Da Wildcard Senator

The topic being debated on sports talk radio in Chicago this week was not the coming Bears training camp, or the fading hopes for the Cubs, but whether 'da Coach' would run, and could he win a Senate race for 'da GOP.' Da coach, of course, is Mike Ditka, Iron Mike for the initiated. After flirting with a draft Ditka movement, da Coach took himself out of the race, yesterday. But the intense boomlet around the rumor of his candidacy tells us a lot about Chicago and Illinois politics.

From 1985 to 1988, Ditka coached the Chicago Bears to a regular season record of 52—11, the best in pro football. They won their division title five straight years from 1984 to 1988, and again in 1990.  In the 1986 Super Bowl, the Bears trounced the New England Patriots 46—10, capping an 18—1 season.  This pattern of success was new to a city whose teams consistently lost to the Celtics, Canadiens, Yankees, Cardinals, and worst of all, to the Green Bay Packers through the years. The Second City gained some pride.

Before becoming a coach, Ditka had been an All American at the University of Pittsburgh, and a star tight end for the Bears (winning the Rookie of the Year award in 1961, and named five times to the Pro Bowl), and was a member of the 1963 Bears NFL championship team, the last Chicago sports champion of any kind in the four major sports prior to the Super Bowl team.  Ditka turned the Bears into consistent winners in Chicago's most popular sport, in a city that knew few regular winners prior to Michael Jordan's Bulls teams of the 90s.

Several Chicago sports teams have fallen on hard times the last few years. The Bulls' high—water mark is 30 wins since Michael Jordan's second but not final retirement, after the 1998 season. The Black Hawks miss the playoffs every year, and are among the worst NHL teams (a recent expansion team won the Stanley Cup this year, and the Hawks championship drought is now 43 years).  The Cubs last won the World Series in 1908, and the White Sox in 1917. When the Cubs beat the Braves in the first round of the playoffs last year, it was the first baseball playoff series won by a Chicago team in 86 years.  This is also what you call consistency, or consistent futility. The Florida Marlins, barely a decade old, have already won two baseball titles.   The Bears have missed the playoffs in all but one year in the last nine, and that season's playoff hunt was one and out.  

The Republican Party in Illinois has also fallen on hard times.  If they were a sports team, they would be tracking the Bears' recent history. The Democrats now hold every major state office but one, and control both houses of the state legislature. With GOP Senator Peter Fitzgerald retiring after one term, the open seat has been all but conceded to the Democratic nominee, State Senator Barack Obama, by both the state and national media. Obama's opponent was to have been former investment banker Jack Ryan, but he withdrew from the race after a Chicago Tribune witch hunt forced a judge to open a sealed divorce record that he and his former wife, actress Jeri Ryan, had agreed should remain closed.  The document revealed that Ryan's wife had accused him of taking her to clubs where public sex was part of the entertainment.  Ryan denied the allegation. In any case, the Tribune, which had already hounded frontrunner Blair Hull about his divorce records before the Democratic primary, forcing out details of his problems with his former wife (in this case alleged wife beating), seemed to think that exposing Ryan's record would show its political balance.  But in addition to showing that the Tribune's editors liked to hover near candidates' bedroom door keyholes, the paper may have also wanted to clear the field for its favored candidate, Barack Obama.

Obama does not really need the Tribune to sing his praises. He has already been put on the wait list for sainthood (requiring only election to the Senate) by the New Republic, the New Yorker, the New York Times, and others in the liberal media, which have fallen in love with the idea that a well—educated, reasonably articulate black candidate could be elected. The Democrats just announced that Obama will deliver the keynote address at their national convention, a first, I am sure, for a sitting state senator.

If the media chose to look a little harder, well—educated, articulate black candidates are not that rare. In 2002, Artur Davis and Denise Majette were elected to House seats in Alabama and Georgia. Their academic credentials are at least as impressive as Obama's. But these were African Americans who replaced other African Americans in Congress, and they both ran less race—conscious campaigns than their predecessors.  Obama's ascension is far more exciting for the media to contemplate.

After Ryan's withdrawal, the GOP has been struggling to find a candidate to take his place. The capable but little—known State Senator Steve Rauschenberg withdrew from consideration, saying there was not enough time or money to put together a winning race. In the last poll before Ryan withdrew, Obama had a 24 point lead on Ryan.  Ryan could have spent a portion of his considerable wealth and not made much of a dent in that lead. Ryan of course has been a plagued name in Illinois Republican politics the last few years.  Former Governor George Ryan may still face jail time over a drivers' licenses—for—bribe scandal. There are truck drivers on the road in Illinois who got their licenses without passing the road test. Some motorists have already been killed by them. Former Attorney General Jim Ryan lost a race for Governor in 2002, after a series of family tragedies with cancer.  Now Jack Ryan has had his alleged nightclub problem with his wife become public fodder thanks to the Tribune.

The GOP needed a new name in Illinois, and along came Mike Ditka. Ditka has never run for office, of course, but did campaign with President George Bush in Illinois in 2000. He says he is very conservative.  Nobody, however, really knows his views on any major issue, from gay marriage to the Middle East, to the Iraq War. And at the moment, nobody seems to care. For what Ditka would have offered to the GOP, and to the state, would turn a non—election into a very interesting one. 

Arnold Schwarzenegger revived a dying Republican Party in California with his celebrity charm, and with what even the New York Times has been forced to admit, are his considerable political skills. If Ditka had entered the race, he would immediately have taken the Illinois Senate election out of the safety net of the world of the pundits and party hacks, and throw it into the bars, and talk radio stations of the state.

Ditka, for many Chicagoans and Illinois residents, is a throwback to an earlier time.  Iron Mike was tough, disciplined, competitive, and a bit gruff. Unlike Boston Red Sox fans, who sometimes appear to need psychiatric help to deal with their scarred 85 year history of always losing to the Yankees, Chicago has never taken itself so seriously that its authors chose to write novels about the Cubs' failures, or the Bears. But Chicago is a great sports city, particularly for professional sports, and the Bears are the biggest game in town.

After Harry Carrey died, his ritual pre—game singing of Take Me Out to the Ball Game has been delivered by many Chicago and out of town celebrities. Ditka has been a favorite for the job, leading the crowd in a terribly out—of—tune version of the song. But nobody cares that he is a lousy singer.  Ditka is da coach. He is da man. He is Chicago through and through. And this is what people most remember about him —— he was a champ, in a city starving for winners.  The Bears did not sneak into the playoffs as a wild card team during the Ditka years until the championship team was on its last legs after the 1991 season. Ditka led them into the playoffs all the other years as division winners.

Ditka would have turned the Senate race into a wildcard, and all the instant polls would be worthless. The media attention would have been suffocating, and free. He would not need an ad budget to get out of the gate. His name recognition would have soared beyond Barack Obama's with no effort. Illinois is a state that the Bush people probably had written—off (Kerry had a 16 point lead in a recent poll).  The Senate race was all but conceded to the Democrats. Suddenly, it would have become a national media circus. Sports Illustrated and ESPN would have jumped into the act, never mind the New York Times.

Ditka could have screwed up badly on any number of issues the first time he addressed them.  But it would have been dangerous for anybody to trash him for doing so. For Ditka is the genuine article. He is not scripted or rehearsed. He is the un—John Edwards. He is not blow dried, or polished, and nobody would ever describe him as the Breck Girl (Ditka is, after all, the Levitra 36 hour man).  But he is first and foremost da coach, and fans know the coach and the team will never win them all, especially not in Chicago. Ditka's Bears had trouble with the 49ers and the Redskins in the playoffs ( I sat though three of these miserably bitter cold January defeats).  Losing to other great teams is painful, but not a crime.

Ditka always made sure his teams were extremely competitive, and injected in them a powerful urge to win.  Ditka came from the NFL's blue collar era. The Bears went first with the run, handing the ball to Walter Payton. The pass was the secondary option.  For Illinois Republicans, a Ditka run, their second option, would still have been 50—50 at best, I think. 

If Ditka had not pulled out of the race yesterday, a comfortable life would have changed overnight, and he would have had to give up his lucrative endorsements and public speaking opportunities. There are undoubtedly many sound reasons for him to have declined to turn his life upside down. Nobody can begrudge him the decision he has made.

Still, the sports fan and the political maven in me both want to echo the cry of a devoted Chicago fan of almost a century ago: "Say it ain't so!"

Richard Baehr writes on politics and sports from his base in Chicago