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The Pulse

Modern-day campaign tactics put Phelan on top in Cook County


On March 20, Dick Phelan won the Democratic primary for Cook County Board president over Eugene Pincham, Ted Lechowicz and Stanley Kusper. If the victory was no surprise, the size of the eventual margin was (Phelan's 39 percent to Pincham's 33 percent).

Using election history as a guide, Eugene Pincham should have won. Failing that, he should have made the race a very close one because, historically, in a Cook County race with a black candidate and more than one white candidate, the black candidate stood an excellent chance of winning.

The last three nonpresidential year primaries in Cook County indicated that Chicago would contribute 80 percent of the vote (see table). Black voters in Chicago were expected to contribute 33 percent of the total, and many assumed, based on past city elections, that virtually all of that vote would go to the black candidate, in this case, Pincham. It was also assumed that the remaining 67 percent of the vote, which is white and Hispanic, would be divided among the three white candidates, Phelan, Kusper and Lechowicz.

Each brought something different to the electoral "table." Lechowicz had the endorsement of the Cook County Democratic party. Kusper, county clerk for 16 years, counted on his strong showing in past elections. Phelan brought money and a team of people who understood how successful campaigns are run in 1990 whether it be in Cook County or Orange County.

Cook County Democratic primaries, historic* and 1990 vote percentages, by region










Northwest side






West side black



South side black



Southwest white



County suburbs



North suburbs



West suburbs



South suburbs






*Based on last three nonpresidential year primaries, 1978, 1982, 1986.

Phelan, in order to win, had to systematically "take out" each of the other candidates and make them unacceptable to voters so that he was left standing. And he did.

Lechowicz was portrayed by Phelan as the double-dipping, tax-supporting, old-time organizational pol that he is.

Next was Kusper whose fatal flaw was forgetting that much of his vote-getting power flowed from the Democratic organization and had never been proven against any real competition. Phelan made an issue of several isolated cases in which the clerk's office had made errors. He also painted a portrait of Kusper as a modern day double-dipper with his friends and his law firm profiting handsomely from Kusper's office and his political connections. There was little Kusper could say or do. The media polls began to reflect the rapid erosion of support for Kusper, who was an initial front runner based on his name recognition.

The Democratic organization stalwarts, watching the polls, saw that their endorsed candidate, Lechowicz, was going to lose. If they stayed loyal to the organization and voted for him, they would help elect Pincham by splintering the white vote. The first, and most savvy, of the committee-men to publicly break ranks and abandon Lechowicz was Bill Lipinski of the south-west side's 23rd Ward. He endorsed Phelan. Others followed.

It turned into a two-way race, with Phelan and Pincham attacking each other. Pincham attacked Phelan for belonging to a couple of all-white and, in one case, male only, country clubs. Pincham painted Phelan as a wealthy lawyer, heading a law

40/June 1990/Illinois Issues

firm tied to government business. Phelan countered with the charge that, as a judge, Pincham was soft on criminals, especially rapists.

Pincham had to energize the black vote to win. He needed to ensure at least an average turnout of black voters, and he needed virtually unanimous support from those voters. The latter was a real concern for some influential black politicians who believed that a Pincham win would make him the black mayoral candidate to run against Rich Daley in 1991, an assignment they coveted. Other blacks questioned his credentials as a black "movement'' candidate in the tradition of Harold Washington. To win, Phelan still had to counter the drain of votes going to Kusper and Lechowicz. In effect, he had to energize the white voters. He heightened the specter of Pincham as an unacceptable candidate, hoping to draw more whites to the polls -- to vote for him. If Phelan got a greater turnout of white voters, the black turnout, as a percentage of the total, would lessen.

Phelan's strategy worked (see table). Suburban turnout made up 28 percent of the vote, almost 10 percent more than in the last three nonpresidential primaries. The turnout in Chicago's mostly black west and south sides was down. (It was down in Hispanic wards, too.) Pincham did not draw the level of support in the black community that he needed. Perhaps no black candidate could match Harold Washington's level of support, but Pincham did not approach Tim Evans' 1989 percentages in the best Washington precincts. For example, in the 1,075 precincts where Harold Washington received 95 percent or more of the vote in the 1987 primary, Evans received 94 percent in 1989 and Pincham 87 percent in 1990. The combination of low black turnout and less than total support for Pincham in the black community resulted in a significant drop in his vote from the Washington totals, a drop he was not able to make up among whites and Hispanics.

Phelan won partly because of Pincham's aloofness and partly because he transplanted modern-day campaign tactics and strategy, fueled with money, to Cook County.

Richard Day has his own survey research firm, Richard Day Research, in Evanston. John Ross is an associate in the firm.

June 1990/Illinois Issues/41

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