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Reynolds and Eisendrath: What chance against incumbents?

By JOHN CAMPER

Chicago Ald. Edwin Eisendrath likes to remind audiences that there was more turnover in the Supreme Soviet under Leonid Brezhnev than there has been in the U.S. Congress for the last several years. Unlike many political statements, this one has not been challenged by the press or other politicians for the simple reason that it doesn't seem the least bit surprising. In the last two elections, 98 percent of congressmen who sought reelection were returned to office. It's hard to see how the erstwhile evil empire could top that.

Yet those same voters give Congress a disapproval rating of over 50 percent in public opinion polls. Americans may hate Congress but they evidently love the guy or gal they send there. Or perhaps, as ciritics suggest. Congress has given itself so much free mailing, free publicity and free access to special-interest contributions that it's almost impossible for a challenger to knock off an incumbent. That hasn't stopped two Chicagoans from attempting the impossible in the Democratic primary, and, surprisingly, they both have a chance of winning (though I wouldn't advise betting large sums on either).

If voters in the Second Congressional District, covering parts of Chicago's south side and south suburbs, retain five-term incumbent Gus Savage this March, it will be a sign that Congress has made its members absolutely invulnerable to challenge.

If Savage were a character in a Bonfire of the Vanities-type novel set in Washington, the reviewers would call him "card-board" or "crudely drawn." He has made a political career out of blaming everything he doesn't like on white racism, a fact he freely admitted last year to Tribune columnist Mike Royko. Why did the newspapers criticize his poor attendance record? Racism. Why did the Federal Elections Commission sue him for inaccurate campaign finance reports? Racism. Why did the House Ethics Committee criticize him for making sexual advances toward a Peace Corps volunteer while on a junket? You know why.

Savage, 64, even managed to raise the subject of race while groping and fondling the 28-year-old volunteer in the back seat of a car. According to the ethics committee, he panted that it was her duty to "give everything to the movement'' or she would be a "traitor."

One reason Savage has managed to stay in office is that he's such a tempting target he usually draws several opponents. That has enabled him to win several primaries with less than a majority of the vote. Then he overwhelms Republican opponents in the heavily Democratic district. His best primary showing was in 1988 when he managed 52 percent in a four-candidate race.

But this year Savage has only one serious opponent, Mel Reynolds, an educational consultant and former Rhodes scholar who worked on the Rev. Jesse Jackson's presidential campaign. Reynolds hopes to win by attacking Savage's ineffectiveness rather than his buffoonery: Savage, for example, was asleep at the switch when Congress weakened set-aside requirements for black contractors on federal highway projects.

When I began covering the Illinois General Assembly, the insiders would point to all the earnest, intelligent young legislators from Chicago's north lakefront and remark, "They're all waiting for Sid Yates to retire so they can go after his congressional seat." That was 20 years ago when Sidney R. Yates was a mere lad of 60. Today those young men are well into middle age, and some of them have retired from politics, convinced that Yates intends to remain the congressman from the Ninth District for-

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ever. Others are still waiting, trying not to dwell on the fact that 80 is considered the prime of life in Congress.

But the 31-year-old Eisendrath, known to his detractors as "the boy alderman," refuses to play the waiting game. Three years after being elected alderman of the 43rd Ward on Chicago's near north side, he has decided to "go for it," as the district's many yuppies would say.

Yates entered Congress in 1948, 10 years before Eisendrath was born, but gave up his seat in 1962 to run a losing race for the Senate against the late Everett Dirksen. He returned to the House in 1964 but dropped back to the bottom in seniority, which explains why, despite 40 years in Congress, he has less influence than men many years his junior. Not that Yates has been ineffective. He has compiled a liberal voting record that seems to suit his district, and he is particularly strong on environmental protection and federal aid to the arts. Eisendrath attacks Yates not so much for his voting record as for being "out of touch" and part of the "permanent Congress."

Eisendrath is independently wealthy and expects to spend $500,000 on his campaign. Even if he doesn't win, and he probably won't, he should still be first in line to replace Yates if the octogenarian finally decides to retire in two years. The one obstacle, and it's a big one, is that there may not be a Ninth Congressional District in two years.

Because Illinois' population has remained relatively stagnant during the '80s, the state can expect to lose two districts to reapportionment next year. The Ninth District -a grotesque, narrow thing that runs along the lakefront from the Loop to the northern suburbs, where it turns inland all but shouts to the mapmakers, "Take me! Take me!" In other words, it will very likely be chopped up and attached to other districts regardless of the outcome of the primary.

If Yates wins, he could retire after this term and offer the district up for slaughter. If Eisendrath wins, he could find himself running against U.S. Rep. Cardiss Collins in a predominantly black district or against U.S. Rep. Dan Rostenkowski in a predominantly white ethnic district. As I said, it's tough running against an incumbent.

John Camper is a reporter for the Chicago Tribune.

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