By Ewa Kern-Jedrychowska, Polish Daily News and FI2W reporter
He didn’t win. But Dr. Victor Forys considers his bid to replace Rahm Emanuel in Illinois’ 5th Congressional District a huge success. Fory’s, a Polish immigrant, finished fourth out of a field of 12 candidates in the special March 3rd Democratic primary with approximately 12% of the vote. Cook County Commissioner Mike Quigley, who claimed the Democratic nomination, got 22% of the vote and is poised to win the congressional seat in a special election on April 7th
Forys says his campaign mobilized Polish voters who in recent years have not been very active in politics, both in terms of voting or offering financial support to candidates. “We got them to like American politics, we got them excited about it, so this is not the end, this is just the beginning,” he said in a phone interview the day after the primary. Out of approximately 650,000 residents in the district, more than 17% claim Polish origins.
Forys, a well-known medical doctor, had hoped that low turnout among non-Polish voters combined with the support of his community would be enough for him to win. To a certain degree his plan worked. “I have never seen so many Polish people casting votes,” said Monika Mysliwiec who has worked as a Polish coordinator at the Chicago Board of Elections for the last 9 years. Approximately 300 Polish-speaking callers contacted the Board of Election’s hotline on primary day, mostly looking for their polling site. By comparison, on the day of the presidential election last November, about 100 Poles called. “Some people even called from other districts asking how they can vote for Forys,” said Mysliwiec.
Forys actually won in suburban Cook County where many Polish neighborhoods are located. He got approximately 22.5% of the Democratic votes in that part of the district.
In other areas his task was more difficult. Forys discovered that a tight network of connections and loyalties in Chicago’s political world does not favor outsiders.“Some older Polish Americans living in the city of Chicago have a strong personal relationship with the ward organizations. Moreover, it was an electorate that we couldn’t reach with the Polish media because they watch broadcast TV. We didn’t have enough money,” Forys said.
It also turned out that many Polish immigrants, not having participated in the political process before, didn’t realize they had to register to vote ahead of time. “We received many phone calls from people who thought that they could just go to a polling site with their ID and vote, just like it is in Poland,” said Mysliwiec.
Despite his loss, Poles residing in Chicago are proud of Forys’ attempt. “He changed the dynamics of this race taking away votes from long-time Chicago politicians and beating people like Patrick O’Connor, a Chicago alderman closely affiliated with Mayor Daley,” noted Malgorzata Ptaszynska of 1030 AM, WNVR, a local Polish radio station. “To other Democratic candidates who scored higher than him, like State Representatives Sara Feigenholtz and John Fritchey, politics is daily work, while Forys just walked out of his medical clinic.”
Ptaszynska is also convinced that Forys “gave Poles hope and made them involved. Polonia was noticed and showed itself as a group that does vote after all.” For her it’s a clear signal that Polish immigrants are willing to participate in American politics if they are educated about the American system and believe that their votes matter.
That theory may be tested in the April 7the special election to replace Emanuel who is now White House chief of staff for President Barack Obama. “I really hope that Poles will go out and vote even though the Polish candidate didn’t make it,” noted Monika Mysliwiec.
As for Forys, he does not rule out running for another office in the future. “I’m a physician and I’m happy with my work. But never say never. And if I run again, I want to run for another significant office.”
He even joked that he would like to try his chances in a presidential bid.