Brown: To succeed in politics, consider the Botterman way

SHARE Brown: To succeed in politics, consider the Botterman way

Ben Head receives congratulations after being honored as the 2017
winner of the Patrick S. Botterman Leadership Award for his political
organizing work. | Mark Brown/Sun-Times

Politics is an often rough and dirty business that somehow manages to still attract idealistic young people wanting to change the world.

Pat Botterman knew a lot about that.

Before his untimely death in 2008 at age 44, Botterman was something of a local legend as an independent political organizer — both for his willingness to wage hand-to-hand combat with Cook County’s regular Democrats and for his ability to mentor talented up-and-comers in the business of grass-roots campaigns.

Botterman’s legacy lives on through the Patrick S. Botterman Leadership Award, bestowed annually by the Wheeling Township Democratic Organization, which he helped develop into an important influence on suburban progressive politics.

I headed to Wheeling last weekend to see this year’s Botterman Award given to Ben Head, political director for U.S. Rep. Jan Schakowsky, D-Ill.

I didn’t really know Head, but learned he first made a reputation for himself behind the scenes by managing the winning campaigns of Ald. Michele Smith (43rd) and a state legislator from Western Illinois.


Head, 32, is also co-founder of Men4Choice, a new organization trying to rally men in support of women’s reproductive rights.

“He’s all about organizing, making relationships, not a self-promoter in any way,” Schakowsky told me.

Pat Botterman | Provided photo

Pat Botterman | Provided photo

Behind the scenes is how Botterman also preferred to work, operating from offstage at campaign events and always trying to keep the spotlight on his candidate.

Ald. Scott Waguespack (32nd), whose 2007 winning campaign Botterman managed, said he couldn’t even convince him to take a bow on election night after they’d knocked off what was left of the Dan Rostenkowski organization.

It was Waguespack’s election that first opened up the Milwaukee Avenue corridor to a string of wins by progressive candidates, but Botterman died the next year and never got to see the full fruits of his handiwork.

I’m more familiar with the 2016 Botterman winner, Carl Camacho, who managed the winning campaigns of Ald. Sue Sadlowski Garza (10th) and state Rep. Theresa Mah.

I can tell you for a fact Camacho is cut from the Botterman mold, exemplified by their shared animosity for Cook County Machine Democrats and an underlying idealism.

While success in politics is usually measured by winning, Botterman’s signature campaign may be one he lost — managing John Schmidt’s 2002 run against Lisa Madigan for the Democratic nomination for attorney general.

In that contest, House Speaker Mike Madigan moved heaven and earth on his daughter’s behalf, and it took nerve for Botterman to stand his ground in what could have been career suicide.

The standard career path for a young person in Illinois Democratic politics is to work a campaign on behalf of one of Madigan’s candidates for the Illinois House, then parlay that into a job and work their way up through future campaigns.

Many of the political operatives produced in this manner become quite skillful, which is one of the reasons Madigan has survived so long.

The problem from my viewpoint is that all these talented young political workers are then on Madigan’s side of the Democratic Party, which makes it harder for candidates of a more independent bent to succeed.

That’s why there’s something to be said for Wheeling Democrats recognizing good young political talent developed mostly outside the party’s normal channels.

Botterman got his start with the Wheeling Democrats while still in high school as a volunteer for former state Rep. Eugenia Chapman, and he always made it a practice to recruit high school and college students to work the campaigns he ran.

Among his understudies were Waguespack and former state Sen. Dan Kotowski, of Park Ridge, whom Botterman also helped elect.

Alex Armour, the 2015 Botterman award winner, met him while working on the Kotowski campaign.

“Pat believed in the potential of young people to make an impact on politics,” said Armour, who now works for state Treasurer Michael Frerichs.

That’s a legacy worth remembering.

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