There’s been a lot of snickering in Washington about The Chicago Way. And not a lot of attention paid to how it played out in the Illinois special election this spring for the 5th district House seat in Congress.
The 5th is as Chicago as Chicago gets, a sprawling district on the north side that extends from Lincoln Park’s bull’s eye view of Lake Michigan to Schiller Park’s ass-eyed view of O’Hare. For the last 50 years, it has been a Democratic stronghold, home to such Hall of Fame crooks as Danny Rostenkowski and Rod Blagojevich, well-known hereabouts as a “safe seat” where the incumbent, once elected, has the seat for life.
When Rahm Emanuel gave it up to become Barack Obama’s chief of staff, the race to replace him attracted a record 12 Democrats, 6 Republican and 5 Green Party candidates in the primary. They were, for the most part, a non-descript collection of politicians, but they all shared a trait common to all Illinois politicians: they knew how to count.
In the 2008 general election – the one that drew a record 130 million voters to the polls last November – Emanuel got 170,000 votes in the 5th versus 50,000 for his Republican opponent. Running unopposed in the earlier primary, he still drew 94,000 votes.
In the wake of Obama’s game-changing victory, some idealists thought the race to replace him would be another step forward into a new kind of politics. What they forgot was that this was a special election, conducted in the two coldest months of the year, under conditions that all but guaranteed only the most hard core Democrats would turn out.
The winner, our next congressman for life, is Mike Quigley, who won the primary with 11,553 votes (and beat his Republican opponent 2-1 in the special general election with only 7,634).
Credit Where Credit is Due
It takes nothing away from Quigley’s victory to say that, as a reformer, he ran a classic Chicago-style campaign.
“Every election is different, but in all of them the key is to figure out who your voters are and how to get to them,” Quigley’s campaign manager Tom Bowen said after the dust cleared. “We knew we wouldn’t have as much money as the other candidates, but our polling told us we had a strong message, which was essentially Mike’s career, that played well with seniors and the undecideds in the northwest corner of the district. So we got to them early with direct mail, and we kept sending it.” In the end, it was somewhere around a dozen pieces.
“Mike’s career” would be his 10-year tenure on the Cook County board where he has been a constant and vocal thorn in the side of the Strogers (both father John and son Todd) and the patronage army they amassed as board presidents. His efforts have been praised often on the editorial pages of the Chicago Sun-Times and Chicago Tribune, and won him both their endorsements in the special election race.
In his campaign literature, Quigley championed the “300 stitches” he received as an amateur hockey player, proof positive he was ready for politics. But he ran more like a fullback in Woody Hayes’ three-yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust offense.
Although all three top-tier contenders came from Chicago’s liberal Lakeview neighborhood, Quigley knew that more than 60 percent of the voters lived west of Western Avenue. Strategically and surgically he worked the nursing homes, bars and community centers in the west side of the district where his polls showed the other candidates were virtually unknown.
Still it’s fair to say, even with aggressive campaigning and a crack field organization, all that campaigning would only have won him a close second – if the vaunted Democratic machine he was up against had not broken into factions like the fossilized dinosaur it has become.
The Zam Zam Banquet Hall
As is their custom, the 19 committeemen who make up the 5th District regular Democratic party met on a cold Sunday in January at the Zam Zam Banquet Hall to slate their candidate. The committee consists of powerbrokers from the eight city wards and 11 townships that make up the district, and each has a small army of precinct workers they count on to turn out the vote, even in the most inclement weather.
They sat arrayed on a two-tiered dais draped in white linen to look like a wedding cake. In each chair sat a very big ego. In one was Ald. Richard Mell (33rd ward), who in past sessions used his clout to slate his son-in-law Rod Blagojevich for the post. Next to him was state representative John Fritchey (32nd), who was proposing himself for the nomination.
A few seats down sat Ald. William Banks (36th), chairman of the city zoning committee (and Fritchey’s uncle-in-law) and Ald. Patrick Levar (45th), chairman of the city council aviation committee that runs O’Hare airport.
Also on the dais was Illinois State Senate majority leader John Cullerton (38th); Ald. Eugene Schulter (47th), a 34-year council veteran; and Patrick O’Connor (40th), who bills himself as Mayor Daley’s unofficial floor leader in the city council and was also offering his services as congressman for life.
O’Connor had been the first to declare his interest in the seat, but his claim to be Daley’s right-hand man did curiously little to gain him the mayor’s endorsement. He raised only $35,000 before the race, expecting the money to start flowing as soon as the committee made it’s pick.
Fritchey, the younger and more aggressive committeeman, was not waiting for Mayor Daley to endorse. He brought $200,000 to the table and quietly lined up the support of six of the eight Chicago aldermen who sat on the committee.
In the traditional way committeemen votes are weighted according to turnout in each ward, those six men represented 48 percent of the votes in the room (versus the 18 percent O’Connor could count on from his own vote and the committeman in the adjoining ward.)
After the first round of voting, the handwriting was on the wall. The aldermen O’Connor so effortlessly “led” in the city council had turned against him. If Fritchey had twisted one more arm among the suburban committemen––whose votes count for substantially less––the machine endorsement was his.
Instead, he mysteriously backed off. On the second ballot, his supporters joined in a resolution in favor of an open primary that passed overwhelmingly. Perhaps Fritchey hoped that by not shoving defeat in O’Connor’s face, the alderman would graciously drop out. Proud and stubborn, O’Connor not only didn’t pull out he redoubled his efforts to win.
“It was a fight for primacy among the organizational democrats,” one insider observed. “Pat wanted to establish primacy in his ward, and he did.” But it cost the party regulars the seat.
When primary day rolled around, Fritchey received 9.150 votes and O’Connor, 6,140. Their combined total would have swamped Quigley by 3,700 votes. In one brief morning, when the Democratic party machine failed to endorse, the race became a free-for-all.
A Crowded Field
There were other contenders among the 12 Democrats that would also have an impact on the race. Chief among them was State Rep. Sara Feigenholtz, who represented the Lakeview district next to Fritchey’s. In the early 90’s, Feigenholtz and Quigley were young political activists working together in the same office. Quigley, in fact, ran one of her early campaigns.
But in the 10 years Quigley served on the county board, Feigenholtz was growing presence in Springfield as an expert on health care, building her own base of political contributors––and itching to run for a higher office.
As the only woman of consequence in the race––the other was an airline pilot who won less than 800 votes––she instantly drew the attention of Emily’s List, which gave her $225,000. On her own, she would raise another $750,000 and, late in the campaign, the Service Employees Union (SEIU) would kick in another $250,000.
Her $1.2 million war chest made her the most well-heeled candidate in the race. To guide her in spending it––and put a scare in her opponents––she hired David Axelrod’s old consulting firm AKP media, which would bring to her campaign all the same sophisticated tools Axelrod used to propel Obama into the presidency.
Also of concern to Quigley was a newcomer in the race, Tom Geoghegan, a labor lawyer and nationally-recognized author of “Which Side Are You On”, who would become the darling of the blogosphere left. Equally troubling to Fritchey was yet another wild card, Polish doctor Victor Forys, whose 10,000 patients on the northwest side considered him the second coming of Casimir Pulaski.
“Am I Crazy?”
It was just after Christmas that I was drawn into the race by a phone call. The caller was Geoghegan, an old friend from college, the author of my will, and the most unlikely candidate I can imagine running for office.
“Tell me if I’m crazy, but I’m thinking of running for Congress in the 5th,” he said.
“You’re crazy,” I said. “Is this some kind of late mid-life crisis?”
Then I asked him to explain.
Geoghegan said he and a couple friends had been looking over past elections and concluded this special election would be decided by less than 60,000 Democratic voters. [The actual number was 50,000.] In a field of 12 candidates, a top tier of 3-4 candidates would emerge and, barring a Daley endorsement, someone could win with as few as 16,000 votes [Quigley won with 11,500.] With a few breaks along the way, Geoghegan thought he could be that someone.
I asked how he expected to pay for the race. He said he could raise $200,000. [In fact, he raised over $300,000.] Are you going up on TV? No, he said, too expensive. Did he have any community groups or political organizations supporting him? “I represented some nurses in a labor dispute a while ago,” he said, “and I sued Advocate Healthcare for overcharging people without health insurance.”
“So how do you plan to win?” I asked.
“That’s why I’m calling you,” he said. “What do I do next?”
“Well, the first thing you should do is go stand out on the Jefferson El platform at 6 AM and decide whether this is how you want to spend the rest of your life,” I said.
“And then what?” he asked.
“Pray. And raise more money.”
The Importance of Television
It did not take long for every candidate in the 5th district race to establish a website, a Facebook page, a YouTube account, and Twitter followers. Inevitably, what separated the first tier of candidates from the rest was their ability to air political commercials on television.
The cost of TV advertising in Chicago is ridiculously high for a congressional race, especially when you consider 90 percent of the viewers who see your commercial don’t even live in the district that is voting.
But for Sara Feigenholtz, TV advertising was a must. In a race that would last only 60 days, in weather that kept most people indoors, in a district where fewer than half the people even knew her name, it was essential.
“Fortunately, we had the advantage of money, and we decided to use it,” said John Kupper, the senior strategist at AKP who handled Feigenholtz. “Television connects with voters on a personal and emotional level. Because of her mother’s experience as a doctor, and her own work on health care, we felt she had a compelling story, and that story could be told most effectively and emotionally on television.”
AKP designed for Feigenholtz a television advertising campaign that started three weeks before the primary. They were classic AKP commercials: warm, personable little 30-second stories that showed Feigenholtz listening to and caring about people.
By Election Day, every TV viewer in Chicago would see a Feigenholtz commercial 14 times. The metric for measuring that is gross rating points. One hundred gross rating points means 100 percent of the viewing audience will see your spot at least once. Fourteen hundred points means they will see it 14 times.
It was a “buy” that no other candidate could keep pace with, although Fritchey tried. His first TV commercials started airing four days later, but they were clumsy attempts at humor: two bratty kids shouting insults at each other with Fritchey stepping in at the end to say it’s time for a change.
He would buy 800 gross rating by the campaign’s end. Quigley, with a significantly smaller budget, would buy only 400, all in the last 10 days.
“We were very strategic in our television,” Bowen said. “Our target was older voters and we could reach them on shows that were relatively inexpensive to buy. Sara’s strategy needed younger voters, so she had to buy a lot of prime time to reach them. That made TV very expensive for her campaign.”
Expensive or not, Kupper notes that Feigenholtz’s TV advertising had the secondary benefit of raising public awareness there even was a race.
Faced with the prospect of covering 12 candidates fairly, newspapers reporters––with the exception of Carol Marin, in Quigley’s corner, and Don Rose, advocating for Geoghegan –– provided only summary coverage of candidate forums. The TV news departments all but ignored the race until the very last days.
“We had models that showed the more people knew about Sara, the better she did,” Kupper said. “So our hope was to expand the electorate.” But this was an election run under the media radar.
Meanwhile, Back in Irving Park
I went down to the opening of the Geoghegan For Congress headquarters next to the Irving Park El stop on yet another sub-zero day in January. The walls were decorated with ward maps. There were Starbucks coffee boxes and donut trays, clipboards and sign-up sheets on a table––and no people.
Joe Costello, the campaign manager, nonetheless, was stoked about how good they were doing on the Internet. Rick Perlstein, author of “Nixonland”, had set Geoghegan up with a Facebook account. Already, he had 750 friends. More profitably, Perlstein also helped Geoghegan establish a page on Blue State Digital, the progressive Democrats fund-raising website and, in the first 14 days, the campaign raised $150,000.
James Fallows, an old friend from Harvard, had gone overboard endorsing him in his Atlantic blog. Thomas Frank, author of “What’s the Matter With Kansas” wrote a column praising his campaign in The Wall Street Journal. In The New Yorker, Hendrick Hertzberg, also lavished praise on Geoghegan. “Chicago’s chance to redeem itself has arrived,” he said.
The kicker, Costello said, was an endorsement just that morning from The Nation, which called him “the next Paul Wellstone.”
“That’ll do you a lot of good,” I said. “How many Nation readers live in the district?”
Eventually, about 40 supporters straggled in. Tom was his old awe-shucks self when I saw him. But when he stood up to address the troops, he became Walter Ruether incarnate.
He flailed his arms and denounced the corporate interests who canceled your pension, overcharged you on your credit cards, and scammed the system to deny you the right to organize into unions. Social security doesn’t need to be protected. It needs to be expanded.
“Real workers have real problems that need to be addressed. I know how it works because I’ve been fighting the corporate interests for 30 years. These people are my clients. Bailing out the Wall Street bankers is a slap in their face,” he said.
A few in the audience took pamphlets to hand out in their neighborhood when they got home. But it was cold. Did I mention that? Really cold. Not a good omen for a candidate with 5 percent name recognition (an unpronounceable name) and no TV advertising.
From Cold to Colder
When Gov. Blagojevich set the date for the special election on January 4, he could have allowed up to 90 days for voters to become familiar with the candidates. He chose instead the minimum 60 days. The compressed schedule worked in favor of the two best know candidates, Quigley and O’Connor.
“It’s very hard to reach the electorate, even in a regular election,” Bowen said, “so you do it with all the standard advertising techniques: repetition, familiarity, quotes from people they know and trust, and pictures of your candidate standing next to the good guys.”
One of those good guys was Quigley’s ally on the county board Forrest Claypool, who narrowly lost his own bid for the county board presidency to Todd Stroger three years ago. Claypool’s popularity in his home district was sky high and he went out of his way to make appearances, raise money and find volunteers to work the streets for Quigley.
As the campaign came down to the finish line, Quigley’s TV ads (and all his direct mail pieces) featured Claypool and the newspaper endorsements.
“The newspaper endorsements are important, especially in a primary because voters don’t have party labels to go by. Everybody is a Democrat in a Democratic primary. So a newspaper endorsement is like a third-party validation from people voters see as impartial.”
“Of course, they are not all that valuable in and of themselves,” he added. “Don’t forget. We spent money telling people we had the Tribune and Sun-Times endorsements.”
Election Day itself was anti-climatic. Not cold, exactly, but not the kind of bright, sunny day you want to start a new democracy in America. True to predictions, less than 17 percent of the voters bothered to cast a ballot.
“I used to think special elections were a good idea,” said Kupper, whose candidate suffered most from the voter apathy. “Based on the low turnout here, maybe we’d be better off with a temporary appointment who serves until the next regular election. I’m not sure 17 percent of voters is representative of the district.”
Low turnout generally favors the machine candidate. Precinct captains who work election after election in the same wards pretty well know the regular voters, and they know how to turn them out. Fritchey, however, didn’t get the benefit of having the whole machine behind him; nor does Bowen believe it would have helped him.
“In a modern campaign, the machine isn’t the monolith it used to be,” he said. “There are lots of other ways of reaching voters these days; and these machine guys don’t really go out and talk to people anymore. They just pass out the literature.”
Among the losers, the most disappointed must have been Feigenholtz, who placed third with 8,269 votes (at a cost of $148 per vote.) The most heartened was surely Dr. Forys. His ubiqitous appearances at all the Polish banquet halls on the northwest side garnered him 5,500 votes, a clear victory in the 38th ward and second place in Banks’ own 36th. The most non-plussed, of course, was Geoghegan, who finished 7th with 3,229 votes.
“I had a blast,” he told me afterwards. “I learned a lot and I worked with a lot of great people.” Would he do it again? “Maybe. But not if its going to be this damned cold.”
There are a lot of lessons to take away from this race.
The first is that money isn’t everything. Quigley spent only $565,000 on the race, less than half Feigenholtz’s budget, and well shy of second-place Fritchey. So having money is a wonderful thing in politics, but knowing how to spent it effectively is even better.
The second is know your voters. Familiarity breeds comfort, and comfort breeds trust. TV advertising and the Internet are critical tools in a campaign, but they are not a substitute for personal contact, especially in a local race.
And the last? People are quick to forget how you got into office as long as you win. Rod Blagojevich ran for governor under a blizzard of advertising that portrayed him as someone he was not. Only the history-minded remember he won because his Republican opponent Jim Ryan happened to share the same last name as his successor, the disgraced former Gov. George Ryan.
Barack Obama, likewise, is now considered a master on the campaign trail. Not many people remember he won his first race for the Illinois house by knocking the popular incumbent off the ballot and ascended to the U.S. Senate only after his more well-funded primary opponent nose-dived in a bitter divorce battle and his Republican general election opponent withdrew in a sex scandal.
In Chicago, you never know what’s going to happen in politics. All you know for sure is that you don’t need a lot of votes to win. You just need more than the other guy.