In Chicago politics, his foe's still a Daley

Ex-militant plows ahead in race against a political tradition

February 22, 1999|By Jean Marbella | Jean Marbella,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

CHICAGO -- Rush vs. Daley: That is the match-up voters here face tomorrow when they select their mayor.

In some ways, the battle began more than 30 years ago. Then, though, it was a different Richard Daley, the father of the current mayor, Richard M. Daley, seeking re-election. But the case could be made that it was a different Bobby Rush as well.

Rush, the co-founder of the radical Black Panther Party's Illinois chapter, which frequently and sometimes violently clashed with the first Daley, is hardly the "Negro militant" that news accounts called him back then. His hair is gray, as is his conservative business suit.

"These," Rush said with a smile, "are different times than the '60s."

The times indeed have changed, for Rush as well as the city that he would lead. The one-time outside agitator is now a congressman, a Democrat representing the South Side since 1993, after serving nine years as a Chicago alderman.

The city has moved beyond the '60s days of rage. Its downtown is booming, crumbling neighborhoods have been revitalized and the school system, once considered the nation's worst, is on the upswing.

All of which puts Rush, with his call for change, in the role of party-pooper.

"People are fairly happy. These are good economic times for Chicago, as they are for the rest of the country," said John Pelissero, a political science professor at Loyola University here. "People think Daley's been doing a good job. It's not to say he's invincible, but you have to have some defining issue and, second, a viable candidate."

Rush's past as a Black Panther tends to intrigue out-of-towners more than city residents, perhaps because he has had several other incarnations since then. He will note that he is a former Panther, but he also is a former Boy Scout.

"It's part of who I am, and I can't cut that away from my life, and I wouldn't want to," he said.

With a fraction of Daley's multimillion-dollar campaign fund, Rush's campaign has struggled from the start. A recent poll showed the incumbent far ahead of the challenger, 65 percent to 13 percent, with the rest undecided or favoring another candidate in the city's first nonpartisan mayoral election.

Daley, a milder version of his formidable father, has refused to debate his opponent.

Still, Rush tries out issue after issue, even as most sink without much effect or, worse, blow up in his face.

He attempted a tried-and-true mayoral breaker last month: denouncing City Hall's response to last month's blizzard as inadequate. At least one mayor, Michael Bilandic, was sent packing after failing to clear the streets promptly 20 years ago.

But this time, just as Rush had staked out a snow-swamped street on the South Side to make his point before the news cameras, the Daley administration unleashed some of the city's finest.

"They got advance notice of my press conference," Rush groused recently, still smarting over this particular snow job. "Fifteen minutes before I'm going to start, they send in trucks and snowplows. But people understood it. Those streets were not cleared for three or four days. They know the streets were only plowed because I'm there."

It is perhaps a sign of how well things are going in Chicago that Rush has failed to find much to stir the voters. Some of his causes come off as trivial, albeit with a built-in audience among a few beleaguered citizens.

Indeed, as the Chicago Tribune said in its recent editorial endorsing Daley, "Rush has inexplicably let his campaign get sidetracked on penny-ante issues like parking tickets, and that's unfortunate."

Rush would counter that these small issues of city living are what make him a man of the people rather than of Chicago's famously powerful machine politics.

He has continued to appear at senior centers and churches, vowing to restore services cut by the mass transit authority and lower fares. He promises the buses will be cool in the summer and warm in the winter.

Some observers believe Rush has picked up on a major issue in the waning days of the campaign, but it's probably too late. He has taken on the vaunted turnaround of the school system, which President Clinton praised in this year's State of the Union address. Rush said test scores, however improved, are not the only measuring stick of success.

"A parakeet can be trained to pass a test," he has been repeating at campaign stops. Rush has gone so far as to knock Paul Vallas, the CEO of the reorganized school system, as "P. T. Barnum," selling a false picture of improvement.

"I agree with that," said Laurie LeBreton, a consultant and member of the school reform group, Parents United for Responsible Education. "We have an extreme concern about test scores being used improperly. We think school reform is a little more complicated than that."

Still, LeBreton doesn't expect this issue to have much sway on tomorrow's outcome.

"This is Chicago politics," she said. "This is Daley."

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