Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Updates from the Geoghegan for Congress Campaign

I wanted to write more updates as the campaign progressed but I was busy on the campaign, and since the campaign I have been busy working on a couple of different projects. This is a general overview of my perspective on a very unusual race. All views contained are mine alone, and do not represent any official views of anyone from the Geoghegan campaign.


I met Rahm Emmanuel once. It was early in 2003, I was a freshman at DePaul University and eager to get involved in progressive politics. I had taken part in a few anti-war protests, and was asked to represent students at a constituent meeting between Lincoln Park Neighbors for Peace and the newly elected representative of the 5th Congressional district of Illinois, Rahm Emmanuel. The previous congressman, Rod Blagovejich had voted to authorize the Bush administration to invade Iraq and we wanted to meet with the new congressman to push him in a more dovish position. I knew little about Rahm except that he was involved with the Clinton administration.

Our group of 15 or so peace activists met with Rahm, and told him about our objections to the war. I talked about the need to develop green energy so we wouldn't need oil and thus could avert the war. When Rahm talked, he kept dancing around the morality of the war, instead he made excuses for why his predecessor voted in favor of the war (to send the issue to the UN where they could pressure Saddam Hussein to disarm) and criticizing the unilateral approach to the war, discussing how it was alienating America's European allies. He did not seem willing to do much to prevent the pre-emptive invasion that came soon after our meeting. As we left, I shook Rahm's hand, noticing the missing ring finger, and handed him a button I had that said, “Support the Troops, Bring Them Home Now.” I asked him to wear it some place public, as far as I know he never has.

In the years since that meeting, we would find out much more about Emmanuel's stand on issues of war and peace. He was one of the most right-wing hawks in the Democratic party, actively leading and rounding up votes to continue funding the war. He would get involved in Democratic party primaries, supporting hawkish, pro-free trade candidates against grassroots, better established candidates. His office became a target of anti-war protesters on many occasions.

Which is why many people, myself included, were disappointed when in November 2008, President-elect Obama promoted Emmanuel to be White House Chief of Staff.

However this created an opportunity to replace Emmanuel in the special election that would take place for Rahm's House seat with a progressive voice to fight for working people and peace.

The 5th district has a long history of being represented by the right wing of the liberal party. The first representative for the district was Stephen Douglas, essentially a pro-slavery Republican. More recently the district was represented by Dan Rostenkowski, a machine Democrat who would be convicted of corruption charges. Rostenkowski was so bad that a Republican replaced him, serving for a single term. The district was represented by the now infamously corrupt Rod Blagojevich and the hawkish Rahm Emmanuel.

In December of 2008, I stopped in my local library and bought some used books for a dollar each. One was Nietzsche's Beyond Good and Evil. Like Dostovesky, I don't agree with much of Nietzsche's philosophy, but I do enjoy his dark and bleak writing style. The other book was “Which Side Are You On? Standing Up for Labor When Labor is on it's Back,” by Tom Geoghegan. I had never heard of Geoghegan, but the book certainly looked interesting to me.

I breezed through Which Side Are You On? quickly, while I have barely started Beyond Good and Evil. I enjoyed Geoghegan's dark self-deprecating humor, and his devotion to helping working people, no matter the odds. Originally from Ohio, Geoghegan is a Harvard educated lawyer who became a labor lawyer, representing unions and working people against greedy corporations. He worked for the Mineworkers in their Washington DC office, before moving to Chicago to fight alongside a grassroots faction of the steelworkers union. He partnered with Leon Despres, the famous progressive Chicago Alderman who was often the sole left-wing dissident on the city council to oppose the first Mayor Daley. Geoghegan had fought against corruption in the Teamsters and was someone I was surprised I had never heard of before.

I googled his name, and found David Sirota's article praising Geoghegan's idea on amending the civil rights code to protect union activists. I also found rumors that Geoghegan was pondering a run for Congress in the special election for Rahm Emmanuel's seat.

The next day I traveled downtown to Geoghegan's office, took the elevator up to his office and rang the bell at the receptionists desk in the lobby. An office assistant came out and asked if he could help me. I ask him if Tom was in, showed him my copy of Tom's book and said that I wanted an autograph.

Tom came around the corner and signed my book, with the comment, “Stay on the Left Side.” I had planned on asking him about his plans for Congress, but before I could ask him about it, he asked me to collect signatures to get his name on the ballot. I told him of course I would.

For two weeks in January, in often sub-zero weather, I collected signatures on street corners and in front of el stations. I met a lot of interesting people doing it. I would often use a short quick line to catch peoples attention, “Sign to get an anti-war democrat on the ballot.” “Support a pro-gay-marriage democrat, please sign.”

Most people would just walk past you. I found that 15-20 signatures an hour was about average. What frustrated me that most was the people who you could tell from the way they dressed, that they considered themselves pretty liberal. They had their iPod, black frame glasses, Obama button on a laptop purse, and maybe a streak or two of died hair. Yet they would ignore you, look straight ahead and walk past you as if you were a homeless person asking for change. I know this isn't very polite, but I would try to guilt them as they ignored me. I would give my pitch to sign, and if they kept walking I would sometimes add, “well maybe you want your friends to lose their legs in Iraq,” or “Maybe you are rich and don't have to worry about collecting social security one day.”

Some of my friends admitted to me that when they ignore strangers on the street. I told them that how else are we supposed to create community if we don't talk to strangers. I mean I was spending 8, sometimes more hours a day in sub-zero weather, and these people wanted to pretend they care about these issues? I could get pretty angry at people who acted that way. If you care about the issues, you will do what it takes to make a difference, and I'm not that sympathetic to people who complain about the roadblocks in their way. Yes there are plenty, so are you going to use that as an excuse to taking action, or are you going to overcome them?

I would occasionally get a right-wing nut. One Republican told me that Iraq would make a great place to vacation. Another told me that more people die in car accidents every year than die in the Iraq war. I replied that people should ride bikes. I even had some ultra-leftists criticize me. One of my queer friends told me they wouldn't sign the petition because they were against the gay marriage as they saw it as assimilating into the state. I spoke with many people who were hesitant because they didn't know the candidate well enough. I would tell them that this was not an endorsement, that they could vote for whoever they wanted when the actual election happened.

What made collecting signatures worth while though was the support I did get. People would buy me coffee and food. I had several great conversations with people who were excited just to meet someone who was fighting for progressive change.

We collected a total of three thousand signatures, we needed about one thousand for ballot access. I was twenty signatures away from having collected the most signatures. After we secured Tom's place on the ballot, we began to move into the field office on West Irving Park rd. It was pretty hectic, trying to get the internet running, calling volunteers to come to the open house, and even renting a u-haul to move a couch into the office.

One of the sad things about the new office was the previous tenants. They were a husband and wife couple who had run a small real estate office for several years before the economy took a nose dive. I couldn't help but feel bad for them. They stopped by twice, and they were excited to see someone in the space, and they agreed with what the campaign stood for, but they would seem a little lost. Like they didn't know what to do now. I couldn't help but feel bad for them. They were the epitome of why we were working for this campaign.

We were able to get everything up and running and were soon using our database of registered voters to create call lists and walk lists. We had volunteers coming in everyday to help out, and those of us who were paid staff would hand them a list of voters to call and a phone script to use. On weekends and days where the weather was nicer, (as in the temperature was in the 20's) we would have walk lists for volunteers to canvass neighborhoods. We had literature printed on glossy paper.

I feel like our volunteers were among the most dedicated of the campaigns in the special election. These were movement people. We had grandmothers who “went clean for Gene” in '68 and we had punk rock Obama organizers. We had union organizers who came in on their day off, even though their union endorsed another candidate, and we had retired lawyers. We had mothers that would bring their toddlers into the office to watch while they called voters. One of our volunteers told me that he had health insurance today thanks to Tom Geoghegan. This volunteer worked at an airline that fired him and a few hundred other employees, telling them that their health care cost so much that the company couldn't afford to keep them. Geoghegan was able to find out that this was illegal, companies aren't allowed to fire people because of the cost of their health care. Geoghegan took the company to court and won, securing jobs for all of the fired workers.

To illustrate how dedicated our volunteers were, I find this story revealing. My roommate's union endorsed another candidate because as a state Rep, this other candidate had sponsored a bill that helped them. So my roommate went with his union to volunteer for this other candidate one Saturday. The candidate gave an expletive laced speech to rally the group to canvass for him, and they were given walk lists and sent out to knock on doors. My roommate figured that he would be out for most of the day knocking on doors. After a half-hour of knocking on doors, he finished the walk-list that he had and went back to the campaign office to grab some more walk-lists. When he got there, he was told that he was done for the day. He asked if they had more walk lists, and the office staff was like “no, your done!”

At the Geoghegan office, we kept our volunteers on the phone, or in the street as long and as often as we could. We had one volunteer, a young computer programmer who used linux on his laptop, who came in every night after work for a month to make phone calls and help with data entry. We didn't have the number of endorsements or volunteers that other campaigns had, so we needed to motivate our volunteers every time they came in, and keep them fired up and willing to come back as soon as they could.

Tom Geoghegan is a super nice guy. He was a bit on the awkward and nerdy side, and a devout Catholic. Tom was easily the most progressive candidate in this race. He was a real policy wonk, in a system which values smooth talkers over good ideas. Tom was an idealist in a system that views a political campaign as a capital start up venture to begin a career/business in politics. Tom would have brought his legal expertise to Congress to focus on the important issues.

Our campaign focused on the stuff Tom had been working on for decades. Our campaign was the first in the race to stand in favor of universal, single payer health care, and we would offer an argument about how it would help the economy by easing the burden of health care off of employers and allow the government to subsidize employees health. Tom Geoghegan was also one of the few Democrats you will hear say that he was not just in favor of 'saving' social security, but actually wanted to increase social security benefits, and turn it into a genuine state guaranteed pension. Geoghegan also opposed the bank bailout from the left. In his view we should be providing relief for working people, instead of wall street executives. Geoghegan wanted to strengthen anti-ursury laws. Geoghegan would talk about ways to take over the current banks, and force them to lend on the people's terms, or how to create new better banks that would represent the interest of working people.

Geoghegan was an early opponent of war in Iraq, and was skeptical of plans to expand the war in Afghanistan. While his position on Palestine was not as left as mine is, he was still the best candidate in this race on the issue. In an early candidate forum, every single other candidate stood in favor of increasing military aid to Israel, Geoghegan was the only one who was skeptical about how much more military aid Israel needed. Geoghegan was also very strongly in favor of gun control, as he had fought lawsuits against gun manufacturers.

The campaign strategy was pretty straightforward. We were going to contact the people who were reliable Democratic voters and who Geoghegan's message of economic security should have resonated with. This meant calling regular Democratic primary voters who were about 50 years old and older in the Western, more blue collar, part of the district. One of the interesting parts of the campaign was that we became so popular with bloggers. There were candidates like John Fritchey who ran his own blog, yet Tom, who is a little more old school with his technology usage, became really popular among progressive bloggers. I feel it is because bloggers follow the issues real closely, and are generally speaking, more progressive and more knowledgeable about the intricacies of policy issues than an average voter. However, bloggers can help create a buzz around a candidate, can help fund raise, but few of the bloggers who wrote about Tom lived in the district.

We had some positive media coverage early in the campaign. Thomas Frank wrote an article in the Wall Street Journal which praised Geoghegan, calling him an unrepentant New Dealer. The Nation magazine endorsed Tom, as he had written articles for them. We also secured the endorsements of several progressive groups including the Greater Chicago Caucus, Progressive Democrats of America, and Teamsters Local 743 (a reform led local). Tom support for Universal Single Payer Health Care secured the endorsements of the California Nurses Association and Dr. Quentin Young. The GCC was later able to have immigrant rights activist Jorge Mujica endorse Geoghegan. Geoghegan was endorsed by the Students for a New American Politics Political Action Committee, who paid for several interns and one staffer to work on our campaign. I helped coordinate the interns every day.

There were several candidate forums throughout the campaign. The first was at DePaul. The forum was just for the democratic contenders. In such a heavily Democratic district as the 5th, it was highly unlikely that any other party would win the election. Many of the later forums would become bogged down with all 20-some candidates from the three parties (Democrat, Green, Republican), giving few of them any time to deliver a serious response.

The forums were an opportunity to gauge the different candidates.

Fritchey came off as a tough talking politician. John Fritchey had a reputation as someone who fought against Governor Blagojevich, and was seen by many as a progressive reformer. However in the course of the election, many began to perceive him as more of a machine candidate. Many unions backed him, and in Springfield he sponsored a bill against puppy mills, but he also sponsored a bill requiring a moment of silence at the beginning of school, a step away from school prayer. Fritchey almost secured the nomination of the Democratic party committeemen, but Alderman O'Connor, Daley's right hand man, skimmed enough votes from him that the party was not able to meet the required votes for a candidate and was unable to endorse a candidate. This threw the election into an open race, and a dozen different candidates ran in the Democratic primary.

Sara Feigenholtz had a lot of money, but had no energy at the forums. I found her strategy to be condescending as well. It boiled down to 'I'm a woman, women will vote for me.' SEIU was the only union to endorse her.

Paul Brayar, as far as I could tell, had no positions on the issues except to bash the other candidates. Victor Forys though, I kind of liked. He was a Polish doctor, who focused his strategy on winning over Polish voters in the Western end of the district. Chicago has the second largest population of Polish people in the world, after Warsaw, and Forys thought that in a race split so many different ways he would be able to carry the district.

Charlie Whelan was arguably the most conservative of the candidates. A University of Chicago economist, Whelan opposed the Employee Free Choice Act. Whelan lived close to DePaul's campus, where I received my BA. If Whelan was elected, I was planning on organizing rallies outside his home to pressure him into supporting EFCA. Several articles on the race would group Tom Geoghegan and Charlie Whelan together as policy wonks. This made little sense to many of us on the campaign, as the two were very different policy wise.

Jan Donnateli was an Air Force veteran and union member who became involved in politics with the Obama campaign for president. Many progressives were excited by her, but I was disappointed by her performances at the forums, where she would speak out against the fight for universal single payer health care.

I was skeptical of Mike Quigley's reformer status. Quigley had cut his teeth in politics by working for Bernard Hansen, one of the Chicago alderman who was allies with “fast” Eddie Vrdolyak, the leader of the white machine opposition to Chicago's first Black Mayor, Harold Washington. While in the county board, Quigley did promote several progressive causes, environmental issues, gay rights, and public transit. However, Quigley was better known as the opposition to Todd Stoger on the Cook County Board. What did this opposition take the form of? Opposing tax hikes.

While I feel there is much to be critical of Todd Stroger in the County Board, I feel that many voters in the 5th district liked Quigley for essentially Republican reasons. Stroger is a powerful Black politician who has been labeled by his critics as a 'tax and spend liberal.' Many of Strogers toughest critics on the county board are quite conservative. Tony Peraica is an out and out Republican, and Forest Claypool is not only the former chief of staff for Mayor Daley but is also a fan of free market fundamentalist Ayn Rand. Many point to perceived patronage with Stroger, considering his dad was the former Cook County Board president and the circumstances that Todd Stroger was appointed were suspicious. I would like it if many of Stroger's critics were critical of another son of a powerful Chicago politician.

With the Geoghegan campaign, we would often run into voters who would ask Tom about the county board. Tom had filed several suits against Todd Stroger, including one to open more voting places along the lakefront, where Stroger opponent Claypool was strong.

We would plan events for Tom Geoghegan to attend in order to reach out and meet voters. We would have coffees at supporters homes, bring him to fundraisers held by veterans groups, attend neighborhood groups meetings, and union meetings.

At the Geoghegan field office we would often discuss President Obama, and the need to support him, yet push him further to the Left. We would often tell the story of how when FDR was elected, he met with a group of progressives who told him about all the things they wanted him to do. He nodded his head and told them, “I agree with you, now go out there and make me do it.” We would often compare ourselves to the radical republicans of Lincoln's time, who would push for abolition of slavery and civil rights laws during reconstruction.

I felt that our mailers were the best of the different campaigns. One of them was split down the middle and showed a fat cat CEO in his suit on one side, and an older couple looking at their bills around the dinner table on the other side. In big bold letters the mailer asked, “Which Side Are You On?” Another showed a nurse and stated, “We Value Hard Work.” Compared to the Stroger bashing and mudslinging at candidates of most other mail literature, ours seemed more like a culture jam than junk mail. Fritchey had a mailer which showed him putting mustard on his hot dog, to prove how honest he was, to admit to eating a hot dog in a non-Chicago style. Fiegenholtz's literature talked about her immigrant mother. O'Connor's mailer showed him shaking hands with a Republican Presiden.

In our phone calls to voters, we spoke with many undecided voters. There were so many candidates, and so little time to get to know them all, that many voters waited until the last week to decided who they supported. We would sometimes call supporters of other candidates. Usually they were polite and said they liked Tom but would be supporting another candidate. The exception was O'Connor supporters. They were the rudest people we would speak with. I realize that in an election with so many candidates, voters were getting lots of phone calls, but O'Connor supporters would shout at me on the phone that since they went to high school with O'Connor and knew his family they were voting for him. Well, I could tell you some stories about people I went to high school with, and why I wouldn't vote for them.

One of the things that was difficult for me to get used to was playing the chess game of politics. There were groups that endorsed us, such as the taxi union, that had disagreements within their ranks. I was often told about the different reasons why different unions didn't endorse Geoghegan, arguably the most pro-union candidate in the race. It was also difficult in the sense that non-profit groups couldn't endorse candidates, and each non-profit group had it's own policy on how far of a distance they kept from the election. Some would invite candidates to speak at their meetings, while others would tell us that candidates could not step foot on their property.

Then there was the drama between our campaign and Democracy for America. The political action group was founded by Howard Dean after he lost his bid for President. It was intended to be a type group that would mobilize grassroots support for progressive candidates. They have a democratic structure so that local groups can vote to decide which candidates they will endorse. In our race, the north side Chicago group voted and while Tom Geoghegan had more votes than his nearest competitor, Quigley, he did not have the required number for an endorsement. DFA decided to open the endorsement up to a nationwide online vote. Geoghegan won the endorsement. This was exciting news and we expected support from the group. Howard Dean's brother, Jim Dean, led DFA and flew to Chicago and met with Tom. I remember sitting in the field office as they met, and as Dean left he waved at the staff, thanked us for our work contacting voters commenting, “that's what most of this business is.” I thought it was odd that he called it a business. As though I were working on the campaign to get a promotion instead of fighting for a cause greater than myself.

There were rumors that Jim Dean had met with North Side DFA members who were backing Quigley and Dean told them that he considered Geoghegan a spoiler to Quigley. However, according to Charles Chamberlain, the national political director of DFA, this was simply not true. DFA raised a significant amount of money for Geoghegan. I think this rumor highlights some of the confusion and misinformation in the election.

One of the funnier moments for me in the campaign was when the former representative of the district, Rostenkowski, was quoted in the news saying that he felt that the loss of the machine in supporting candidates was a negative thing since the machine protected candidates from the voters, that a large part of the job of being a representative was fighting your own constituents. Democracy indeed.

On election day the office was packed. We had volunteers wall to wall all day, making phone calls, poll watching, and knocking on doors. The results were ultimately disappointing to us. Quigley won with 26% of the vote, while Geoghegan received 6%.

I think the results illuminated how wrong many predictions on the race were. Many predicted that since Feigenholtz had the most money she would carry the day. At the Geoghegan office, we knew that in such a bizarre race, with so many candidates, such little time, expected low voter turn out, and with different candidates splitting the votes of different constituencies in so many different ways, making a prediction was a total crapshoot. It was interesting to see Forys do better than many predicted, but that was because English speaking analysts were not reading all the Polish language media that Forys focused on.

How did Tom view the campaign loss? At an election night party he explained that he saw the campaign as a step in the right direction. He viewed it as the first post-financial meltdown campaign and felt that he raised several important progressive issues such as health care, social security, and interest rate caps.

I'm mixed about the success of the campaign. While 6% in six weeks isn't bad, we should have done much better. I am often asked 'what went wrong?' In a sense it's a bizarre question. The campaign's defeat seems like a car crash. I was driving along and then I woke up and my car was totaled. I feel like we had great ideas that were not executed in time. We started off with an appeal towards liberal intellectuals and bloggers, and I feel like we didn't do enough to build on that appeal. We attempted to reach out to voters who are usually a base for the Chicago Democratic party machine. Those voters didn't know who Tom was. If we had more time and more staff we could have executed the strategy, but special elections like this one favor established candidates. Politicians who are already elected have a shorter start up time to get a campaign rolling. They already have their political organization. We had to create or organization from the ground up in six weeks, while many of these other candidates had years of building their organizations, before they were even elected.

I was disappointed with the results of the general election. It was obvious that whoever the Democratic nominee was going to win the general election. What was disappointing was how well the Republican candidate, Rosa Pulido did. Pulido is a Latina and a member of the Illinois chapter of the Minutemen, a racist anti-immigrant group. The Green Party candidate, Matt Reichel, had good anti-war positions, but was young and lacked experience. Nonetheless, it was disappointing that he was unable to get more votes than Pulido in such a liberal district.

I do want to comment on a blog post by Thomas Bowen, Quigley's campaign manager. He wrote his blog after the primary election but before the general election. Bowen speculates why Quigley won while Geoghegan lost. He critiques the Geoghegan campaign, saying that Geoghegan did not build up a strong coalition of progressive groups, and that Quigley had spent years building a progressive coalition.

On one hand, we have to ask why would Bowen write this article when he did? To alienate the left of the party? He had already won the primary, and was on his way to an easy victory in the general, wouldn't Bowen want to heal the party after a divisive primary election?

Then we have to look at the source of the article. Before he was Quigley's campaign manager, Bowen managed Bill Fosters 2008 campaign in the 14th Illinois Congressional District. Foster is a millionaire thanks to a lighting company he founded, and was able to outspend a true progressive in John Laesch to win the Democratic primary. Laesch was a grassroots candidate, a veteran and a carpenter who won 40% of the vote in his 2006 race for congress against Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert. Foster spent over 2 million dollars of his own money to defeat Laesch in the primary, by only 400 votes.

If this is Bowen's idea of “building coalitions, surpassing countless hurdles, and finding a way to win” then I wonder what that says about how progressive Bowen and Quigley are. I wonder what this says about Bowen's ability to forge a winning campaign when he is only able to win by 400 votes after spending two million dollars?

Some of my friends from the Geoghegan campaign have been quite critical of the piece, and upset at Bowen for his criticism of the Geoghegan campaign. I am willing to be optimistic about Bowen though. Maybe he really has turned a corner since the Foster campaign. Maybe he is more interested in grassroots campaigning and progressive coalition building than we thought. Perhaps we can count on Bowen's support in a primary challenge to corporate democrat, and free trade supporter Illinois Congress-woman Melissa Bean? Maybe a true Democrat can count on Bowen's support against Republican opportunist and Employee Free Choice opponent Arlen Specter?

Some have wondered what the Geoghegan campaign should do after the election. Jesse Greenberg pointed out that the Geoghegan campaign hasn't turned into a post-election progressive hub. Tom has his law practice, where he can work on labor and public interest issues, but what about continuing the campaign into forming a political action committee that would support progressive candidates? What about forming a non-profit that would organize the community around progressive issues?

David Sirota has suggested that supporting longshot left-wing campaigns such as Geoghegan's are worth it because they lay the stage for future leftist victories. While I agree, I'm not sure what specific ways the people who worked on the Geoghegan campaign will do that. What I am certain of is that we will continue to fight the good fight for progressive change.

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