The Illinois Democratic Party received the greatest surprise of its history when, in the March 18, 1986, primary, followers of LaRouche won the nominations for lieutenant governor and secretary of state. The LaRouchians were no less amazed. Their Chicago contingent hadn't even bothered to watch the election polls that night, being too busy conducting a mock exorcism in front of the home of University of Chicago religion professor Mircea Eliade (they claimed he was an evil warlock). The following day, Janice Hart, thirty-one, the victor in the secretary of state contest, announced her plans for a different kind of exorcism targeting bankers and drug pushers: "I'm going to revive the spirit of Abraham Lincoln and Genera! Patton. We're going to roll our tanks down State Street."
The Democratic candidate for governor, Adlai Stevenson III, announced that he would not run on the same ticket with Hart and the nominee for lieutenant governor, twenty-eight-year-old Mark Fairchild. He described them as neo-Nazis and said: "There is no room in the Democratic Party for candidates…who preach anti-Semitism, who cavort with the Ku Klux Klan, and who want to destroy labor unions." The following month Stevenson renounced the Democratic nomination and became the candidate of a hastily organized Illinois Solidarity Party.
The LaRouchian victory became the media sensation of the week. Janice Hart was interviewed on Nightline, and LaRouche almost made the cover of Newsweek. Chicago Tribune columnist Mike Royko called it "the strangest thing that's ever happened in an election in my memory." Syndicated columnist Max Lerner declared that "this is the face American fascism will wear." New York's Senator Moynihan spoke of a failure of the party's political immune system. LaRouche, in a speech before the National Press Club, described the Illinois victories as the will of the "forgotten majority." Farmers and blue-collar workers were turning to him as the new George Wallace, "the guy who's going to stick it to them in Washington."
The Democratic Party claimed it was all a fluke. Two political unknowns running an invisible campaign had won by narrow margins because voter turnout was low, because the media failed to warn the public, and because the regular Democratic candidates neglected to campaign vigorously. Also, Hart's WASPish name gave her an advantage over machine Democrat Aurelia Pucinsky among Chicago's black voters, who were angry at Pucinsky's father and other Polish-American politicians for dumping on Mayor Harold Washington. The name factor also may have helped Hart downstate, where many voters are suspicious of ethnic Chicagoans. But any further LaRouchian victories could be easily prevented with a little party vigilance and voter education.
It was to be expected the Democrats would assert something like this, for their aim was damage control rather than an objective postmortem. To perform the latter would have involved admitting that the party had allowed the LaRouchians to run amok in its ranks for over six years. If the Democrats already had a wimp image from the Mondale debacle, how would this appear to the media?
Undeniably a majority of the LaRouchian votes resulted from accidental circumstances. But the Democrats and the media ignored evidence that a substantial minority of these votes—a portion without which Hart and Fairchild never would have won—reflected various forms of conscious voter rebellion. Furthermore, no one examined the fact that the two victors were part of a statewide NDPC "Warrior Angel" slate, thirty candidates in all, running for everything from governor to precinct committeeman and adhering to a national NDPC strategy called, prophetically, Operation Takeover.
The vote percentages of these other Illinois NDPC candidates (none of whom faced Polish opponents) reveal the flaws in the only-a-fluke theory. The figures in statewide contests included 15.8 percent for U.S. senator, 5 percent for governor, 22.3 percent for comptroller, and 14 percent for state treasurer. In congressional races the figures included 9.1 percent (3rd CD), 14.7 percent (4th CD), 35.8 percent (6th CD), 12.8 percent (8th CD), 15.6 percent (9th CD), 35.2 percent (10th CD), 15.1 percent (11th CD), 42.5 percent (12th CD). The total was over one million votes excluding the 13th and 15th CDs, where NDPC candidates won the Democratic nominations unopposed.
These vote percentages were commensurate with what an increasing number of NDPC candidates had gained in Midwest contests between 1982 and 1985. They also fit with what NDPC candidates would poll in later Midwest primaries that year and in Illinois primaries over the following two years. "How can anyone look at the record and say this is a fluke?" asks Chip Berlet, a Chicago journalist who has tracked the LaRouchians for years. "Flukes do not increment upwards in a steady pattern."
Michael McKeon, a pollster who specializes in the attitudes of blue-collar voters, warned of a possible LaRouche electoral breakthrough in Illinois over a year before it occurred. In open-ended interviews with trade union households in communities plagued by crime and unemployment, he found a growing willingness to vote for LaRouchian candidates. Those interviewed had little knowledge of what LaRouche really stood for, McKeon said, but "were fed up with the way they believed the two major parties were ignoring them." Illinois and national Democratic leaders pigeonholed McKeon’s January 1985 report, regarding it as farfetched.
McKeon was willing to stake his reputation on an offbeat finding because of clear warning signs in grass-roots elections. In 1983, the LaRouchians managed to field 53 candidates in Chicago suburban school board races. Although failing to elect anyone, they bounced back in the March 1984 Democratic primaries, winning 57 suburban county committee seats, including all 31 of the seats they went after in Du Page County. Although three out of four of the NDPC candidates ran for uncontested seats, at least they were willing to run—the party machine couldn't find anyone. Meanwhile in the Will County auditor's race, the NDPC candidate defeated her regular Democratic opponent by over 3,000 votes. (Will County had an unemployment rate twice the state average. Joliet, the county seat, was a blue-collar town of failed steel mills. McKeon, who lived there, described it as "everything Bruce Springsteen sings about.")
The Chicago dailies, which two years later affected so much amazement at the Hart and Fairchild victories, covered the 1984 victories in detail, with headlines such as "'LaRouchies' Score Sweep in Du Page" and "LaRouche Party Victories Chill Du Page Democrats." But Democratic officials told the Chicago Tribune it was all a simple case of voter confusion—voters had thought the NDPC was the Democratic National Committee. One county chairman even suggested that the victories of the LaRouchian candidates weren't "necessarily all that bad" if they "really want to be part of the party and help build the party . . . if they are actually going to go out and support our nominees." Neither the Democrats nor the media bothered to ask how a tiny fringe group had persuaded ninety registered Democrats in a four-county area to run on its ticket for nonpaying, low-prestige posts while also fielding ten congressional candidates and several candidates for state and county public office. (The NDPC claims it ran 114 candidates in Illinois that year, garnering 220,000 votes.)
In 1986 the cornerstone of the fluke theory was the assertion that the LaRouche candidates did little or no campaigning. Michael McKeon disputed this: "They just weren't around where the media was," he said. "Most of the media was out of contact with the people." He observed the LaRouchians campaigning in Joliet months before the primary. "They knew their target area. They'd have tables by the K-mart department store, where the people laid off from the steel mill shopped. Their literature was more easily available than Democratic or Republican brochures." Listening to their pitch, he sensed they would surprise everyone in March. As he later explained to The Washington Post, they had "taught themselves how to talk to Joe Six-Pack" and were "tapping into the feelings that are out here in blue-collar America." Working-class voters are "tough on crime and hate drug dealers. They'd like to see them all killed—Rambo-ed. This is what the LaRouche candidates have been saying too."
McKeon said that he received many reports of NDPC campaigning downstate. "They went around in information vans," he said. "They'd go to farms and talk to people for hours. This wasn't a fluke; they seized an opportunity."
Chip Berlet also received numerous reports. "I was called by Democratic Party activists all over the suburbs—from Joliet, Glencoe, Batavia. They wanted literature to counter them." Berlet criticized the Chicago media's analysis of the primary for ignoring the "cumulative" effect of LaRouche organizing over the previous decade. "This was never looked at," he said, "because it involved areas of politics that are usually invisible to the media." He noted their attempts to form anti-drug alliances with black churches and mosques and with black weekly newspapers like the Chicago Defender. "They'd get rebuffed," he said, "but they kept coming back." In the late 1970s they formed ties with the Laborers Union in Chicago and downstate officials of the Teamsters union and the Cement Masons and Plasterers. Berlet also cited their year in, year out "nitty-gritty" work—fund raising, selling New Solidarity subscriptions, compiling phone lists of potential supporters, leafleting in downtown Chicago, manning literature tables at O'Hare International Airport seven days a week. He believed that "many thousands" of 1986 primary voters knew who the LaRouchians were, even if they didn't vote for them.
The first clear warning signal of their electoral potential came in 1980, when LaRouche received over 19,000 votes in the Illinois primary. Although this was only 1.1 percent of the total, it was half as many votes as California governor Jerry Brown received. It was far more votes than Howard Baker, John Connally, and Bob Dole received in the Republican primary, and almost as many as Illinois congressman Phil Crane. Most of LaRouche's votes came from the Chicago wards, where he received two-thirds the vote of Jerry Brown and more votes than six out of eight of the Republican candidates. Indeed, he received almost twice as many votes in the wards as George Bush. His slate of 49 convention delegate candidates, mostly in Chicago and the suburbs, received well over 75,000 votes. In the predominantly black 2nd CD on Chicago's South Side, LaRouche delegates received over 35,000 votes. "The LaRouchians had conducted a strong anti-drug organizing drive in that district," Berlet said. "I attended rallies there in the summer of 1979. These were mass meetings, hundreds would show up." Over the next six years the LaRouchians continued to court black voters. Sheila Jones, a former Chicago public school teacher and perennial NDPC candidate, became widely known as their spokesperson in the black community. In the 1986 primary she received 70,000 votes in the Chicago wards (130,000 statewide) against incumbent Senator Alan Dixon.
When the LaRouchians asserted that they had indeed campaigned hard to win their 1986 victories, most of the media dismissed this out of hand. But months before primary day New Solidarity was already reporting details of the campaign. For instance, a January 1986 article described a weeklong tour of downstate Illinois by Mark Fairchild and the NDPC candidate for governor, Peter Bowen, to speak out on the farm crisis and unemployment. The article also revealed that the Illinois NDPC had purchased hundreds of sixty-second radio spots to publicize its positions on AIDS and the Gramm-Rudman bill.
Voters interviewed after the primary told the media they had not known anything about Hart and Fairchild when they voted for them. Although the majority of respondents were doubtless telling the truth, the minority who had known had good reason not to admit it. Articles and TV news reports were calling the chosen candidates of these voters neo-Nazis, neo-fascists, extreme rightists, conspiracy theorists, kooks, cultists, white-collar crooks, crypto-Communists, and racists. As Chip Berlet observed: "Why should an unemployed steel worker or bankrupt farmer, already seething with resentment against the liberal media, 'confess' to some yuppie TV reporter and get looked at like he's dirt?"
Robert Albritton, a Northern Illinois University political scientist, analyzed the election returns county by county. He found a strong correlation in central and southern Illinois between the incidence of family farms relative to the population and voter support for Janice Hart and the NDPC candidate for state treasurer, Robert Hart. In the case of Robert Hart (Janice's husband), the relationship was especially striking. Democratic voters had three other choices, including an incumbent and a downstate candidate. Unlike Janice's opponent, these candidates campaigned vigorously. Yet Robert Hart won thirty-five counties down state. Most of these were economically depressed, like Johnson County in the state's far south, where an unusually large percentage of total family income came from welfare, unemployment, and other government benefits.
Dan Levitas, research director of Prairiefire Rural Action, monitored the NDPC's farm organizing in Illinois and other Midwest states for more than two years before the 1986 primaries. "They'd bring crews out of Chicago. They'd do a drive-through of the LaRouche vans with bullhorns where they had people running for Congress." Levitas said he'd listened in on weekly LaRouchian radio hook-up conference calls with farmers. "They'd take attendance," he said. "There were farmers at fifty to seventy-five locations, but the number influenced was much greater. You had Mom and Pop listening in, you had people making tapes and circulating them, you had neighbors gathering each week."
One center for Illinois conference call gatherings was a farm in Fayette County, where Janice Hart defeated her opponent by more than two to one. The couple that sponsored the gatherings, Elbert and Jean Finley, also organized in 1985 an NDPC rally, attended by about sixty farmers. Clem Marley, who operates a farm news service, signed the attendance sheet, and his wife later received a call from Hart.
LaRouchian agitation among Illinois farmers dates back to 1974, when the U.S. Labor Party candidates for governor and lieutenant governor toured southern Illinois. According to New Solidarity, they passed out leaflets explaining the "Labor Party Emergency Food Program," and learned firsthand about farmers' "bitterness and populist demoralization." Although the USLP was still too left-wing for rural America, New Solidarity continued to cover farm issues, gradually shifting its rhetoric into the populist mold. During the 1980 presidential primary, LaRouche sent his agricultural adviser, a Michigan grain farmer, on a tour of southern and central Illinois, where he was interviewed on TV and radio and met with many farmers. In June 1980, LaRouche invited farmers to an all-day conference at Chicago's O'Hare Hilton, where he talked about agriculture as a professional economist, downplaying ideology. A transcript of his extemporaneous answers during the lengthy question period reveals that he had thoughtful positions on a wide range of farm issues, which he expressed in colorful witty language. Meanwhile, his followers promoted a National Emergency Agricultural Declaration to maintain federal parity price payments at 90 percent. They formed an alliance with the American Agricultural Movement, which lasted through 1983-84 (LaRouche, as noted earlier, addressed AAM activists in 1983). Throughout the early 1980s—the worst years of the farm crisis-—the NDPC organized farm rallies, participated in farm auction protests, ran farmers for public office, and sold LaRouchian publications across the rural Midwest.
Farm activists estimate that LaRouchian campaign activities in 1986 reached only a small fraction of Illinois farm families directly. But given the depressed economic conditions and political discontent in rural Illinois in the mid-1980s, that may have been sufficient to gain a significant protest vote. According to Susan Danzer of the Illinois South Family Farm Program, rural areas of the state were "riddled" with right-wing groups operating informally, without much high-visibility organizing. "Farmers in trouble talk to other farmers in trouble," she said.
Leonard Zeskin, the Missouri-based research director of the Center for Democratic Renewal, said that the interconnections of the various rural extremist groups make it possible to spread the word quickly about a candidate. Farmers active with the NDPC tend also to have ties with the Populist Party, Liberty Lobby, and Posse Comitatus. "One hand washes the other," he said. He noted that shortly after the primary, Populist Party leader Robert Weems (a former Klansman) announced his support for Hart and Fairchild in a front-page article in The Spotlight.
The murkiness of the LaRouchian relationship to Illinois farmers, and to downstate Illinois in general, was captured in a report by Tom Johnson, a freelance researcher for the American Jewish Committee, after a three-day swing through five central Illinois counties in late March 1986. He said no one would admit having voted for the LaRouchians, even though their highest vote percentages came from this region. He spoke to one of the NDPC congressional candidates, a farmer who said he was his "own man" but added: "You gotta have an organized unit to get enough people thinking the same way. . . .We're facing the big boys, not the politicians, but them who's running them." (This farmer later dropped out of the NDPC.) Johnson also talked to a Champaign County Democratic official who said Fairchild and another NDPC candidate had been "laughed at and greeted with anger" when they appeared at a Forum for precinct workers. Yet Hart and Fairchild drew 57 percent and 52 percent, respectively, in the Champaign County primary. Although Johnson did not find much evidence of NPDC campaigning, he observed conditions that suggested a political tinderbox. "Town after town . . . appears to be a ghost town," he wrote. "In one small burg of 3,700 we saw ten 'for sale' signs on a single street."
A curious incident the day before the primary showed that the LaRouchians were well aware of this tinderbox. A contingent of NDPC demonstrators led by Sheila Jones invaded the lobby of the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago. They unfurled a banner: "End the Bankers' Dictatorship—Jones for Senate." The NDPC had unsuccessfully sought major media attention during the previous week through a variety of stunts. In picking the Federal Reserve, a favorite target of right-wing populists, they knew exactly what they were doing. Thousands of downstate farmers would have received a powerful election-eve message if the demonstration had been reported on TV evening news.
In November's general election the majority of voters no longer could plead ignorance about Hart and Fairchild. For over seven months, the two had received extensive hostile press coverage and had been attacked by campaign literature of both Republicans and regular Democrats. But the NDPC candidates hammered away, albeit in bizarre language, with their message for the "forgotten majority": Halt farm foreclosures, reopen steel mills, form vigilante groups to crack down on drug pushers, prosecute banks for laundering money, quarantine AIDS victims.
By ordinary political standards, the LaRouchians suffered an overwhelming defeat in November. Hart received only 15.3 percent of the vote; Fairchild, only 6.4 percent. No Democratic nominees for major office had ever done so poorly in Illinois. Yet by the standards of vanguard extremist politics (in which winning public office is never the top priority) their campaign was a success. They drew a clear line between themselves and the political system, letting the public know they were at war with the existing order. They developed a reputation for an uncompromising spirit. And Hart received 478,000 votes, over 100,000 more than in March. She ran as strongly as the Illinois Solidarity Party candidate backed by Stevenson and the state Democratic organization. She received 226,000 votes in Cook County and about 25 percent of the vote in economically depressed St. Clair, Madison, and Rock Island counties. Her campaign evidently had tapped a substantial number of voters who knew who and what she was and weren't at all bothered by media warnings. Although her promise to send the tanks down State Street had sounded strange in March, it may have been the smartest move of her campaign.
Neither the Democratic Party nor the media, thinking only in mainstream political terms, drew any serious lessons from the Hart vote. Outside Illinois most newspapers reported only the vote percentages, not the totals. The Democratic Party announced that LaRouche had been defeated, and that was that. No one confronted the plain fact that in a state saturated with anti-LaRouche propaganda his candidate had received almost a half million votes.
The LaRouchian primary victories were the pivotal event in Illinois politics in 1986. Adlai Stevenson III, running on his third-party line, lost to Republican governor James R. Thompson by 400,000 votes. Democratic candidates in general were hurt by the ballot confusion: They had to warn voters to beware of non-Democrats running as Democrats, and to vote for "real" Democrats on a non-Democratic line. The Republicans meanwhile spent $200,000 in Cook County alone on ads with a simple message: If you don't know who the LaRouchian candidates are, play it safe by voting straight Republican. Thus did Lyndon LaRouche help deliver the nation's sixth most populous state to the Republicans for four more years.
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