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A Kink in the Campaign 

If his challenge to Deb Mell's nominating petition succeeds, state rep candidate Joe Laiacona just might run unopposed in the Democratic primary. But can a leather master actually win in the general election?

Most people who signed Joe Laiacona's petition to run for state representative of the 40th District probably had no idea they were supporting a historic campaign. That's because Laiacona didn't tell them. One evening in August I followed the 62-year-old as he hoofed it down Sacramento between Irving Park and Addison. Wearing a short-sleeve plaid shirt tucked into jeans, he said almost exactly the same thing to anyone who'd open the door: "Hi, I'm Joe Laiacona. I'm running for state rep of the 40th District, and I'm wondering if you'd like to sign my petition. It doesn't mean you'll vote for me. It just means you'll have a choice."

Laiacona, a part-time computer science teacher at Columbia College, is running as a reformer against the incumbent, Deborah Mell, daughter of powerful 33rd Ward alderman Richard Mell. With the help of veteran election lawyer Richard Means, Laiacona has filed a gutsy challenge to her nominating petition, alleging that she's not a registered voter at her current residence. That has election watchers buzzing, but it's not what makes him a historic candidate. And he's an openly gay man going toe-to-toe with an out lesbian for state office in a working-class northwest-side district—a first. But there's more: if elected, Laiacona would be the first known leather master to take office in Illinois.

Under the alias Jack Rinella, Laiacona writes a popular column called "Leather Views," which ran in Gay Chicago Magazine from 1992 to 2008 and can now be subscribed to by e-mail at LeatherViews.com. He's published seven books on sadomasochism, bondage, and role-playing, including The Master's Manual: A Handbook of Erotic Dominance (1994), Becoming a Slave: The Theory & Practice of Voluntary Servitude (2005), and Philosophy in the Dungeon: The Magic of Sex & Spirit (2006). His writing, along with his lecture and seminar schedule, has made him a leader in the kinky community and a sort of Ann Landers in leather, and he has been tapping this underground group for financial support in his campaign. Now some leaders in the fetish community worry Laiacona could sacrifice his role in their community in the process.

As a boy in Albany, New York, Laiacona wanted to be a priest. In 1964, at 17, he tried enrolling at Mater Christi Seminary, but he says the priests turned him away because he was too young. He instead went to Saint Michael's, a Catholic liberal arts college in Vermont, and transferred to Mater Christi the next year. But as it turned out, he didn't find life in the seminary compatible with his Christian beliefs—particularly his interpretation of the vow of poverty. "I literally lived in a mansion," he says, "with a car at my disposal—filled with gas—and all my bills paid."

Laiacona transferred back to Saint Michael's and graduated with a BA in philosophy in 1969. He got a teaching certificate at the University of Albany shortly thereafter, got a job teaching high school, and in 1971 married his girlfriend. In 1977 they moved to Indiana, where Laiacona took a marketing gig at the Catholic publishing company Our Sunday Visitor, and raised their two daughters, both of whom are now in their 30s. In 1982, Laiacona earned a master's in business administration from Indiana University-Purdue University in Fort Wayne.

click to enlarge Joe Laiacona

The next year, Laiacona came out to his wife, causing the marriage to end in an acrimonious divorce.

"It was an enormous struggle for me," he says. "I had no choice. I had to stop lying to the woman I loved the most in the world, even if it meant divorce, because the truth is important."

Laiacona says he was laid off from Our Sunday Visitor in 1986, by which time his ex-wife and kids had moved to New Jersey. He tried starting his own new age publishing company but says the business was a "disaster" and almost left him bankrupt. In 1991 he came to Chicago and took a job selling computers.

It was in that capacity that he walked into the Lakeview office of Gay Chicago Magazine, where he overheard publisher Ralph Gernhardt talking about finding a leather columnist. Laiacona says he volunteered on the spot, though he hadn't much experience writing about the subject—he'd published two "short stories" in another, now defunct gay magazine. Craig Gernhardt, who took over Gay Chicago Magazine in 2005, just before his dad died, says Ralph liked Laiacona's clips and hired him, resulting in the creation of "Leather Views" and Jack Rinella.

Laiacona says he used a pseudonym to protect his oldest daughter, who was applying to colleges in Chicago. He published his own name in the column for the first time in 1997, in a piece on the difficulty of writing gay history with so many sources who were afraid to be named.

"I started to cough when I saw a photo of him dressed in a suit under the name Joe Laiacona," says Gernhardt. "He's the leather guy. He would come into the office in his leather garb."

Gernhardt says he's bothered that Laiacona's campaign literature doesn't mention his fetish work. Laiacona says he won't deny his ties to the community if he's asked about it, but that it's not part of his campaign.

"I live an honest and authentic life, and I'm not ashamed or guilty about anything I've done in that regard," he says. "I've written about healthy sexuality of a consensual adult nature, and I don't believe the government has a role in my bedroom. That's the end of the discussion."

Laiacona was laid off from his computer sales job in 1992, the same year he started writing "Leather Views." Columbia College hired him in January 1994, and a few years later he helped form a union for part-timers like himself.

click to enlarge Deb Mell
  • Deb Mell

Last winter, after the impeachment of Rod Blagojevich—Deb Mell's brother-in-law—Laiacona hosted a union meeting at his house in Albany Park. In his small, cozy living room, which is dominated by two big black leather couches, Laiacona discussed the scandal with fellow Columbia instructor Dan Sutherland.

"Joe, you got to run for office," Sutherland said.

"Really?" Laiacona asked. "What should I run for?"

Sutherland thought the state legislature, or maybe the Cook County Board.

In fact Laiacona had already been thinking about running against his own state rep, Deb Mell, who'd voted no on impeaching her brother-in-law instead of abstaining. But Sutherland's suggestion pushed him off the fence—here was a guy he'd never even talked to before the union meeting, and he thought Laiacona was candidate material.

In June, says Laiacona's partner, Patrick Herlihy, whom he frequently refers to as his slave in his columns, a friend of a friend hinted that they should look up Mell's address. Laiacona checked out her voter registration, which listed her as living on Clybourn. Herlihy, who rides his bicycle past that address on his way to work, reported back that he saw a man's name on the mailbox.

Then, in mid-October, Laiacona says, he was out gathering signatures when met a man doing the same for Mell. Laiacona says he made the man a proposal: "I said, I'll show you mine if you show me yours." Mell's petition, he says, gave an address on Melrose Street.

Laiacona notes on his blog, joe4forty.blogspot.com, that his lawyer, Richard Means—"wise man or is it 'wise guy' that he is"—waited until an hour before the deadline to file the challenge, which asserts: "Because Deborah L. Mell is not a duly registered voter at the address from which she seeks to be a candidate, the Nomination Papers are invalid in their entirety." (A PDF of the entire challege can be found here)

Mell didn't challenge Laiacona's petition.

"Well, today it's all history," Laiacona continues on the blog, and "not only am I on the ballot but I have a good chance of being the only one."

Political observers have been hooting over the daughter of Richard Mell making such a rookie mistake. "She signed these petitions, so she must have seen them," says Dick Simpson, the former Chicago alderman who teaches political science at the University of Illinois at Chicago. "Maybe she's distracted by the Blagojevich scandal."

Knocking your opponent off the ballot on a technicality is a cherished election-season pastime in Chicago. In his 1996 race for state senate, for instance, Barack Obama used petition challenges to get incumbent Alice Palmer and three other would-be candidates booted. He ended up running unopposed—but Simpson doesn't think Laiacona will be so lucky. He says Mell could probably win the February 2 primary as a write-in candidate, especially given her father's influence, or campaign as a Green Party or independent candidate in the general election next November.

And that's assuming the Board of Elections even agrees with Laiacona's argument or, if it does, that Mell and her own experienced election lawyer, Mike Kasper, wouldn't appeal the decision all the way up to the Illinois Supreme Court. (Kasper says he doesn't think Laiacona has a case; he's preparing his argument to that effect for a hearing slated for Tuesday, November 24.) Laiacona estimates it would cost him $20,000 to retain his lawyer for that long.

According to campaign disclosure forms submitted at the end of June to the Illinois Board of Elections (the most recent available), Laiacona, who says he makes about $44,000 a year, had raised a little over $6,000 and spent more than $5,000; he declined to reveal whether he's raised more since. Mell, by contrast, had a little over $19,000 in the bank.

To defeat an incumbent like Mell, says Simpson, any candidate needs a serious fund-raising operation. So far Laiacona doesn't have one. Collecting signatures back in August, he began reeling off the things he wasn't accomplishing because he doesn't have enough manpower. "When I'm collecting signatures, I can't update the blog," he said, "and when I'm updating the blog I can't raise money."

Laiacona's campaign is headquartered at the home he shares with Herlihy. A campaign poster hangs in the large front window of the modest white house. Inside, the dining room table is covered in stacks of envelopes and flyers.

As part of his fund-raising efforts, Laiacona is reaching out to fellow sadomasochists. He hasn't said what he would do specifically for the community if elected, though he has referred to "antiquated laws" that, if enforced, could be used against it. But he says he raised $1,800 at one leather party, and he pitched members of the Next Generation Chicago, a pansexual BDSM group for the 18-34 set, at one of their meetings at the Leather Archives & Museum in Rogers Park. He's also used his column to enlist supporters by drawing parallels between being a reformer and a practitioner of sadomasochism.

"For years I have written about the necessity of being authentic," Laiacona wrote under his real name on August 31. "I have extolled transparency, honesty, and trustworthiness. I have suggested actions that I felt would benefit our community. I have urged you, my readers, to be activists according to your particular situation and abilities. The time is right for me to put my actions where my mouth has been."

His published platform, at friendsforjoelaiacona.org/Platform.pdf, says he's for, among other things, limiting campaign contributions by party leaders—a reform house speaker Michael Madigan has blocked in the past. He's for term limits for state representatives and senators. He supports legislation to make it easier for unions to organize. He's pro medical marijuana and pro gay marriage.

And as part of his election-reform plank, he's for curtailing "costly challenges to signatures on petitions."

One of Laiacona's biggest supporters is Chuck Renslow. A precinct captain for 43rd Ward committeeman Dan O'Brien during the 70s, Renslow has long lobbied for gay rights, meeting with Chicago mayors going back to Richard J. Daley. The 80-year-old, who still helps organize International Mr. Leather, the pageant and fetish convention he cofounded in 1979, now spends most of his days at Man's Country, the gay bathhouse he owns in Andersonville. Renslow wrote Laiacona a letter back when he was writing for Gay Chicago Magazine, suggesting they meet, and the two became friends; Renslow even helped Laiacona join the Freemasons.

Renslow too proposes that the same qualities that make a good master make a good political leader. "When somebody puts themselves totally in your charge, they have to trust you," he says from behind his large wooden desk at Man's County. "And not only do they have to trust you, but the person who is the top—or whatever you want to call it—has to have integrity that they won't hurt the person or damage them. You can cause somebody pain that can be pleasurable, but not damage, and there's a big difference."

But Deb Mell wonders how effectively Laiacona can work within the state legislature given his kinky past. "We can't get a civil unions bill passed and here's a guy who's . . . into bondage and sex slaves?" she says. But she also accuses Laiacona of "hiding" his ties to the kinky community. "It's a conservative bunch out here in the 40th District, so it probably works in his favor not to mention it."

Even some people in his own community are debating Laiacona's political viability. In the inaugural edition of DungeonPlace.com's FetishCast podcast, after a segment on whether sadomasochists should be considered experts on military torture, hosts Meow, Gryphon, Goddess, Tutivillus, and DarlingEvil discussed his campaign and what impact his work might have on his bid for state representative.

"This is a man that's been open in the community," said DarlingEvil. "[I]s the mainstream . . . going to look at that and say, 'Is this someone we want representing us in our government?'"

Then again, Gryphon joked later, in Chicago politics, he just might be "the lesser evil."

Renslow says Laiacona's facing growing pressure to become a public advocate for fetishists. "What they should know is that he is on our side," Renslow says. "He can't come out and say, 'Oh, I'm going to make a law.' Whatever. He can't do it. What you've got to understand, the first thing is to get elected."

It's a dilemma Renslow has thought plenty about. In the 60s, he says, the legendary Cook County Democratic Central Committee chairman and county board president George Dunne approached him to run for office—alderman or maybe county board, he can't remember which. Dunne had conducted a poll on possible gay candidates, and Renslow had the most name recognition. But Renslow turned him down.

"I would have done more harm than good," he says. "My rivals would have made a big deal about 'the S & M clubs and people beating each other.'"   

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