CHICAGO — Most Chicago politicians wait until after they’re elected to catch a felony charge, so in a sense, GOP congressional candidate Paul McKinley has a leg up on the competition.
McKinley, 54, is vying for the Democratic Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr.’s vacated seat in a special election Tuesday. He won the GOP primary by fewer than two dozen votes. No Republican has won the second district in more than 50 years.
He’s running as an "ex-offender running to save the next offender," a black Republican in a heavily Democratic district who happens to be endorsed by both tea party and black nationalist groups.
His Democratic opponent is Robin Kelly, a staunch gun-control advocate who won her primary against former Rep. Debbie Halvorson after New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg dumped more than $2 million into Kelly’s campaign.
While the disorganized state Republican party and cautious national Republican organizations have stayed out of the race, conservative activists have gotten behind McKinley: He has been endorsed by Operation Black Storm, a project of Alan Keyes’ Patriot PAC and has received support from the Tea Party Leadership Fund.
Chicago has long been a national punch line for the worst kind of machine politics, but it’s hard to overstate just how entrenched and corrupt its polity is.
Disgraced Democrat Jackson captured 71 percent of the vote in his last primary race—an impressive figure, considering he and his wife, a Chicago alderman of course, were spending hundreds of thousands of campaign dollars on expensive watches and Michael Jackson memorabilia.
Jackson is only the latest example. As Politico reports, residents of Illinois' 2nd Congressional District—which stretches north-south, from the Southside down through the outlying suburbs to rural Kankakee County—haven't been represented in Congress in more than three decades by someone who didn't end up ethically or legally compromised in one way or another.
A 2012 study declared the Chicago area the most corrupt in the country. The report found that between 1976 and 2010 there were 1,531 convictions in Chicago’s federal district for public corruption.
Since the 1970s, four of seven Illinois governors have been convicted of various crimes, along with 31 members of Chicago's city council.
The Tea Party Leadership recently ran a poll based on 10,000 completed calls/responses. Two of the poll’s findings are heartening for conservatives looking to break the Democratic Party’s stranglehold on Chicago.
First, 25 percent of Democrats and independents would vote Republican to "send a message," and another 27 percent are unsure (read: persuadable).
Second, 41 percent of Democrats and independents strongly agreed with their right to bear arms, and 71 percent overall agreed at least somewhat.
The "spite vote" here is what McKinley and the conservative activists behind him are hoping to tap into—this hope that maybe, finally, Chicago residents have had enough.
I arranged with McKinley’s campaign to interview the candidate and hang around at a dinner event for his friends and supporters.
My hotel concierge grimaced when I asked him whether I should take the train or cab down to the location.
"I wouldn’t take public transit south of downtown," he said.
"Safe for you there?" the African cabbie asked when I told him the destination.
I started to feel like I was travelling to Taliban-held Waziristan, rather than part of a major American city. Besides, it’s not as if downtown itself is particularly safe these days: Bands of feral teenagers were assaulting people on the "Magnificent Mile," the swanky downtown strip where my hotel was located.
The cab dropped me off at the site of the campaign event, Mr. G’s Supper Club and Entertainment Center, deep in the far southwest side of the city. A Baptist church sat across the street, and there was another one around the block.
I was cooling my heels on a couch in the lobby of the supper club, admiring the mirrored walls and neon sign above the door that said "elegant," when McKinley walked through the door about half an hour late.
He was sharply dressed in a fedora, overcoat, sweater-vest, button-down, and tie.
While the Mr. G’s staff set up the banquet room, McKinley and I slipped into the sports bar, where I interviewed him for about 40 minutes.
"The Machine" is the dominant theme in the McKinley campaign. A postcard produced for his campaign declares "Paul McKinley: Against the Machine."
"The whole goal is to keep us poor, broke, busted and disgusted," McKinley said. "That’s what the Machine does. And not just to black people. The ironic thing about the Machine is it works on everyone."
McKinley will draw you diagrams and flow-charts of the Machine. Conversations inevitably lead back to the Machine. When he really gets into a groove talking about the Machine, he begins looking past you, at something far away.
Outside of his talk of fighting the Machine, McKinley’s platform is aggressively conservative: Pro-Second Amendment, preserving the family unit, taking on teachers unions and closed union shops. But it also has a strong community element, such as fighting against eminent domain.
I asked him about all the attention paid to his status as a felon.
"Me running as an ex-offender is really no slander, because I was never arrested for rape or murder," McKinley said. "I was arrested for crime of trying to get money. I was just the average type of guy in the neighborhood who comes to the point of saying, ‘What’s the use of going through the proper chain of command? It’s all corrupt. I’ve got to take my chances where I can take my chances.’"
The facts are a bit harsher. He was convicted of burglarizing a store, pistol-whipping a man for his watch, and robbing a woman of $60 at gunpoint.
"Those white folks told you to dig as deep as you could," McKinley told the Tribune when it dredged up his records from Cook County correctional facilities. "They're trying to say I'm a second-class citizen. I'm not a second-class citizen. You can't hurt me. Put it all out there."
McKinley spent nearly 20 years in prison.
The prison yard doubled as an informal philosophy forum, where inmates debated their many ideologies: socialism, capitalism, communism, black nationalism, etc. McKinley credits it with broadening his viewpoint and moving him toward his current politics.
To be honest, some of his views he’s picked up along the way are, well, a bit kooky.
"Crystal meth is a genetic drug made up in Germany by Adolf Hitler, and it has a different effect on the white, Aryan and Anglo-Saxon community," McKinley told me.
McKinley got out on parole in 1997 and said he started getting politically active around 2000, protesting construction sites that weren’t hiring people from the community.
Some in the Republican Party weren’t thrilled when McKinley locked up the GOP nomination.
"He's not a Republican, obviously, and he doesn't represent the Republican Party," GOP activist Chris Robling told MyFOXChicago after McKinley won his primary against fellow Republican Eric Wallace.
The strict definition of a Republican, and whether or not that definition includes McKinley, was not a point under consideration at the dinner, where around 50 people had gathered in the banquet hall. Small turnout for a guy running for Congress. On the other hand, it was the most black people I had ever seen at an event for a Republican—possibly combined.
"I ain’t never been a Democrat, and I ain’t never been a Republican," Jimmy Mclendon said. "This guy made me a Republican."
"Republicans never did anything to us," Mclendon continued. "The only people who did something to us have been Democrats. Democrats have been running Chicago for 60 years, and what have we got for it? Nothing."
That’s the kind of quote a Republican "activist" like Robling should drool over. The Republican National Committee recently released a self-flagellating "autopsy report" after its drubbing in the 2012 election saying as much.
"We need to campaign among Hispanic, black, Asian, and gay Americans and demonstrate we care about them, too," the report stated.
Other conservative activists see McKinley as a valuable ally. Kevin Jackson, one of the 50-or-so dinner guests, is a Tea Party radio host, author, speaker, and general jack of all trades.
"He understands these folks and what they're up against," Jackson said. "Unlike these suit-and-tie, cocktail-sipping socialites trying to come into the neighborhood and pretend they know what's going on."
I also ran into chairman Fred Hampton, Jr., the son of Illinois Black Panther leader Fred Hampton, who was gunned down by Chicago police in 1969.
"I’m not really into electoral politics," Hampton said. "However, we have certain campaigns that we work on."
Hampton, the founder of the Prisoners of Conscience Committee and the Black Panther Party Cubs, cited his groups’ work against police brutality, as well as an effort to start a fact-finding mission into the death of his father.
So McKinley might be the only candidate ever to be endorsed by both Black Panthers and the Tea Party.
As I roved around the banquet hall, it seemed like everyone there knew McKinley through his protest work.
"I’ve been knowing Paul for the last 22 years," Samuel Mohammed said. "We worked on shutting down construction sites that were discriminating against people from the community."
"I don’t look at parties," Mohammed continued. "I look at the man who’s representing the community. I don’t care if he’s a Democrat or Republican or what."
One of his volunteers, a girl named Siretta, said she met McKinley at a protest of a police shooting.
"Paul’s a neighborhood boy, and we can’t get enough of him," a man who was volunteering as a videographer at the event told me.
Jeff, a soft-spoken, dreadlocked former policeman, seemed far to the left of McKinley, so I asked him why he supported the campaign. He talked about "destabilizing" the system, giving it a firm shaking of sorts.
"Sure, he might be a scallywag, but at least he would be a different kind of scallywag," Jeff said.
When Jackson and Jeff got into an involved discussion on corporate welfare, I slipped away to sit with John Monaghan and Tom Woods, two old-timers who had been the first to arrive at the dinner.
The two looked like a sitcom duo. Monaghan was Irish, with a big paunch and a Vietnam veteran baseball cap. Woods was black, wearing a large camouflage field jacket, a collar shirt and pink tie underneath, camo pants, and an African kufi hat. On the arm of his jacket was an Army Ranger patch. Specifically, "Army Rangers—SNIPER."
"You were a Ranger?" I ask Woods.
"Yes, I was."
"And a sniper?"
"Every Ranger is a sniper," he replied.
Whereas Woods was laconic, Monaghan spoke to me at great length about veteran affairs, recent ballot Chicago ballot measures, and his own run for Congress. (Monaghan ran for Congress in 2012 as an Independent against Democratic Rep. Danny Davis. He won 4.4 percent of the vote.)
McKinley finally stood up on the stage and addressed his supporters. Unlike our sprawling interview, his remarks were brief and punchy.
"Do you think he has a shot?" I asked Monaghan after the speech.
"He’s breathing, ain’t he?"
In reality, his campaign is a wild longshot. Democratic nominee Kelly’s campaign boasted about 30,000 more votes than McKinley’s in a low-turnout election. Meanwhile, the state GOP, an Illinois Republican staffer told me at the dinner, is in total disarray.
The Chicago Tribune, which McKinley calls part of the city’s "slave press," has predictably endorsed Kelly, who declined to comment for this story.
McKinley has been agitating for Kelly—whom he calls "Missing Kelly"—to face him in a debate, an offer that has been met with silence from the Kelly campaign.
After the dinner, I caught the train back to downtown with a freelance photographer who had been snapping shots of the dinner. He used to be a policeman over in the western district. Like everyone else I met that night, he said he’d "known Paul for a while" and said he was "fighting the good fight."