That time I ran for Congress

Yes, I got creamed. But everybody should try it once.

Election Day, 1815 by John Lewis Krimmel, Winterthur Museum, Delaware.


Thomas Geoghegan is the author of The History of Democracy Has Yet To Be Written: How We Have To Learn To Govern All Over Again, from which this is excerpted. It will be published in October by Belt Publishing. You can pre-order it here.


It was a special election, for a U.S. House seat on the North Side of Chicago that had come open in January 2009 because the incumbent House member, Rahm Emanuel, had just resigned to become Obama’s White House chief of staff. As a Chicago lawyer, I had spent the 1980s and 1990s filing suits to pick up bits and pieces of pension and severance benefits when the old, unionized steel mills on the South Side began to close. Now the unions were gone, and when the remaining plants closed, there were not even little bits and pieces of benefits to get. I thought if I went to Congress, I could make the same arguments for my clients I was making in court. I could pour out my heart into the Congressional Record, instead of to a federal judge’s 25 year-old clerks.

Of course, I had no chance.

Except—and this keeps me up at night—I could have actually won. The winner, Mike Quigley, got no more than 12,000 votes. That was in the Democratic primary, which in Chicago is, in effect, the main election, as no Republican candidate ever has the faintest chance of winning. He now has a House seat representing 700,000 people, and he did it with just 12,000 votes. That’s what haunts me: Even if no one knew me, couldn’t I get at least 12,000 votes? There are 12 year-olds on Facebook with 12,000 friends. Yes, it’s a judgment on our democracy that you can pick up a House seat with 12,000 votes. The fact that I couldn’t is a judgment on me.

When it was over, Violet, the cleaning lady, was the first to say it. She came by just after the election. As she put on her big yellow rubber gloves she said, in her melodious Jamaican voice: “Now Thomas … you lost and now you wasted all that money.”

She frowned, looked around. “You could have taken that money and fixed this place up.”

She was right—it was all a waste. We raised all of $330,000—I am at a loss as to how—and I came in seventh out of fourteen, right in the middle. All that money! I still feel I should be doing some sort of community service to work it off.

I knew turnout would be low in a special election, but in this one, just 50,000 people voted to decide who would represent 700,000 people. And this was no ordinary House seat. It was smack dab in Chicago, a red-hot, blazingly blue political city, home of the legendary Machine, a sacred space in the country’s political imagination, and still only 50,000 voters could come out. To get a House seat for 700,000 people with just 12,000 votes—such an election would not be considered legitimate in Belarus or Zaire. 

I had always had a crush on the House. As a teen, I had treasured the only book to my knowledge that is written just about the U.S. House—Forge of Democracy by the reporter Neil MacNeil, published in 1963 and long out of date. MacNeil made it seem like a serious, even wonky place, where members boned up to become experts on narrow issues, while across the way, senators would fake their way through. But the House is also the battering ram: the People’s House, the only part of the Constitution that represents the people as a whole—not by state but by nation, as the American people really are. It’s the House that is supposed to channel the nation’s id. It’s the House that touches that raw, red, pulsating national wound that so many senators hesitate to touch.

I had lived in the Fifth District longer than the Fifth itself had, thanks to all the gerrymandering it had gone through. Every 10 years its boundaries would bobble around like the borders of a Balkan state, but I had always been smack in its middle. In a prior age, it had been the Machine District, and those who held the seat—like Dan Rostenkowski and Rod Blagojevich, who went on to be governor—were known to be the Machine’s special emissaries in Washington, at least until they went to prison. But in 2009 it was held by Emanuel, who had been a dance major at Sarah Lawrence. It was no longer a beer-and-shot-glass district; it was open now to a metrosexual like me.

I called up Rita. She had been working in campaigns since 1972, when, as a mere child, she helped pull off the unseating of the Daley delegates at the Democratic convention.

“This weekend,” she said, “come up with a list of 50 people who’ll support you.”

By Sunday I was only up to 20; it was hard. But I kept going. I got to 30. I almost gave up. Come on, I thought, get to 40. And late Sunday night I had 50. The next day I gave the list to Rita.

“This is a good list,” she said. “Now you need 50 more.”

“Fifty more? I thought I was done!”

She laughed. “No, no, you’re just getting started.”

Still undecided, I began to interview for a campaign manager. I had no idea who was qualified or who I really wanted. Then I met Julie. She said, “I will make one promise to you. I can’t promise you will win, but I can promise you this—when the campaign is over, you will not be in debt.”

I gave her the job. 

Just after she was hired, she set a test for me. It came the night of my birthday. Julie and my brother and his wife and a few others went out to the Brauhaus, which had a dance floor and two musicians, both Latino, perhaps Puerto Rican, in little Alpine hats and beanies. Julie looked at me hard and said, “I want you right now to go over to the band members and tell them you’re running for Congress and want their vote.”

“You mean … now?”

“I want to see you go over and say, ‘Hi, I’m Tom Geoghegan. I’m a Democrat, I’m running for Congress, and I need your vote.”

“I … I can’t. He’s busy playing the accordion.”

“Go.”

I started toward the band. I froze. I looked back at Julie. 

Go on.

I got up to the two guys and shut my eyes and said, “I’m Tom … Geoghegan, and I’m-sorry-to-bother-you-but-I’m-running-for-Congress—and-would-like-your …”

I returned to Julie: Is that enough?

No, the bartender too. 

Oh, hell, OK—I did the bartender. 

I was a candidate. 

In The Cloud of Unknowing, written in the 14th century, the anonymous author, a mystic, says each of us will be held accountable for every instant. He could be writing to a political candidate.

In the afternoon, I like to walk to a Starbucks to get coffee. “Oh no, you stay here. We’ll get it for you.”

“Please, let me go. Don’t you see? I want the walk to the Starbucks more than I want the Starbucks!”

It was like having a girlfriend again. “Those cufflinks, let’s button those.” “You’re set for a haircut.” “I think you need some shirts.” “We bought you a few handkerchiefs.”

“Here’s a breath mint.” Really—do you think I need it?

A photographer I posed for told me to take off my glasses. I said, “No one knows me without my glasses.”

“No one knows you anyway,” he replied.

Julie hired a young Northwestern grad to be my “body man” and drive me around. Because kids like him from the suburbs screw up parallel parking, I often had to take the wheel. But he had great political gifts. I should have been the body man and driver, and he should have run.

Every morning, at 5:30 a.m., I would lie wide awake, waiting for my front bell to ring, waiting for the body man to collect my body—that is, for J. to take me to the El to start shaking hands.

Such a decent young man, but as I lay there waiting for him to buzz from downstairs at 5:30 a.m., I hated him with all my heart, as he must have hated me. He had already been up since 5 and gone out in a shrieking wind, with 20 below wind chill, to stand until it was 5:30 so he could ring the bell. I was only the second most miserable person in Chicago.

I read that Sen. Chuck Grassley was at the Senate gym every morning at 4 a.m. I started having nightmares that I might win the election. Then I’d wake and lie there, waiting for J. and the buzzer to buzz.

The Chicago Machine insisted on holding the primary in the dead of a Leningrad-type winter to stop independents like me. It was to crush democracy movements without turning on a fire hose. Now the Machine was dead, or on life support, and to keep holding the primary in winter was not just cruel but pointless. 

I used to tell people, “If I had known it would be so cold, I never would have run.” They think I am joking.

I had come to believe winter was no big deal, but I now realized I had spent those winters indoors with just fleeting little waits for the El. Now I was at the same El stops for an hour, two hours, three, and stamping my feet. I could feel my toes go numb, then my feet, as if instead of feet, I had legs on two blocks of ice. If I tried to walk someone had to hold me. At least when I went door-to-door, I could keep moving. But I could knock on doors only on the weekend. On a weekday, no one was home.

My face would freeze. One of my lines was, “I want to raise Social Security.” But after two hours of going door-to-door, I could not make the “S” sound. You try it. Stand 30 minutes in five-below windchill, then try to say, “Social Security.”

The best place to reach both sides of the district was to stand at the Blue Line El stop at Lawrence Avenue, midway between the gentrified east and working-class west. It was right in the median strip alongside the Kennedy Expressway. It’s a gaseous Mississippi, roaring and poisonous, and above the din of it all, I could taste the rock salt as I screamed, 

“Tom Geoghegan!”

“Democrat!”

“Running for Congress!” 

Even as I write, I can taste the rock salt that the diesel trucks were spitting up.

There were candidate forums that all 14 of the candidates running—and then just 12, after two dropped out—used to attend. Each of us had 60 seconds to answer a question like, “The economy is collapsing. What would you do to save it?” By the time I got going, a little girl would pop up, waving a card: 15 seconds!

I’d stop, then start, and she was right back up: five seconds!

Then right back up, hopping up and down: time’s UP!!

All right, little girl, I see you.

I would sit down in despair, Mike Quigley, the front-runner, never took up a whole minute. He had one answer for everything: “I’m for transparency.”

I had three issues, on the rule that people could only remember three:

Raise Social Security—Not just save it, but raise it, from 39 percent or so on average of working income to 50 percent. 

Single-Payer Healthcare—Because otherwise, with employer-based health insurance, and the waste of the whole system, no working person will ever get a wage increase. Besides, if we lower the nonwage costs that employers now pay we might shift more production into goods and services. I believe single-payer healthcare would reduce a trade deficit that depletes us of more manufacturing jobs every year.

And finally:

Stop the Bailout—That is, Obama’s proposed bailout of the big banks. In part I said it because everyone else on the left was saying it. I always made sure to add that I was all for the bailout if in turn we had public trustees serve as watchdog directors on all these banks that were too big to fail.

On the day I announced, I managed to get an op-ed in the New York Times on the issue I cared most about—the way the Senate afflicted our democracy. Governor Blagojevich had just been caught trying to sell Obama’s Senate seat. He had the power under state law to forego a special election and appoint an unelected senator for the remainder of Obama’s term. “I’ve got this thing, and it’s fucking golden,” he said, fool enough not to know he was being taped. It was my chance to hit at the Senate and hammer home how perhaps 20 percent of senators since the ratification of the 17th amendment (that’s the one establishing direct elections for the Senate) had gotten in by these appointments, without being elected by the people at all. 

I had hoped this bribe for a Senate seat might be a campaign issue, but we were used to Illinois governors going to prison.

Here are the three worst things I did as a candidate:

I bought signatures to get on the ballot. Look, it was too cold to stand in front of Walgreens with a clipboard, in five-below windchill. So I outsourced it to a vendor.

I did a robocalls. I am sorry if you got one. I only did it once.

I did cold calls to total strangers. 

No one at my law firm believed I could make these calls. Our office manager said, “You can’t even ask people who owe you to pay you money, so how are you going to ask people who don’t owe you money at all?”

It’s easy: just stop thinking of them as people. 

I went to Peter, who had done this kind of thing, for counseling.

“Peter, look at this name, I can’t call him. He’s a labor lawyer like me, and a friend, he’s got two children in college, and look, what’s the ‘ask’? It’s $500! I can’t just—”

Peter said, “Call ‘im.”

“Like that—I mean, how do I …?”

“Call ‘im!”

“Look, how do I call up—this guy, he’s the former Cook County assessor, … I can’t just call up the former—”

“Call ‘im!”

And that’s what I had to keep playing in the right side of the brain: “Call ‘im!” Don’t think. “Call ‘im!”

Once, I just flat-out stopped: “I can’t do this anymore.” The staff looked aghast. If I stopped, they wouldn’t eat. Todd, the senior adviser, said, “Come on, let’s go for a walk.” Out in the hall, I said, “These are my friends I’m calling—I can’t do this.”

He said, “Do you understand? No one is going to give you money they don’t have.”

“No?”

“No.”

“I guess not.” It occurred to me I was vain to think they would.

When he first ran for the Senate, a friend asked me if I wanted to go to a fundraiser for him. It was at the home of David Axelrod, who said, “I’ve never held a fundraiser for my own client. But Barack Obama is special.” No one was there, really. I looked around the room: it was just my friend and me and a few others, and my friend and I had no money. I felt sorry for Obama. He wasn’t going anywhere.

Axelrod did not make the pitch at the end. Obama, the candidate did, and did it with a kind of pride. “I know someone else is supposed to make the pitch,” he said. “But I like to do my own dirty work.” 

It was so French, and cool, and existential. It had to follow that he was a smoker.

I had no chance unless I had a big local endorse me. I needed SEIU or AFSCME or the Chicago Teachers Union to put in $15,000 and turn out the vote. I went to the Chicago Federation of Labor and begged: “I have been a union-side lawyer, a labor lawyer, fighting for you guys ever since law school. If I get in the House, I will be working 24 hours a day to bring back a real labor movement.”

I held my breath. Everything turned on this meeting. Julie, sitting next to me, knew it too.

The CFL president nodded. “I’d like to help. I heard from a lot of people in Washington ….” He meant the AFL-CIO. “I guess you’ve got a lot of friends there. The problem is, in Chicago, a lot of our people don’t know you.”

He was right. The unions we represented at the time—like the local conferences of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen—were out of town.

“Yes,” I said, “but I’m the labor lawyer in this race.”

“We’re not really worried who wins. Whoever wins, they’re going to listen to us.”

I was used to going into bars and giving updates on lawsuits while guys drank and watched the Bears game. I had their attention: I was there to talk about their money. Now, as a candidate, if I went into an American Legion Post, no one bothered to look up. I had lost my karma. It seemed dangerous to approach people at the bar. Who the fuck are you? I stood there and then from all the cigarette smoke, I started coughing and decided to leave.

A friend who is a Jesuit said that part of his daily prayer was just to sit on the El and look at the faces of those whom no one noticed and who did not expect to be noticed. It would light every El car with a holy fire: every rider seemed transfigured. For me, each rider was transfigured too: Everyone has a vote: the same, identical, no more and no less than I did. It gave each of them a certain power over me, and at the same time, I had a certain power over them. No one shrank from taking my hand, nor did I shrink from taking a hand that was often colder than the dead hand of the Duchess of Malfi, and I would be touched in a different sense when they said:

“Good luck.”

Or: “Good luck!”

Or: “Good luck!!”

Many said it without out knowing who I was, or without even being able to hear over the roar of the Metra train.

In a mosque, I chatted up taxi drivers after the Friday sermon, and before I did my three issues. I would say: “Salaam alaikum.” Later, at 4 p.m., I went to the fish fry at St Pascal’s and talked to the early diners, couples who were in the 80s and often deaf. J came to pull me away: “We have to go.”

I hated leaving a fish fry just as much as I hated to leave the mosque. I wish now I could have gone into more nursing homes, but I was told to wait to the last minute, no more than two or three days before the election: otherwise, they forget your name. I even went into a tattoo parlor and tried to shake the hands of two kids who were being tattooed.

On Election Day, I knew I would be clobbered. Julie had done her best, but we were still just getting out our literature. My brother came by to get me out of the office and to drop more brochures, however pointless it seemed to be.

I felt bad for the staff, for the volunteers—but I have to admit, I also felt relieved it was over and that I was never going to do this again. On election night we had a party in a bar. I thanked everyone, and for an instant, it crossed my mind to say:

“I know at the beginning, some of you doubted I could put myself out there. ‘Oh, he’s so reclusive, and he just reads a lot of books.’ Well, as you all know, I proved I could put myself out there. I extended myself to other people—more than many might have believed. And so tonight, having done all of that, I just have one more thing to say to everybody: from now on, everyone, just leave me alone.

Well, that might not have struck the right note.

Later that night, my friend Todd asked me what the most surprising thing had been that I learned as a candidate.

What surprised me was—I had so much time to think. It was a by-product of being “the Product.” The staff took care of everything. It gave me a taste of what it might be like to go into assisted living.

After the election, I went through withdrawal. I now had to check myself: “I can’t just go up to this person.” It was sad. 

There is now an elderly barista whom I see every day at a Starbucks, and I have yet to ask her name.