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Sunday, December 8

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Airbags

Although I have been a parent for three years, I've never had the experience of watching my daughters about to fall or pull something down on their head in the slow motion such events are supposed to happen in. I've never experienced that movie cliché where someone watches tragedy about to happen to a loved one in agonizing frame by frame clarity. Well thanks to the abysmally dysfunctional Illinois political system, I'm getting to experience watching in agonizing slow motion the disaster about to befall the RTA and Chicago when the "revised-sort of doomsday" scenario comes into effect on September 16th. It's almost as if we're rooted to our seats, watching the impending collision painfully play out ever so slowly before us. The Sun-Times and Tribune have heretofore offered scant coverage of the crisis and its consequences, and even internet news sources like Gapers Block, Chicagoist or the CTA Tattler have mostly confined themselves to reporting on what little legislative activity occurs on the issue. You don't have to be an expert in obscure arcade games to know that the transit bill that recently passed out of committee in the House has little chance of making it past the cesspool of the Madigan-Jones-Blago feud. And so disaster continues to descend upon us with slow, steady certainty.

While Chicago residents and suburban commuters are clearly better off with the revised scenario for service cuts and fare increases, it's hard to understate the consequences of a more expensive, less convienient public transportation system for the health and vitality of Chicago neighborhoods. Much of the "revitalization" of so many neighborhoods in Chicago is linked to proximity to the Loop, either physical or via public transportation. For better or worse, what has drawn a good number of yuppies, empty nesters and recent college graduates back to the city is a vision of car-optional urban living. Without an expanding, high quality public transportation system, Chicago risks becoming an overgrown Schaumburg with substantially more traffic and worse parking.

It's unsurprising that the average citizen or CTA user is reduced to a stupor watching the idiots who run our state government play out their hideous political kabuki. What is more surprising is that Mayor Daley has been relatively quiet about the issue. With the exception of a recent public rally and some radio interviews in support of the House bill, Daley seemingly has been content to cede control over a vital aspect of his city's ability to function to others. While I'm not the mayor's biggest fan, even his most virulent opponent has to grudgingly admire his ability to manipulate political discourse and find legal loopholes and strategies to accomplish his agenda. I'm assuming that the mayor understands the consequences of a weakened public transit system for the continuation of his "crane and condo" model of urban development. Perhaps the only conclusion one can draw from this scenario is that Daley has lost his mojo.

For most of his reign, Daley's mojo solved seemingly intractable problems with verve and dash. Daly was able to leverage federal Hope VI funds to completely reshape public housing and change the face (quite literally) of neighborhoods throughout Chicago. He cleverly dealt with a Republican governor's attempt to take over Chicago O'Hare airport by signing the Chicago/Gary Airport Compact with authorities at the Gary Airport. This elegant piece of legal manipulation created an interstate airport authority. Those of you who got a better grade than Alberto Gonzales in constitutional law know that states cannot regulate interstate commerce. Game, set, match, Daley. Now all Daley can muster to save his city's public transportation system is a public rally. Public rallies are often powerful expressions of grassroots anger and strength. They are also a "weapon of the weak." Protestors hold public rallies outside government buildings because they do not have a seat at the table inside, where decisions are made. When his mojo was in full force, Mayor Daley had little need for political theatre. If he didn't hold the lever that would make the changes he desired, he'd find another one.

I can't help but imagine that Daley's lost mojo has something to do with his years in office. Maybe, like so many people trapped in the same dead-end job for years on end, he's lost the joy he used to have in finding that elegant solution to major problems. More dangerously, it is possible that as he grows older, he's more concerned about his legacy. Instead of the small steps that only policy wonks remember, legacy concerns manifest themselves in massive projects like the 2016 Olympics. To use a sports analogy, instead of trying to move the runner over into scoring position, concern over legacy prompts politicians to swing for the fences. Legacy concerns drive politicians to focus inordinate attention on high risk, low reward projects that put names on monuments but do little to improve the lives of the average citizen.

One can view long-serving politicians' tendencies towards building their legacies as opposed to public service as an argument for term limits. What is more troubling is that our patience with politicians like Daley is an indictment of ourselves as citizens of Chicago. Our political culture tends toward the "don't rock the boat" school of politics. We continue to elect Daley, Burke, Madigan, Arenda Troutman and all the others who have relinquished their independence of thought and action because we're somehow afraid of the consequences of debate and the chaos of change. And then when the whole house of cards falls down, like it did after the death of the first Mayor Daley and likely will after the second Mayor Daley passes from the scene, we blame those who have been left with the mess, not those who made it. I'm sure Daley will avoid most of the blame for the disaster about to befall the CTA.

Maybe I'm being pessimistic. Maybe the mayor's mojo will save the RTA or the state will come through. I'm not sure what is the sadder lesson to come out of this. That his mojo can no longer save us, that we still believe it can or that we're convinced a mojo-less, legacy obsessed, Olympic dreaming Daley is the best we can do. No wonder people still go to Cubs games.

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Comments

Rick / September 6, 2007 10:59 AM

"You don't have to be an expert in obscure arcade games to know that..."

Nice.

Yeah, I don't know Jacob; the mayor started lose me back in '04 when he refused to back the City Colleges faculty and then really hurt my heart when he backed Wal-Mart. He's kind of bummer these days.

Remember to root for the Bears this Sunday.

Ramsin / September 6, 2007 12:43 PM

Hey, the video game thing was satire. Apparently terrible satire. Ah well, sometimes you swing and miss.

The Mayor's ability to act via fiat is significantly degraded when it doesn't involve TIF funds he controls.

And it's always been the case that his power in Springy comes at the pleasure of Chairman Madigan. The Mayor has always had a heavy hand down there, but that's usually been thanks to, not in spite of, what the Chairman wants to see done.

Lonny / September 9, 2007 10:57 PM

I love how the people in this city revere the Mayor incessantly - even in the face of CTA cuts, TIF raids, and diversion of funds from schools and parks. Cut the TIFS. Start laying blame for the failrre of the CTA at the desk of the Mayor, Kreusi, Browne and all those managers who couldn't run it for the last 15 years, at least nowhere but into the ground. HUberman isn't any better and won't accomplish anything. AND you can blame MAdigan and Blago and ALL the chicago state legislators who act coy when you ask them to fight for the funds. If our chicago area reps had any guts they would have stepped up and fought Madigan on this. They are to blame as well.

Jacob / September 10, 2007 7:33 AM

Lonny:
Thanks for dropping by. You're exactly right. While the way the RTA is set up and the bruhaha at the state legislature is largely to blame for the current crisis, I agree, it's appalling that we've gotten to this point. Despite what the signs say, it's not just insufficent state funds that are causing this crisis

 

About the Author(s)

Jacob Lesniewski is a transplanted New Yorker and a graduate student at the University of Chicago. While he loves Chicago, his biggest fear is that his daughters will become Bulls fans.

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