“Thirty one votes, thirty one votes,” the supporters chanted inside the small campaign office in downtown Park Ridge, Ill. The long-awaited election results were in and there was reason to celebrate.
I stood in a corner of the cramped election headquarters 24 years ago today as passionate supporters of a woman named Rosemary Mulligan celebrated the political newcomer’s victory over her opponent, Penny Pullen, for a seat in the Illinois legislature.
It was a primary election, but the winner was all but certain of victory in November in Republican strongholds like Park Ridge and Maine Township. This was the battle and abortion rights were at the core.
Pullen, the incumbent, adamantly opposed abortion rights, while Mulligan supported them. There were other issues in the race, but abortion is what drove people’s passions. And I was at the center of it all. It was 1990. I was 25 years old, working my first newspaper job and covering politics with gusto.
I will never forget that night. I left the jubilant Mulligan headquarters in search of Pullen. I had to catch her that night to capture her emotions. A friend and I drove to her campaign headquarters. No one was there. I pulled into a parking lot and my headlights captured a woman walking to her car. It was Pullen. She never expected me. I hurried out of the car and asked my questions. She was cordial but disappointed.
I didn’t realize that night the gift I was about to receive as a young reporter and political junkie. Pullen wasn’t about to bow out quietly. One month later, the veteran legislator contested the election and a recount was held. I wrote story after story throughout the spring and summer as developments unfolded. In September, six months after the joyous night in the Mulligan headquarters, the Illinois Supreme Court named Pullen the winner by five votes.
A lot of people didn’t like Pullen. I respected her. She believed without apologies in her conservative values. She invited my wife and me to Springfield where we visited her on the floor of the legislature. My wife even got to “vote” on a piece of legislation after Pullen told her which button to push. It was an interesting and memorable day.
There was no quit in Mulligan. She ran again in 1992 and won. She served for two decades in the legislature before retiring last year.
Tuesday’s election got me thinking about Pullen, Mulligan and my early days as a reporter. I covered the town of Park Ridge for a chain of newspapers in the northwest suburbs. I immersed myself into politics and became the chain’s quasi political editor. I enjoyed attending political events and having candidates come to the newsroom for interviews.
I loved politics and relished the wheeling and dealing that occurred at the township level where town board members controlled their little fiefdoms by handing out patronage jobs in exchange for campaign work at election time. In those days, I knew inconsequential political information like the back of my hand. I knew district boundaries, names of every office holder as well as party officials, such as ward and township committeemen.
I dug the process—slate making, endorsements, campaigning, winning. I thought the power politicians wielded was impressive. I wasn’t naïve enough to think politics was some altruistic endeavor. And I understood that some pols thought only of their own interests. Still, politics to me was a spectator sport. Favorites, underdogs, drama and a wide array of personalities. And I loved telling intriguing political stories to the reader.
Wow have times changed. Granted, Tuesday’s primary lacked a premier race in The Reporter’s coverage area. Even the statewide races were a snore. But I realized during all the election talk in the newsroom that I don’t care much about politics these days. My knowledge pales in the comparison to that of the young reporter who couldn’t get enough. And, my opinion of many politicians is not too favorable. Too often, party affiliations, the desires of party leaders and egos get in the way of serving constituents. There are exceptions—state Rep. Kelly Burke comes to mind.
For whatever reason, I’m not that interested anymore. Politicians annoy me or, sadly, amuse me as they “represent” us at various levels of government. And face it, there’s not a lot we can do to change the system they’ve created to maintain the status quo. Too many federal, state and local representatives vote as they’re told by party leaders in exchange for campaign funds and workers at election time. Seldom can a political newcomer clear that hurdle so that fresh faces be infused into the system.
Don’t get me wrong. Give me a solid race with a some intriguing issues and a couple quality candidates and the old adrenaline might flow once again. I sat just one year ago at Dave Heilmann’s election night reception and watched a stunned crowd comprehend that he had lost his re-election bid for Oak Lawn mayor. It was great theater. I doubt Dave would agree. I was witness in 2011 to Oak Lawn Trustee Bob Streit’s near defeat to a political newcomer. The veteran trustee’s team was more than a little concerned that night.
It would be tough to top Pullen versus Mulligan in the early years of a young reporter’s career. The older, more experienced reporter is not so wide-eyed and just a bit jaded. I have not, however, thrown in the towel.