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Friday, September 29

Gapers Block

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I have two pictures of Chicago politicians above my desk in my room. I'm looking at them now. Both are just tacked to the wall, yellowing and beginning to curl. Framing them just seems too sentimental. When they whither, and fall off their mount, I won't try to resuscitate them; hopefully, by then, I won't need to.

One is the famous image of Alderman Dick Mell standing on his desk in the City Council chamber, waving papers in an effort to get recognized to speak. The other is of former Alderman and current UIC Professor Dick Simpson being dragged away from his microphone, after being ordered removed by Mayor Richard J. Daley. I put them up at different times, and didn't really think too deeply about them. I just liked the pictures; something about them resonated, I clipped them out and stuck them to the wall.

Looking at them now, one year into a new City Council forged after an intense fight by the city's labor movement, led by the state council of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), it only now occurs to me what they have in common, and what they, taken together, mean.

Alderman Simpson was a disciple of legendary Hyde Park independent Alderman Leon Despres, the spiritual forefather of every independent voice currently on the Council. Simpson was a brave oppositional voice to the first Mayor Daley. He was young and politically inexperienced; he was not a "heavy" who brought home the goods to a loyal army of patronage workers.

Alderman Mell was a self-made heavy. Originally an upstart "independent" who ousted a long-time alderman. He was among the leadership of the opposition Group of 29 (or less charitably, the Vrdolyak 29) who deftly obstructed Mayor Harold Washington at every turn. Mell's ward organization is so loyal and so well-oiled that they've been known to be dispatched not only to neighboring wards but to the suburbs, as well.

What Dick Mell and Dick Simpson represent in these two photographs are not competing images of Chicago, but the same image: the sacrificing of democracy for efficiency — or, better, "efficiency" — and the lesson that truly competitive democracy, not the maneuvering of a class of political professionals, is what serves the people.

The same discourtesy — to put it mildly — that Mell and his allies in the gang of 29 employed to try to stall Mayor Washington out of power was shown to him that day in 1987 when he felt moved to take to his desk and plead for recognition. And it was exactly tactics like the silencing of Alderman Simpson in that picture that galvanized opposition that brought about Mayor Washington's reelection and subsequent (tragically brief) control of the Council. It is the politics of escalation, and while it may work for short-term power grabs, it fails long-term movement building, and never serves the people.

The huge effort undertaken by labor in 2007 will have far-reaching ramifications for the character of the City Council and Mayoralty. Dick Simpson, writing for the Sun-Times in May, notes that an Independent Caucus has already formed in this new council, centered around Aldermen Toni Preckwinkle (Hyde Park), Joe Moore (East Rogers Park), Ricardo Munoz (Little Village), Bob Fioretti (South Loop/UIC) and Sandi Jackson (South Shore). As discussed in this column and across the Chicago political landscape last year, an opposition bloc drawing the mayor out into public battles where he has to publicly justify himself and his policies are exactly the start of the end for a mayor who prefers the public's business to be done in private. It is why Daley so loathes even a few dissenting votes on his budgets and tax increases, because what starts as a little dissent provides political cover for more and more opposition to the mayor, which makes bureaucratic retribution difficult (though, obviously, not impossible).

The inability of a true opposition bloc to form had to do not only with the mayor's ability to make ward administration a nightmare (not to mention reelection exceedingly difficult), but with a lack of aligning interests among those most likely to oppose him. After the uniquely competitive '07 election, that opposition had the numbers to make organization meaningful. Frankly, it is better that way. Opposition for its own sake — or for political positioning — may be something quite fun, but it will not pay dividends to the people. That is political escalation, and escalation never ends well. It simply builds the pressure — the political capital — which must eventually be spent in political combat. This is what political professionals live for, but it doesn't serve democracy.

As we consider the challenges facing our city — privatization of public space, rampant waste, corruption, creeping crime and exploding home foreclosures, regressive taxation, evaporation of affordable housing and rudderless gentrification — I do not see the solution as arming one bloc to take over the machinery of city administration carefully constructed over several generations. The solution is de-escalation. Devolution of power as low as it can go. We should not be interested, as Chicagoans responsible to future generations, in merely changing the names and faces of the Council and the nameplate on the Fifth Floor. It is more brave, and wiser, to trust the people to participate and rule themselves.

In his column for the Sun-Times, Simpson wrote,

"Chicagoans may support Daley in elections and public opinion polls. They may believe they have 'a city that works.' But what about supporting aldermen who genuinely represent their communities? Aldermen provide a check and balance on an administration that has been shown in court to promote patronage and corruption. "It is fine to 'make no little plans.' It is good to become a global city and host to the Olympics. But we need vocal aldermen to represent us in key concerns of our day-to-day life, our neighborhoods and our future. I, for one, say three cheers for the Independent Caucus."

We can imagine his glee at seeing, after 19 years of decree rule by a Daley, the kind of opposition finally forming that could allow for a change in leadership in this city, the final dismantling of a network of organizations and institutions that have incrementally dismantled participatory democracy in favor of perceived efficiency. But the trick is to avoid placing our hopes in personalities and maneuvers and focus instead on systems and principles. Mayor Daley remains popular not because the people are fools, but because the people, or many of them, are served, and see no viable alternative. Obstruction is no option to efficiency, and never will be. Only a positive vision can provide a contrast to Mayor Daley's largely successful mayoralty, and only a political disarmament, which takes power away from bureaucratic machinery and places it as close down to the people as possible — in a place where they can show up and demand an audience and be heard, without risk of restraint or resorting to table dances — can ensure that the city we build and pass on will not be Mayor Daley's Chicago, Featuring an All New Cast.

So, indeed, three cheers for the Independent Caucus — and if they're silenced, let's hope they hoot and holler for recognition. But let's never cheer opposition for its own sake. As the mayor's position weakens over the next 18 months as mayoral aspirants within the Council and without jostle and maneuver, let's condition our support, as political activists, observers, and voters, on fundamental change.

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irishpirate / June 11, 2008 3:29 PM

You have been smoking too much of whatever Dick Simpson smokes when he writes his twice yearly column on the rise of the independents.

His dream of a black, hispanic, white lakefront independent caucus is like my dream of being taken prisoner by the Icelandic woman's Olympic team. Ain't likely gonnna happen.

By the way is the photo of Simpson being dragged away from the microphone online somewhere? I looked and couldn't find it.

As for the aldercreatures until they improve in quality and courage I prefer them to suck up to "da Mare". The idea of 50 truly independent Moore's, Shiller's, Stone's or Carothers is terrifying.

Less would get done.

Sometimes that mighty be a good thing.

Other times it wouldn't.


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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