Congressman Danny K. Davis (D-7th) is challenging Ald. Deborah Graham in the 29th-Ward Democratic committeeman race because he wants to assert more control over West Side politics and block what he said are nefarious outside powers trying to influence the ward.
The Democratic committeeman position is one with diminishing powers in recent years, according to Dick Simpson, head of the University of Illinois-Chicago’s political science department, and Davis said winning the position would change almost nothing about his activity in the ward. But he officially announced his candidacy earlier this month because he desires to be “designated by the people as the political leader of the 29th Ward.”
At his official announcement in the wood-paneled basement of supporter John Robertson’s Austin home Jan 14, Davis said his committeeman candidacy is an attempt to wrest some political power from the heavy hitters in Chicago politics.
“I ain’t trying to get no power from the alderman. What power does the alderman have that I can get?” Davis asked a group of about 25 supporters who gathered in Robertson’s basement.
“I want power from Illinois House Speaker Mike Madigan, I want power from [Mayor] Rahm Emanuel, I want power from [Cook County Assessor] Joe Berrios. I want to exercise some of the power that the real power people have,” the congressman said.
Davis told the group these outside “power people” do not want him to be committeeman because if he’s elected, it would mean they are no longer in control of the West Side.
“I was totally shocked when I discovered, and I shouldn’t have been, that there are influences that want to control everything that is controllable,” Davis said. “There have always been outside influences wanting to control the direction of the community.”
Austin activist Terrell Brockington, founder of the group Fight the Inferno, said he was drawn to Davis out of frustration with Graham’s leadership and what he perceives as “apathy and indifference” from the alderman.
“The reason I’m involved today is because as I go through the community and talk to people, I find they all feel they have no representation,” Brockington said. “No one communicates their needs, their concerns.”
Graham did not respond to requests for comment on this story.
Tumia Romero, Davis’ deputy chief of staff, said the congressman is running for committeeman to end that apathy and to promote citizen empowerment.
“In order to make a difference and a change, people need to be able to empower themselves through voting and through registration. And there aren’t many elected officials out there who are getting people actively engaged in political activities,” Romero said.
“I live in the 29th Ward. What I would love to see is our ward politically engaged and making decisions for themselves,” she said.
During Richard J. Daley’s mayoral reign from 1955 to 1976, with tens of thousands of patronage jobs to give out and swarms of political troops to command, a committeeman was a powerful position. But since the patronage jobs and the number of party operatives have greatly decreased, ward committeemen serve a limited role, said political scientist Simpson.
“The number of patronage employees was maybe 35,000 under Richard J. Daley in Cook County. It is now down below 5,000 because of the cuts in government and some of the cleaning up of the system,” he said. “They no longer have patronage jobs [to give out]. Sometimes they can get a promotion for someone using clout, but that [power] is pretty attenuated.”
The unpaid committeeman’s official role is small; he or she sits on the official party slating committee for judges and is responsible for slating candidates for other offices like state legislature, Congress and alderman and fills partisan vacancies in his or her area.
The committeeman position is typically held by the ward alderman, and Davis served in that role himself when he was alderman 15 years ago.
According to Simpson, the position is largely hands on, with the committeeman doing “most of [his or her] own work,” but Davis said he is not worried about juggling his responsibilities as a U.S. representative and committeeman – Largely because the committeeman doesn’t have very much to do.
“If you were to ask most people what the committeeman does, they wouldn’t know,” Davis said. “I do a lot of things [in the 29th Ward] already, so I’m not going to be able to have many more meetings than what I currently have.”
Simpson said a major motivation for Davis’ run for committeeman is political protection. If he’s committeeman, Davis can ensure no Democrat is slated to run against him for his congressional seat. Davis is up for re-election this year, and will be on the March 20 ballot the same time as the committeemen race.
And the committeeman position could give Davis more leverage in bartering with the political powers in Chicago, Simpson said.
“It would allow him to intervene in some state legislative races which are controlled by Madigan and possibly the next aldermanic election in 2015, which is why Ald. Graham would prefer to be committeeman instead,” he said.
If elected Davis could potentially select a challenger for Graham. That control would give Davis “more of a voice in some of the local decision making on the West Side,” Simpson said.
Davis said his run for committeeman is driven by a desire to devote more time to local issues. During his hour-long talk Jan. 14, he said he would never be able to leave Austin, because wherever he went he would always be wondering what was going on on the West Side of Chicago.
“I’ve decided that I’m going to spend as much time locally as I can. Even though I spend a lot of time nationally and internationally, my base is going to be the local community where I come from,” Davis said.
Robertson, the event’s host, said Davis is the “only one on the West Side who really knows what the committeeman’s responsibilities are.”
Robertson has been active in Chicago for more than 20 years. He served as the president of Davis’ organization when he was alderman and also served as ward superintendent in the 29th Ward during that time.
Henrietta Holmes, another longtime Chicago Democrat who served as Davis’ administrative assistant when he was alderman, echoed other Davis supporters in her frustration with Graham’s representation.
“We have had no representation [in the 29th Ward] the last few years in terms of slating candidates. We have had no voice,” Holmes said. “With Danny Davis in place, he would represent the whole Chicago in addition to the West Side in supporting people who are independent and people that represent our views.”
While Davis’ supporters, staff and even his own campaign literature have bemoaned Graham’s alleged “apathy,” as political leader of the 29th Ward, Davis himself avoided any attack on Graham during his inaugural campaign event.
“I’m not against the alderman. There’s nothing to be against,” Davis said. “I don’t have any gripes with her work nor with her. She is Deborah Graham; I am Danny Davis … There are ways to do things: I would do them one way, she would do them another way. I like my way better.”