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Gapers Block published from April 22, 2003 to Jan. 1, 2016. The site will remain up in archive form. Please visit Third Coast Review, a new site by several GB alumni.
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Tuesday, April 23

Gapers Block

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Isaac "Ike" Carothers runs the West Side. The powerful alderman of the far West Side 29th Ward, Carothers holds the respect of his fellow aldermen. So when he stood up at a City Council meeting last month to decry the kidnapping of aldermen, people listened and the CPD acting as security in the Council chambers moved to restrain the increasingly agitated community groups that had infiltrated the spectators' area.

The men and women who serve in Chicago's City Council -- or, most of them -- are not patsies. They are, in the words of leading ACORN activist Toni Foulkes, "the baddest politicians on the planet," and they take pride in the fact that they are the inheritors of a legacy of brawling, no-holds-barred, take it when you can, feudal politics of power.

The business of city-wide legislation is the provenance of a few key old-timers and roustabouts, trouble-making firebrands -- a hassle for your average alderman. The real job of Chicago's aldermen is to rule his fiefdom efficiently and subtly -- but not without blunt force. Votes of conscience with real social implications don't sit well with your run-of-the-mill aldermen. They're busy making sure garbage is picked up, trees are planted, and residents are quieted. Who needs the headache?

So when the votes to bring Wal*Mart to town came up, it was contentious and the aldermen were scared. They weren't sure which vote was the politically safe vote -- so they looked to their political sponsors for instructions on how to vote, especially since Mayor Daley hadn't picked up the phone and issued a clear directive.

"This is outrageous!" Ike Carothers shouted, "We got community organizations kidnapping aldermens, dragging them out of the chambers!"

It had been chaotic: a charismatic young pastor and community activist from a prominent community organization had hustled 15th Ward Alderman and stand-up guy Theodore "Ted" Thomas out of the chambers and worked him over right there on Clark Street for over two hours, making sure he was going to cast two "No" votes, one for each Wal*Mart. For hours they stood toe to toe out there on Clark Street, the young pastor reminding Ald. Thomas of everything they'd done to get him elected, of all the facts and figures the alderman had heard at a town hall meeting at Saint Sabina's the month before. When alderman Thomas' cellphone rang, as his fellow aldermen who had lined up behind West Side alderman and Wal*Mart proponent Emma Mitts tried to contact him, the young pastor ran interference.

"Let me see your phone, alderman," he said, and when he did, the young pastor turned it off and put it in his pocket.

Thomas, a man in his sixties coming off of a heart attack and a stroke, slumped against the wall. He liked Emma Mitts. He didn't want to upset her, he said, and she had always helped him out.

"Forget that," the young pastor said, "this is too important."

Inside, recently tamed reformer alderman Joe Moore was on his feet, railing against Wal*Mart. Stridently pro-labor alderman Thomas Allen was hooting in agreement.

Deputy Mayor and 25th Ward alderman Daniel Solis fidgeted. He hadn't gotten a directive from his political sponsor -- none other than one Richard M. Daley -- and he wasn't sure how to vote. Ald. Mitts, who would be hosting one of the Wal*Marts in her Ward, had lobbied him hard to at least vote for her store.

By this point, Mitts was frantic looking for Ald. Thomas, whom she hoped she had charmed into a Yea vote. It did seem that in fact he had been hijacked, and Ike Carothers, who gave the West Side Wal*Mart his blessing, thereby clearing the way for the other West Side aldermen to vote his way, was steaming mad. Who were these radicals?

Finally, when Ald. Thomas was exhausted after hours of lobbying, he was released and returned to the chambers. Carothers then decried the "kidnapping" of aldermen, and Mayor Daley instructed the CPD to quell the riotous crowd. A group of pro-Wal*Mart West Side pastors tried to drown out the loud chants of "Living Wage Yes! Wal*Mart No!" from the community organizations and community labor activists by interjecting a second "Yes!"

The mood among the rest of the aldermen was clear: Fear. How to maintain their progressive, pro-community images while not appearing anti-business? Besides, it was the fledgling entrepreneurs who filled the coffers of each of the city's ruling 49 Regular Democratic Organizations (one ward is represented by a Republican). They also faced another dilemma: the way they held power was by being the final word, the embodiment of authority, in their wards. If they stuck their nose in the business -- literally -- of other aldermen today, who says it wouldn't happen to them tomorrow?

Somewhere, Chicago Federation of Labor chairman Dennis Gannon was fuming, and rightfully so. He couldn't believe the betrayal. The CFL had worked so hard to keep the Wal*Marts out of Chicago. It represented a threat organized labor hadn't seen since a cold January day in 1981 when Ronald Reagan placed his hand on a Bible in Washington, D.C. and swore to uphold the Constitution. But these aldermen, almost all of whom had received tens if not hundreds of thousands of dollars and thousands of volunteer man-hours over the course of their careers, were more concerned with the "keep your nose out of my business" ethos of City Council tradition than the very real debt they owed organized labor. Perhaps it was on that day that he planned the fiery speech he would give later that month at an AFL-CIO conference at the Hilton Hotel, where he denounced the entire City Council as traitors and suggested it was time to find alternatives.

Finally, the aldermen were called on to vote. Emma Mitts, thanks in large part to the aggressive blessing of Ike Carothers, saw her Wal*Mart eek through by a slim margin. Ald. Manuel "Manny" Flores, a young pup with a progressive record who has struggled to maintain his pro-growth yet anti-hyperdevelopment campaign platform, voted with Ms. Mitts and big Ike. Ald. Toni Preckwinkle, the supposed independent reformer from the Hyde Park-centered 4th Ward, abstained from the vote. Ted Thomas, as usual, was as good as his word. He cast a Nay vote. Powerful Zoning Committee chair and Committeeman of one of the most powerful Ward Organizations in the city William J.P. Banks also voted Nay.

But there was still the South Side Wal*Mart, which freshman Alderman Howard Brookins, Jr., had tried to sneak through in a package zoning ordinance months ago, to vote on.

Brookins has no Ike Carothers on his side, and many aldermen felt he hadn't shown the proper deference in lobbying for their votes; so many aldermen felt the safest bet was to vote Nay; this way they could meet labor and big business halfway; give the West Side their Wal*Mart, but object to the South Side location in the name of community preservation.

This cheap trick was not so simple for Ald. Solis, who without Daley's backing was still rudderless. The solution, of course, was to get out of town. Literally. Solis was excused from the vote because he claimed he had to leave immediately before the second vote to catch a flight.

With several abstentions and spiteful or contradictory Nay votes, the South Side Wal*Mart failed, and the community groups roared with delight as Brookins collapsed in his seat, covering his smooth, young face with his hands. He learned a valuable lesson about how a bill becomes a law in Chicago.

They're not judged by the content of their character, but by the name of their sponsor.

Aldermanic Roll Call: Wal*Mart
Alderman West Side


South Side
1 Flores Y   N
2 Haithcock Y   N
3 Tillman NP   NP
4 Preckwinkle NP   N
5 Hairston Y   N
6 Lyle Y   N
7 Beavers Y   Y
8 Stroger Y   Y
9 Beale Y   N
10 Pope Y   Y
11 Balcer Y   Y
12 Cardenas Y   Y
13 Olivo N   N
14 Burke Y   Y
15 T. Thomas N   N
16 Coleman Y   N
17 L. Thomas Y   NP
18 T Murphy N   N
19 Rugai N   N
20 Troutman Y   Y
21 Brookins Y   Y
22 Munoz N   N
23 Zalewski N   N
24 Chandler Y   Y
25 Solis Y   NP
26 Ocasio Y   Y
27 Burnett Y   Y
28 Smith Y   Y
29 Carothers Y   Y
30 Reboyras Y   Y
31 Suarez Y   Y
32 Matlak Y   Y
33 Mell Y   Y
34 Austin Y   Y
35 Colon N   N
36 Banks N   N
37 Mitts Y   Y
38 T. Allen N   N
39 Laurino N   N
40 O’Connor N   N
41 Doherty Y   Y
42 Natarus Y   Y
43 V. Daley Y   Y
44 Tunney Y   Y
45 Levar N   N
46 Shiller N   N
47 Schulter N   N
48 M. Smith NP   NP
49 J. Moore N   N
50 B. Stone Y   Y
Yea Vote: 32   25


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Emily / August 12, 2004 9:53 AM

It's like a twisted bedtime story...

Emily / August 12, 2004 9:53 AM

It's like a Grimm fairy tale for the new generation.

C. Diamond / August 12, 2004 10:26 PM

HEY YOU LILY-LIVERED, PINK-LUNGED, LEFT-LEANING, DO-GOOD, P.C., COLLEGE-GRADUATE, SUSHI-EATING, STARBUCKS-HANGINGOUT RED-LOVING HIP-PRETENDING WEASELS! Yeah, you. This is the way Chicago works, and Chicago is the world. And Chicago politics isn't white people in white shirts in a white building talking nice. Never has been, never will be. It's a hell of a lot better than democracy. Get in or get out. Maybe read something other than an online magazine sometime. Try Boss or American Pharaoh for starters. This is how a bill becomes law. Cry about it for me. Poor, poor crybaby.


Ramsin / August 13, 2004 2:10 PM

Ooh, you're such a hardcore badass, I'm so scared of your truth-talking style! I've never heard of those books, they must be really obscure. Horse's ass.

Tell the people who are going to live near the WalMart "Cry about it for you." Get your tough guy, Nelson Algren bullshit and shove it. This is real life time, where the adults play.

C. Diamond / August 13, 2004 9:29 PM

You should be glad somebody even reads your piece-of-shit column, Rams. And FYI, I was referring to those who would be surprised that Chicago operates this way ("Grimm fairy tale", "twisted bedtime story...") And try to keep the paranoid persecution-complex under wraps. It doesn't suit you. Nobody ever said Boss was obscure, but I bet you $100 Emily, the other person who read your column, hasn't read it. Ask her, I dare you. Send me the money and I'll burn it. I'm from North Carolina and I've seen more Wal-Marts than you'll ever see. Wal-Mart sucks, but there's worse things. And while your heart is bleeding for the West Side, ask yourself: when was the last time YOU went to the West Side? how many black people do YOU have on your staff? Any Hispanics? Good morning, suckers.


Ramsin / August 14, 2004 9:56 AM

I was on the west side this morning. And almost every morning for the last 8 months. As for my staff at my real job, it is majority african-american and hispanic. But this isn't about me and my "qualifications" for writing this column. It's about your desire to show how down some hick from North Carolina is with Chicago.

Good morning, horse's ass.

Pete / August 16, 2004 5:36 PM

The telling comment to me is "We got community organizations kidnapping aldermens." Carothers has my sympathy. Does the community really expect their aldermen to vote in their interests? How dare them!

Shylo / August 17, 2004 9:33 AM

Ramsin knows what he is talking about. And if you don't agree, that's cool, but I think he is incapable of writing about a topic he doesn't feel completely knowledgeable about.

Want to write something? Contact our Ed. in Chief and send it on in.

eric f / August 17, 2004 1:08 PM

Aside from all that, the statistical argument against Wal-Mart low cost jobs is well documented. Check out the UC Berkeley study:

C. Diamond / August 17, 2004 9:18 PM

I believe that my earlier postings were GROSSLY misunderstood. Who said politics had to be so serious? Nobody said my good buddy Rams didn't know what he was talking about. It's just that he takes it so seriously. That, to me, is funny.



About the Author(s)

Ramsin Canon covers and works in politics in Chicago. If you have a tip, a borderline illegal leak, or a story that needs to be told, contact him at .

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