By Misha Euceph
The first time Clem Balanoff did something political, he was 10 years old. He organized his group of fifth grade friends on streamer-decorated bicycles and the boys rode up and down the street between their houses on the Southeast side of Chicago and the polling place. He arranged the parade in support of John Buchanan, “the independent at the time,” because his parents supported Buchanan.
Balanoff is now 62 years old with a 30-year-old son who lives in China and a 28-year-old daughter in graduate school at the University of California, Berkeley. The campaign of fifth graders has morphed into the state of Illinois, which he has been organizing in support of Bernie Sanders, who many would argue, is the independent of our time.
As the Illinois State Director for the Sanders presidential campaign, Balanoff has put his long-time Chicago connections to use in running the 16 campaign offices in Hillary Clinton’s home state.
“I’ve been on all sides of politics,” explains Balanoff, who served as the Illinois State Representative for the 35th District in the early ‘90s and most recently served as chief of staff for the office of the Cook County Clerk. “I’ve run in campaigns, I’ve been an elected official. I’ve won some of them. I’ve lost some of them. I’ve run one of the biggest election departments in the country.”
He recounts how he reached out to Jonathan Jackson, Jesse Jackson’s son, a day before the first Bernie Sanders rally in Chicago. With only 24 hours notice, Jackson agreed to introduce Sanders to a crowd of 7,000 people at Chicago State University.
As Balanoff, in his own words, works his ties with “the African-American community, the Latino community, and the progressive community,” the influence of his family background permeates every aspect of his work and life.
“I grew up in a family of activists,” says Balanoff. “I was at the march in Washington in 1963 with my dad. I don’t remember it real well, but in 1993, I brought my kids. My daughter was six, I believe. My son was seven or eight. And all they remember is that it was a hot, sweaty day, but they were there. And now we talk about it.”
His family fought as part of the Civil Rights movement. They opposed the war in Vietnam. “We were marching down, I believe it was Michigan Avenue and State Street against the war in Vietnam, and I remember somebody yelled to my mother, ‘Miriam, I’m surprised at you!’ and she looked at him and said, ‘No, I’m surprised at you!’”
Balanoff says that even when they failed to get a lot of support among their friends and colleagues, his parents fought for causes in which they believed. “Whether it’s that or the environmental fight or the women’s rights movement, throughout history, my family’s been involved and myself, to different degrees.”
Balanoff’s mother, Miriam, served as a Cook County Circuit Court judge and Balanoff’s father, Jim, organized steelworkers as District 31 Steelworkers President.
With politically involved parents, it’s not a surprise that Balanoff’s first exposure to Sanders occurred long before Sanders became a senator from Vermont or arrived on the national stage as a candidate for President.
“You know, Bernie was a student at the University of Chicago and my mother was in law school at the time. I was nine, I think, and I remember talking at the dinner table about students sitting in the administration building for 15 days or something like that,” Balanoff recalls. “It would be on the news day after day.”
Today, as he fights the fight for Bernie Sanders, Balanoff still finds support in his family. The campaign’s Chicago Communications Director, Linh Nguyen, explains that Balanoff’s brother, Robert, has cooked for the office on a regular basis.
“It’s a small thing,” says Clem Balanoff. “But he’s a judge. This is the only way he can support me in this fight. He bakes cookies and homemade caramels and for Linh, she likes those pickled cucumbers.”
“He brings these in all the time just for me!” says Linh. “He’s a great housewife,” adds Dave Tempkin, another campaign staff member.
Balanoff attributes most of his success and his political drive to his family. “My dad would work every day in my campaign when I ran for Illinois State Representative. One day, we got in a fight and I said, ‘Get the [expletive] out of here!’ and he got real angry and he left,” remembers Balanoff. “An hour later, he was back.”