Fanning the Flames: The Freedom Project Blog


Hail Mary Mudslinging

By Shawn Healy
Last Monday, I spent Martin Luther King Day at the DuSable Museum of African-American History on Chicago’s South Side. While perusing the exhibits, I came across a lifelike, robotic Harold Washington seated in an office modeled after his city hall digs while he served as Mayor of Chicago from 1983-1987. In separate segments he speaks about the racially divisive campaign that ultimately elevated him into office, his tumultuous tenure as mayor during the so-called “Council Wars” period, and most strangely, his untimely death.

It was in this light that I viewed the latest attack ad to surface in the brutal battle for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination in Illinois. Pat Quinn, the incumbent, has racked up endorsements from prominent African-American elected officials in recent weeks, with Congressman Jesse Jackson Jr. headlining the list. Quinn also accused his opponent, Comptroller Dan Hynes, of standing in the way of Barack Obama’s campaign for U.S. Senator in 2004 when he ran in a competitive primary where the eventual president prevailed.

Hynes fired back in a big way with an ad that resurrected Mayor Washington from his grave, a reprisal in many ways similar to my experience at DuSable. The ad spliced clips from a 1987 Washington interview where he reflected upon the recent firing of then city revenue director Pat Quinn. He labeled Quinn as “totally and completely undisciplined” and who’s actions “almost created shambles in that department.” Washington goes on to say that Quinn’s appointment was “perhaps (his) greatest mistake in government.”

Harsh words about Quinn, and a risky ploy by his opponent Hynes. Does the ad represent a “game change” in this late hour of the campaign? Only time will tell, with the primary a mere six days away and the latest polls showing Hynes closing in on Quinn and within the margins of error. The larger issue that I would like to address in the balance of this post is the greater context of negative advertising, and specifically those ads that invoke race as a wedge between candidates and votes. In the process, I will point to Hynes’ motivating factors in generating this controversial and decisively negative ad.

Campaign conduct, and specifically televised advertising, was identified as one of five key factors that contribute to a civically disengaged populace in a 2008 McCormick Foundation report titled Civic Engagement in our Democracy. Modern day political advertising campaigns are increasingly dominated by negative and comparative ads, the latter focusing on opponents’ records, advocacy, and character, and difficult to distinguish from the former. Emotive images, voiceovers, and music tend to dominate these productions, and the opposition feels compelled to run equally “emotive” and “demagogic” responses, as the unanswered negative ad is often accepted as truth.

In the end, the impulse to vote is dampened, especially among weak partisans. While campaign consultants are paid hefty incomes to hoist their candidates to victory, all of the electorate loses as our perception of politics is permanently tainted.

Negative advertising with a racial component only heightens these tensions, but it is certainly not without precedent. The infamous Willie Horton ad generated by supporters of Republican President George H. Bush in 1988 against his opponent, Democratic Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis, dealt a damaging blow by depicting the prison furlough of a black inmate who went on a crime spree, capitalizing on racial fears associated with rampant crime.

A lesser known 1990 ad in the reelection campaign of Republican Senator Jesse Helms in North Carolina explicitly invoked race. Dubbed the “white hands” ad, it tells the story of a white job candidate who was the “victim” of affirmative action policies supported by the Democratic nominee, former Charlotte Mayor Harvey Gannt, an African-American himself, and opposed by his white opponent, Helms.

Both Bush and Helms would go on to victory, and these ads are credited with paving their paths. Hynes is playing with similar fire, but rather than invoke race as a wedge issue to polarize the electorate along racial lines, he is seeking to dislodge a key demographic of the Democratic electorate, African-American voters, from supporting Quinn and perhaps moving his way in the late stages of the campaign. Hynes capitalizes on the martyr status of Harold Washington in Chicago’s black community to undermine the credentials of Quinn.

Hynes’ fourth quarter Hail Mary Pass will either be caught miraculously in the corner of the end zone for a last second victory, or veer off course and be intercepted by Quinn. In all likelihood, the negative campaigning practiced by both camps will further dilute an already anticipated scant turnout next Tuesday, as voters choose between “bad,” “ugly,” or “none of the above.” The victor will emerge bruised and battered for the nine month general election campaign to follow and be considered by most as the “lesser of two evils.”

Note: The McCormick Freedom Project is a nonpartisan organization that engages in educational activity and does not support or oppose any candidate for public office.


What the Latest Boston Tea Party Means for the Land of Lincoln

By Shawn Healy
One year after President Barack Obama took the oath of office and pundits declared the beginning of Democratic ascendancy, the national political landscape has been dramatically transformed. Republican State Senator Scott Brown’s stunning victory over Attorney General Martha Coakley yesterday in the Massachusetts special election to replace the deceased liberal lion, Senator Edward Kennedy, represents a “shot heard around the world,” or at least the nation, as Obama and his Democratic Party face midterm grades this November.

Illinois has party primaries of its own looming in less than two weeks, a verdict that sets the stage for a marathon that ends in November with statewide elections that will produce a new Governor and U.S. Senator, not to mention a host of freshman constitutional officers, state legislators, and local government officials. To what extent does Brown’s victory last evening foreshadow the short-term future of Illinois politics? Critical variables to consider include the passage of time, the responses of both parties, the extent to which statewide races are nationalized, and the quality of individual candidates’ campaigns.

I would like to begin with the caveat that nine months is an eternity in politics. One need look no further than my opening line for words of caution. Should the economy continue its recovery, particularly through rising employment figures, President Obama and his Democratic Party will fare far better than recent electoral debacles in Massachusetts, New Jersey, and Virginia.

Moreover, health care reform is front and center at this juncture. Brown’s victory places its passage in peril, and Massachusetts voters, according to a Republican-commissioned poll, shun the legislation, while a plurality voted for Brown to stop it dead in its tracks. Should the measure die, or even be resurrected and successfully signed into law, passions could subside and be directed toward other issues like job creation and financial reform to the benefit of Obama and the Democrats.

Turning to the national parties and their state counterparts in Illinois, it is incumbent upon the Democrats to circumvent the blame game that has already begun in Massachusetts and turn to their larger test this November. They still retain the White House for at least three more years, control strong majorities in Congress (the shattering of the filibuster-proof majority in the Senate acknowledged), and also hold a majority of the nation’s governor seats and state legislatures. Losses in midterm elections of a presidency are not inevitable, but typical, and Democrats should focus on minimizing attrition and maintaining the balance of power in Washington and state capitols across the country.

Republicans, on the other hand, must move beyond being the “party of no” (Brown campaigned as the 41st vote against health care reform), offering an affirmative agenda that tackles the major issues of the day: economic growth, deficit spending, financial reform, climate change, and yes, health care. New Gingrich’s “Contract with America” in 1994 is instructive, as it formulated a positive agenda that effectively nationalized a midterm election and yielded Republican control of Congress for the first time in forty years.

The GOP must also field qualified candidates for offices up and down the ballot. The only way to leverage a national tidal wave in your direction is to have party members in position to benefit. Scott Brown is case in point. A little-known state senator leveraged national angst, local discontent, and a flailing campaign staged by his opponent to return his seat to Republican control for the first time since 1952 when Senator Henry Cabot Lodge lost to a young, charismatic congressman by the name of John F. Kennedy.

In Illinois, the GOP has a plethora of candidates contesting the major statewide offices, but less representation at the local level. The party will have to ensure that candidates are slated for open seats after the February 2 primary to position itself for electoral fruits parallel to those borne by Brown.

It is likely that the major statewide races in Illinois will attract national attention. The contest for who will fill President Obama’s former Senate seat is sure to be fierce, as Republicans will target this is a toss-up favoring the challenger, while Democrats will play defense to avoid embarrassment, not to mention a dwindling majority. Former Governor Rod Blagojevich’s trial beginning this summer will also draw an unfavorable spotlight on the state, at the same time highlighting the race to replace him.

Further down the ballot, however, I expect local issues to predominate, although a similar anti-incumbent fervor could grip a state fed up with endemic corruption and fiscal crisis. Given that Democrats control all of the state’s constitutional offices and strong majorities in the legislature, the party runs of the risk of bearing the blunt of the blame for an angry electorate.

The national landscape and positioning of political parties aside, former House Speaker Tip O’Neil’s contention that “all politics is local” still resonates. One cannot ignore the individual campaigns that candidates orchestrate over the course of the coming spring, summer, and fall. Republican Senate candidate and current Congressman Mark Kirk is a strong local example of this phenomenon. He won repeatedly in a district that voted for three consecutive Democratic presidents, fending off tough challenges in 2006 and 2008 through independent positioning and stellar fundraising.

Back in Massachusetts, Martha Coakley ran an above-the-fray campaign that assumed she was a shoo-in from the day she won the Democratic nomination in December. Only late-breaking polls revealing a tightening race awoke her from her “long winter’s nap,” and late miscues further undermined her credibility with independents and even members of her own party. Calling former Red Sox great Curt Shilling a “Yankee fan” is the Illinois equivalent of accusing Mike Ditka of being a closet Packer backer.

Illinois candidates would be wise to study the Bears’ roster in advance of their November midterm exam graded by state voters.

Note: The McCormick Freedom Project is a nonpartisan organization that engages in educational activity and does not support or oppose any candidate for public office.


Sunshine: The Great Disinfectant

By Shawn Healy
In my post last Wednesday titled "Cook County Wars," I reviewed a paper written by UIC Political Science Professor Dick Simpson and graduate student Tom Kelly. Their work was inspired by the relative dearth of information specific to roll call votes by the Cook County Board of Commissioners.

This morning, I received a phone call from Courtney Greve, spokeswoman for the Cook County Clerk, and she told me that her office is working to improve this data deficit. Although Greve did not receive significant negative feedback on this front, the Clerk's office was in the process of updating their web site, and will begin by posting minutes from Commissioners meetings starting today. My quick perusal of the site suggests that they are off to a good start as today's agenda is posted.

Greve said that web site visitors will be able to access minutes from past meetings, and promises a more user-friedly format moving forward. This will include information by date and a common phrase to describe the primary subject discussed at a meeting, such as video slot machines, for example. Roll call vote tallies will be posted here, too.

However, one caveat is in order: minutes from board meetings cannot be posted immediately. The commissioners themselves have the authority by law to review agendas and minutes after the fact, so eager residents will have a wait a few days afterward for the juicy details.


Prehistoric Print Endorsements?

By Shawn Healy
It's newspaper endorsement season once more, and the rival Chicago Sun-Times and Tribune have cooked up different recipes for eager readers and recalcitrant voters. With the February 2 state primary in Illinois inching ever closer, these major dailies clearly feel obligated to weigh in on what to date has been a muddled field, but to what effect? In an era of declining readership and a politically disengaged populace, do newspaper endorsements reflect little more than the proverbial tree falling in a desolate forest?

I would suggest that there still is a place for newspaper endorsements, even if voters are unlikely to read them in print form, if at all. Research suggests that editorial endorsements do sway voters in political contests down the ballot. For example, the Tribune's endorsement of Barack Obama in the 2008 presidential election likely had little impact on his historic victory, but their picks for comptroller and treasurer this morning may push little known candidates S. Raja Krishnamoorthi and Robin Kelly, respectively, over the top.

Moreover, in a truncated primary season like this one, political information is at a premium, and the newspapers provide arguably the most objective, accessible, and thorough source. Ten-second soundbytes on local television emphasizing only the most visible races like governor tell us little about who should be his second-in-command. Given that Pat Quinn currently resides in the Governor's mansion even though he was twice elected to a lesser position, the importance of this office and others cannot be overstated.

On top of that, many of the primary fields are quite crowded with candidates assuming policy positions that are difficult to distinguish from one another. Editorial boards have the luxury of unencumbered face time with most of these office seekers, and separate the wheat from the chafe for those of us in search of shortcuts as we lead otherwise busy lives.

For example, the Sun-Times selected State Senator Kirk Dillard from a crowded Republican gubernatorial field, and Quinn in a competitive contest with Comptroller Dan Hynes. They centered on Dillard's vast Springfield experience and ability to work across the aisle, and Quinn's steady hand since assuming the reigns a year ago from the impeached Blagojevich.

The Tribune, on the other hand, offers up Andy McKenna on the Republican side and refuses to endorse either Quinn or Hynes for the Democrats. McKenna is elevated for his fiscal austerity and business background, while the Democrats are assailed for Quinn's failure to lead on political reform and budget balancing, and Hynes' refusal to take on entrenched interests and support pension reform.

Where does this leave Democratic voters, you might ask?

I would argue it exemplifies the role of editorial endorsements themselves. They are merely suggestive information pieces that voters can consult to shape their ballot box decisions. Surely they operate within a complicated matrix of other guideposts like political parties, peer networks, personal appeals, policy positions, social media outreach, and television, radio, direct mail, and Internet advertisements.

I might add that this voter in waiting is eagerly anticipating the newspapers' take on who should lead the Cook County Water Reclamation District.


Cook County Wars

By Shawn Healy
Note: The McCormick Freedom Project is a nonpartisan organization that engages in educational activity and does not support or oppose any candidate for public office.

During the mid-1980's, Chicago's city council evolved from a "rubber stamp" on mayoral priorities to an open battle that all but stymied African-American Mayor Harold Washington's reform agenda. He later co-opted former remnants of the machine constructed by a string of Irish-American mayors hailing from Bridgeport, and also fought for allies in aldermanic races that tipped the Council majority in his favor, effectively ending the so-called "Council Wars."

Since February 2007, Cook County Board President Todd Stroger has presided over a "war" of his own as commissioners have battled over budgets, borrowing, and taxation. University of Illinois political scientists Dick Simpson, himself a former Chicago alderman, and Tom Kelly released a report last month titled "Cook County Wars" that details fourteen major divided roll call votes on the County Board since 2007. Their work is a great public service just 27 days removed from a primary where Stroger and others place their fate before voters in party primaries, as the Cook County Clerk does not post divided roll call votes on its web site.

While the Chicago City Council has returned to its "rubber stamp" style under Mayor Richard M. Daley, the Cook County Board has moved in the opposite direction. For example, 46% of aldermen voted with Daley 100% of the time and another 14% voted with him more than 90% of the time. In contrast, only 4 of the 17 commissioners on the County Board voted with Stroger 100% of the time, and 10 districts, represented by 11 commissioners, voted against him more than 50% of the time.

The center of controversy at the county level has been the elevated sales tax first proposed by Stroger in September 2007. By increasing the overall rate in some municipalities to 11%, it represented the highest sales tax in the nation. Stroger successfully eked through the increase the following March by a 9-8 through carrots and alleged sticks that included a threatened immigration crackdown. All Republicans joined the opposition, as did three Democrats. The latter chorus would grow in the intervening months.

Commissioner Tony Peraica, Stroger's 2006 Republican opponent, led the first call for the repeal of the tax increase in July 2008, dubbing it Stroger's "corruption tax." It failed 7-10, as Democratic Commissioner Robert Maldonado now stood in defense of the increase.

Gradually, evidence surfaced that the tax hike was harming business in suburban municipalities, and in March of last year the Board voted 12-3 to repeal a portion of the increase. Stroger vetoed the measure as state law at the time required an exceptional 14 out of 17 votes to override a veto. The first attempt failed 11-4, and the second 9-6 last June. Last July, the override sunk once more by an inflated 12-2 margin, with 1 member voting present and 2 absent. In September, the measure fell short by a single vote, 13-4.

Last October, the state legislature amended the statute to reduce the number of votes required to override a veto from 14 to 11, in line with other counties across Illinois on a percentage basis (65%). On cue, the County Board voted on November 16 to reduce the county portion of the sales tax from 1.75% to 1.25% by a 12-5 margin. On December 1, Stroger's veto was finally overriden, though he did question the constitutionality of the new law and claimed that county health care services will be severely crippled by this eventual reduction in revenues. The decrease is set to take effect on July 1, 2010.

This successful veto override was the first in the 179-year history of Cook County and stands as an ominous sign for Stroger and his dwindling supporters on the County Board. Polling data suggests that Stroger will not even win his party's primary next month, and Simpson and Kelly predict that "a number of commissioners who have steadfastly supported high county budgets and sales tax increases are likely to be defeated as well." The implications of the "county wars" transcend mere electoral politics, too: the reforms necessary to streamline county government and place it on a sustainable path lie in waiting.

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Managing Director

McCormick Freedom Project

Shawn is responsible for overseeing and managing the operations associated with the McCormick Freedom Project. Additionally, he serves as the in house content expert and voice of museum through public speaking and original scholarship. Before joining the Freedom Project, he taught American Government, Economics, American History, and Chicago History at Community High School in West Chicago, IL and Sheboygan North High School in Wisconsin.

Shawn is a doctoral candidate within the Political Science Department at the University of Illinois at Chicago where he received his MA in Political Science. He is a 2001 James Madison Fellow from the State of Wisconsin and holds a bachelor's degree in Political Science, History, and Secondary Education from the University of Wisconsin at Madison.

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About Fanning the Flames and the McCormick Freedom Project

Fanning the Flames is a blog of the McCormick Freedom Project, which was started in 2006 by museum managing director Shawn Healy. The blog highlights the news of the day, in hopes of engaging readers in dialogue about freedom issues. Any views or opinions expressed on this blog represent those of the writers alone and do not represent an official opinion of the McCormick Freedom Project.

Founded in 2005, the McCormick Freedom Project is part of the McCormick Foundation. The Freedom Project’s mission is to enable informed and engaged participation in our democracy by demonstrating the relevance of the First Amendment and the role it plays in the ongoing struggle to define and defend freedom. The museum offers programs and resources for teachers, students, and the general public.

First Amendment journalism initiative

The Freedom Project recently launched a new reporting initiative with professional journalists Tim McNulty and Jamie Loo. The goal is to expand and promote the benefits of lifelong civic engagement among citizens of all ages, through original reporting, commentary and news aggregation on First Amendment and freedom issues. Please visit the McCormick Freedom Project's news Web site, The Post-Exchange at