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‘Last of the old-time precinct captains’

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Updated: February 27, 2013 6:11AM

Aaron Jaffe, chairman of the Illinois Gaming Board, was a judge for 20 years and a state representative for 14. In his new memoir, “Goodbye, American Dream?” he recalls when precinct captains really mattered — and why.

In 1960 I was practicing law, and Charlotte and I had two children. We did what many upwardly mobile families were doing — we moved to the suburbs. I became a precinct captain for my neighborhood in Skokie that year, which was a presidential year. The precinct captain makes personal contact with the voters in the district on behalf of a political party and/or its candidates. It was an unpaid job, and I did it because I loved politics.

Illinois has a storied history of political corruption, not the least of which has played out in Chicago and the rest of Cook County. What’s not widely known or understood, though, is that at one time the county’s underlying political structure went a long way toward keeping people connected to their politics.

Cook County is divided into 30 townships; the city of Chicago has 50 wards. Wards and townships are divided into precincts and each precinct has about 500 voters. Each ward and township elects a Republican committeeman and a Democratic committeeman, and they are responsible for running each party’s organization in that area.

Committeemen recruited the precinct captains, who got the party’s message out by knocking on doors, talking to people, hearing people’s opinions and letting people know what the party stood for. Precinct captains also made sure that people knew about the party’s candidates, and on Election Day the captains got out the vote.

It was not an easy job. I rang doorbells of about 250 households, and I had to psych myself up to do it. But most people welcomed me into their homes. Only one person slammed the door in my face. I was working the precinct, and I came to the house and rang the bell. There was no answer so I rang it again and then a third time.

Finally a man opened the door. He looked bedraggled, like he had just gotten out of bed. I said, “Hello, I am Aaron Jaffe, and I’m your Democratic precinct captain.” And he slammed the door in my face. I thought maybe he was going through a hard time, so I waited two weeks and then went back. When he opened the door, I said, “Hello, remember me?” And he slammed the door in my face again.

By and large, though, people wanted to talk, and they wanted to know. So I went to every house and talked to people. I would even ring the doorbell of the Republican precinct captain’s house and talk to him and his wife for a while. I might have even gotten her vote.

It was hard to get people to work a precinct. It had been easier in bad economic times because of the patronage system. The party rewarded many people who worked the elections with jobs in government. Over time, though, the public began to view precinct captains as hacks who did the bidding of political parties, who did favors and were not good for the political system. There was more to it than that, though.

There were hacks. But precinct captains went out and talked to people in the community. And if precinct captains were good at what they did, they would find out what people were thinking, and they would come back and report to the committeeman. Because the party wanted your vote, you could be sure that if people felt a certain way, the party would fall in line.

Over time the patronage system was no more. It was needed less as a source of jobs as people got more affluent, especially in the suburbs. The public came to dislike the patronage system because they associated it with ward bosses and corruption. But today there’s more corruption than ever before. In those days it was nickel-and-dime stuff; now it’s in the millions.

There was a time in Cook County when if you asked people who their precinct captain was, 80 or 90 percent could tell you. Today people will ask you what a precinct captain is or say they haven’t seen one in 20 years.

Nowadays precinct captains mostly walk around and drop literature. They don’t talk to people much anymore, because people have a different mindset about political parties.

When I became Niles Township Democratic committeeman in 1969, I put together an organization that was about 25 percent old-time precinct captains and 75 percent volunteers, new people who were politically motivated and dedicated to issues and philosophy.

We started to do things that were a little unusual for a political organization. The first public meeting that I held as committeeman was about the Vietnam War. I invited a poet and a speaker who were not mainstream. The tone of the meeting was somewhat anti-war — even though the national Democratic Party supported the war.

My predecessor as committeeman, Ray Krier, said to me: “Are you nuts? Why are you holding this type of meeting? You’re going to destroy the organization.”

“Ray,” I said, “don’t worry about it. This is what people in our township are thinking.” I knew that because we had our people out on the street, working the neighborhoods and talking to people. We held the meeting, and we didn’t lose workers or the people’s support. As a matter of fact, more people joined our organization.

I was constantly on the street when I ran for office. If you walked into the supermarket, in all probability I was there stopping and talking to people. If you walked into the restaurants or delis, I would be there. I lived in the neighborhood, so I was accessible.

My nephew lives in a northwest suburb. His next-door neighbor had once lived in my district. My nephew asked him, “Do you know my uncle?” The neighbor started to laugh and said: “Do I know your uncle? I know your uncle. Your uncle is crazy.”

My nephew started to take offense: “If you thought my uncle was crazy, then you probably never voted for him.”

Neighbor: “Not only did I vote for him, I used to work with him in the precinct.”

Nephew: “So if you thought he was crazy, why did you vote for him?”

Neighbor: “Because I could call him on the phone, I could talk to him any time I wanted, I could argue with him — and I knew that he listened. And I never had anyone in politics listen to me before.”

The power of the precinct organization was the power of staying connected to the people. We won because we could organize on the street level.

I always maintained that if I could get 100 people to work an area of 60,000 for six weeks, I could win. They would give me their weeknights and weekends and go out and work the precincts.

But today, candidates can’t get 100 in 60,000 to work an area that way — because, by and large, the people have lost their connection to politics.

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