It's not often that someone who worked on a state legislative staff actually wins a campaign for himself, but it happened last week in Chicago.
Former House Democratic staffer Brendan Reilly won his aldermanic race against longtime Chicago Alderman Burton Natarus last week by about nine points, stunning the Chicago political world, which didn't think that Natarus, who joined the city council in 1972, could be defeated. Reilly silenced the critics by bringing a new level of sophistication to the Chicago political game.
Reilly created direct mail programs for Democratic House candidates during his years in Springfield, carefully honing his skills at designing successful campaign messages and learning that staying with those messages and not panicking was all-important. He ended up running a classic three to four-week mail program, all designed to paint himself as a young reformer who was eager to work with Mayor Richard M. Daley, and meticulously stuck to a handful of poll-tested issues against Natarus, including the impression that the alderman was way too close to developers. He flooded the cable channels with well-produced TV ads as the other side scoffed that it was a waste of money. Ald. Natarus was eventually forced to run his own cable ads, but they were too late and had little impact.
Reilly had strong support from organized labor, but his secret weapon was his cadre of highly experienced volunteers. Most of the people who worked and volunteered for Reilly's campaign were former members of House and Senate Democratic staff. Even some current and former Republican staffers played a role in the effort ("Hacks stick together," was the battle cry).
Campaign staffers live for political work, but, unlike Reilly, they usually prefer to stay in the background. There are a few exceptions. Downstate Reps. Kurt Granberg and Chapin Rose are two of the rare exceptions.
Most of Reilly's people had long moved on from day-to-day hack work, but they are always eager to keep their hands in, and Reilly offered them a chance to do the sort of thing they love. Reilly recruited dozens of precinct-level workers who had themselves run high-intensity campaigns. Natarus' aging Machine operation was no match.
Plenty of other factors played into this race, including Reilly's prodigious fundraising, his adroit use of polling, "robocalls" and the personal calls from the candidate himself. It's difficult to walk that downtown Chicago ward because it's all high-rises, so Reilly spent a lot of time at "L" stops, dog parks and other areas where ward residents congregated. He spent the last week personally calling undecided voters, contacting hundreds of people and padding his victory margin. He did manage to gain access to several buildings, and his people (many of whom lived in the buildings themselves) worked them hard, either at the doors or by phone, depending on the building rules.
Ald. Natarus did more than he usually did, but it was all too little, too late. His mail was cookie-cutter, look-alike stuff, and way too many pieces were sent out in a panic during the last week, causing some residents to receive as many as five pieces in a single day. Since all the mail looked alike, the vast majority of them immediately landed in the trash. Natarus' too-late cable TV ads were amateurish and obviously put together at the last minute. Reilly's ads, like his mail program, had been planned months in advance.
Towards the end, Natarus attempted to use Mayor Richard M. Daley as a shield against Reilly's campaign. Daley appeared in much of the alderman's mail and TV and the mayor did a robocall for the alderman. Daley's approval ratings in that ward are sky-high, but while they like him, residents seemed to know what he was all about and decided that someone else needed to be in there as a polite check on the mayor's immense power. This happened all over the city, by the way, as Daley's coattails were shorter than ever. He won a landslide, but aldermen were hurting everywhere.
In the end, Reilly (a personal friend of mine for years) did what few have ever done in Chicago. He put together a solid organization from scratch and soundly defeated a Machine candidate. Good for him.
Rich Miller also publishes Capitol Fax, a daily political newsletter, and thecapitolfaxblog.com