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Farce and drama of Cook County politics



In his analysis of the I990 Illinois Republican and Democratic primary statewide results (July 1990, Illinois Issues, pages 17-21), Paul Green concluded both major parties in Illinois are in trouble. He continues that analysis here for the two parties in Cook County. Editor.

Both Democrats and Republicans must squarely face their major flaws in order to persuade their traditional supporters to rally around the party flag in November — especially in Cook County. Democratic politics in Cook County was once as simple to understand as a first grade reader; now it has become like a complex 19th century Russian novel filled with conspiracies and subplots. Cook County Republicans, on the other hand, provide some of the best material for dramatic farce second only to the Chicago Cubs' inability to win a championship. First, consider the Democrats. Their twin flaws of organization breakdown and racial division have loosened the bolts on the party's vote-producing machinery. The March 1990 primary revealed clearly the problems.

•  For major contested and publicized Cook County offices, the once near omnipotent local Democratic organization can no longer guarantee delivery of its endorsed candidates. Uncertainty surrounds voter loyalty. In fact, party leaders cannot even take for granted the all-out support of their own key vote-producers — regular Democratic party ward and township commiteemen.

•  Race is a political nuclear weapon that is possessed by both super powers —blacks and whites — within the county Democratic coalition. What's so dangerous about the race factor to Democrats is that nonplayers of any color can detonate the issue when it suits their purposes.

What's so dangerous about the race factor to Democrats is that nonplayers of any color can detonate the issue when it suits their purposes

The highly charged campaign for Cook County Board president illustrates both flaws. In March, Richard Phelan, a wealthy lawyer, who gained national recognition investigating former U.S. House Speaker Jim Wright, won a hotly contested four-way primary. Campaigning as an anti-party outsider, Phelan went after two of his opponents, state Sen. Ted Lechoicz (D-6, Chicago) and County Clerk Stan Kusper. Phelan, with no public record of his own to defend, attacked with impunity traditional party and governmental activity. Using a slick and expensive media campaign, Phelan quickly reduced his two more experienced foes to also-rans, leaving the race a two-way battle between himself and former Apellate Justice R. Eugene Pincham. The racial tension between Phelan and Pincham has been well documented, and the primary contest in its final days turned on the issue of white v. black.

What about the board presidency in the November general election? In order for Phelan to defeat his popular and experienced Republican opponent, state Sen. Aldo DeAngelis (R-40, Olympia Fields) Phelan needs the support of the hard core

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backers of his vanquished foes. It must be remembered that in the March primary, Phelan received only 33 percent of the Democratic vote cast in Chicago, a figure nearly matched by the combined Lechowicz-Kusper city totals.

Winning over diehard white Democratic party regulars, who in large part were the targets of Phelan's primary campaign, will require a good deal of personal persuasion. In short, Phelan's November problem rests with his main March campaign slogan — of being an outsider. When loyalty is no longer automatic for pol or voter alike, political party support can jump very quickly to appealing candidates in the opposite party. Either Phelan must stop any major Democratic leakage or counter it by picking up Republican votes.

In 1990 Republicans in the person of state Sen. Aldo DeAngelis have a legitimate shot in picking off the plum of county government — the county board presidency

As for Pincham and the African-American vote, Phelan is paddling in deep and turbulent water. By campaigning as the white alternative to Pincham in March, Phelan cannot dismiss the fallout by saying, "I'm sorry, I did not mean it," or try to rewrite the intenl and content of his remarks. Using racial politics in 1990 Chicago carries high risks, especially when dealing with political amateurs not used to give and take of campaigning. The formation of the Harold Washington all-black ticket as a third party for Cook County offices is potentially a threat to both county and statewide Democratic candidates.

In early August, local and state Democratic leaders were eyeing the Harold Washington Party petitions that were filed to get the slate on the November ballot. The Democrats were muttering a modified Hamlet monologue: "To challenge or not to challenge: that may be the election."

For Democrats, who need a solid black vote as part of their bedrock in both county and statewide elections in November, any vote slippage or instability could be disastrous. No matter what they do, they could lose black votes. If they challenge. they will have to spend campaign time and energy shoring up their black base of voters, which could get caught up in uncontrollable and controversial behind-the-senes political problems. It matters little whether the Harold Washington Party could be Republican-inspired or that it is made up of individuals who are attempting to ignite a single color political separatist movement, news coverage will mainly center on the attacks made by blacks against the local Democratic party.

Given the problems among Cook County Democrats, one would think the local GOP would be ready to energize itself and take advantage of the division on the other side. Not so. Like the local Democrats the Republicans also suffer from two ongoing problems that gnaw at the roots of any Cook County GOP revival — philosophical schisms and leadership isolation.

•   "Conservatives have become the blacks of the Illinois and Cook County Republican party," according to a legislative leader from Cook County. That quip describes the plight of the conservatives in the GOP. They have been taken for granted, not allowed to run for major state or county offices and have had their issues either ignored or opposed by party big shots.

•   The personality style of Illinois Republican party leadership has allowed statewide officeholders (going back to former U.S. Sen. Charles H. Percy and Illinois Atty. Gen. William J. Scott) to bypass existing local party organizations. This has been particularly true in Cook County where for political purposes many prominent GOP statewide officeholders have played ball with powerful county and city Democrats. Though old style party organization politics are in a state of disrepair and disrepute for Democrats in Cook County, the playing field is not level for the two parties: Local Republicans in Cook County have simply forgotten how to win.

Harold Washington Party in Cook County

Nominating petitions filed for the Harold Washington Party's all-black slate of candidates were challenged. The challenge to the number and validity of petition signatures was heard by the Cook County Board of Elections and remained unresolved on August 28. The possibility of legal action loomed after the ruling by the electoral board.

Charges and counter-charges abounded. The Cook County Democratic Central Committee did not file the challenge to avoid alienating blacks. Washington Party officials charged that the regular Democrats were behind the challenge anyway. And the Democrats claimed that Cook County Republicans were providing covert support to the all-black slate.

At the same time Cook County Democrats got a break when the Illinois Supreme Court threw the Tax Accountability Amendment off the ballot. Republicans had hoped that the constitutional amendment would energize suburban Cook County Republican voters.

In 1990 Republicans in the person of state Sen. Aldo DeAngelis have a legitimate shot in picking off the plum of county government — the county board presidency. They also have a chance to contest strongly other county offices as well as hold onto their one elective position — sheriff. Given their internal philosophical problems, their separation of leadershipship from local organizations and their recent history of losing, the Republicans have no easy task.

They won the 1986 race for sheriff when Jim O'Grady ran a near perfect campaign against four-term incumbent Dick Elrod. Issues broke O'Grady's way, the press was basically supportive, and campaign dollars (always a local Republican stumbling block) were plentiful. The two keys to O'Grady's victory were garnering nearly 40 percent of the Chicago vote while winning two-thirds of the suburban vote. O'Grady squeaked by Elrod with slightly more than a 33,000-vote margin.

Republicans could win again if they are able to take advantage of the opportunities presented to them by the Democrats. They could also lose again if state and legislative Republican candidates circle their political and financial wagons around themselves, and GOP Cook County officeseekers rely only on Democratic disunity to build their local campaign organization.

Paul M. Green is director of the Institute for Public Policy and Administration, Governors State University.

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