Worst Member of Congress Faces a Tough Fight for Re-nomination

George F. Will

March 05, 1992|By GEORGE F. WILL

CHICAGO. — Chicago -- Although there is lively debate regarding who is the best congressman, there is a broad, bipartisan, multiracial consensus that the worst is Gus Savage. That Democrat is currently serving his sixth term representing, he insists, not Illinois' 2d District but an ''international movement.''

However, the March 17 Illinois primary -- the vote that matters in the predominantly black and incorrigibly Democratic district (Michael Dukakis got 86 percent there) -- may see Mr. Savage, 66, beaten by Mel Reynolds, 40, Illinois' first black Rhodes Scholar.

Mr. Savage was elected to Congress after the 2d District (the setting of James T. Farrell's ''Studs Lonigan'' trilogy, 1932-35) lost its majority of white ethnic minorities. In six primaries he has averaged less than 50 percent, and has never received more than 52 percent.

In 1981, he missed 55 percent of all roll call votes, the worst record in Congress, and for his continuing inattention the nation should give thanks.

He has ''slithered to victory'' (the Chicago Tribune's phrase) using race-baiting and anti-Semitism. He will not talk to most journalists because he says the press is ''racist'' and includes too many Jews.

He called ''historically, culturally and politically accurate,'' Louis Farrakhan's statements that ''Hitler was a great man'' and Judaism is a ''gutter religion.'' He arranged attendance at the 1988 Democratic Convention for a lunatic who says Jewish doctors are injecting black babies with AIDS.

Mr. Savage refers to Ron Brown, the Democratic National Chairman, as ''Ron Beige.''

He was chastised by a unanimous House Ethics Committee for physical and verbal sexual harassment of a Peace Corps volunteer in Ethiopia. She said that when she refused to have sex with him, he called her a ''traitor to the black movement.''

He responds to reporters' questions about such things by calling reporters ''faggots'' and asking, ''Are you still messing with little boys?'' and ''Are you still wearing your wife's underwear?''

The ''Almanac of American Politics'' says, ''He filed blatantly incomplete disclosure statements with the Federal Election Commission, and then said it was the fault of his campaign treasurer whom he couldn't find.'' The treasurer was his son.

For decades, as the stockyards, steel mills and manufacturing plants left the South Side of Chicago, the migration of Southern, especially Mississippian, blacks up the Illinois Central Railroad, continued. In 1960 the Reynolds family arrived.

Mel Reynolds was born in Mound Bayou, Mississippi, in a house with no running water, in a black town situated on land that once was part of Jefferson Davis' plantation. He and his twin brother, carrying pillowcases joined by a bit of clothesline, picked cotton behind their grandmother so she would not have to stoop for the low cotton.

Shortly after his family moved to Chicago, his father died. Mother, grandmother and five children moved into public housing. As a young man Mel, traveled 125 miles back south down the Illinois Central, to the University of Illinois at Champaign. Then he went to Oxford.

He has a law degree. He is a former university administrator and no conservative. He worked for Ted Kennedy against Jimmy Carter in 1980 and for Jesse Jackson's presidential campaign in 1984.

This is Mr. Reynolds' third crack at Mr. Savage. In a five-candidate primary in 1988, he finished third with 14 percent. In a three-candidate primary in 1990, he got 43 percent. This year, it is a two-man race and the district lines have been redrawn advantageously to Mr. Reynolds.

Two years ago, 86 percent of the old district's voters were in the city. In the new district, fewer than 65 percent are. If Mr. Reynolds gets the same percentage of city and suburban votes he got in 1990, he will win.

At a rally four days before the 1990 vote, Mr. Savage read aloud all the Jewish names on Mr. Reynolds' FEC report, denouncing ''Jewish money.'' This year Mr. Savage has revved up the incumbency machine that is such a powerful argument for term limits.

There are six congressional districts in Chicago's television market, and television ads are prohibitively expensive. Thus incumbency advantages, such as franked mailings, are of magnified importance.

In theory, franked mailings are supposed to be used to keep members in touch with their constituents. But Mr. Savage has sent franked mailings to every postal patron -- not just every voter -- in the new district which includes scores of thousands of people who are not his constituents.

Mr. Reynolds sees this as a fight for the soul of the black community and against ''the imperial black elected official who cannot be criticized within the community.''

The 2d District can go from the bottom to above-average in the caliber of its representation by replacing Gus Savage with Mel Reynolds. What a luxury it is to have someone of Mr. Reynolds' caliber at hand, when replacing Mr. Savage with even a stalk of celery would elevate the intellectual and moral tone of Congress.

What a luxury it is to have someone of Mr. Reynolds' caliber at hand, when replacing Mr. Savage with even a stalk of celery would elevate the intellectual and moral tone of Congress.

George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.

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