March 19, 2004
On Tuesday, I spent the day as a poll watcher in the 35th Ward. Though it was just one precinct within the city and doesn't represent the statewide dynamics of the race, the experience did leave me with a few thoughts about the state of the machine.
A little background on the political landscape of the 35th Ward: the Ward’s Alderman is a guy named Rey Colon, who beat out machine drone Vilma Colom last year in a hotly contested runoff election. Colom drew the ire of the community for being a machine lackey, and Colon rose to challenge her after gathering strength as a community organizer. Earlier this year, Colon joined forces with other Latino politicians in the state, including Iris Martinez, Cynthia Soto and Miguel del Valle, to form a coalition in opposition to machine-as-usual politics. In general, Colon is still well liked by his constituents, as he has gone to great lengths to maintain the grassroots relationship with his constituents that got him elected. The three referendums on the ballot Tuesday are an example of this grassroots spirit.
In terms of the Senate race, Colon's coalition endorsed Obama very early on in the campaign and lent him significant organizational support on and leading up to election day. This move was certainly an attempt by Colon and Co to forge an independent pocket in the city and to further their clout as a non-machine coalition. Colon also ran (and won) for Committeeman. Backing Obama at a time when he was not considered electable was a bold move and was a direct extension of the independence begun in the 2002 election. The loss of Vilma Colom in 2003 deeply cut into neighboring Alderman Dick (The Dick) Mell's influence in the northwest side and backing Obama further challenged power of Mell, who endorsed Hull, in the area. Tuesday thus served as a battleground for this larger power struggle taking place in the 35th Ward and outlining areas. By siphoning support away from Hull and towards Obama, the Colon Coalition went on the offensive against Mell, and by extension the machine.
If you drove through the eastern edges of the 35th Ward in the past months, especially around the Boulevard between California and Western, you noticed the plethora of mammoth Hull signs. Driving further west deeper into the 35th Ward the sign landscape changed to Obama, but mostly in the form of small yard signs (rather than 6 X 8 billboards). The people who I spoke with said that in the weeks before the election, Mell’s paid henchmen had been fastening Hull signs to every available fence and surface within the 35th Ward and had also vacuumed up many of the Obama signs. All this a clear signal from Mell that he was not going to give up without a fight.
This insurgency by Mell into his former stronghold continued on election day, as he stationed paid workers at every polling station in the 35th Ward. The precinct where I was had 7 Mell goons, and I had the pleasure of standing and chatting with them all day. To be fair, most of them were young guys (early 20’s) just trying to get union jobs with the city. They were goof-offs with hardly any interest in the election beyond making an impressing their boss for the day, who could help them get jobs with solid health insurance after the election.
The two older and more involved Mell people at my polling station were real jerks though. They attempted to intimidate volunteers from other campaigns by questioning their credentials, they tried to challenge every other voter’s residency to stop them from voting, and they were generally just pain in the asses to the judges the whole day.
I guess that type of attitude is expected, but what was really interesting about this Mell crew was that they were only nominally backing Hull. They put up a good amount of signs, but the palm cards that they were handing out to voters for most of the day didn’t have Hull on them. When I politely asked the guy in charge why they weren’t pushing Hull, he blew up at me and said that he didn’t want to talk about it with me. They were pushing State Rep Toni Berrios pretty hard, but not Hull. I think that that shows that Mell knew he backed a loser and was just going through the motions on election day. Obama took 66.4% to Hull’s 10% in that particular precinct.