Cook Democrats seek new crop of volunteers

By Jean Lotus Staff Reporter

Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle gives a pep talk to potential volunteers at the Cook County Together grassroots kickoff May 6 at the Teamster City union hall in Chicago. (Twitter, Cook County Democrats)

Cook County Democrats are trying to capture the magic of the political groundswell among voters who have swarmed to town halls and demonstrations since President Donald Trump’s inauguration. The 2018 elections can’t come soon enough for these voters, and Cook Democrats are trying to harness that volunteer spirit to create an army of door-knockers, phone bankers and canvassers.

About 150 people met for a “Cook County Together” pep rally and volunteer recruiting meeting May 6 at Teamster City union headquarters in Chicago. The event was advertised as a “grassroots effort to defeat Rauner and Trump.”

“How many of you attended an outdoor rally in the past two months?” asked State Rep. Lou Lang, (D-Skokie) who also serves as Niles Township Democratic Committeeman and vice-chair of the Cook County Democrats.

“Protesting is fine, but if you want to make changes you’ve got to get to work. You’ve got to walk precincts directed by people who know how to win elections,” Lang told the group. “Rallies don’t win elections.”

Gubernatorial candidate J.B. Pritzker and Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle told the crowd that the state needed Democrats to work to oust Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner.

“We can’t afford four more years of Bruce Rauner,” Preckwinkle said. “We need to energize our Democratic party and contribute our money, but also give our time and energy. Personal contact with voters has always been the strength of the Democratic Party.”

Democrats in Cook County don’t tend to turn out for midterm elections, since most action happens in the spirited April primaries, when Democrats run against each other, said Jacob Kaplan, executive director of the Cook County Dems.

This was especially true in the Nov. 2014, Governor’s race, when more than 53,463 — or 38 percent — fewer voters turned out in Chicago and Cook County than the previous election in 2010, according to data from the Cook County Clerk website.

Incumbent Gov. Pat Quinn received 870,886 votes in 2014, almost 30,000 fewer than his 2010 total of 900,838.

“Typically Republicans will turn out in greater numbers than the Democrats in mid-term elections,” Kaplan said. “That’s how Rauner won for governor.”

Rauner received 447,388 votes (33.22 percent) in Chicago and suburban Cook, which was 47,000 more than 2010 GOP candidate Bill Brady, who got 400,285.

With 35th Ward Ald. Carlos Ramirez Rosa encouraging the crowd to “identify our Democrat values,” the audience heard from Metropolitan Water Reclamation District Trustee Deborah Shore, who attacked Trump’s proposed cuts to the EPA. A non-union laborer at O’Hare invited participants to a “Fight for $15” protest to ask for a $15/hour “living wage.” A speaker from the Chicago teachers union also gave a brief talk.

“Donald Trump and Bruce Rauner have energized the Democratic party like none of us have ever seen before,” Lang told the crowd.

About 85 persons signed up to attend Saturday morning canvassing meetings at 10 locations around Chicago and suburban Cook, Kaplan said. Participants would make sure everyone in the household was registered to vote and ask about their priorities for the Democratic party, Kaplan said. The canvassing will continue through the summer once per month, Kaplan said.

The Cook County Democrats are an umbrella organization consisting of 80 different committeemen, each in charge of their own region. Fifty of those regions are in Chicago, often run by the local Alderman, and 30 in the suburbs, sorted by township. County Assessor Joseph Berrios is the chair of the Cook Democrats, although he did not speak at the meeting.

Political consultant and Chicago Democratic activist Matt Fruth acknowledged that local Democrats “don’t communicate well to newcomers about how to become engaged. We are not always the easiest to find in some ways. Getting idealists who are accustomed to protesting to sit in a cold room on a phone bank calling about a race in Montana is not as exciting,” he said. Fruth also acknowledged a culture clash between idealist volunteers and professional politicians and canvassers, many of whom are paid by state Democrats to knock on doors. In campaign committee funds controlled by House Speaker Michael J. Madigan, more than 200 canvasser salaries are listed.

New blood in the volunteer ranks will prepare the Cook Democrats to help in the 2018 elections in neighboring districts, or even states, Fruth said.

“The Democrats are trying to activate those people who are angry about Trump and get them to focus on 2018. If we can take a stand for our ideals, we can focus on taking back the Governor’s mansion,” he said. “Then there will be an army of new volunteers and experienced door knockers who are ready to be deployed in Iowa, Wisconsin and Indiana, or even in Peter Roskam’s (R-Wheaton) district. Illinois will still be blue, but we can add an army of people trying to turn Wisconsin blue again.”

Getting volunteers to walk precincts is among the most difficult tasks in an election, said Sate Sen. Donald Harmon (D-Oak Park), who also serves as Suburban vice president of the Cook County Dems.

“People feel like a door-to-door salesman,” he said. “You have to overcome that resistance and to help people, we do some role-playing to show people ‘this is what you’re likely to encounter.’”

Harmon said he’s observed the Cook County Democrats changing for the better in the past decade.

“Thanks to President Preckwinkle and Berrios, the committeemen are much more diverse than they were 10 years ago,” Harmon said. “The Cook County Democratic party looks and acts a lot more like Cook County.”

Fruth and Harmon both had the opinion that the Democratic “Machine” was dead.

“In a way, for all the problems with Chicago ‘machine-style’ organization, you knew your assistant precinct captain who was Joe-down-the-block,” Harmon said. “In some communities, that worked, but in some communities that were neglected, it was horrible.”

Cook County’s new volunteers might be a little uncomfortable with old-school Democrats, but Harmon said they would most likely put their differences aside.

“If anyone can unify machine Democrats and Bernie Sanders supporters, it’s going to be Donald Trump and the Republican members of Congress in 2018,” Harmon said.


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