When Wallace (Gator) Bradley takes to the streets of Chicago's South Side to campaign for a seat on the City Council, he is swarmed by crowds that most urban politicians would dread.
They sidle up from all sides, young men in floppy basketball sneakers, young men in expensive jogging suits, young men with pagers, young men with tilted baseball caps adorned with paste jewelry. Down Tobacco Road, down Muddy Waters Drive, they mob Bradley as he passes, shouting "What up?" and exchanging hugs, power grips and the occasional cross-armed salute of the Gangster Disciples, one of the largest street gangs in Chicago.
Young gangsters approach Gator Bradley wherever he goes, and that is the way he likes it. An ex-con who fancies himself a peacemaker in a city riven by gang warfare, Bradley prizes gang members as his own special resource, a neglected street community he believes will provide him with political muscle and votes in the final days before a crucial Feb. 28 primary vote.
"No one ever asked the gangbangers to go to the voting booth before," said Bradley, a self-professed former Gangster Disciple still in good standing. "There's untapped energy there."
One of four challengers running against incumbent Alderman Dorothy Tillman in the poverty-numbed Third Ward, Bradley is a clear underdog. But his premise that gang members can provide a vital electoral base comes as an audacious jab at Chicago's toughened political culture, a rumbling from the underclass that nettles even the most iconoclastic activists.
"Gator Bradley is a monster created by the media. He doesn't represent the good people of this ward, and he won't win," scoffed Tillman, a 10-year council veteran known for her collection of 200 hats and her waspish relations with the city's political Establishment. A former community organizer herself, Tillman is famous for once chasing a despised principal out of his own high school.
But in ice-caked vacant lots and caged housing project commons where young hustlers congregate all day and night, even a lifetime of neighborhood activism like Tillman's counts for little. Election days have come and gone in their lives without much meaning or significance.
For some of them, the emergence of Gator Bradley has suddenly made Feb. 28 a date to remember. As the election approaches, Bradley's entourage of volunteers has begun to swell with former and current gang members.
Bradley, 42, has the sort of pedigree that younger gang members honor. "It's a generational thing," Bradley said. "They respect the elders, the veterans."
He has been convicted twice: In 1971, he was placed on five years probation for two burglaries. In 1974, he pleaded guilty to two counts of burglary and armed robbery for holding up a service station at gunpoint for $259 in cash. He served a year in prison and three years on work-release. In 1989, he was granted a full pardon by Gov. James R. Thompson--a fact, he mentions repeatedly, that separates him from four other "unpardoned" ex-felons also running for council seats.
"He's the man," said an admiring Chester Buford, 18, a Bradley volunteer who identified himself as a member of the GD (Gangster Disciple) "organization." "He's one of us."
Clad in a haberdasher's nightmare--a houndstooth suit with matching bow tie and Senegalese cap--Bradley swept into Tobacco Road's barber shops and food markets last week while his gang escorts hung back discreetly. They stood on the crowd's edge, whispering to each other while local jesters bayed at Bradley's approach: "Vote for Gator! We ain't talking 'bout later!"
In recent months, several campaign volunteers said, gang members have been in regular attendance at Bradley campaign "coffee sips" on Tuesday nights at a South Side church. Several Gangster Disciples--who refer to themselves modestly these days as "Growth and Development"--work as bodyguards when Bradley makes his rounds. Others have become grass-roots organizers, handing out flyers and buttons at campaign stops.
Mickey Tolbert, 25, a Bradley security worker who described himself as a former gang member, strolled along Tobacco Road, pointing out spots where volunteers plan to round up registered voters on primary day. There was Buddy's Shoe Store, where old men gambled on checkers in a back room, a video parlor where voting-age gang members frequent, the alley near a liquor store where "we'll pick up the wineheads."
These are old, time-honored political tactics, but they may not be enough. Thomas Leach, a spokesman for Chicago's Board of Elections, said only 1,400 new voters have registered in the Third Ward since last November. For Bradley, who mustered only 375 votes in a last-minute try in 1991, those numbers would help little in overcoming Tillman, who won with 3,437 votes that year.
"Gator Bradley may not win this time, but the more noise he makes and the longer he keeps at it, the more voters will take him seriously," said Ed Tromanhauser, a gang expert and chairman of Chicago State University's department of Criminal Justice.
In spite of his past and the odds against him, Bradley's eager embrace of the city's gang culture as a political force has made him the lightning rod for growing concerns that Chicago street gangs are trying to follow the same path that Al Capone's organization once took toward mainstream acceptance.
Law enforcement officials express alarm at the emergence of Bradley and an allied activist group, 21st Century V.O.T.E., described as a political arm of the Gangster Disciples' imprisoned leader, Larry Hoover. In recent weeks, Hoover, who is serving a life term for murder, has launched a line of athletic wear. Hoover, meanwhile, is awaiting word from Illinois parole authorities on whether he will win early release.
In a recent Chicago Crime Commission report on the city's gangs, Gator Bradley was described as a former "enforcer for the Gangster Disciples" who maintains close ties with both 21st Century V.O.T.E. and Hoover.
Laughing at his status as the commission's "public enemy No. 1," Bradley is still quick to admit his ties.
"These are people (his gang supporters) who are doing positive things, and it's always being turned into the negative," Bradley said. "This time, I'm going to turn it back to the positive."