Monday, December 19, 2005

Unlikely rebel takes on Daley Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr., former BGA chief give a boost to a fired payroller tilting at a windmill

Published in the Chicago Tribune, 12-18-05

Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. (D-Ill.) came to my suburb of Park Ridge to speak and got a standing ovation.

Let me explain: It was July 15 and the VFW Hall was (what used to be in the old days) a bigot's stone's throw from 98 percent white Edison Park, jewel of the Northwest Side's 41st Ward, where I grew up. The crowd of 250 was heavily, I want to say extremely, white, full of city workers, both blue and white collars, plus cops and firefighters.

The purpose of the meeting: to figure out how to replace the Irish princeling Richard M. Daley with the African-American country preacher's son, Jackson.

As my sainted North Side German aunts would say: What's happened to Chicago?

It's simple. Most of the 41st is suburban in looks and temperament, and if Frank Coconate (more about him later) plays it right, he can figure importantly in any effort to dump Daley. What would help him do it? O'Hare International Airport, which is within the 41st.

The race issue is not dead, but it's dormant for a neighborhood that is worried about Daley's pet O'Hare expansion. But even O'Hare isn't the whole story. The 41st is boiling over with anger about corruption. People are seething about high taxes and steaming when they read about how much money has been stolen.

Then there came before the group a thin white-haired sage, looking like an advance man for a famine, reading glasses perched on the very tip of his nose: Terry Brunner. Brunner, who is nearly 70, is the former federal prosecutor who headed the corruption-fighting Better Government Association for almost three decades and heads the Aviation Integrity Project, which has charged corruption in the O'Hare expansion. Brunner isn't an exciting speaker, but his factual recitation stirred the crowd to hot anger.

He waved a thick book of research and told them that Daley is waist deep in corruption. Brunner ticked off the connections that are familiar to anyone who reads the papers, starting with John Daley, the mayor's brother, making a half-million as an insurance broker on O'Hare concessions.

When he finished reciting the litany, Brunner introduced Frank Coconate. Bullet-headed Coconate, a city worker since age 19, was fired from his $62,000-a-year job after 27 years with the city's water department because as a little fish he wouldn't play along with the Daleys.

Coconate is different from father and brothers who worked for the city. He is interested in politics and unwilling to pull his forelock deferentially and wait in line. "I looked at some of those nitwits who were running for state rep. and I said, `They're morons, so I'm going to give it a try.'" Of course that meant running as a Democrat insurgent because there's only one party in Chicago.

That's where he either made a mistake or the smartest decision of his life.

He was vetoed by the Daley-ites so he ran in 1998, 2000 and 2002 on his own as an independent Democrat, campaigning against the Daley O'Hare expansion. He got clobbered all three times.

In 2002 he had name recognition, got all the community newspaper endorsements and became the front-runner. But that's not the way Daley democracy is played. "I think there had to be 2,000 [city-paid] workers in the district," he told me. "They ripped up my signs. My wife and I walked over to the polling place on Election Day, and there was 20 guys, maybe more, in a truck working against me." With that, Coconate resolved to fight all the harder. He blasted Daley for balancing his budget on the backs of the workers while creating beauteous Millennium Park with its vast cost overruns, telling the newspapers and TV about inside deals, hirings and firings.

Which meant, of course, that Coconate was fired on July 21.

When Coconate, the father of three young kids, finished his colorful and highly entertaining speech to his 41st Ward Democratic organization, he introduced Jesse Jackson Jr. Following Brunner and Coconate was tough, but Jackson struck exactly the right tone.

Beginning with calm, his voice measured and low, he pointed out that the Daley organization is doing much more than misappropriating money, paying their family and friends with juicy contracts. They are stripping Coconate of his 1st Amendment rights. He has a right to seek redress of grievance, said Jackson, a lawyer. He has a right to write letters to the papers if he wants to. He has a right to run for public office against the Daley choice if he wants to. He even worked in Jesus Christ, although for the life of me I don't know how it fit.

And when he talked 1st Amendment, the crowd whooped it up so loud that Jackson had to extend both his hands to urge calm. Watching it on video, I recalled a lesson from a misty past where my Irish grandfather, a marble layer, went to the old Coliseum on 63rd Street on another terribly hot day. That 1896 Democratic Convention crowd was much greater but it was rebelling against safe, handpicked choices the party rulers were serving them.

That's when a young congressman from far away got up--unfamiliar to most of the crowd. When he got their attention, William Jennings Bryan held off their applause with both hands. The issue was Wall Street's affection for the gold standard, an esoteric issue to many. His voice lowered but resonant enough to carry across the stage, he said, "We shall answer their demand for a gold standard by saying to them: You shall not press down upon the brow of labor this crown of thorns."

The crowd exploded.

He had one final sentence, and they hushed to hear it: "You shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold!" The young congressman not only upset the bosses' plans, he got the presidential nomination.

On the Northwest Side, there are those who despise Daley in the same way 19th Century workers despised Wall Street. They figure they will dump him--not by carrying the Northwest Side; that can never be. But by holding Daley to under 70 percent in the 45th, 39th, 38th, 36th. And especially in Coconate's 41st. This will enable the Daley dynasty to be toppled before the mammoth black turnout on the South and West Sides.

Coconate believes the rally in July was just the beginning.

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