Machine Foe Struggles to Broaden Base

September 29, 2010

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Independent Forrest Claypool

The Chicago mayoral election next February could be the area's toughest horse race in decades. Another bruising battle comes to a head Nov. 2. The Cook County assessor race mainly pits Independent Forrest Claypool against county Democratic Chairman Joe Berrios. News outlets have been scrutinizing Berrios, but Claypool has a weak spot of his own: He's never been popular with minority voters.

The views of Lake Michigan from this condo are panoramic. The art is tasteful. And nearly all of the three-dozen guests are white. This is a typical Forrest Claypool campaign event.

CLAYPOOL: I'd like to thank Walter for hosting this and for a wonderful turnout....

Claypool represents a Cook County Board district on Chicago's North Side. He's running for assessor against Joe Berrios and a couple lesser-known candidates. The usually low-profile office sets the value of nearly every real-estate parcel in the county. Claypool points out that those figures help determine each owner's property taxes.

CLAYPOOL: If I'm elected as the first independent in Cook County history, beating the Democratic machine at their own game, that is a political earthquake.

Claypool's keeping pace with Berrios's fundraising in a contest that could top $2 million. He brings up his record as former head of the Chicago Park District.

CLAYPOOL: I cut 25 percent of a patronage-bloated workforce and, in turn, used that money to rebuild neighborhood parks.

MUÑOZ: There's a disconnect.

Alderman Ricardo Muñoz represents Chicago's most heavily Latino ward. He doesn't buy Claypool's pitch and doesn't think minority voters will either.

MUÑOZ: The downtown newspapers like him because he stands up to machine hacks. But then some of us in the neighborhoods say then, ‘Well, where were you when you were chief of staff to Mayor Daley? When you were running the Park District, how did you affect neighborhoods?' Because, what some folks call patronage, other folks call [recreation] leaders and softball and pool administrators that he privatized and got rid of.

Muñoz says Claypool's assessor campaign has no legs in his ward. If Claypool flames out with minorities across the county, it wouldn't be the first time.

His only other countywide race was a 2006 primary challenge to then-County Board President John Stroger. Claypool cast the African-American incumbent as a machine boss and actually out-polled him in more than half the county??s 80 wards and townships. But that didn't make up for 26 wards and townships where blacks and Latinos made up more than three-quarters of residents. Claypool finished way behind in all of them.

He blames it on a stroke John Stroger suffered a few days before the balloting.

CLAYPOOL: There was really an outpouring of support and a tribute to him at the end of that campaign.

This time, Claypool says, more voters are fed up with the Democratic machine. His assessor campaign is showing some momentum. To get him on the ballot, Claypool supporters gathered 90,000 signatures.

CLAYPOOL: The path to victory is to get a large block of Democrats, a large block of Republicans and then overwhelming support among independents. And winning a large chunk of Democrats includes getting a very good share of the minority vote as well.

The question is: How? The election is less than five weeks away.

The only black elected official to endorse Claypool so far is Congressman Jesse Jackson, Jr. The campaign says it'll target African Americans with either robocalls or radio ads, but no TV ads.

Claypool's outreach to Latinos looks even feebler. He has none among his 15 paid staffers. He has no Latino endorsements yet. And he won't be running any ads in Spanish.

CLAYPOOL: We're not micro-targeting. We're macro-targeting. The message cuts everywhere. Everybody's a taxpayer. Everybody's upset about corruption.

That may be true. But Else Redmond predicts Claypool won't win many minority votes on clean-government rhetoric alone. Redmond's a community organizer in Austin, a heavily black neighborhood of Chicago.

REDMOND: The independent progressive movement itself has no real grassroots support in local communities, where people are dealing with issues of joblessness, poverty, public safety. The progressive movement needs to be articulating those issues and, a lot of times, they don't.

In his defense, Claypool points out he's running for Cook County assessor. So he can't address every issue. He is hitting hard on the Democratic machine. He argues Latinos and African-Americans would have the most to gain from dismantling it.