On the Stump With Sawyer | Miscellany | Chicago Reader

On the Stump With Sawyer 

The Campaign of Lowered Voices

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At the el station at 95th Street and the Dan Ryan Expressway, a teddy-bearish campaign worker is hollering through a bullhorn. "Mayor Sawyer and Jesse Jackson say good morning! Good morning! Punch eight on February 28!"

Outside, the sky is as white as the layer of snow that covers the streets. A steady stream of commuters trails through the wet, white slush. They look over at the man with the bullhorn and rush to meet Jackson, who towers above the crowd.

"Here, say good morning to the mayor," Jackson says, leading a young man over to the mayor of the third largest city in the country, who is almost indistinguishable from the commuters and his security detail.

The candidate is cringing, almost embarrassed by the noise from the bullhorn. He strains to hear a large woman who is carrying a briefcase and a bulging shopping bag. She's talking about garbage pickup, and Sawyer--who should be pumping hands one after the other like Jackson--is actually listening.

"Gene, Gene," Jackson says, a slight annoyance in his voice. He thrusts the young man toward Sawyer.

"You're doing a fine job, mayor," the potential voter says.

Sawyer smiles at him, but his body is still leaning toward the woman. "I really appreciate that," he says, shaking hands. Then he turns back to the woman. "You call my office, all right? We'll take care of it for you, ma'am." The woman beams, promising to call, but not necessarily to vote for him.

"Meet the mayor, support the mayor," Jackson keeps repeating, his hands flashing over the commuters as if they were on an assembly line. "Maintain the gain." He pushes every fourth or fifth person over to Sawyer, who's chuckling over Jackson's campaigning efficiency.

"I don't know how he does it," Sawyer says. "Look at this." He lifts his hands to show the chafing caused by too much touching. A few feet from him, Jackson continues, stretching both arms to shake hands, up and down in continuous motion. Sawyer smiles and, perhaps forgetting who's running for office, walks a voter over to the erstwhile presidential candidate. "Have you met Reverend Jackson?" he asks.

"Campaigning citywide is brutal," Sawyer says, relaxing over a breakfast of biscuits, ham sausage, grits, and scrambled eggs at Ms. Biscuits, a greasy spoon in the heart of the 20th Ward. The place seats only about 20 customers at a time; Sawyer has been a regular for 13 years. He likes to cut up his sausage and eggs and whip it all together with the grits.

"I enjoy campaigning," he says between bites, "but it is different from running for alderman. We had it down to a science. You've got to remember, I ran five times; I've never lost an election. I'm a committeeman too, and I'm one of the best."

For Sawyer, it's an atypical boast. But this morning he's just got the news that the Southtown Economist, a newspaper based in the predominantly white Hegewisch neighborhood, has him within eight percentage points of campaign rival Rich Daley. Sawyer, nodding in time to the blues pouring out of Ms. Biscuits' jukebox, is in a great mood.

"I think people want some peace and tranquillity," he says. His voice is always soft, always a near whisper. "People want somebody who'll run a good government, but with a gentler demeanor. They want someone who'll get everybody to lower their voices. That's why I'm up in the polls, that's why people are taking a second look. I'm the guy they want.

"I never thought I'd run for mayor--I thought Harold would be mayor for 20 years and then I'd be too old," Sawyer continues. He gladly confesses that there's probably some truth to a popular story about how he pinches himself every morning to make sure he's still mayor. "I had some thoughts about running for Congress. I thought about it a lot after Ralph Metcalfe died, but the day I finally sat down with a consultant to talk about it, I also got the news that my wife had breast cancer."

Eleanor Sawyer, the mayor's second wife, from whom he is separated, survived her illness and Sawyer settled for aldermanic politics--until December 2, 1987.

"I could have walked away from all this," he says, his hand waving over his plate at the invisible power he was given that night. "You wouldn't believe the things that went through my mind. I talked with my family, my minister. The thing for me was keeping what Harold had accomplished. That was the only thing that mattered. That was it."

Sawyer wipes his mouth delicately with a napkin and lights up a More menthol. He never smokes in public, but he keeps the habit, he says, because it keeps his weight down.

"The night I got elected, I was watching TV and I just couldn't understand who they were talking about," he continues. "Then I realized it was me, and I couldn't believe it. I've never done anything to hurt anybody in my life. Those speeches on the floor were horrible. They really hurt. It hurt me, it hurt me real bad. I cried actually. There were lots of times afterward, I just laid in my bed, going through all sorts of frustration."

At the 79th Street el station, a young black woman sneers as Sawyer shakes hands with the throng. "I wouldn't vote for him if he were the last man on earth," she says. She's wearing a button for independent candidate Tim Evans on her lapel. But as she passes Sawyer, her hand goes to his and she squeezes.

The mayor glances at the button and nods, a smile forming on his face. "Tim Evans will always be my friend," he says later. "He's got a great future. But it's just not his time yet. It'd be nice to have his endorsement. For some people, it would ease the tension. He's never been a mean-spirited person. I don't know what's happening with him. I guess people change."

For many voters, Sawyer says, the memory of the raucous City Council meeting that made him mayor overnight has faded. But for him it's still fresh--and it still has its nightmarish shades.

"I didn't establish the process of selection, state law did," he says defensively. "You know, I had to take it. When Burke told me, 'You wait until Friday, you'll blow it,' he was right. Terry Gabinski was only two votes shy, Larry Bloom was out there looking."

It's well-known that Sawyer huddled with his family and minister, but he also spent some time alone. "I had to think about Harold, what Harold would have wanted," he says. "You know, Harold wouldn't have left the gavel to me [as president pro tempore of City Council] if he didn't have confidence in me. Three out of the last four council meetings under Harold, I chaired. You know Harold, in my position, would have taken it and then fired 500 people the next day, just like that." He laughs at the idea.

He remembers when there were only a handful of blacks in City Hall, and they were mostly maintenance workers. And he attributes today's greater mix to Washington. That had to be protected, he says.

"I told Tim if he got 25 votes, I'd give him the 26th," Sawyer says. "But he couldn't do it. I couldn't broker for him--no way. That's what leadership is all about. He had to get them himself. And I'll tell you something, he couldn't have gotten them. For one thing, not all the black aldermen would have voted for him. Anna [Langford], there's one who's not running for reelection, and she wasn't going to vote for Tim."

Sawyer says the calls and death threats against his supporters were orchestrated. "It was all about certain people keeping their jobs, that's all."

He'd be supporting Evans now if Evans had been elected that night, Sawyer says. "I would have never run against him. And if I did, I'd have gone off on my own and done my own thing." It's a thinly disguised criticism. "I wouldn't call what's happening now--with the use of Harold's name--well, tasteful." Evans is running under the banner of the Harold Washington Party.

Sawyer says there was no way he could have taken the mayor's office without alienating some people. "I was damned if I did, damned if I didn't. Now, I'm carrying all this load. I don't fear losing--although I've never lost and I don't know what it's like. You go through all these changes. I worry a lot. If I lose, well, I worry. If I win, in my heart of hearts, no, I don't think Tim will run against me in the general election."

There's a story that some black committeemen and aldermen like to tell about the morning after Washington's first victory in 1983. The group of them, Sawyer included, had gone to the new mayor's apartment building on South Shore Drive to escort him to City Hall. Washington, apparently contemplating the burden he'd just accepted as Chicago's first black mayor, stepped outside, stopped, and looked out over the city. Then he puffed up his chest and let out a big, roaring laugh. Pointing out to the Loop, Washington declared, "Hey, I'm the mayor--the mayor!--of this big, bad city!" And the men and women there, Sawyer among them, laughed with him.

Sawyer knows he may never get the chance to bask like that. "Sometimes it's too much," he says, looking out at the skyline from his car on the Dan Ryan Expressway. "It's so big. You really have to care, otherwise, I understand how you can become a monster. There are people out there, and they're your responsibility."

His first few days in office were madness. He didn't have a press secretary. Nobody in the downtown media had a handle on him. The Evans people were only too willing to talk, and they were never kind.

"The magnitude of the whole thing, I just had to get it into perspective," Sawyer says. "Suddenly, overnight, I was the mayor of Chicago--imagine that! I didn't have a transition team or anything of the kind, nothing that people do to prepare. People were running around, shredding stuff, calling, threatening each other's lives. You're just in the middle of it, trying to figure out where you're going and how you're going to get there."

Sawyer went home after being sworn in. He says he couldn't sleep. He wanted to wake up and find Harold Washington still alive.

"When I went into his office the next day, I looked around and tried to find the spot where I thought he'd fallen," Sawyer says. "I wanted him to be alive so badly. I just put my head down. It's all I could do." For 30 days, Sawyer refused to sit in the mayor's chair.

The office is Sawyer's now, and it lacks the crowded, celebratory feel of the Washington days. Plaques and presents flow from the shelves, but they seem more modest and personal than the official memorabilia that Washington favored. Dolores Woods, who was Washington's personal secretary and now serves Sawyer, says the vault in the basement of City Hall is jammed with gifts from politicians and foreign heads of state. In the office, Sawyer keeps pictures of his grandchildren, pictures of Washington and of the late Mayor Richard J. Daley, and one of Sawyer himself, framed by a friend and inscribed with the legend, "The courage to turn a legacy into a reality while nurturing parallel visions of his own." Next to this portrait is a small school picture of a seven-year-old white girl framed by a hand-drawn three-leaf clover. "She gave me that," Sawyer says. "She was so cute; I just had to have it framed."

"I always said the gap would narrow," Sawyer says, looking over the new poll figures. "I want to win this election, and then run one more time, serve one more term. If I do that, I'll have served some 36, 38 years in public life. I'll be 60. I'll retire and have some fun."

If he wins the election, he says, he'll get a chance to have a real Sawyer administration. With the uncertainty of his interim job, it's been hard to get the kind of people he'd like to enter city government.

"If I lose, I'd like to take a month to rest," he says. "Then I'll look for another way of making a contribution. I'm young, you know. I'd like to travel. After 1989, I might even consider running for public office again. All in all, I don't complain, God's been good to me. How many people get this kind of opportunity? I just remember that church song, the one that says 'I got mountains to climb, valleys to walk through, but I won't complain.' That's my song."

He doesn't want to be a footnote, doesn't want to be forgotten. "No matter what happens, I want to be remembered as somebody who cared--who cared a lot," he says, an urgency in his voice. "I know how that sounds, I'm not a great speaker like Harold Washington. But I want people to realize I tried to make life better, easier, like for the people at CHA--we've done a lot but I'd really like to get the whole concept of public housing changed. I hope the gay community remembers me--we worked hard together. I hope the average person, the person who goes to work every day, I hope they know who Gene Sawyer really is.

"When I came here, I never thought I'd have an impact. I thought I'd work, raise a family, retire--just like my daddy did. But life has a way of redirecting you. Now I want my chance to leave my mark."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Kurt Mitchell.

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