Wednesday, May 9, 2007

Flashback: Cook County Vote Fraud and a Call from the Patriarch Mayor.

[Fifty years of politics written as a memoir for my kids and grandchildren].

For untold decades…since at least the era of Big Bill Thompson, the last (and heavily corrupt) Republican mayor…vote tallies in Chicago and Cook county have been under suspicion. In the 1960 election it is very clear that had Richard Nixon lodged a formal complaint and pursued a systemic investigation, the country would have been tangled for months in allegations and cross-allegations. Therefore, Nixon gave in not wishing to be responsible for chaos and thinking ahead when he would presumably run for president again. But nevertheless, after that election, Charlie Barr, the old director-civic affairs of the Standard Oil Company, instituted what he called “Operation Eagle Eye” with volunteers trained to go into heavily Democratic and, for the most part, poor black precincts. In some cases, Eagle Eye volunteers came back with stories that curled people’s hair. It was clear that as volunteer poll watchers they had no standing and precinct captains and so-called “bipartisan” election judges ran the count their way.

I first became aware of the enormity of the vote fraud issue when Bernard Carey, a lone Republican, got elected Cook county states’ attorney. His election was an anomaly. His predecessor was Democrat Ed Hanrahan, a likely future mayor and Harvard law graduate, who cooperated with the John Mitchell Justice Department in carrying out a sentence of execution against various Black Panthers. FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover was concerned that the Black Panthers were a revolutionary body that joined with others…particularly the largely white Students for a Democratic Society (SDSW)…and had the strength of potentially overthrowing the government of the United States. The FBI opened a file on Fred Hampton, a charismatic young black from Chicago who was active in Black Panther activities. It sent out William O’Neal to infiltrate the Black Panther party as a mole. He became Hampton’s bodyguard and even more influential than that, stirring up animosity between the Panthers and the SDS in obedience to FBI orders.

The local Chicago police, particularly the detachment under the control of prominent Democratic aspirant and states attorney Hanrahan launched an all-out war against the Panthers, Hanrahan seeing his own opportunity as an eventual successor to Mayor Daley as a tough law-and-order candidate. The crackdown coincided with the Democratic national convention melee in 1968. Hanrahan’s cops and regular Chicago police cooperated with the FBI in spurring a confrontation with party members on July 16,1968 which left one Panther dead and six others arrested. On May 26, 1969 Hampton was convicted in a dubious case involving a theft in 1967 of $72 worth of ice cream in Maywood. He was sentenced to two years but was out on an appeal bond in August. In early October, 1969 Hampton and his girlfriend Deborah Johnson, pregnant with their first child, rented a 4-1/2 room apartment at 2337 West Monroe to be close to Black Panther headquarters. O’Neal reported back that there was a great storehouse of weapons there.

On November 13, 1969 two Chicago policemen were ambushed and killed. FBI officials determined that the Black Panthers were responsible; they claimed that the Panthers had vowed not to be taken alive and would respond with deadly force. O’Neal provided the FBI with details of Hampton’s apartment including the location of furniture and the bed in which Hampton and his girlfriend slept. A 14-man team of the states’ attorney’ special prosecutions unit was organized for a pre-dawn raid. On December 3, Hampton had a late dinner and was talking to his mother on the telephone at 1:30 a.m. when he fell asleep in mid-sentence, caused by a drink he had consumed at dinner having been laced with the barbiturate secobarbitol, a sleep agent. At 4 a.m. the police team arrived, divided into two units, eight in front of the building and six at the rear. At 4:45 they stormed the apartment. Mark Clark who had been in a front room with a shotgun on his lap was killed instantly after firing off a single round, the only shot the Panthers fired. Two officers were wounded in the shoulder and Hampton was killed by two shots fired point blank at his head.

At a press conference, the police announced that the arrest team had been attacked by the Panthers. Subsequent investigations seemed to show that the attack was initiated by the police and FBI. Hanrahan defended his action with the improbable argument that his attack was provoked and defensive but the black community was so enraged that it was clear he couldn’t run again…and that the Democratic party was a walking dead man if the party sought to run him. Consequently Bernard Carey was the beneficiary of a coalition of conservative Republicans and liberal independent Democrats. For a time it seemed like this coalition could threaten Daley and the future of the Democratic party in Cook.

In order to beat Carey, the Democratic machine pulled out all the stops and initiated widespread vote fraud. Carey told me that he visited some storefront precincts in black areas where the doors were locked to voters and precinct captains were ringing up votes on the then voting machines…the curtains ringing closed and opening over and over again. Notwithstanding this, Carey won. He wanted very much to end vote fraud in Chicago and I was one of several whom he recruited to help start what was called Project LEAP (Legal Elections in All Precincts), the name given to it by Don Rose, an independent liberal Democratic strategist who was allied with our group.

The leadership of this non-profit organization was not very good at the outset so in 1974 I was asked to become chairman. The theory of Project LEAP was far different from Charlie Barr’s “Operation Eagle Eye” which relied on volunteers. Under Illinois law, the two parties were empowered to recruit judges of election who would be paid for their service. Traditionally, the Republican judges would be named as Republicans for a day by the Democratic ward committeemen. Now Carey arranged that the Cook county Republican chairman, Robert Barr, should authorize only judges that LEAP would recruit…so they would be honest. Thus we went after a new group of judges which had not been recruited before. I found that among the best judges were Catholic nuns who would not be swayed by intimidation. But we recruited others—business professionals who happened to be Republican, a detachment of anti-Daley liberals associated with the left-leaning IVI (Independent Voters of Illinois) which was the Illinois affiliate of Americans for Democratic Action.

Thus I presided over a wildly unusual coalition…ranging from business types who were conservative Republicans…nuns who generally were non-conservative but determined to respect the process…students with long hair who gloried in giving the finger to the establishment…independent blacks…people who the year before had demonstrated in Grant Park…suburban housewives… a polyglot. We needed to raise money to provide special training services that were not in accordance with the Board of Election Commissioners of Chicago (but they had to take that training as well). To do so, we enlisted W. Clement Stone who gave an awful lot of money but we wanted to diversify so I put on a fund-raising dinner featuring my old friend former U. S. Senator Eugene McCarthy and William Ruckelshaus, a former assistant Attorney General who later became Nixon’s first EPA Director.

Believe it or not, Reverend Jesse Jackson gave the invocation…not what he wanted to do but the role I wanted him to fill since he was warmed up to make his own political pitch that night and take over the event with a cacophony of heroic couplets. I put him in as invoker at the suggestion of my old friend, Congressman Andrew Young who thought that Jesse would have to accept it. Young was right. Somewhere I have the world’s most unusual photo—of a young Afro-headed Jesse Jackson and an old Clem Stone, with patent-leather hair and his Salvador Dali mustache.

For the next few elections we raised so much hell in taming the precincts and got so much ink that I got a call at Quaker Oats with a trembling female voice saying, “Mr. Roeser, hold the line for Mayor Daley.” I thought: oh-oh, we’ve really struck pay dirt. Without saying hello Daley allowed his voice to vibrate over my receiver so much I had to hold it away from my ear. When I got a word in, I decided to add to the experience and treasure a moment to tell my kids and grandchildren, so I said: “Mr. Mayor, would it be easier if I came over to your office and we could meet?”

He said yes and in a few minutes I was in a cab going over to City Hall. Doors swung open wide since everybody from the people downstairs at the information booth to the elevator operators to the people in the front office were waiting so I breezed right through. Within minutes I was sitting like an admonished schoolboy in front of his desk while…improbably as it seems…the only other person in the room was old Colonel Jack Reilly, believe it or not the director of special events who had one eye (with one of his spectacle lenses blacked out which gave him an eerie look).

What Daley said to me and what I said back to him when I was finally allowed to reply, next time.


  1. Bernard Carey always insisted that he lost a prior race for Sheriff to Richard Elrod because of some judicial shenanigans which deprived him of a recount. This occurred in about 1970. The appellate court opinion in this case was farcical.

  2. It is too bad that Project Leap has fallen away over time. Its non-partisan, honest elections agenda has been badly needed in recent years in Chicago. My perception is that when current Mayor Daley bought off the remnants of the Lakefront Liberals early in his mayorlty, they no longer cared about the outcome of local elections (they were aligned with the powerbase now) and abandoned involvement in Project Leap.

    It would be great if it could be revived.