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Saturday, July 20

Gapers Block

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Helen Shiller's no vote on the Big Box Living Wage ordinance refutes almost all the hopes, and all the arguments for a reform-bound Chicago. In the build-up to the vote two weeks ago, nobody knew how the vote would play out — the supporters of the ordinance felt confident they had a majority by a few votes, but nobody knew how that could change when the Mayor went full court press behind the scenes. The last thing the supporters of the ordinance wanted to worry about was how the Lakefront Liberal reformer aldermen were going to vote — the supposed "anti-Daley" bloc. Yet Shiller wouldn't commit one way or another.

And when the chips were down, she didn't even vote.

Surely weighing heavily on the former independent firebrand's conscience was the Target being planned for the 4400 block of Broadway Avenue, anchoring her beloved Wilson Yard project. There was a time, of course, when something like that would never have mattered to Alderman Shiller, who valiantly battled the regular Democratic organization in 1987 to win her first term. Shiller ran as a reformer in the spirit of Dick Simpson and Leon Despres. The regulars have consistently tried to knock her out, despite her increasingly tame attitude in the Council. In 2003, she even endorsed the Mayor, despite his endorsing her opponent. Shiller has barely stayed afloat in the tumultuous Buena Park-based 46th Ward, never cracking 60 percent of the vote (a pretty standard benchmark for incumbent aldermen in Chicago).

Shiller's drift towards the establishment shows not a buckling under to Daleyism, but a malaise perhaps better described as Aldermanitis — that inflammation of the sense of self that afflicts so many of Chicago's legislators.

You see, Shiller has drifted away from her considerably radical politics over the years not because the free-marketism espoused by Daley is a naturally correct conclusion, or because Mayor Daley has enticed her to do so — rather she has difted rightward because Chicago's political culture and institutions themselves, the very skeleton of the Chicago polity, demand it.

In other words, you could slay Daley and all his loyal aldermen, and in a blink of an eye, the creatures you elected to replace would likely start smelling an awful lot like... Daley and his loyal aldermen.

Shiller's cowardly abstention is especially strange considering she voted against Wal-Mart coming into the city at all in 2004, voting against both the 37th Ward and 21st Ward locations. So while she opposed their entry at all, she implicitly supports their existence paying less than subsistence wages?

Of course not. This was a case of the worst sort of hypocrisy, the thing that anti-living wage pundits and critics were repeating over and over again: the big, bad liberals are standing on principle, because it doesn't effect them. Here is Shiller, she of the "Nuclear Free Zone" ordinance, suddenly considering the free market argument when it could affect a Target coming in to her Ward.

Shiller's betrayal of the reformers and the reform movement that has protected her for decades stings those with high hopes for a democratic Chicago because it speaks to the near impossibility of their task: the "Machine" everybody is so intent on slaying is not the patronage workers and the party apparatus, but the seamless fabric of businesses and family clans that have proved so resistant to reform, where the electoral tricks of precinct captains and party organizations have been so easily quarantined by the Shakman Decrees and overzealous prosecutors. That fabric has so easily swaddled one of their own in Helen Shiller and there's no reason to believe it won't do so for whoever replaces the so-called hacks everybody loves to hate.

As the 46th Ward gentrifies, as it has, her constituents may approve of her pro-big business votes (and no-votes); but the voters who have stood by her against the waves of regular Democratic opposition did not put her there to kowtow; but rather to stand up for them. She proved herself pristinely unable to do so — or worse, unwilling.

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Larry Griffin / August 9, 2006 1:04 PM

The column raises an interesting point--should Ms. Shiller advocate for what she believes is right (on the logic that the citizens who elected her did so on the premise that she would vote her conscience) or does she cast a vote based on what is best for her constituents? I am very much for the living wage ordinance, but at the same time, I understand how she can be in a precarious position. (Then again, I wonder to myself, how many of the jobs at the new store in her ward are necessarily going to benefit her constituents? Will it really benefit the community as a whole if the wages paid are sub-poverty level?)

Thomas / August 9, 2006 1:16 PM

Being in a "precarious position" is not an excuse for not taking a stand. Lets be honest here...she and everyone in City Hall knew it would pass without her "yes" vote. Not making a decision is thus making a allow the measure to pass without voting against it.

I am sure Target and any other suitor for the Big Box space at Wilson Yard sees right thru the veil. Not voting one way or another is just political postering.

Short story...Not voting = weak leadership.

mike / August 9, 2006 3:19 PM

The lakefront libs in the 46th (especially the Lakeview highrise dwellers) need to vote Shiller out once and for all. Then they need to start from scratch with Wilson Yard. First, as CTA property, it should be sold at its market value to a developer who will build market rate condos (with CPAN set asides of course) and good walkable spaces for retail ... and no dead wall along Broadway! Uptown already has gobs of subsidized housing and social service agencies. Other neighborhoods need to pick up the slack. Wilson Yard plan has proven to be an albatross. No movie theatre. No Target (there's a brand new on on Peterson!). All that's left is low-income rental high-rises next to an Aldi. I thought we'd learned our lesson about this already.


About the Author(s)

Richard F. Carnahan is a true South Side Sox fan who's played a bit part in Chicago politics more than once over the years. Contact him at

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