Charlie Chaplin made just one motion picture in Chicago, but that was enough to get an auditorium named after him in the main campus building of the small college that occupies the building in which it was produced. That’s where I go to vote, the Charlie Chaplin Auditorium at St. Augustine College, on West Argyle Street.
The room sounds more interesting than it is; it looks pretty much like a small gymnasium in any working-class community center. As a polling place, it’s fully low-tech. No touch screens; you use a magic marker to fill in a blank space in a black arrow to cast your vote. It’s always uncomfortably warm, and by the time I’m done voting, my back always hurts from hunching over the rickety plastic voting “booth,” which could never support my weight if I leaned on it.
You don’t get a sticker to prove you’ve done your civic duty, you get a photocopied piece of paper. (This is at least symmetric with the fact that about a million city vehicle stickers distributed this year had no adhesive on them and had to be replaced, costing City Hall millions, mostly due to lost fines during an extended grace period to allow people to get stickers that stuck.)
Still, I enjoy voting in a place with some history to it. I’m rarely excited, and usually nauseous, about the candidates I’m voting for, but I like that brief sensation of participating in … something.
On any given November day in Chicago, it’s cold and rainy, but Election Day this year the weather was fine. So I was at about the peak of a rare good mood as I rounded the corner onto Argyle for the last half-block to the polling place. And then when I saw a veritable phalanx, a right proper gauntlet, even, of burly men with clipboards, directly between me and the auditorium door, I knew what I was in for.
Some politics were about to happen to me.
I guess Chicago politics has a reputation in some parts of the country as being … less than above board. Corrupt. Slimy. Fixed.
I believe this to be true. But most of my experiences with local politics here have involved a technique of persuasion that is much more personal and emotional than stuffing ballot boxes or destroying opponents’ campaign signs.
This technique is carried out by an army of street-level operatives. The rank and file foot soldiers. They don’t threaten, or browbeat, or menace to get you to fall into line with the ruling party, which happens to be the Democratic Party. They use a much softer approach, which I actually find considerably creepier. That approach is usually expressed via a short series of come-ons, e.g., “Hi! Small talk about the weather! I’m here for so-and-so, who’d really like it if you’d thus-and-such, and it’s a really exciting time now here in Shuhcawgo!”
If this doesn’t land you, it’s followed by a set of textbook reactions to rejection, the usual one being something like, “Gee, whyncha wanna? Doncha like us? Whuddwe ever dooda you?”
I hate that type of social intercourse. So as I approached the guys with the clipboards, I adopted my well-honed urban defensive posture. Head down but eyes up, brisk pace. Moderate scowl.
I was moving with pretty swift strides when one of the clipboarders made his move. He talked fast. “Hi! Djalike t’sign a petition t’get Rahm on d’ballot?”
Yep. I was right. The election for Mayor of Chicago is taking place on February 22 next year, and the deadline for nomination petitions is coming up pretty soon. So Rahm Emanuel’s campaign apparatus had five men outside a small polling place in a backwater precinct in a backwater ward in a fairly obscure neighborhood on the far north side of the city, culling John Hancocks.
I gave the guy the classic brush-off. A firm “no,” avoid eye contact, maintain walking speed.
I have to admit, I got a little kick out of it. “Good for you, Stronger Than Dirt,” I said to myself. “Standing up for your principles!”
Then I started thinking, wait, what principles were those? I mean, I don’t care for Rahm and would rather have someone else as mayor, but does that mean he shouldn’t be on the ballot? What kind of a small-d democrat does that make me? I’ve signed several nominating petitions for people I knew I probably wouldn’t vote for, because I thought they deserved their shot. Why not Rahm’s?
But then I figured … five guys. In Uptown. In the 46th Ward. On Argyle Street. Outside the Essanay Studios building. And I thought, heck, maybe I don’t want Rahm on the ballot. Maybe I want to oppose him at every step of the way.
Other big-name candidates—not that there are any names in this thing as big as Rahm’s right now—have been dropping out of the running at a dizzying rate. Jesse Jackson Jr. is bogged down in scandal. Tom Dart, the popular Cook County Sheriff, has cited family concerns. It looks like Rahm might walk in almost by default.
Or maybe not just by default. Maybe by virtue of something more.
Rahm is controversial, to be sure, and I still have a hard time believing he wants the job. But a lot of people in Chicago think he might be the kind of “strong man” candidate who can take the role over from Daley, maybe better than anyone else.
Chicagoans expect and want the mayor to be a sort of monarch. The worst times people remember here are times when the mayor was weak. Bilandic. Sawyer. With the exception of the Harold Washington era (and even then, only depending on who you ask about it), the interregnum between the death of the “old man,” Richard J. Daley, on a snowy December day in 1976, and the ascent of the son, Richard M. Daley, in 1989, is widely recalled as a confusing and distressing string of years, rudderless and insecure.
Everyone loves to bitch about Daley and The City, but you can tell they’re at least a little bit afraid of what’s going to happen when the Grand Poobah steps down. That alone could be enough to make Rahm a shoo-in for “the conch.”
“Not everybody is comfortable with the idea that politics is a guilty addiction. But it is. They are addicts, they are guilty and they do lie and cheat and steal—like all junkies. And when they get in a frenzy, they will sacrifice anything and anybody to feed their cruel and stupid habit, and there is no cure for it. That is addictive thinking. That is politics—especially in presidential campaigns. That is when the addicts seize the high ground. They care about nothing else. They are salmon, and they must spawn” (Hunter S. Thompson, _Better than Sex_, p. 7).