An Old Machine's New Job

Tucked between the south end thrift store and a faded law firm, the office of Chicago's 8th Ward Regular Democratic Organization is covered with dozens of help wanted postings advertising slots on public payrolls from the Chicago Housing Authority to the Cook County Forest Preserve District. The ward's Democratic committeeman, John Stroger, also happens to be president of the Cook County Board. To win Illinois, Vice President Al Gore needs Stroger and his small army--especially people like Beatrice Sumlin. She is a precinct captain of the 8th Ward organization, which cranked out more votes for Bill Clinton than any other ward in the city. She has been stumping for Democratic votes for 30 years. That's also how long she has held various Cook County jobs. "I work hard in the ward," she says. "I work hard on the job... My job right now is in the street."

Until Nov. 7, the streets of Chicago will be filled with Beatrice Sumlins in a show of organizational force unseen in presidential elections since the first Mayor Richard Daley helped clinch John Kennedy's victory in the state in the desperately close 1960 campaign. This time the race is almost as tight, and Illinois may be just as critical to the Democrats: by some polls, Gore's lead statewide is down to 2 percentage points. "Bottom line is that for Gore to win Illinois, he has to carry Chicago by 500,000 votes or more," says Paul Green, a Roosevelt University professor and longtime observer of Illinois politics. Half a million votes happens to be the margin Richard J. Daley promised John Kennedy 40 years ago: JFK swept Chicago by 456,312 votes but carried the state by just 8,858. That set off years of never-proven accusations that Daley's machine stole the White House for JFK. Now Hizzoner's son Mayor Richard M. Daley is priming what's left of the machine. "As a mayor who cares about my city and other cities across the country, I intend to work very hard in this campaign," Daley told NEWSWEEK. It's a matter of pride: Daley's baby brother, Bill, just happens to be Gore's campaign chairman. "There's no doubt in anyone's mind that Daley will go all out for Gore," Green says, "because that means going all out for his brother."

The days of stuffing ballot boxes and voting the dead are gone--but Gore will have the support of what's left of the machine. Today only about 10 of Chicago's 50 ward organizations can reliably turn out a heavy vote. One of them is the 19th Ward, on the city's far southwest corner, where Committeeman Tom Hynes has as many as 500 people registering voters, planting campaign signs and knocking on doors. On Election Day, Hynes's "checkers" will report exactly who has and who hasn't shown up at their polling places by mid-afternoon, and those who haven't will get a visit from their precinct captain, who will remind them of how, say, the captain helped their mother out with that Social Security problem. A good captain also knows who's not with him. "Not only is he not going to go out and register" that person, Hynes says, but on Election Day, "he's going to tiptoe past his house so he doesn't wake him up."

Precinct captains like Terry Smith and Tim Bush, two veterans of the 19th Ward, know who votes a straight ticket, who's willing to put a campaign sign on his lawn and who has a kid in college in need of an absentee ballot. On a recent Saturday afternoon, the two visited a family of seven loyal Democrats whose patriarch was seriously ill. The old man's daughter had a question for Bush and Smith. "Did they tell you? An absentee ballot--we're going to need one for him," she said. Afterward, Bush, a county probation officer, gave a somber shake of his head, noting that death was near. Legally, of course, the old man's absentee ballot should be invalidated if, God forbid, he dies before Election Day. But as an official at the Chicago Board of Elections observed, "How would we know?"