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"No question." -- any KFNS host, any hour of the day

PASS THE MIC: The distance from being an "occasionally aspiring presidential contender" to merely being the "former alderman of the 14th Ward" maybe isn't such a long journey after all. Sometimes, it's just a plane ride and a couple of car trips away.

In town last week, Congressman Richard Gephardt (D-3rd), the famed son of a milk-truck driver, was stumping in the home district, promising to work for an increase in funds for Forest Park -- a nice, safe, popular move that'll play well with the old folks -- and pitching for levees that'll keep safe those who live too near the water. In what was, perhaps, his best move, he showed up at a celebratory press conference highlighting the development taking place at the old Sears building near Grand and Chippewa. There were cheers and applause all around for the House minority leader, on a corner that hasn't been so cheery lately.

Most South Siders know the score on this one. After operating from 1928-93, Sears pulled the plug on what was considered an older, rather unprofitable locale. The linchpin of the neighborhood gone, several other businesses -- including the next-door Ben Franklin, the Amvets, a diner and a medical center -- soon shuttered, too. Not surprisingly, the property value of the homes in the immediate area took a hit, what with an empty parking lot and several large abandoned buildings within spitting distance.

As told several times during the press conference a week back, the neighborhood organized, forming the South Grand Team, which even the most cynical city critic would find reassuring. Coupling religious, business and political types with the energetic push of the neighbors, the group helped secure a deal that moved the site's ownership from Pace Properties to Pyramid Construction, who'll build 30 "market-rate" homes on the rear of the property, optimistically priced in the $120,000s.

At the press conference, Gephardt was the third speaker, after initial words from the new developer, John Steffen of Pyramid; and a local priest active in the South Grand Team, Father Mike Lydon of St. Pius V. When Gephardt arrived -- a bit tardy -- he worked the crowd with a pro's touch in his few spare minutes, gripping and grinning. Once onstage and at the mic, he immediately seized the opportunity to fully connect with the entirety of the audience by joking about the weather.

It worked. They laughed.
Man, this guy's good.
Gephardt's positivity-laced speech eventually reached a crescendo, met with more applause. He then ceded the mic to Mayor Clarence Harmon, who battled a sore throat. He was quicker in his address but just as "up," ending with the classic Clintonesque line "I feel like a drum major in a band called Hope. And you are that band. Thank you."

What happened nex couldn't have been predicted.
Ald. Craig Schmid (D-10th) -- who bears an uncanny resemblance to underground comic artist R. Crumb -- was up for re-election the next day and apparently gripped with campaign fever. His speech thanked most of those in the crowd. Taking a pass on the old "separation of church and state" doctrine, he tossed in a protracted, heartfelt prayer, thanking the Almighty for helping rescue the block, among other things. Then he led the group in a rousing call-and-response. So excited was the crowd, including the congressman and the mayor, that they screamed "Yes!" before he was finished with his first question.

In short, he upstaged the current mayor and a former presidential stump speaker. Gephardt could be seen mouthing the words "Good job" as Schmid left the dais, openly praising a man who once canvassed for him. Like Churchill in Fulton, like Kennedy in Berlin, like Gehrig in Yankee Stadium, this one was a keeper and a definer. Wow!

The next day -- election day -- Schmid was back in his usual, less excited mode, noting that his speech "was written down." No winging it, and no need to apologize for being thorough. He also suggested, "If we could do that every week, it'd be great, wouldn't it? It was a terrific day."

Not the least of all for Schmid, an attorney who devotes most of his time to ward politics, seldom not answering a call within an hour. Realistically, he noted that despite the new houses and the still-unofficial announcement of some luxury apartments arriving in the neighborhood ("within a quarter-mile of here"), the 10th Ward has a tricky mix of constituencies and problems, with a rapidly changing racial/ethnic makeup and some rust on its oldest business districts.

One big project won't be a panacea, he's aware, but you'd forgive the man if he took a bit of time to gloat. Instead, he low-keyed it, saying in perfect pol-speak, "You can't just build houses -- you have to continually work at building a community."

Later that day, he won his primary, by a total of 529 to 289, defeating challenger Thomas Cholak in their second encounter. If he can bottle the effectiveness of that Sears speech, it won't be his last electoral win.

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