Before the candidate steps to the microphone, some in the audience get up from their folding chairs and leave the stuffy church basement on Chicago’s far South Side. On this mid-September evening, about 150 voters have listened to politicians for more than an hour, without relief of air conditioning. As Alderman Robert Shaw (9th) launches into a long-winded introduction, the candidate sits quietly on the stage, hands folded, a slight smile beneath his white moustache.
He resembles Kris Kringle in a business suit–”a white-haired, twinkly-eyed, red-cheeked guy whose glad-to-meet-ya voice hardly sounds like a politician’s. He mentions a recent newspaper headline that brands him the underdog in the governor’s race. The African American voters gathered at the Greater New Mt. Eagle Baptist Church, 12301 S. Michigan Ave., probably wonder what they have in common with this white man from southern Illinois.
Without warning, his voice rises to a near-scream. His face reddens. His eyes grow steely. When he pauses, the only sound in the room comes from the whir of the basement’s jumbo fans. Glenn Poshard has got this crowd.
“My dad had one arm,” he shouts. “My mom and dad, all they had was a plot of red clay and a WPA job. My mother cleaned floors in a nursing home while my dad built roads in southern Illinois.
“Do you think they didn’t face an uphill battle? Look at any of the Democrats on the ticket–”who didn’t face an uphill battle? If we run away just because the other guy’s got all the money and a patronage army, then we’ll never get over the top of that hill.”
The crowd bursts into applause. Precinct captains pledge their support. On this evening, in front of this African American audience, U.S. Rep. Glenn Poshard (D-Marion) would be elected governor.
Given Illinois’ demographics, a Democratic run for the state’s highest office almost always begins in second place. But Poshard faces one of the toughest races in recent history, particularly when it comes to gaining what should come naturally: the support of Chicago’s overwhelmingly Democratic black voters.
Some of the city’s most prominent black leaders have declined to endorse him, and others have publicly backed his opponent, Republican Secretary of State George Ryan. Many vow support for the Democratic ticket but openly criticize Poshard for what they call his conservative views on gun control and other issues.
Still others call it a matter of clout, favoring what they view as Ryan’s bipartisan political connections over Poshard’s promises. U.S. Rep. Jesse L. Jackson Jr. (D-Chicago), who represents the far South Side and south suburbs, makes no endorsement but praises Ryan’s support for building a third airport in Peotone, near the southern edge of Jackson’s district. Poshard has pledged to study the issue, and says he’ll make a decision once he’s in office.
The Democrat is not the focus of this fall’s campaign in Chicago’s black wards. Precinct captains have shifted their attention to other races, namely the tough re-election battles facing two of their own: U.S. Sen. Carol Moseley-Braun and John H. Stroger Jr., president of the Cook County Board of Commissioners.
Historically, a white Democrat would benefit from a strong black turnout for African American candidates, but not anymore. In 1997, a Republican-dominated General Assembly banned straight-ticket punches, in which voters could select a party’s entire slate of candidates by punching just one number on the ballot. The Democrats used the system to perfection in 1996, and Democratic Cook County Clerk David Orr has appealed the case to the Illinois Supreme Court.
Democratic voters in the city’s minority wards consistently used the punches more often than in white wards, an analysis by The Chicago Reporter shows. They accounted for as many as 64 percent of the ballots cast in minority wards in recent statewide elections, compared with a maximum of 34 percent in white wards.
Poshard’s backers say he’s far from doomed and promise to chip away at Ryan’s inroads into the black community. In a close race, the 558,189 registered voters in the city’s black wards could make the difference, said Don Rose, an independent political consultant who has worked for Democrats and Republicans.
The fight for those voters already has turned ugly, with both sides invoking the late Mayor Harold Washington’s name to charge the other with racism.
“My instinct is that Glenn will do well in the black community,” said former U.S. Sen. Paul Simon, the longtime Illinois Democrat who is now director of the Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale. “But the difference between doing well and doing reasonably well can be the difference between winning and losing.”
If African Americans support Poshard, few in the city’s black neighborhoods have backed it up with cash.
For the most part, Poshard has made good on campaign promises not to accept money from corporations or political action committees, and to stick to a self-imposed limit of $4,000 on individual contributions.
But for the first half of this year, his efforts to raise small contributions from the city’s black and Latino areas fell short, a Reporter analysis of Poshard’s campaign finance reports shows. Poshard reaped nearly $493,000 in contributions from Chicago between Jan. 1 and June 30, but just $21,578–”4.4 percent–”came from ZIP codes where at least 70 percent of the residents are black, according to the 1990 census. One percent came from ZIP codes where at least 60 percent of the residents are Latino, and 76.5 percent came from at least 70 percent white ZIP codes.
Poshard raised another $155,000 from ZIP codes for which racial statistics are not available. His next campaign report, which will cover donations received between July 1 and Oct. 4, is due Oct. 19.
Black real estate developer Elzie Higginbottom’s East Lake Management and Development Corp. gave two donations–”one for $7,500 and the other for $5,000–”to the Ryan campaign. On June 25, John H. Johnson, founder of the Johnson Publishing Co., gave Ryan $1,000.
Anwa Rodgers, the 68-year-old manager for East Lake’s senior buildings, said she thinks Ryan is better on issues such as health care and assisted living. Black voters, she said, “are educated to the point now where we are not looking at the party, we are looking at the person.”
Ryan, in fact, did slightly better than Poshard in the city’s black ZIP codes, where he raised $56,300–”5.8 percent–”of his nearly $1 million in contributions from Chicago neighborhoods, according to the Reporter’s analysis of campaign finance data obtained from Ryan’s campaign and supplied by the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform, an advocacy group. Ryan also raised $95,665–”9.9 percent–”from Latino ZIP codes, and about 60 percent from white ZIP codes. An additional $185,600 came from ZIP codes for which racial information is not available.
The Republican has won endorsements from several south suburban mayors, including those in predominantly black municipalities such as Harvey and Dixmoor. He also has the backing of some prominent black ministers, including the late Mayor Washington’s pastor, the Rev. B. Herbert Martin Sr., pastor of Progressive Community Center, the People’s Church at 56 E. 48th St. in the Grand Boulevard neighborhood on the South Side.
Martin predicted Ryan will win more of the city’s black vote than any Republican gubernatorial candidate ever, largely because of a lack of Democratic Party support for Poshard.
But former Illinois Attorney General Roland W. Burris, who swept the black wards in a strong gubernatorial primary bid, has made appearances and recorded radio commercials on Poshard’s behalf. On one Sunday morning in September, U.S. Rep. Danny K. Davis, a West Side Democrat and former mayoral contender, accompanied Poshard to seven West Side churches.
Alderman William M. Beavers (7th), chairman of Poshard’s Chicago campaign, said all of the city’s 19 black aldermen support the downstate Democrat. Three of them, along with a handful of black legislators, judges and other candidates, joined Poshard on stage at a Sept. 14 Democratic rally at Pilgrim Baptist Church, 3301 S. Indiana Ave., in the South Side’s Bronzeville community.
“Now, when [former Gov.] Jim Thompson or Jim Edgar or George Ryan go to a minority church, they put it on the wire, they call the TV stations and they go show up at a church,” said Joe Novak, Poshard’s campaign director. “This is a man who’s quietly out there working his head off. He’s been all over this community.”
But some of the endorsements sound halfhearted. “I simply endorsed him because he won the nomination, the Democratic nomination,” says West Side Alderman Sam Burrell (29th). “That’s just the extent of it. I’m not enthusiastic about Poshard.”
Some black voters agree. Antawn Tigue, a 30-year-old letter carrier who lives in the city’s South Side Auburn Gresham neighborhood, said he considers Poshard “the lesser of two evils.”
Other high-profile leaders have declined to back Poshard so far–”most notably U.S. Rep. Jackson; his father, the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson Sr.; and U.S. Rep. Bobby L. Rush, a South Side Democrat and oft-mentioned mayoral candidate.
“He has not officially come out in support of him,” said Rush’s congressional press secretary, Robyn Wheeler. “As far as I know, he has not come out in any kind of capacity.”
Throughout the year, 27th Ward precinct captain Tony Anderson says he knocks on the doors and answers the phone calls of the nearly 400 people–”most of them poor–”in the 46th Precinct in West Humboldt Park on the near Northwest Side.
Alderman Walter Burnett Jr. (27th) called Anderson one of his most effective campaign workers, and said the organization will push Poshard this fall, along with the rest of the Democratic ticket.
But when pressed, Anderson acknowledged that his emotions don’t gel with some of Poshard’s positions. He points to Poshard’s 1995 congressional vote to repeal a ban on some assault weapons, a ban he had voted to support in 1994.
“I had a 12-year-old nephew that was shot right outside of a bar on his way to school, so I have personal issues,” Anderson said. “Even though I represent this organization, I’m a Christian, and I try to instill within myself and my families Christian values. It’s difficult for me to sell you somebody that I’m not sold on.”
Alice Tregay, voter registration coordinator for Rainbow/PUSH Coalition and a longtime precinct organizer, said Poshard is the only Democrat on the ticket she “has a problem with,” citing his conservative record on abortion and guns. But she insists her view is her own, not that of PUSH, and it won’t seep into the organization’s effort to register 10,000 voters this fall.
Poshard said he regrets the assault weapons vote, and points to a June Chicago Tribune analysis that paints Ryan’s record on guns as nearly identical to his own.
But Poshard’s team acknowledged voters are getting much of their information from the roughly $2.5 million Ryan’s campaign said he has spent on television ads, many of which portray Poshard as a de facto mouthpiece for the gun lobby. Ryan also highlights the endorsement he received from gun-control advocate James Brady, the name behind the bill that requires a five-day waiting period on the purchase of handguns. Poshard voted against the measure, believing it imposed an unconstitutional mandate, said spokesman Dave Stricklin. But the Democrat supports extending the bill when it expires, Stricklin said.
Though they have begun a sweep of the airwaves with their own ads, Poshard’s backers expect to spend about $5 million overall, while Ryan campaign spokesman John Torre estimated the Republican will spend between $10 million and $12 million. Poshard’s new commercials tout his background as an educator, promote his plans to lower taxes and attack Ryan for charges his office is “selling” licenses to unqualified truckers.
While insisting they won’t play the “race card,” Poshard’s supporters also hope to light a fire under black voters by hammering away at Ryan’s support for Republican Bernard F. Epton, whose controversial “Before It’s Too Late” slogan took aim at Washington in the 1983 mayoral race.
Torre confirms Ryan supported Epton, but charges that Poshard, while serving in the Illinois Senate, voted to block Washington’s initiatives. He notes that Poshard’s campaign director, Novak, worked for former 10th Ward Alderman Edward R. Vrdolyak, Washington’s chief City Council nemesis who later ran against him in 1987. Novak earned his reputation as a political dirty trickster while serving as a Vrdolyak adviser from 1983 to 1988.
“It doesn’t faze me at all,” Alderman Burrell said of Novak’s role in the Poshard campaign. “If Novak don’t get him in trouble, maybe he’ll do all right.”
In August, Ryan hired black Democrat Edward J. Hamb as his campaign’s director of African American affairs. Hamb was Washington’s special assistant from 1983 to 1987, and Chicago district director for U.S. Rep. Jackson from 1995 until this year.
Political analyst Rose doubts the Washington card will play well now that the wounds of the 1983 campaign have faded.
“You’re looking at two candidates, who, from some distance, had not been friendly to Harold Washington,” he said. “Can you hang a racist label on either one of them? It’s a stretch.”
Some black leaders put more stock in which candidate has more political clout. Richard Barnett, who said he has spent 27 years managing campaigns and 44 years working precincts for independent politicians, said Poshard would likely let white Democrats, such as Illinois House Speaker Michael J. Madigan (D-Chicago), guide him if elected. Madigan’s campaign fund has provided Poshard with nearly $57,000 in cash and in-kind contributions, Poshard’s campaign finance filings show.
Barnett hopes black voters will cross party lines to support Ryan and former Chicago Police Supt. LeRoy Martin, the black Republican candidate for Cook County sheriff.
“I don’t see where Poshard owes the black community anything,” Barnett said. “I think George Ryan would give the black community a fairer shake in the state legislature than Mike Madigan.”
The younger Jackson argues that the economic fate of his district–”which includes parts or all of 10 Chicago wards–”rests almost exclusively on the proposed third airport at Peotone. He notes that Ryan has vowed to start the process to build the airport.
A search for Poshard’s name on Jackson’s campaign Web site turned up 15 newspaper articles, speeches or press releases, most knocking the candidate for his stands on the airport and other issues. The site offers only praise for the Republican.
As they register voters throughout the district, Jackson’s supporters say they will spread that message.
“The goal is pretty much just to inform people why they’re voting instead of making it in the abstract,” said David E. Miller, a south suburban Dolton dentist who is coordinating Jackson’s registration drive. “We’re saying your economic interest affects who you vote for.”
Poshard’s black supporters hope voters will be swayed by other factors. Their stump speeches emphasize how hard they’ve worked to ensure that Edgar keeps his promises–”such as maintaining minority set-asides for state contracts. And when the General Assembly redraws the state’s congressional and legislative districts after the 2000 census, the governor could veto a map if it doesn’t reflect the political power of blacks and Latinos.
But at times that message falls flat and supporting Poshard sounds more like an afterthought. At the Greater New Mt. Eagle Baptist Church, for example, Poshard’s name appeared on just two of the many campaign signs ringing the podium, below Moseley-Braun’s.
“If you have a Democratic governor, whether you believe in that person or not, your black caucus will be stronger. We will have more power,” state Sen. Rickey R. Hendon, a West Side Democrat, exhorted at another rally. “Now, some of you may not believe in Glenn Poshard, but you tell me you believe in me. Well, give me more power. Elect this man governor.”
That may not be enough for some voters, who say they can’t support someone they don’t know. Though he is finishing his fifth term in the U.S. House of Representatives, Poshard has significantly less name recognition than Ryan, whose name appears on driver’s licenses and seemingly omnipresent organ donor ads.
Lu Palmer, longtime chairman of the Black Independent Political Organization, said it bothers him that so many black voters have wedded themselves to the Democratic Party. Palmer endorsed Edgar in both of his gubernatorial runs. During Edgar’s tenure, the organization’s spin-off agency, United Services of Chicago, received two state contracts to help former public assistance recipients find jobs.
Palmer said Poshard seems an illogical choice for black voters. “We don’t know anything about him,” he said. “He’s like a big zero.”
As Nov. 3 approaches, Poshard’s backers agree that registration and turnout are the crucial issues in the city’s black wards, particularly if some voters defect to the GOP.
City votes typically make up about 20 percent of votes statewide in the governor’s race, and black votes have been decisive. In 1990, votes from black wards accounted for three of every 10 ballots cast in Chicago, according to a Reporter analysis of records from the Chicago Board of Election Commissioners. Edgar’s 20 percent showing in the black community that year helped him defeat former state Attorney General Neil Hartigan.
If recent trends are any guide, Poshard’s numbers are not encouraging. In the four gubernatorial and mayoral elections since 1990, between 30 percent and 40 percent of registered black voters cast ballots, according to the Metro Chicago Political Atlas ’97-’98, published by The Institute for Public Affairs at the University of Illinois at Springfield. In those same races, turnout in predominantly white wards has hovered between 55 percent and 62 percent.
Despite efforts by board of elections officials to purge ineligible voters from the rolls, African American registration rates remain “literally unbelievable,” according to the Atlas. In a 1995 investigation, “Voter Registration: Too Good to Be True,” the Reporter found that even some black candidates discounted the totals.
Alderman Burnett hopes that the tough re-election bids facing Moseley-Braun and Stroger will motivate black voters. But even he conceded the end of straight-party punches could endanger the Democratic ticket. As many as 64 percent of black voters cast ballots solely for Democratic candidates in the 1992, 1994 and 1996 general elections, compared with a maximum of 36 percent of voters citywide, the Reporter’s analysis shows.
Beavers has begun warning voters they can expect lines “as long as they were in South Africa” because of the elimination of Punch 10, since voters will have to punch for each individual candidate. To help them, Beavers said, precinct workers will pass out extra palm cards in front of polling places.
While some call his campaign a lost cause, Poshard said he is no stranger to seemingly insurmountable odds. His working-class, labor-oriented roots make him the best choice for black voters, he said.
“You know, if there’s anybody that can understand and have experienced the needs and the problems of the African American and Hispanic community, it’s me,” he told the Reporter. “It’s what I’ve represented and fought for my whole life. And the people who know me, who have served with me, understand that, and that’s why they support me.”
From the looks of it, Louella Jackson, 67, a retired machine operator who lives in the Roseland neighborhood on the city’s South Side, agrees. She nods and applauds during Poshard’s speech at Greater New Mt. Eagle.
But she also shows a healthy dose of skepticism. If Poshard expects to win over black voters, he’ll have to start making those promises to more people, she said.
“I don’t think most of us knew who he was until he came out here tonight,” she said. “Those that wasn’t here, they don’t know. Maybe if some of the people who was at the meeting will tell them, they will.
“He needs to keep makin’ speeches like he’s makin’.”
Heather R. Kuipers, Sofia Javed, Terris R. Tiller and Kat Zeman helped research this article.