"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
CHICAGO — Mayoral elections these days in Chicago are more like Super Bowls from the 1980s than actual political contests, with Mayor Richard M. Daley in the San Francisco 49ers role. Daley has all the talent and all the power on his side, and since 1989 he has regularly mowed down his challengers, patsies selected from a weak pool, one after another. He regularly racks up 65 percent of the vote or higher, and rarely has to resort to actual campaigning. He just wins. In this year’s mayoral vote on Tuesday, Daley will demolish his challenger, Rep. Bobby Rush, by at least 20 percentage points. Political observers here, who had hoped for a better game this time, are disappointed. Daley has barely campaigned at all, and Rush has flailed around desperately, swinging at air.
It wasn’t supposed to be this way. Rush is the most serious challenger Daley has faced yet. He nearly ran for mayor in 1995, but at the last minute let Joe Gardner, a longtime city bureaucrat, get served up as sacrifice. He also stood by and watched as Daley handily took care of former Illinois Attorney General Roland Burris, in the general election. Having to run two campaigns became a hassle for Daley, so he managed to get the Legislature to declare municipal elections “nonpartisan.” There would be no more primaries, just one shot, one opposition candidate. For 1999, there was no confusion: Daley’s opponent would be Bobby Rush.
Rush had a distinguished nine-year career as an alderman in a city council that is often a clearinghouse for corrupt buffoonery. His seven years in Congress have been similarly above reproach. He co-founded the Illinois Black Panther Party in 1968, which no one considers a detriment, except perhaps the local chapter of the Fraternal Order of Police. He is well-respected and widely known across the city.
Nevertheless, Rush’s flaws became evident even before he officially declared his candidacy. Last summer, he led a 600-person march on City Hall to protest public-transportation service cuts. Security guards wouldn’t let Rush and his people in, and in a standard trope of Chicago political theater, Rush declaimed that the city’s government was closed to ordinary citizens. But when the service cuts had actually been debated by the Chicago Transit Authority in 1997, Rush had been noticeably absent from the protests. He had also voted in Congress against increasing federal public-transportation subsidies. All that could have been forgiven. But when Rush finally did march on City Hall, this crew included no senior citizens or Latinos — the two populations hardest hit by the transit cuts.
Rush’s biggest sin then was a lack of inclusiveness, and his problems have only grown during this election season. “Campaigns are about addition, not subtraction,” says Rick Garcia, a leading Chicago gay-rights activist, “and Bobby hasn’t added it up right. He’s made all the mistakes of not broadening his base. He doesn’t even play to his base, truth be told. There’s no doubt that the mayor is a formidable obstacle with his money and influence and high favorability numbers, but no individual is immune from criticisms, and I thought the congressman would do much better than he has.”
“Bobby doesn’t have the knack of dramatizing the issues,” says Leon Despres, a Chicago lawyer who served in the city council from 1955 to 1975. “If I were a mayoral candidate, I would hammer at the police brutality issue, but I would hammer at it so that anyone who would read what I say would feel personally involved. You might go out and be arrested, you might have your door broken in. How would you feel, being tortured for something you didn’t do? Make every listener feel that they are in danger. He [Rush] raises the issue very well, but doesn’t dramatize it, doesn’t make shivers come up and down your spine.”
When Rush has tried to personalize issues, he’s ended up looking silly. He held a press conference in December to speak against Mayor Daley’s “gang loitering” ordinance, which is currently being debated before the Supreme Court. Rush had several teenagers with him on the podium. He said that under the loitering law, any of these kids could be arrested at any time, merely for being young and black. It turned out, however, that most of the teens were related to Rush campaign staffers. When reporters asked them if they’d ever had trouble with police, they all said no.
From there, things only got worse for Rush. The city towed his car as he held a press conference criticizing the Daley administration’s snow-removal techniques. A small group of Muslim fundamentalists booed him off the stage during an event to commemorate the end of Ramadan. When the Chicago Tribune disclosed that he owed $750 in parking tickets, Rush denied owing the money, saying that most of the tickets had been accumulated by his wife. Rush continued to rack up absurdities. In a press conference meant to criticize a rise in police brutality, he instead blamed the mayor for the deaths of 500 elderly people during a 1995 heat wave. In another event, he announced that he was being endorsed by the “Greek-American” community, as represented by Peter Pavilos, one of his few major financial backers. He scheduled Anthony Porter, a recently freed death-row inmate, to appear at his campaign headquarters, but Porter backed out at the last minute, saying he wanted to stay out of politics. When Rush planned a walk-around in an Indian neighborhood, he chose to kick off the event at a Pakistani restaurant whose owner was a fervent Daley supporter, down to having autographed pictures of the mayor on his walls.
Perhaps Rush’s best opportunity to slam Daley came in late January, when the city decided to lock out dozens of homeless people from Lower Wacker Drive, where they’ve slept harmlessly for decades. Appearing on Lower Wacker before an enormous crush of media, Chicago homeless advocates and the legendary Studs Terkel decried the city’s heartless actions. Rush showed up separately, with his own entourage, but he wasn’t talking about homelessness. Instead, he was complaining that someone had spray-painted racist graffiti in the elevator of his campaign headquarters. By then, it was obvious that the Rush campaign was a wasted opportunity.
“This campaign doesn’t represent a reasonable, reusable progressive politics in Chicago,” says Larry Bennett, a political science professor at DePaul University, who wrote some of Rush’s early position papers. “What defines a progressive alternative within the electoral context of Chicago at this point is an effort to recharge the Harold Washington coalition. That is 15 years too late. The man is long dead. God bless him, because he was a terrific individual, and a good mayor. But aside from Rush’s campaign just being a backward evocation of a wonderful moment in history, it’s also not at all cognizant of the realities of the city at the present time.”
After the appearance of the mysterious graffiti, Chicago voters were treated to a series of fresh complaints from the Rush campaign, which, according to polls, now trailed Daley’s juggernaut by 48 percent. According to Rush, his campaign was plagued by bomb threats, phone threats and even street crime, as a campaign photographer broke his leg trying to escape from three “politically motivated” assailants.
“Pretty soon, they’ll be throwing bricks through the windows,” Mayor Daley cynically responded.
Meanwhile, people were still waiting for Rush to release his first position paper. With three weeks to go in the campaign, he finally did. But by then no one was listening.
Not that Daley wanted to help Rush run a credible campaign. When Rush desperately, repeatedly called on the mayor to debate him, Daley declined, saying no debates were part of his “campaign strategy.” But there was plenty to debate. On the surface, Daley is incredibly popular. He’s made a number of cosmetic improvements to the city. Flower boxes and street art abound. Tourists are visiting Chicago like never before. The Department of Cultural Affairs has won numerous awards. It’s a great city to live in, if you’re a middle-class white person.
But Daley’s Chicago is not the urban-renewal paradise that the mayor and his supporters claim. His administration is rife with cronyism and petty corruption. Daley regularly rewards his biggest campaign contributors, many of them old family friends, with enormous construction contracts. There is no effective mechanism in place to punish police officers with histories of brutality. Public transportation is collapsing, and creeping gentrification has created a serious shortage of affordable housing. Poor and working-class people are being increasingly squeezed into smaller and smaller areas of the city. He’s a Democratic version of New York’s Rudy Giuliani, offering a kinder, gentler version of Giuliani’s forbidding urban politics.
“He doesn’t provide leadership on basic issues of poverty, racial discrimination, affordable housing,” Despres says. “Daley has this terrible control of the city council. His father controlled it through patronage. Virtually no alderman dared challenge him. Now this fellow has 20 aldermen he’s appointed. He’s pursued a policy of tying every alderman to him by giving them autocratic authority in their ward.”
Thus, the city council routinely passes important bills without debate, often without any opposition votes. Daley’s planning commission pushes through big-ticket development projects with even less dissension. The Police Board is independent of the Police Department only on paper. And while Daley may not have his father’s thousands-strong army of patronage workers, he can still call out the troops when he needs to. Last November, the Hispanic Democratic Organization, made up mostly of city employees, helped knock out Jesus Garcia, a popular Mexican-American state senator and possible future mayoral candidate. The HDO workers told voters that if they elected Garcia, they would lose city services like street repairs, even though Garcia had no power over such matters. Instead, they ended up pushing through their man, Tony Muqoz, a former cop with no political experience.
In this election, the HDO is backing John Pope, a mayoral aide, for alderman of the 10th Ward, an enormous expanse on the city’s southeast side and one of the few parts of the city that Daley doesn’t control. Anyone who supports any of Pope’s nine opponents is in trouble, as a local hardware store owner found out. After he dared to put an opposition sign in his front window, he received an expensive ticket for an “overflowing dumpster” behind his shop. He got the message: Support Daley’s man, or you’ll be punished.
The Chicago Tribune, in a recent interview, asked Daley to describe his political organization. To the paper’s credit, it printed Daley’s nonsensical response verbatim. “I have thousands of volunteers,” Daley said. “That is the key to get the job done. I have volunteers, block clubs, community organizations, you name it. I have people out there, getting the job done in the schools, getting the job done in police, getting the job done at libraries. That is what you provide.”
That’s about as much of an answer as Daley need provide. He’s been mayor for 10 years now, will be mayor for at least 14, and probably for as long as he wishes. Defeating him this time would have been impossible even for the best candidate, and Bobby Rush shouldn’t be ashamed that he’s going to lose. But Rush should be ashamed that he did little or nothing to begin building a coalition that might one day, someday, defeat Daley. The city isn’t better off from this campaign. There is still no credible opposition to Caesar, and one is desperately needed.
“There comes a time when somebody who’s in office a long time gets thrown out,” Despres says. “Daley’s father was approaching that time in 1976, and he died. You build resentments, and finally the resentments accumulate. You also develop fatigue and lose the ability to make people feel enthusiastic about you. Daley’s gotten stronger, and maybe he’ll get even stronger still the next term, but not forever. You’ve gotta look beyond Daley.”
Neal Pollack is the author of the literary satire "The Neal Pollack Anthology of American Literature," among other works of fiction and nonfiction. His latest book, "Open Your Heart: A Matt Bolster Yoga Mystery," will be released in paperback on November 14.More Neal Pollack.
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)