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He's Sorry Now 

Jim Laski Courts the Gay Vote

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In the front hall of Greg Harris's Edgewater apartment building is a female mannequin wearing a curly black wig, a red dress, a shiny silver shawl, and a button, embossed with a pink triangle, that reads Mayor Daley '95. Inside Harris's apartment 23rd Ward alderman James Laski, a short, trim fellow with curly blond hair, is sitting on a couch, smoking a cigarette. He's seeking support for his city clerk's campaign from the AIDS-organization officials, the gay and lesbian activists, and the public officials that Harris, chief of staff for 48th Ward alderman Mary Ann Smith, has invited. Both Laski and Smith are Daley allies.

Two short, thick-necked guys in pin-striped suits, Laski campaign workers, walk in, preceded by Channel Seven's Andy Shaw and a two-man crew. The campaign workers stand around with their hands in their pockets while Shaw busily runs around placing microphones and telling his cameraman where to stand.

Some of the men at Harris's coffee are talking to Michael Bauer, a lawyer who's head of a gay and lesbian committee for Mayor Daley. Bauer just threw a breakfast for the mayor.

"Was it a good time?" someone asks. "Did anyone hit on him?"

"For a good time?" someone else asks.

"Trust me," Bauer says, "nobody hits on the mayor for a good time."

"Daley?" says Andy Shaw, chuckling nervously. "Oh God!"

Daley has actively courted gay support for years, as have many aldermen and state representa-tives, particularly on the north side. But it would seem unlikely that Laski would gain gay and lesbian support. When the City Council voted in 1992 to boycott Colorado because antigay laws had just been passed in that state, Laski was one of three aldermen who opposed the measure. He's also the alderman who last February proposed an ordinance that would have required annual HIV tests for thousands of Chicago workers, including waiters, cooks, swimming-pool attendants, health-club employees, doctors, dentists, police officers, and fire fighters. The proposal was met with outrage. "This is a poorly conceived ordinance based on fear and ignorance," said Larry McKeon, the city's liaison to the gay and lesbian community. "I find it absolutely reprehensible."

In proposing the ordinance Laski talked about the "price of public safety" and said that "there are things the government hasn't told us about AIDS," that AIDS transmission through casual contact was possible. He also said, "I have no problem with the gay community. But I don't support their way of life." A week later, after receiving almost no support, Laski withdrew his proposal, admitting it was too broadly drawn. "This was intended to be a public-health issue, not a political issue," he said. "It's surprising to me the way people reacted, branding this as an antigay ordinance."

Now Laski is claiming he's changed, insisting he's concerned about gay and lesbian issues. One of his opponents for city clerk, state senator Rickey Hendon, received the endorsement of IMPACT, the city's biggest gay and lesbian political-action committee. "It's a political education process," Laski tells one man. "It's unfortunate what I did, but people need to learn. Some very conservative Republicans that I was friends with unfortunately gave me some wrong information. Just remember that Laski never introduced the ordinance. Laski proposed it. And we all have to be educated."

"As you know," says Harris, introducing Laski to the crowd, "Alderman Jim Laski has gained some notoriety in the past in our community for some legislation he's introduced and some votes he's taken. And we're really pleased as a community to always welcome people who are willing to listen to us, listen to our point of view, take a look at the facts as we present them. And we do believe in the power of conversion, so we applaud Alderman Laski for whatever conversion he may be making."

Laski stands up. TV lights shine in his face. He wags a rolled-up piece of paper at the gathering and says, "I'm not going to go back and say why I did it or this and that. I'll say I made a mistake. I apologize, and I think we should move forward. And as city clerk of Chicago I want to reach out to all segments of Chicago. I've been out in the Hispanic community, the African American community, the gay and lesbian community, because a citywide official has got to reach out for everybody--and that is my goal."

The rolled-up paper is a copy of Seattle's domestic-partnership ordinance, which Laski says he wants to use as a model for Chicago. "It's something I've been looking at and have a lot of questions about," he says. "But I just want to let people know that Jim Laski wants to reach out for everybody, and Jim Laski, like other people, needs to be educated on issues. Certainly I don't know enough issues about the gay and lesbian community, but I want to learn about those. It's a learning process and an education process. I was born and raised on the southwest side of Chicago--a very conservative community--and people out there don't really know about issues that are very important to the gay and lesbian community and how sensitive these issues are. I think people need to be educated--including myself--and that's where I'm going. I plan to be a very proactive city clerk. If we can talk about it and if it makes sense, I would be willing, as a conservative boy from the southwest side of Chicago, to introduce it."

"In many ways, legally [an ordinance] gives you nothing, but psychologically it gives you absolutely everything," says Michael Bauer. "We live in a society that denies the legitimacy of gay and lesbian relationships."

"Taking that to the next step," someone else says, "it also gives the individual the power to advocate in their own place of business to get the benefits they feel they deserve."

Laski nods sympathetically. "It's an issue of sensitivity, compassion. Well, that's the kind of things I want to discuss. I said it's an education process. There are a lot of people in the city of Chicago who aren't sensitive to these issues. They don't understand these problems and situations. I can't do it myself, but my community, the southwest side of Chicago, has always been a very conservative community. And certainly there need to be some efforts made to educate people on the southwest side--and the northwest side-- about issues that are important in the gay and lesbian community."

Harris asks the crowd if these issues would play well on the southwest side.

One man says, "That's part of why I left Cicero. It's just really intolerant there. By the same token, that's not something that's taught. I don't think people change. People who feel one way end up migrating up north to be by people like themselves. People on the southwest side are glad that people migrate north."

Another man, from Marquette Park, says, "There are many, many gay men and women in the 23rd Ward, but you don't know about them. There are far too many people with HIV, and the issues to the city as a whole are also important to the southwest side. I have many gay friends on the southwest side, and they refuse to leave there. They don't want to migrate to the north side so they can live in the so-called community up here."

"There's a gay bar in the 23rd Ward, at 63rd and Harlem," says Laski. "There was a country-and-western bar kitty-corner to it." His voice gets softer. "There were a lot of problems."

The crowd doesn't appear entirely won over. Someone asks Laski again about his record on gay and lesbian issues as alderman. Andy Shaw, smiling goonily, shines a light in Laski's face as he replies. "I voted on issues that were more conducive to the 98 percent majority in my ward. But as time goes on you have to be more sensitive to the needs of everybody else--and that's what I want to do as city clerk. I'm not going to defend my record in the gay and lesbian community. As I've said before--in public--it's been abysmal at best. I've had a horrible record as far as you're concerned. But I believe that we can go forward and make some positive changes."

Finally Harris thanks Laski for his "courage," then adds, "You didn't have to do this. We would like to help you find some comfort in this and find some comfort for us, and make some of these things a reality."

Bauer asks Laski if he'll continue to support gay issues if he loses the primary.

Laski says he'll keep an open mind. "When I proposed mandatory HIV testing my wife, who was director of catering for the Everest Room--she has a lot of friends in the gay and lesbian community who work in the restaurant. When she heard about this proposal she went absolutely crazy. She was livid. She thought it was crazy, she thought it was stupid, and she told me that."

"Good for her," someone says.

"Is she running for office?" shouts Larry McKeon, to much laughter and applause.

"She has really helped me a lot in understanding the truth," Laski says. "She has a very strong compassion for these types of issues, and she's expressed it. And I counsel with my wife a lot."

As Laski makes his way toward the door Bauer tells him, "My advice to you would be to be visible at political events."

"I will," says Laski. "People need to know something about Jim Laski--that he's not this homophobic guy."

McKeon puts his arm around Laski. "Look at us. We sound like Beavis and Butt-head."

"You know, Larry, there are people who aren't going to change," says Laski. "If I'm going to be a citywide elected official I have to reach out." He pats McKeon on the arm. "I don't mean to be cocky, but I'm going to win this race. I knew it last Saturday when I met with the Baptist ministers in the African American community and they were supportive. I knew it then." He pauses. "And you know I'm not the biggest fan of those guys."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photo/Randy Tunnell.

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