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True Blue

Illinois Democrats in Dismay


On a cloudy Sunday afternoon in Logan Square, a group of liberals is playing basketball in the gymnasium of a 100-year-old Methodist Church while waiting for an activism workshop to start.

Out of breath, Mary Kay Ryan, 51, humorously exaggerates her condition, collapsing onto the dusty gym floor. "Here's the post-election climate,"the Oak Park resident says jokingly as she sprawls out on her stomach. The reality, though, is that many Americans who couldn't bear the thought of another four years of a George W. Bush presidency were probably feeling that way on Nov. 3, 2004.

But for some local liberals who had concerns about issues such as the war in Iraq, the economy and Bush's environmental and foreign policies, the post-election blues &ndash as well as a desire to flee to Canada &ndash were short-lived.

They now find themselves facing serious truths &ndash first, that activism and making their voices heard is needed now more than ever and second, that maybe John Kerry really wasn't the right candidate in the first place.

"I voted for Kerry because he wasn't Bush,"says Teresa "River"Roberts, a Ravenswood resident who helped organize the activism workshop that Ryan and about 30 other people attended in December. "I had hope up until the concession."

Despite initial disappointment, Roberts, 30, is optimistic about the levelof interest in activism she has seen since the election.

"We have had more interest lately,"says Roberts, a member of Chicago Reclaiming, a group that combines earth-based spirituality with political action. "I really think people are hungry for this kind of work."

According to her, there still is a significant amount of work that needs to be done, particularly when it comes to education. For the left to immediately accuse the Bush voters of being ignorant, she says, is not the way to speak to the conservative right.

"I think how I would respond if somebody told me I was stupid for saying I voted for [a candidate],"Roberts says. "I think the message needs to come across as here are the consequences of what this choice might mean. There's such a divide. I'd like to see us find common ground. I'd like to see some less negative messages."

One member of Roberts's activism workshop, Elias Martin of Wilmette, only recently became involved with progressivism and political action. A clean-cut, 29-year-old gallery manager, Martin stands out among some of the others in the workshop, but has strong beliefs about the war and the damage he says the Bush administration has done to our nation's reputation.

"I thought people would soon realize there was no justification for the war. I was very shocked on election day."

"I would go to work angry,"Martin recalls. "For some reason I thought our country would snap out of it. I thought people would soon realize there was no justification for the war. I was very shocked on election day."

Sarwat Rumi, 30, a Bengali-American Muslim, says that while she experienced early feelings of sadness after the election, she has known for years that activism and engaging in the struggle of the progressive movement would not weaken with the outcome of an election.

"Even if Kerry had won I'd still have a lot of work to do in my community,"says the Logan Square artist and performance poet says. "I feel like I have an investment and a great love for this land. It is my duty and privilege to continue to work and create the changes I want to make here."

Watching a majority of states turn red one by one on election night, Rumi's sorrow was eased slightly by the election of Illinois Democrat Barack Obama to the U.S. Senate.

"I was so proud of Illinois for voting in Obama,"Rumi says, smiling. "I loved his address that evening."

In fact, Obama's win, as well as the outcome of other state elections in November, shows that the Democratic Party is actually making strides, particularly in Illinois, says Michael Blossom, who helped organize Loop Supporters of Democracy for America in January 2003.

Blossom, a 37-year-old resident of Pilsen, points to the victory of Melissa Bean, a Democrat from Barrington who ended Phil Crane's more than 30-year run in Congress in a highly Republican district that includes portions of Cook, Lake and McHenry Counties.

"Illinois is a state that is very solidly Democratic,"says Blossom, a systems analyst at the Art Institute.

"The suburbs are turning more Democratic, and Melissa Bean is an example of that."

Still, Blossom says he went through some disappointment when Kerry conceded the election. He was forced to pull himself together almost immediately because his group, which knocked on about 10,000 doors in Wisconsin during the campaign, was meeting that night.

"I had to think of some positive things from the election,"he says. "I had never been active in a campaign before this [election year] or formed a group and enabled people to be active who weren't active before. I felt like that was a good thing."

As much as Blossom wanted Bush to be defeated, Kerry was not his first choice to receive the Democratic Party nomination. He and several members of his group, which is unofficially affiliated with Howard Dean's organization, Democracy for America, would have preferred Dean.

"We're people who were hungry for a candidate who stands up for something, somebody who doesn't change his positions and somebody who means what he says,"Blossom says. "I think a lot of us felt that Kerry wasn't really like that."

Other Chicagoans remember being reluctant to even cast a ballot at all on Election Day. Uptown resident Andy Thayer, 44, one of the principal organizers of the anti-war protest in March 2003 on Lake Shore Drive, says Kerry was just as pro-war as Bush and was opposed to important aspects of the progressive movement, such as gay marriage.

"Frankly, I was just glad the whole shebang was over,"says Thayer, who also is involved with the Gay Liberation Network and helped organize a protest against Bush's inauguration last month. "He [Kerry] posed as a friend of gay people, and yet he was against our legal equality."In Thayer's opinion, the amount of resources liberals devoted in both finances and time to make Kerry the next president could have been better spent.

"When I see how much time and money is being pumped into candidates who are on the opposite side of every issue we care about, I say this is such a colossal waste,"Thayer says. "I think voting was the least important political action taken over the last year."

Having Bush in the White House does not mean an end to progressive ideals, Thayer says. By taking to the streets and demanding change, progressives can see some of their goals accomplished, even under the Bush administration, he adds. As an example, Thayer mentions that massive gains such as the Environmental Protection Act and food stamps were implemented under Richard Nixon's presidency.

"All of these things happened not because Nixon was a nice guy,"Thayer says. "He was forced to do these things because people were in the streets in our cities and around the world."

But with Americans continuing to die in Iraq despite no discovery of weapons of mass destruction &ndash the Bush administration's main justification for the war in the first place &ndash coupled with no Bin Laden three years after 9/11, many Americans have been asking, 'Why would anyone re-elect Bush?'

There are a number of reasons, says Melissa Harris, assistant professor of political science at the University of Chicago. First, the Republicans did an excellent job at marketing their message to the public, a public consisting of regular folks looking for answers in a post-9/11 climate.

"For Democrats to not only lose but watch that Electoral College map fill in was isolating."

"The Republicans gave these regular people a clue,"Harris says. "What they did was say, 'The world is a complete mess, but vote for me because I'm a good guy and even though the world is messed up now, don't worry because I'm going to straighten it out.' They said, 'I know this looks bad, but don't worry because I love God and so do you.'"

Harris says people felt they needed to vote on a solid issue, be it religion or the idea that the Bush administration would keep America safe.

"It makes it sound like people are stupid, but they're not stupid,"Harris says. "You have to make a choice on something."As for the Democrats, their message simply was not clear enough during Kerry's campaign, which almost made attempts to "out-Republican the Republicans,"Harris says.

Another reason for Bush's victory is that incumbent presidents are never voted out when America is at war, she says. People who likely voted against Bush live in urban areas and include racial minorities, single women and people with higher levels of education, such as college professors, Harris says. Most of these voters felt "all alone in blue cities"after the election, she says.

"For Democrats to not only lose but watch that Electoral College map fill in was isolating,"she says.

As the basketball game winds down at the church, Ryan sits in a chair and comments on the level of pessimism she's observed since Bush's reelection.

"I've never seen it this high, and I saw Nixon get elected,"Ryan says.

Roberts, however, begins the workshop with a song that conveys another message &ndash one of hope.

"We are the rising sun,"the group sings. "We are the change. We are the ones we are waiting for, and we are dawning."

Published: February 01, 2005
Issue: Winter 2005