A 14th Ward precinct comes in: Quinn 160-21. Heh. Gut feels better.
10:45 pm - All statewides decided except us. PQ joins supporters at the Frog (“Go home…too close to call”), then does media interviews.
11:15 pm - Someone identifying herself a “Little Bird” calls our War Room to say Quinn’s lead is 11,000. Never learned Little Bird's identity, but it's the first 5-figure lead of the night.
11:25 pm - Tom Ciecelski calls from LaSalle County Courthouse, near tears. I assure him: No sweat, Tommy, you’re in Breslin’s home turf, belly-of-the-beast.
11:40 pm - I hear from Bruce Dold at Trib. He says 51% is in; Quinn’s up 17K (biggest lead so far).
12:25 a.m. - Mike Boland reports from the Quads: Quinn just took the lead there; only a few precincts out.
1:15 a.m. - Monica at WLS-TV: Breslin has won Suburban Cook by 2K and the Collars by a thou. Quinn’s winning Chicago; Downstate is too-close-to-call. Our best picture yet of what’s what.
1:20 a.m. - Mary Gorski calls from Champaign. All precincts in: Breslin by 600. We hear from other volunteers posted around the State. Slammed in Sangamon, losing McLean by 300, won Madison…
2:20 a.m. - AP says Quinn’s up by 1.3% with 200 precincts out.
2:50 a.m. - UPI’s Greg Tejada calls. Says Quinn is maintaining 1.3% lead; 150 precincts to go. Do we know where they are? (Hey man, I’ll show you mine if you show me yours…)
3:10 a.m. - Our GOTV Gurus (Mike Griffin, Pete D’Alessandro) fire-up the Number-Crunching Machine. We THINK we know where those last precincts are.
3:40 a.m. - PQ & Brain Trust review our Gurus’ analysis: Breslin needs 56% in about 130 precincts scattered around the State. No way. Game over?
4:15 a.m. - AP: too-close-to-call. The Candidate decides to call a 9:30 a.m. press conference (win-or-lose) in the Blue Frog lobby. We start drafting an advisory.
4:30 a.m. - The Candidate drives home to change clothes. The HQ survivors - Andrea Raila & Veronica Siegle - are calling news assignment desks, D’Alessandro’s furiously trying to get more results, and I’m thinking I’ve never penned a release (2 of them, actually, “win“ and “lose”) while so hungry & stinky.
4:45 a.m. – Phone rings in our tiny HQ. It’s Sen. Paul Simon! The Board of Elections is declaring Quinn the winner - the words I’d spent the past year waiting to hear - so Congratulations, Pat! I tell him the Candidate just left but I’ll relay the message. Sen. Simon thoughtfully says to say hello to my mom (though he means my grandmother). I thank him.
4:50 a.m. - Gubernatorial nominee Neil Hartigan on Line 2, exuberantly asking for his “wonderful ticket-mate”. Phones are ringing: pols, reporters, well-wishers.
In those wacky cellphone-free days, we can’t reach the Winner. We call his home answering machine to deliver the news, though I assume he already heard on his car radio.
Quinn won that Primary by 51.1% (19,000 votes, less than 2 votes per precinct). He’d go on to beat GOP nominee Greg Baise (who outspent Quinn 4-1). The turning point may have been a proposed gas tax. Quinn hopped in Vaught’s pick-up truck for 20 press conferences in 3 days (mostly at gas stations) which sparked a prairie fire. The “Great Gas Tax Tour of 1990”. His face was everywhere Downstate; he trounced Baise by nearly 400,000 votes.
Other memorable moments on the Quinn Trail for me - the George Ryan bodyguard skit (’94 State Fair) & Axelrod’s TV ads; painting Quinn’s “3-Point Tax Plan” on his garage door (’96); filing his 2010 gubernatorial petitions; Squeezy the Pension Python in 2013 - but that 4:45 a.m. call from Paul Simon was among my most satisfying (and coolest) campaign moments.
4. Mary K. O’Brien Flips the House (1996)
Mary Kay O’Brien was a Coal City attorney with a big network of family & friends. She built a coalition of women, farmers, trade unions…and Sen. Jerome Joyce. The Candidate was a champ at ringing doorbells: tireless, policy-savvy, engaging. She faced an incumbent whose views on women were from the ‘70s…the 1870s!
This author was hired as her first (but not last) campaign staffer. New terrain for me: the District was Grundy and LaSalle Counties, with chunks in Will, Kendall & Kankakee. Plus it was personal. My maternal ancestors landed in Ottawa in 1888, establishing “Orsinger Bakery” & “Orsinger Ice Cream”. (I spotted an “Orsinger Bread” ghost sign in downtown LaSalle!)
First few days, I crashed in the home of the Candidate & her husband. (Trust me, kids: it doesn’t work.) Then I lived in a motel by the I-80 truck-stop/porn shop, splitting my time between the Coal City HQ (which was getting crowded) and Laborers’ 393 Hall in Marseilles.
While this author has done reams of oppo, only once did I physically “spy” (by accident). I strolled into the opponent’s HQ in a Morris strip mall, seeking his bio. Concerned voter, ya’know. Grandma at front desk says sure sweetie, and please join us in the back for coffee, rolls & envelope-stuffing. Why thanky ma’am, don’t mind if I do. Chalk-boards, maps, those red thermometer posters on the walls. “Precincts Walked”. “Steve’s Schedule”. “Phonebank Calls”. Heh. Lesson for you youngsters.
The O’Brien campaign quietly moved to Top Tier as E-Day approached. House Dem staffers were yanked from lower Tier campaigns around the State and dispatched to Coal City (for which I felt some remorse). Checks were pouring in; I recall going to a tiny radio station to buy every available minute.
So, those Illinois House Dems know how to target like this boy’s never seen. Sweet 50+1 Plan synched with frequent polling, message, field, radio. State-of-the-art GOTV. On E-Day, we know where we stand and turn out the O’Brien vote efficiently.
E-Night. I’m posted in the LaSalle County Courthouse basement, a dim crowded room where the precinct tally is occurring. I’ve got a pocketful of quarters to call Pitch back at O’Brien HQ. After a few hours, Coal City HQ tells me all the other House races around the State are done and the Speakership may come down to us. All precincts are in for our race except 3 LaSalle precincts: one we projected for us, one for the opponent and one which could go either way.
An Elections official prints out a long paper strip of precinct results and tapes it to the wall. I nonchalantly saunter over to see if it’s the Swing Precinct. Yes! I scan down, check the State Rep race. It’s Mary Kay! I realize I’m the only person to know the House has probably just flipped back from Speaker Daniels to Speaker Madigan. Even the reporters & Republicans in that basement don’t know. I fish out quarters for the phone booth (Google it) to call Pitch in Coal City, then my guy in Springfield.
Mary K. O’Brien went on to a solid career in the House, then as judge. For me, that instant in the LaSalle County Courthouse, grinning like a maniac over a splendid secret, that kind of moment is why campaign junkies do it.
5. Chasin’ the Trane with Carol (1998)
Carol Moseley Braun’s re-election campaign was a wild ride for the Senator, staff and supporters. The South Loop HQ was Crazytown, but a singular experience.
This author had always been a Moseley Braun fan, dating to when she was in the House and I lobbied her on Common Cause & CUB bills. In 1991, she & I discussed my joining her ’92 Senate run; I could see her path over “Al the Pal” Dixon, but chose the steady State paycheck. When she reached out to me for her 1998 General campaign, I leapt at the chance. Added bonus: Mike Kreloff!
First day on the job, Kreloff waves me into his office at the buzzing Campaign HQ. Staff are huddled around a tiny TV. Some breaking news? Yeah, Kerry Wood’s about to notch his 20th K! Cool. (I also found fellow Jeopardy-junkies who’d convene a few minutes each day for Final Jeopardy.)
This Candidate could truly light up a room. Her entourage in the sweaty 1998 Pride Parade was the most energized and insane ever (complete with confetti gun). And while she was an experienced county and statewide official, she was also impressive as a retail pol: good listener, warmly empathetic, killer smile.
Did I mention it was Crazytown? Creamer’s Campaign School dropped 20 out-of-state students into the HQ, and these kids were hungry: hungry for change, hungry for action, hungry for pizza.
Soon, folks parachuted in by DNC, DSCC, EMILY’s List, Equality, NWPC. “FOCs” (Friends of Carol). Senate staff from DC, Chicago & Springfield. IHDM Coordinated Campaign. Rented strangers. "Street heat" hustlers wanting “walkin’ around money”. Podesta, Jimmy Smits, Heather Booth. A FLOTUS Rally, a Leon Finney Rally. Scuffles. A drink thrown in the face in the E-Night War Room. Every day was different, but they were all nuts.
During that first month, the Candidate & I were in meetings together, but hadn’t yet enjoyed a good one-on-one. So she scheduled me to drive her from St. Louis back to Springfield. We’d done a Fairview Heights women's rally, East St. Louis church rally, Collinsville labor rally, chili fundraiser somewhere, media interviews and a big-ticket fundraiser in St. Louis.
When the St. Louis event ended, the other staff piled in the van (joking about the chili fundraiser) and drove north. The Candidate got in my car and, in a monsoon, we headed to Springfield. Crossing the Mississippi, I said Miles Davis was from around here. The Candidate said she was into jazz and mentioned Coltrane. I happened to have a Trane CD in the player and fired it up.
For the next 100 miles, zooming up I-55 in the fog, we discussed music and life more than the Field Plan (our ostensible agenda). We never did discuss the Field Plan, but I’ll always fondly recall that night when Sen. Moseley Braun and I were Chasin’ the Trane in the rain.
6. The Day I Organized a Presser with Barack…and Nobody Came (2000)
Conservative Cong. Phil Crane - he ran to the RIGHT of Reagan in the ‘80 GOP Primary - represented the old 8th CD (NW Suburbs) for years, until losing to Melissa Bean. The prior cycle, he faced Lance Pressl. Lance devoured policy & budgets for breakfast, could speak astutely on a range of issues and actually did his own candidate questionnaires! Edit Boards loved him!
This author was hired to do field & media for Pressl’s General election. We had controversial radio spots and clever mail, but couldn’t get on TV (free or paid). Lance was competing with other Dem candidates for air-time & $$$, and struggled to crack D-Trip’s Top Tier. We wrestled internally with how to address the incumbent's alcoholism (we never did). To break out of the pack, we decided to do one big Downtown presser a week before the General, on Halloween Eve.
We had a pumpkin “jigsaw puzzle” over a blow-up of the square-jawed Crane’s face, and various luminaries would “unmask” Crane for his extremism on guns, choice, vets, environment, etc. Two luminaries were former Sen. Dawn Clark Netsch and a young Barack Obama, then in his 2nd term in the State Senate.
Turns out every candidate for every conceivable office is holding a Monday-morning Loop presser. There are even multiple pressers scheduled at the same hotel! We run down the hall to lure a reporter to our little soiree. Edgy! Halloween-themed! Dawn! A guy named Barack!
Nope. No press. For our small audience, we went through the motions of “unmasking” Crane, with Obama gamely revealing Crane’s extremism on McCain-Feingold. Afterwards, I chatted with Barack, and thought Man, this guy's got it. We spoke again the night he won the U.S. Senate Dem Primary (another tiny crowd). He inspired a character in my 2001 novel “Currents of Power”, and he, Michelle & I sat together at Amy Martin’s wedding.
A big career regret? Not following my gut and signing up with him early on. But one of my most memorable campaign days was when I organized a pumpkin presser with Barack and nobody came.