John Fritchey thinks the white girls from Zeta Tau Alpha rocked the hall at the Sprite step off contest. He doesn’t understand why on Casimir Pulaski Day in Chicago (the first Monday of every March) we close the courts, the schools, the libraries and city hall, but let Goldman Sachs keep collecting money from the parking meters. His musical tastes run to Cake and Public Enemy. And just because Tigger is a big animal doesn’t mean he doesn’t want as much kindness as Roo.
I know all this because I am one of Fritchey’s Facebook friends. Two, three, sometimes five times a day –– “I’m afraid to admit I don’t spend more than two hours away from my laptop or iPhone” – Fritchey posts up his latest thoughts for all to see. And it doesn’t matter whether he is sitting on the floor of the state legislature, where he is assistant majority leader, or on his way to a candidate forum in his quest to join the Cook County board, or on vacation in Cabo San Lucas.
If John Fritchey moves, you can read about it on the Internet. And this is an interesting position for a 46-year-old man to put himself into: especially if you consider he is a 7-term state representative from the north side of Chicago; the chairman of the Illinois House Judiciary Committee; the likely successor to Forrest Claypool as a voice of reform on the county board; both a product of the old Democratic machine in Chicago and, by his own admission, its greatest critic; and a man who really, really, really would like some day to be mayor of Chicago.
Like Being John Malkovich
“My Facebook page is like a political version of Being John Malkovich,” he jokes. “This is who I am, and part of who I am is a guy who loves music, and part of who I am is a passionate state legislator, and part of who I am is a father. You are going to get my irreverent sense of humor. You are going to get my diatribes. You are going to get posts that reflect I am having a day and posts that reflect I’m having a good day. I do not want to check who I am at the door simply because I’m in public service,” he adds.
Fritchey has 2,700 Facebook friends and another 700 followers on Twitter. On any given day, his page percolates with lively interactions with his fans. (Example: “What is your take on the budget, John?” Fritchey: “We’re screwed.”) Fritchey knows it is not the typical political page. Many of his colleagues look at him like he has a screw loose, but Fritchey says he had one of those “safe” political pages–when he was running in the special election to succeed Rahm Emanuel in Congress–and it almost drove him crazy. Too many politicians use Facebook to post up press releases or have their staff write it “and then it sounds like you are tweeting sound bites.”
“The worst situation is having staff write it as if they were the elected officials,” he says. “I think that’s disingenuous. If you’re going to do it, do it yourself. Let people see who you are. I’ve kind of taken a What-You-See-Is-What-You-Get position . . . and I think people appreciate that window into me as a person.”
Always An Outsider
That person was born on March 2, 1964 on an air force base in Bossier City, Louisiana. His father, an airplane mechanic, met his mother when he was stationed in Morocco but they were divorced before he turned two. Instead of going home, she decided to give her boy all the benefits of American citizenship. She took him north to his father’s boyhood home in Olney, Illinois, then on to Chicago where she worked as a waitress, bank teller and office manager. She got remarried to Sidney Swibel, brother of Chicago Housing Authority chairman Charles Swibel and, from his home in Marina City, Fritchey attended Chicago Latin School.
Even in high school, Fritchey was attracted to computers, crude as they were. He recalls learning to program in BASIC with punch cards. He did well in school. He went on to attend the University of Michigan and Northwestern Law School on scholarship. But his Moroccan ancestry and humble roots made him feel out of place in a school that catered to some of Chicago’s wealthiest families. “I always felt like an outside. I always felt like I had something to prove,” he said.
Fritchey spent two years as an assistant in the Illinois Attorney General’s office before starting his own private practice. In 1992, he married Karen Banks, daughter of the recently deceased Sam Banks, a zoning attorney whose brother Ald. Bill Banks of the 36th ward, not only chairs the city council zoning committee but ran what was for many years the most powerful Democratic ward organization in the city. Three years later, the state representative from Chicago’s northside, Rod Blagojevich, decided to run for Congress. Fritchey looked at the ward map, saw his house was a couple hundred feet inside the border and announced his candidacy.
The Son-in-Law Swap
Fritchey’s first election is sometimes referred to as “the son-in-law swap.” In exchange for the Banks family backing Blagojevich in the 36th ward, Ald. Dick Mell, who was Blagojevich’s father-in-law, threw the weight of his own 33rd ward Democratic committee behind Fritchey. Mell has continued to be a strong Fritchey supporter through the years while Fritchey’s relations with his wife’s side of the family have become tangled, and occasionally frosty. “I have undying respect for my wife’s family, but I haven’t spoken to Bill Banks in months. We are very different politically.”
When he first went to Springfield in 1997, Fritchey was 31 years old, the third youngest member of the General Assembly. “I got sworn in on a Wednesday and expected to change the world by Friday,” he jokes. A self-described bull in a china shop, he quickly staked out ethics reform as an area where he thought he could make a difference. He pushed passage of an Inspector Solicitation Conduct Act prohibiting state employees from shaking down businesses they regulate (the underpinnings of the case against former Gov. George Ryan). He was the chief sponsor of the Pay to Play bill, co-sponsor with then state Sen. Barack Obama of the 2003 ethics reform bill, and rose to become chairman of the house Judiciary Committee.
He was one of the first legislators to have an email address (email@example.com), the first to blog, and the only one I know who has Tweet Deck on his laptop so he can simultaneously monitor his Facebook page, his emails, his tweets and other tweets that mention him. It’s nerdy, but it’s also good politics. Over the years, he has built up a list of 15,000 email addresses. He can target mailings–“to women in the 32nd ward who have contacted me on an environmental issue, for instance”–without sending out a barrage of spam to people who could care less, or post up an idea for legislation on Facebook and get instant feedback. “I don’t understand why every elected official doesn’t seize on this. It costs me next to nothing, and if you are willing to invest the time, it is the most efficient way of reaching people imaginable.”
“I love being a legislator,” he says. “I still get the same sense of awe walking into the Capitol today as I did the first day I got there. But I think I matured a ton. A lot of the things I fought for nobody else was willing to take on when I got there. Now everybody wants to do ethics and reform because they are in vogue.”
Frustrations in Springfield
Fritchey’s ardor for Springfield began to wane about the same time Obama took the presidency. He had risen to be assistant majority leader to Rep. Michael Madigan. But as everyone in Springfield knows, Madigan calls all the shots. Under the Blagojevich regime, legislative had also turned into a long slog to nowhere. When he was first elected, legislators met in Springfield 50 or 60 days a year and spent the rest of the time in their district. Today, they will spend 150 to 200 days.
“I like working hard, but I don’t like working hard and having nothing to show for it,” he says. “It’s hard to climb out of the dysfunction embodied in Springfield. The partisanship, the vitriol, the ramifications of a $13 billion budget deficit. These are all frustrating things.”
Obama’s election opened a door for Fritchey to get out; and he took it, with disastrous results. When Emanuel resigned to become Obama’s chief of staff, Fritchey was one of 12 Democrats who ran in a special election to succeed him. The race lasted only seven weeks. In the coldest days of January and February, fewer than 15 percent of the Democrats turned out and County Board Commissioner Mike Quigley won with 11,553 votes. Fritchey raised and spent more money on the race, but finished a disappointing second, his support siphoned off by other candidates, including some backed by his wife’s uncle.
“It will never sit right with me how I was treated in the media,” he says. “You had Pat O’Connor, the mayor’s floor leader, in a race that obviously he couldn’t win but I somehow got spun as the machine guy.”
Fritchey says Banks’ 36th ward organization was of no use to him––“They all laid down on me”––and Mayor Daley, irked that Fritchey went back on his earlier support for the privatization of Midway Airport, stayed out of the race. Had he won, Fritchey believes he would have been considered a viable candidate to succeed Daley. But the media never gave his record its due, he says. “I spent 13 years working for reform in Springfield, and all the media could focus on was my wife’s family.”
New Horizons – The County Board?
Last February, Fritchey won the Democratic primary for a northside seat on the county board and is an odds on favorite to win in November. At the press conference announcing his candidacy, he was flanked by Forrest Claypool, the long time reformer who is giving up the post, and Mike Quigley, the man who beat Fritchey in the Congressional race.
The county board is hardly the place a politician goes to make a name for himself. Cook County is the second largest in the country. Under the best of circumstances, it is a bureaucratic nightmare. Although the county board has jurisdiction over the sheriff’s office and state’s attorney, county courts, county jail, county hospital, and numerous social service offices, the first two are run by politicians elected in their own right and the others are their own special kind of hell––where almost all the clients are poor.
After years of patronage hiring under board Presidents John and Todd Stroger, the management systems are outdated, property taxes are stretched thin and the highest sales tax in the nation has voters outraged. Righting the ship in Cook County is like raising the Titanic.
“When Mike Quigley first talked to me about this, I said ‘you’ve got to be kidding.’ I’d rather eat glass than go to the county board.” Then Fritchey compared it to the life he could look forward to in Springfield. And he found a silver lining.
The primary victory of Fritchey, and Jesus “Chuy” Garcia, and especially Toni Preckwinkle as county board president, means there is now a critical mass for major changes in how the county board conducts business.
“The biggest legacy that Claypool and Quigley left was focusing public attention on all the problems,” Fritchey says. Now that both of them have moved on, “there is a void for a vocal reform leader.”
In Springfield, Fritchey was a policy wonk. On the county board, he welcomes the opportunity to try his hand at improving the administration of government services.
“I want to go where the need is. I want to go where the fights are,” he says. “I can be a bigger fish in a smaller pond. And I think there are battles to be won there so this is a way to reinvigorate myself on a new battlefield.”
And if you want a ringside seat, you might want to sign onto Fritchey’s Facebook page for a blow-by-blow account.