As a rule I don't endorse candidates for public office -- partly out of a habit formed under the rules of legacy journalism, and partly because my general preferences ought to be clear enough for anyone who cares. For me, it's a good rule. But then someone like Tom Geoghegan runs for Congress, and suddenly it looks like a rule that needs to be broken, or at least bent.
Next Tuesday, voters on the North Side of Chicago will have an opportunity to choose Geoghegan from a ridiculously large field in the special primary election to fill the seat of Rahm Emanuel, who resigned from Congress to serve as Barack Obama's chief of staff. Not knowing much about any of the 15 or 16 other candidates in Illinois' 5th Congressional District, I can't suggest any reason to reject them. I can only offer what I know about Tom and why I think that Chicago -- and the rest of the country -- will be fortunate if he wins.
Geoghegan is a labor lawyer and an author who has excelled in both endeavors. He is a streetwise thinker who has devoted himself for 30 years to the advancement of working people, a fearless advocate who has never hesitated to confront their enemies, from crooked Teamster officials to marauding corporate executives.
He has walked the progressive walk without becoming a cliché or a bore, as demonstrated repeatedly in his long series of engaging books, articles and columns, most notably "Which Side Are You On?" -- which may be the smartest (and most readable) book on the troubles of the American labor movement written by anybody during the past two decades. Witty, candid, unsentimental and yet stubbornly idealistic in a landscape of defeat and cynicism, Tom displayed in that memoir of life as a labor lawyer all the qualities that could make him an exceptional figure in Washington.
He possesses a certain kind of plain-spoken eloquence that will quickly make him an important spokesman on substantive issues. Nobody will do a better job of explaining why we need labor law reform or single-payer healthcare reform, because he has represented workers against union-busting companies and sued the big insurance companies too.
In personal terms, Tom could scarcely be more different from the man he has set out to succeed. He is polite, thoughtful, usually soft-spoken and almost painfully principled -- in short, not much like the stereotype of a Chicago pol, except that for a nice guy he is also exceptionally tough. He has grit that is rare among intellectuals and academics but not so rare in labor, where the going is hard for anybody who doesn't just go along.
Without breaking a confidence, I can offer an example from my own knowledge of Tom's work. Not so long ago, he took the case of a group of workers who, like so many others in the declining industrial companies of the Midwest, had been screwed out of their pensions and healthcare in a corporate takeover. What made the case different is that among the new owners, there happened to be a very prominent Democratic investor who is accustomed to having liberals smooch his ring (or some other place). Tom had very little to gain by taking on those obscure workers as his clients, not only because they probably couldn't pay him much, if anything, and weren't at all likely to win against a phalanx of expensive corporate attorneys, but also because he might well make a very powerful enemy for himself. He didn't care at all, any more than he worried when he fought the local Teamster chieftains who sent goons around to intimidate him from time to time (but never did). He didn't court publicity, didn't call any grandstanding press conference; he just fulfilled what he saw as his commitment to people who are forgotten or unrepresented or screwed over.
But there is another reason I am compelled to say a few words about Tom. It feels as though someone is looking over my shoulder. That would be Maria Leavey, my late friend who was also a close friend of Geoghegan's and spoke about him often to me. Like him, she was a believer against all odds, a fighter who dedicated herself to the long, hard, grinding and often unrewarding work of progressive politics. If she were still here, Maria would not have let a single day go by without hectoring me to write something about Tom, and she would have been right, as she almost always was. He will fight like crazy for the universal health insurance that just might have saved her life.
The thing about voting for Geoghegan, if you happen to live in that Chicago district, is that you can accomplish two worthwhile objectives at once. Shine up the city's political image (previous congressmen from IL-5 were named Rostenkowski and Blagojevich) by electing someone who is superior without being snobby. And send someone to Congress who was made for this historic moment, when the nation's dispossessed need as many strong voices as they can get.