Saturday, March 15, 2014 || By Michael Romain
A few weeks ago, I sat down with James “Papa” Brewer, who’s running for Proviso Township Democratic Committeeman against incumbent Karen Yarbrough, who is also the sitting Cook County Recorder of Deeds. He talked about his transition from sports into politics, recounted his playing days and shared his ideas on for attracting Democratic candidates who share his vision for the community.
Tell us a bit about yourself.
I grew up here in Maywood. I attended Rock of Ages Baptist Church, Washington Elementary, Proviso East High School. I graduated from East in 1969. That year I helped the school win its first state championship in basketball. I grew up among lots of relatives–aunts, uncles and cousins, nieces and nephews–we had a big family. I really enjoyed growing up here. There was Little League Baseball, a minor league baseball team, Boy Scouts, 3-H Club, concert bands in District 89. So, there were a lot of activities we took part in and a lot of functional programming for young people.
I attended the University of Minnesota, where I graduated with a degree in sociology. While in college, I was co-captain of the Olympic team that played in Munich, Germany. I went on to play 12 years as a professional–nine in the NBA and three over in Italy. I came back home to coach 2 1/2 seasons at Northwestern under Bill Foster. That allowed me the opportunity to spend some time with my parents. My mom was rather ill in 1987 and she passed in 1988. The rest of my family was getting up in age and it was time to reunite with them. After a while, I joined the Minnesota Timberwolves executive staff as a college talent scout and ended up being the director of player personnel for a couple of years and coached as an assistant a few years there. I spent five years in Minnesota and then moved on to the LA Clippers, where I worked with Bill Fitch for five seasons as an assistant.
I took a job as an assistant coach with Lenny Wilkins at Cleveland and then went on to be an assistant with the Celtics, where I worked with my nephew, Doc Rivers. When I retired, my wife and I were figuring out where we wanted to live. We didn’t want to retire in LA, because it just didn’t make us closer to our families. My wife is from Oklahoma, right near Tulsa and has family in Oklahoma City. I have family here, so we decided to come back here. I’ve been here ever since. I’ve reunited with old friends, gotten a lay of the land, figured out the way things are handled here and I thought it was a good opportunity to help and assist to try to bring more of a team synergy to the local political arena.
What made you decide to run for a political position?
I’ve talked to several friends about running for office, but I didn’t feel that I needed to jump into these things that so much time and effort. I thought I needed a step into it in order to see what it’s about and that’s what this particular position [committeeman] provides. You get to see who the candidates are, what they’re doing, how they operate.
What’s your understanding of the position of committeeman? And what will be your priorities if you’re elected? For instance, I’m sure you’ve heard of recent legislation that gives 17-year-olds the right to vote now. How will you approach these new developments?
One of the duties of committeeman is voter registration. Citizens are upset with what’s going on and we have less turnout in these local elections and in elections that govern the local area. But people need to understand that this is the way you make changes. With voter education, more people have found out about government from Obama running than any other party elected, because you get to find out what the processes are. With the young people, 17 and 18 right now–that opportunity has to be exploited. If they can go and serve in a war they certainly can understand getting registered to vote and what it means and how it affects local politics. I’m after supporting those candidates who serve the community first. That’s something that’s sorely missing. People who put their community ahead of their own personal gain or monetary benefit.
What’s your perception of the Proviso Township Democratic party as it stand today?
For the most part, it’s about each person in the various villages taking care of their business as they see fit. From the outside, it just looks like business as usual. I’m not as familiar with the neighboring villages and how they do their business, but each township has its own set of concerns and problems, depending on who you talk to. This job allows you to observe firsthand what these villages are about.
Are you presently, or how have you ever been, a member of the Proviso Township Democratic Organization (PTDO)?
No. But I’ve always been a Democrat.
How would you exploit your reputation as a local basketball legend, particularly among younger people? There’s the sports connection.
I would love to exploit that in every way possible. young people becoming aware is always a good thing. I’m well known here and around here, but that’s comparatively speaking. Out of the eighty-some thousand voters in the Township, that’s a very small number. If you just take into account the people who know me….many have moved out of Proviso Township, but I’ll work hard to get people to know me and make sure I’ll do my best job. I think anybody would want to do that if they wanted to get elected to this kind of office.
Do you think your skills will transfer over from the basketball arena to the political arena? I know one of the most important duties that a committeeman has is identifying and recruiting potential candidates. Do you think your various administrative and managerial basketball roles prepared you for responsibilities like that?
Absolutely. I was a scout and by the powers of observation, we find out what we need to know by people’s actions. We take in what we see as scouts and judge for ourselves. That goes into every aspect of living. You speak to a person, observe how he treats people, how he treats his possessions, what his actions are. Those things are what we look at not only in sports but everywhere. Most importantly, you have to go with people who will produce for the team and the greater good.
Of course, you’re running against current Committeewoman Karen Yarbrough–former state representative, current Cook County Recorder of Deeds. She has strong political instincts, lots of experience and lot of connections throughout the State. How do you respond to those who say that your political background doesn’t match up?
I’m not trying to be entrenched in the political groundswell of politics. I’m concerned with what condition my local community and my neighboring communities are in. I’m not looking on being on the inside. I don’t want this as a career. That’s a lot of what’s wrong with politics. We send people to represent our interests, give them our vote and as a result, a lot of times there’s no return on investment–no allegiance to the constituency. It’s all done for personal benefit, personal gain. They make these alliances of different politicians and they go the way of those folks, instead of the people who put them in office. I heard someone say once that we go and get these people elected to represent us, they get elected and then they think they’r supposed to be somebody. They are, but not at the detriment of everybody else. That’s the difference in me. Maybe those alliances could serve me and I would certainly seek those that benefit me to do the job, but that’s how it’s supposed to be done.
What are some of the most important qualities you’ll be looking for in potential candidates for office?
I would think that they would have to have the same purposes and goals and vision for the community. One of the big things that we lack–because of the shrinking tax base and tough times–is a strong tax base. We don’t have the vision for our schools. We don’t set the bar high enough and plan to make that a priority for our kids. So, I’d look for someone who came in with a strong work ethic, idea and vision for this community and the ability to galvanize people in order to accomplish it.
How do you think you’re looking in the race so far?
We’re in the game, but we have a ways to go before we can feel any better than just being an opponent. Our greatest work is ahead of us. the weather hasn’t been kind to us or anybody, but we need to get going on all flows. We’ve done some fundraising, but we need more. We’ve done door-to-door, but we need to do more. We need to do more of everything, but one of the good things about my candidacy is the feedback I’m getting from people who want to support. They think new people are needed in this area in local government. they’re so enthusisatic and they’ve been getting a lot of support. but we need to take that support and magnify it and turn it into votes on march 18th. VFP