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Building The People's Machine in Chicago's 35th Ward

by Jonathan Green, Mar 18, 1998

We're pleased to post this account of last month's election day in Chicago from our lead organizer there, Jon Green. It's good to have organizers who can both doorknock AND write, and the piece gives a good sense of what building a grassroots political operation is all about.

Dan Cantor, National Organizer, Apr 16, 1998

Though the weather had been unseasonably warm all winter, Tuesday was just another miserable day in Chicago: freezing, windy and raining. A perfect day for an election -- if you happen to be a member of Chicago's infamous Regular Democratic Organization.

The machine thrives on conditions that keep voter turnout low. Because machine precinct captains know they can deliver their block of "regular" voters, a low turnout typically ensures victory. So when New Party members started setting up shop at precincts in the 35th Ward, we knew we might be in for a long day.

New Party members had already spent the last month canvassing and phonebanking voters in the 35th Ward for Willie Delgado, a New Party member running for State Representative. Willie had run in 1996 and nearly won. About a year later, incumbent Miguel Santiago was indicted on "ghost payrolling" charges. When he resigned in January, the machine ward bosses appointed his secretary, Elba Rodriguez, to replace him.

Rodriguez was a political unknown, but was clearly loyal to her patrons. In addition to support from Santiago and the deeply corrupt Democratic Organization that had put him in office, Rodriguez was also being backed by a chief nemesis of the New Party: 35th Ward Alderman Vilma Colom. A right-winger pretending to be a Democrat, Vilma has gained a reputation in the community as an arrogant, disrespectful and mean-spirited politician. Last year, she voted against our Living Wage bill -- despite initially signing onto the bill as a co-sponsor. This past winter, she even went so far as to try to force a neighborhood church to close its homeless shelter because the powerful development lobbyists wanted to gentrify the neighborhood and move the "riffraff" out.

Though widely disliked, Vilma has raised a ton of cash from business interests, so beating her on her turf wasn't going to be easy. We knew we'd have to take the majority of our eight targeted precincts in order for Willie Delgado to win.

New Party volunteers started arriving at the campaign headquarters at around 5:00 in the morning. Although the polls don't open until 6:00, we knew we had to be at the precincts by 5:30 at the latest in order to "decorate" the polls with posters and lawn signs. In the early hours, things seemed to be going smoothly. We knew we would be outnumbered by Colom's precinct workers, but we weren't completely overwhelmed.

A successful election-day operation depends on three basic tasks: Poll Watching, Passing, and Running. The Poll Watcher's job can be mundane, but it can also mean the difference between having a precinct stolen from you and winning it. The Poll Watcher sits inside the polling place to make sure the election judges are fair and to keep a tally of which voters come in to vote. Each Poll Watcher is also equipped with a list of "pluses," voters who committed to voting for us through canvassing and phonebanking. By tracking the total number of voters and the number of pluses who have voted, a Poll Watcher can get a pretty good picture of how a given precinct is looking.

More importantly, the poll watcher can also give the list of "pluses" to a Runner, who will go canvassing to the houses of the pluses who have not yet voted. The Runner will leave a reminder note on the door of the voters who aren't home yet. If the voter is home, the Runner will personally drive or escort that voter to and from the poll. When we talk about the machine's ability to "deliver" the vote, we mean it literally.

The last part of an election day operation is the component that is most often taken for granted -- the Passers. Passers stand around the polling place handing out "palm cards" with their candidate or their slate printed on it. For some reason, the machine seems to believe that the job of Passer is best suited to men in their 30s and 40s who stand over 6 feet tall and weigh over 200 pounds.

The Illinois NP has developed some different criteria for our passers: they should be sharp, articulate, and full of energy. An "aggressive" Passer will greet voters almost a block away from the polling place to thank them for voting and give them one final 30-second rap about why they should vote for our candidate. One of our passers stationed in the home precinct of Alderman Vilma Colom figured out how to push the right buttons: "The machine people would just hand voters their palm card and shout 'vote for the woman!' We'd talk to them for a minute and remind them that Vilma Colom was also a woman and we all regretted voting for her." A skilled and aggressive Passer can actually "flip" 5 or 10 voters from their side to ours -- which amounts to a 10- to 20-vote difference.

For most of the day, things were quiet. Turnout was eerily low. Most of the signs that had lined the sidewalks throughout the morning were by late afternoon soaked in puddles of slush and mud. Most of our volunteers looked equally bedraggled. Based on the mid-afternoon vote count, our "pluses" represented about 30% of the total votes cast. As far as I was concerned, that meant we were losing. Back at the headquarters, I found a few stray volunteers and set them up on phonebanking to our pluses. Then I headed out to make the rounds one last time at around 5:00.

After the polls closed at 7:00, volunteers began to reconvene at the headquarters. The mood was a mixture of jubilance and tension. The day was over, and after 13 hours outside in freezing rain enduring verbal harassment from opposition precinct workers, everyone was joyful.

By 8:00, returns from a few precincts in another part of the district were in. It was close, and way too early to call. Rafael Rodriguez and Frankie Torres were the first New Party members to return from the precincts. Rafael and Frankie had been neighbors for years. They had seen each other around at various neighborhood meetings, and had a history of doing battle with Alderman Colom over neighborhood services. This was the first time either of them had taken that activism to the next level of political organizing. Frankie was beaming. "We did it!" he said. "Two to One!" Rafael added. This was good news. Willie beat Elba Rodriguez 51 to 24. One precinct down, seven to go.

The next New Party precinct to come in was the 23rd. This one had us worried all day. Though we had canvassed the precinct aggressively for a month, our election day operation there was thin. I thought we would get creamed. Evidently, so did Vilma's precinct captain. "His chin just about hit the table when the judges announced the results," said Ned Burke (not to be confused with long-time machine Alderman Ed Burke), an experienced pollwatcher who came in from Hyde Park to help us "close" the precinct. We won by 6 votes.

The next bullet was dodged when we got the returns from the home precinct of our arch-nemesis, Alderman Vilma Colom. When we worked 6 precincts for Delgado in '96, this was the only one we lost. Our Poll Watcher called in at around 3:00, and there was definitely some cause for concern. Although overall turnout looked higher than it did elsewhere, very few of our "pluses" had come in to vote. That's when Idida Perez and Ramiro Zacarias turned things around.

Idida headed out to the nearby high school where the parents -- many of whom she knows -- were picking up their kids. She reminded them where to go to vote, and who to vote for. Ramiro, meanwhile, started driving to the homes of our "pluses" and ferrying voters to the polling place. The machine's Poll Watcher couldn't believe what he was seeing. Suddenly, there were dozens of voters showing up who had never voted in a primary election before -- and Vilma's people understood who they were turning out for.

At about 6:00, Ramiro went out to his car to go pick up another voter, only to find that his tires had been slashed. The machine had finally figured out what it would take to hold onto the precinct, but it was too late. We pulled out another victory -- one of the sweetest of the day -- this time by just 5 votes.

The 13th precinct did superbly. We won it big in '96, and did so again this time -- by about 25 votes. And then the 15th came in. Joe Iosbaker, our precinct captain there, was almost in tears. He had been working election day at this same precinct for progressive candidates for about a decade -- since Harold Washington won re-election in 1987. But in all that time, he had never seen results like this. Elba Rodriguez: 47, Willie Delgado: 92! Other precinct workers were patting Joe on the back and shaking his hand. "It was a team effort," he kept repeating, acknowledging the great work done by the 15th precinct crew of Yakira Nunez, Mary Robles, Sergio Vargas, Peter Shearn, and Stephanie Weiner, Joe's wife, who has also been working that precinct for 10 years.

Two of our remaining three precincts voted at the same polling place: Funston Elementary School. Walking inside the gym where the voting was being held was like walking into a party paid for by Vilma Colom. Willie supporters were harassed and threatened. The election judges referred to themselves openly as "Vilma's people" and allowed a variety of irregularities to occur. Earlier in the day there were reports of people walking into the polls and filling out absentee ballots -- clearly violating both the law and common sense. Even the police officer stationed at the precinct refused to stop illegal electioneering inside the polling place. The poll watcher we had stationed there was so intimidated, she got up and left. I met her wandering the nearby streets, scared and frozen stiff, looking for a familiar face.

Nelson Soza had volunteered for the ACORN Political Action Committee to work the Funston precincts with Rudy Lozano Jr., the son of a Chicago union organizer who was murdered by the mob for trying to organize immigrant taqueria workers. It looked like all hope was lost at Funston, and Nelson even considered abandoning it completely to help cover other precincts that we thought we could salvage. But instead he decided that he and Rudy should spend the next two hours doorknocking and bringing in the vote. Maybe if we escorted and drove our voters to the polls, we could inoculate them against the throng of Elba supporters they would find inside. When the results were tallied from the Funston precincts, it was clear that a few machine hacks were going to lose their patronage jobs. We won both the 24th and the 26th precincts, and we won them big -- the latter by a 3-to-1 margin.

By this time, most of the results were in. Congressman Gutierrez stood up on a table and told everyone to go to the victory party at Tania's Nightclub, where the results would be announced. In the back room, a group of campaign staffers were crunching the numbers as fast as possible to figure out if Willie had won. Willie himself was sitting in the corner looking nervous. Even with about 90% of the precincts in, it was still too close to call.

Some of the campaign administrative staff and volunteers who were sorting out the tapes mentioned that the 32nd precinct was in. Our pollwatcher must have given the tape to someone else and gone home. That wasn't a good sign. I skimmed down the tape to find the numbers for Willie's race. Rodriguez: 30, Willie: 31. It was a one-vote margin. But a win is a win, and eight for eight New Party precincts wasn't half bad.

The only question left was whether or not it would be enough. Campaign manager Roberto Rivera was frantically punching numbers into his computer; half a dozen volunteers crowded around the monitor as the results came up on a spreadsheet. Finally, Roberto stood up from the chair in which he had been planted, eyes glued to his laptop, for the past hour. "With three precincts still out, Willie is up by 182. Willie, you won."

When all was said and done, Willie Delgado defeated Elba Rodriguez by a slim 241 vote margin, 52% to 48%, with an average margin of victory of exactly 4 votes per precinct. The margin of victory was 20 votes per precinct in the New Party's turf. NP leaders Frankie Torres, Deborah McCoy, Jose Kader, Bob Palmer, Rafael Rodriguez, Joe Iosbaker, Stephanie Weiner, Yakira Nunez, Vinnie Izurieta, Pryianka Basu, Dave Rolston, and Mary Robles built a political machine in their own backyard -- a political machine for the people.

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