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Saturday, July 20

Gapers Block

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Who will be the first newly-elected, so-called "reform" alderman to be accused of collaboration with the Fifth Floor? The Chicago equivalent of the celebrity dead pool. Who will it be? Thirty-second Ward wunderkind Scott Waguespack? Second Ward firebrand Robert Fioretti? Pat "The Hat Slayer" Dowell from the Third? Mrs. Triple J from the Seventh Ward? Or perhaps Toni Foulkes, my political crush from the 15th (gosh I hope not)?

Critics of 35th Ward Alderman Rey Colon will never get tired of telling you that he sold out almost instantly. When they use a phrase like "sold out" what they mean — well, what they think they mean — is that Colon began a Vichy-like collaboration with the Fifth Floor in City Hall minutes after his swearing in. His defenders say that his clever cooperation on hopeless causes was just astute maneuvering — voting against Mayor Daley's budgets is kind of like... um... there really isn't an example to compare it to; you'd be better off using "that's like voting against Mayor Daley's budgets," as a cliché for other hopeless things. Like, "I was going to try to count all the grains of sands on the beach, but, man, that'd be like voting against Mayor Daley's budgets."

Annoyingly, as with everything, Colon's posture since joining the City Council in 2003 lies somewhere in between. He has worked with Daley on some issues, but he has voted or behaved according to his independent rhetoric on some issues, too. Some for the good, some for the bad. "Mature," in other words.

Still, Colon was a bit strident in his election rhetoric in 2003, but he could afford to do that because he had an unpopular opponent in Vilma Colom who embodied the Mayor without being the Mayor; therefore Colon could attack Colom and make it appear he was attacking the entrenched political system without explicitly saying he would buck the Fifth Floor. Nice.

Alderman Manny Flores, one of several candidates to replace Luis Gutierrez in Congress, took a similar tack in 2003, and several candidates have used the neat technique.

Politicians becoming co-opted by existing reward/punishment systems in politics is as American as Wonder Bread, which is fitting because newly elected 32nd Ward Alderman Scott Waguespack, who ran an old-school shoe leather campaign behind an extremely makeshift, cobbled-together coalition that didn't have a single big-name backer, will have one of his first tests come in the form of the Wonder Bread factory on Diversey.

Waguespack was supported by organized labor, but their support was somewhat muted in comparison to the help other candidates received. Neighboring politicians were erratic in their support, with nobody willing to completely, publicly come after incumbent Ted Matlak and the powerful coalition of city-wide interests supporting him. Waguespack's likable, approaching nerdly demeanor is atypical for an alderman, but don't mistake it for naiveté. After dispatching the long-entrenched Berwyn political establishment, Waguespack wrested control of a strategically vital ward in the heart of the city from an impressive array of organizations. The profundity of distaste for Matlak didn't hurt, of course.

That victory should be instructive for Waguespack, which could force him to seek allies somewhere in its depths: this would seem to make him a prime candidate for cooption.

Conversely, the least likely candidates would be either Sandi Jackson, wife of Congressman Reverend Jesse Jackson Jr., a likely mayoral candidate in 2011, or Toni Foulkes, the community organizer and union activist who rode to victory in the Fifteenth Ward on the strength of a completely union-funded run with ACORN muscle on the streets (Though ACORN as an organization does not get involved in partisan electoral politics, its members are under no such restriction). Sandi Jackson may simply be unable to submit to City Hall, because there is no advantage in it for the Mayor, who, should he choose not to run in '11, could hardly be expected to anoint anybody from the Jackson family or political organization to succeed him.

Foulkes is an interesting study. Ted Thomas was a former president of ACORN when he was elected in 1999, but he quickly bowed to pressure from the Fifth Floor and hostile neighboring aldermen who were loyal to the Mayor. Thomas never became a stooge for the Mayor, but he didn't quite live up to what you'd expect from a former president of ACORN. He seemed satisfied with go-along, get-along. Surely nobody would have thought he was a candidate for cooperation. What direction will Foulkes go? With the development at Kennedy-King in full swing and her ward, centered on Englewood, in desperate need of real investment from the city, can she afford to champion progressive causes that embarrass the Mayor and could completely drain his wide but shallow support among Black voters? Foulkes has the fire if not the experience to be a key element in a strong progressive bloc that could cripple the ability of the regular Democratic establishment to cultivate a mayoral successor and install him or her upon Daley's announcement to not run in late 2010.

Dowell, who received near-Foulkes levels of union support this year, is in a similar situation with her ward, which, given its relative proximity to downtown and its position at the edge of a completely gentrifying ward in the Second, will be a lot more volatile than the 15th. She who slayed The Hat is a formidable lady and shrewd, so her behavior around early key issues will be significant. In the South Side Black political establishment, the Third is politically heavy and can be a bellwether ward.

Which brings us to what we're really talking about: For any of this to really matter, for "co-opting" or "bucking" to actually mean anything, there needs to be actual leadership from those elected officials who get to enjoy the label "independent" or "progressive" without ever really raising a fuss. I respect greatly aldermen like Toni Preckwinkle in Hyde Park, Joe Moore in East Rogers and Ed Smith in North Lawndale/Garfield Park. But with the exception of some largely marginal noise on fair housing and Ald. Smith's crusade to stamp out smoking (which was also championed by Ed Burke, the wrinkles of whose forehead actually spell out "Gray Wolf"), there has been no real loud, coalesced opposition to the policies coming from the Fifth Floor.

The term "loyal opposition" has come to be more than a nicety, an uncomfortably accurate description of a loose group of aldermen who lack either the fire or the organizational aptitude to really mount opposition to Fifth Floor policies that are rapidly shifting power out of neighborhoods and into the hands of outsider big-money interests that threaten Chicago's social economy.

That sucks.

It will require leadership from these elected officials, and the state representatives and senators who comprise their political cohort, to provide the leadership that can draft these aldermanic babes into a movement that places them squarely at odds with the power structure in this city.

I know what you're thinking. "Aren't you the guy who had slobbered all over Mayor Daley in this very space?" True. I got some love for the man.

Yes. But I'm also the guy who dubbed him "His Elective Majesty." I'm not saying I'll necessary agree with whatever a real opposition bloc proposes or does — I'm just saying we need them.

(See what I did there?)

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JP Paulus / July 11, 2007 8:02 AM

What do you think of 46th Ward Aldermna Helen Shiller...

She USED to oppose the Daley budget, but says that after years of that, they have actually taken the steps to present a "proper" budget and answered questions BEFORE the vote.

How do you rate Shiller now on the "independence scale"? How about her opposition?

Ramsin / July 11, 2007 10:04 AM

I think you should tell us what YOU think.

Andrea / July 15, 2007 9:24 PM

Where's Rich? He's not writing his column, he's not answering my calls, and I haven't seen him at any of his usual spots around town.


About the Author(s)

Ramsin Canon studies 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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