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Column Wed Nov 19 2008

Is Chicago In Fact Ready for Reform?

43rd Ward Alderman Paddy Bauler famously said, "Chicago ain't ready for reform," after residents defeated a popular referendum to lower the standard aldermanic bribe from $10 to $7.50. Just kidding. He said it when Mayor Richard J. Daley beat a good government (or "goo-goo") candidate in the 1955 mayoral election. In 1983, Harold Washington's victory over Jane Byrne and Bernie Epton demonstrated that Chicago could be ready for reform; his re-election in 1987 confirmed it. The impressive electoral victories of Richard M. Daley in the face of mounting scandal (G.F. Structures, Remedial Environmental Manpower, Hired Trucks, Sorich, and so on) seem to have vindicated Bauler all these years later.

Mayor Daley has his strengths and his faults. But there is little doubt that Chicago's democracy has retarded under his mayoralty. If you respect democracy, though, how can you argue with the fact that the mayor has regularly won enormous margins, including in wards he is "supposed" to do poorly in, such as majority black or "lakefront liberal" wards? While Mayor Daley never wins the eye-popping vote totals his father was able to bring in, he has won stunning majorities. And at the end of the day, the will of the people at the ballot box is the only real measure of a politician's worthiness to serve. The caricatures of Chicago as a uniquely corrupt city and Mayor Daley as an omnipotent operator of a vast, nefarious Machine are less relevant than the fact that Mayor Daley is seen as an effective, if uncharismatic and authoritarian, manager of a complicated city.

Mayor Daley has also benefitted, however, from an appearance of invincibility. If a mayoral challenger were to put up a real fight, Mayor Daley's wide but shallow support could dry up quickly; the extremely low voter turnout in municipal elections suggests that it's a lack of a viable alternative, rather than partisan support for the incumbent, that drives the mayor's drubbing of his "opposition." Is there an analysis of recent election patterns in the city that indicates a path to mounting credible opposition to the mayor in 2011? There are three recent contests to look at.

First, there is the Constitutional Convention vote from this past election. The Con Con was a good government issue in its most distilled form; a vote for the Con Con was a vote against the status quo. Given that there was little effective organized support for a "yes" vote and a well-financed disinformation campaign for a "no" vote, it is surprising that Chicago over-performed the rest of Illinois by 13 percent. Particularly considering that Illinois' entire power structure comes from Chicago — every constitutional officer, and both legislative leaders — that Chicagoans expressed a greater will for reform than the rest of the state indicates something.

"Yes" won eight wards: all of them majority black or Latino. A total of 18 wards came in within two and a half points. All 16 are majority black or Latino. The 1st Ward, which is plurality Latino, was within six. The "yes" vote's best white ward was the Lakefront liberally-est of them all, the 49th Ward, East Rogers Park. It went 53-46 against. But citywide, only two wards didn't over-perform the state's "yes" vote: the 41st Ward, which is represented by the City Council's only Republican, and the old Machine's holdout ward, the far southwest side 19th. (Surprisingly, Mike Madigan's 13th Ward over-performed the state). Looking at suburban Cook County, the pattern holds; the strongest "yes" townships were Cicero, Calumet and Thornton, all three with large minority populations.

Is there a reasonable conclusion to draw from these results? One interpretation is that minority voters are ahead of a generational and demographic shift in the city electorate that is less constrained by traditional voting patterns and willing, if not eager, to remake the political establishment. This is amplified by the results of the 2007 aldermanic elections, which saw incumbents lose at a greater clip than they had in a decade. The Reader's Ben Joravsky, in a short exploration of the results of the Con Con vote, points out that only two-thirds of voters who voted in the city even bothered to vote on the Con Con issue. Considering the lopsided spending of the two sides of the issue, and the heavy-hitters pushing for a "no" (not to mention the natural constituency the anti- forces had: pensioners), it is even more surprising that Chicago voters voted for reform at a greater rate than Illinoisans generally.

Second, though less compelling, are the results of the Forrest Claypool/John Stroger primary. In that case, we can expect black wards to have come in strong for Stroger, a pillar of the black political establishment in Chicago for a generation. Stroger also had the backing of the then still kind of popular governor and the nominal support of the mayor. But Stroger was utterly rejected at the polls in 17 wards, where he lost to Claypool by a 60-40 margin or worse — in 10 wards, the difference was 70-30 or greater. Overall, Claypool won 20 wards — including three majority or plurality Latino wards, and was competitive in another three, two of which are majority Latino. It is not possible to simply attribute Stroger's losses in these wards to voting along racial lines; of the "ethnic white" wards, Stroger won two and was competitive in two more.

Voting "yes" on Con Con and voting for Claypool against Stroger are both acts of a sort of political leap of faith. In both cases, voters were acting more as a rejection of the status quo than in support of a positive alternative. They were willing to invite the unknown out of disgust with what they saw.

The third case would be the 2007 aldermanic elections. Nine new aldermen were elected, and a few more came within a hair's breadth. The 32nd Ward should provide an ominous example for the status quo: it was the mayor's own decades-long policy of gentrification and open development that weakened the once-fearsome Regular Democratic Organization in that ward. High resident turnover and a new crop of residents with no personal or political ties to the alderman's office or the party committee were easy picking for a good-government, slow-development message. But more importantly, competitive elections for alderman pin down money, volunteers and regular election workers. While voter turnout actually decreased between 2003 and 2007, it increased in the most competitive wards. The mayor's strongest wards — on the Southwest and Northwest Sides, a few on the mid-north and mid-south — regularly turn out at the same levels across elections; there may not be much capacity for increase there. But the "Daley-weak" wards turn out at among the lowest levels citywide, and therefore have the greatest room for growth.

Taken together, the 1-2-3 punch of these elections may indicate that the mayor and aldermanic incumbents are susceptible to a challenge from candidates willing to make a citywide case for a new direction; the North Side "Claypool" wards — many of which overlap with recently competitive aldermanic wards — and the black and Latino majority wards that voted for Con Con represent the mayor's "shallowest" support, presumably all persuadable. But the lack of continuity between the three — there is no geographic or demographic correlation between the Claypool-Con-Con-contested aldermanic "reform" votes — would make that argument difficult to make, but not impossible. They said Harold Washington represented a unification of man, movement and moment. If 2011 is not the year, it will definitely forge the men and women and the movement for dramatic change to come in 2015.

 

Greg Pierce / November 20, 2008 11:05 AM

Let's give United Power for Action and Justice just a LITTLE credit for organizing support for a constitutional convention. Cook County was the ONLY place in the state that had an organized group pushing for a yes vote.

Andrea Raila / November 20, 2008 2:37 PM

In a recent press conference prior to the 2008 general elections Daley said “Every homeowner understands that higher property tax bills this year are also the result of our state's over-reliance on property taxes to fund education. Every homeowner also understands that as long as the legislature in Springfield doesn't fundamentally reform the way education is funded so that local property taxpayers don't unfairly carry the burden, there will be year to year pressure for our schools to increase taxes."

But where was Daley’s stand, et al, on the need for a citizens convention that could have been the key to reforming our property tax mess and our under funded school system?

Hopes for long-overdue reforms in Illinois property taxation, school funding, and stronger political ethic laws were dashed with the defeat of the Illinois Constitutional Convention Referendum.

But yes Chicago and Cook County is ready for reform!

Despite the prejudicial wording on the ballot measure confused voters, and opponents sewed the seeds of fear that killed the initiative – the 1,442,196 yes votes for a Con Con was, at the very least, a demand for a more equitable tax system to better educate our children and to keep our property tax bills payable.

2008 con con yes votes translated into a whopping 60% increase from the 990,109 yes votes in 1988.

While dusty politicians, union and political lobbyists suggested that the best way to institute needed reforms was to wait on our legislators or elect new legislators to grapple with these issues---only 2 legislators were retired this election. We should trust that these legislators will not be influenced by special interests or be subject to the leadership, as the architects of perpetual gridlock.

Prominent thinkers endorsed a vote yes on calling a citizens convention. Paul Vallas, nationally recognized former CEO of the Chicago Public Schools for raising test scores and balancing budgets. And Cook County Assessor James Houlihan and Congressman Jesse Jackson Jr.---all know a thing or two about the dire need for more equitable systems for taxation and school funding.

Unfortunately, their support, along with the efforts of under funded grassroots organizations (left, right and center), was not enough to bring the national mandate for change in alignment with local needs for action.

Chicago minority communities strongly supported the referendum, while communities with higher number of union and public employees tended to oppose it. In Chicago, for example, minority communities cast the highest number of yes votes for the constitutional convention ---between 48% to 55% of the electorate.

The highest votes ---50% or greater voted yes for a con con referendum in communities like Englewood, West and East Garfield Park, Lawndale, Chicago Lawn, Chatham, and Greater Grand Crossing. These are neighborhoods with citizens that have seen first hand the inequities of our school funding and tax systems. These communities voted on faith and not fear in spite of a $600,000 radio and TV anti-Con Con ads.

In communities like Rogers Park, Logan Square, Village of Cicero, etc 49% cast yes votes for con con---- largely do to the excellent grassroots canvassing and organizing of United Power for Action and Justice. Look out for this incredible force in any public policy legislation or referendum!

In Mt. Greenwood and Jefferson-Edison Park, with heavy populations of public employees and retirees, voters heard their pensions might be threatened, and they voted against Con Con by 70%.

In Chicago there was a 47% increase in yes votes compared to the last con con election in 1988. There was a 23% drop in the city’s no votes compared to 1988 election. In Cook County there was a 52% increase in yes votes and a 58% increase in Cook suburban townships.

A huge price was paid for the no vote stealthily orchestrated by union bosses and well connected political consultants. That price was a continuation of under funded public school system in areas that have low to modest priced homes and of course, higher property tax bills in the future.

Let's see how our civic leaders, teacher unions, mayors and legislators solve the largest district-to-district educational funding gap in the nation in the coming years.

My crystal ball sees a lot of finger pointers before solutions.

But signs of reform are very evident in the con con election results and I do smell change in the air for Illinois.

Andrea Raila

Ramsin / November 20, 2008 4:07 PM

No disrespect to any of the groups that did yeoman's work to turn the vote out--but they were all hopelessly outmatched by a relentless paid media effort by the pro forces.

Ramsin / November 20, 2008 5:20 PM

*anti forces.

I would be interested to see where they focused their efforts--because "Yes" lost very handily in the most traditional "goo-goo" Lakefront wards, except for the 49th.

Lina Jamoul / November 21, 2008 11:29 AM

Of-course, United Power for Action and Justice were outspent by the opposition to the Constitutional Convention. However, in the precincts were we worked we were able to have a tremendous impact. E.g. In Palos 44 the vote was 72.5% in favor of a constitutional convention.

Andrea Raila / November 21, 2008 11:57 AM

In a recent press conference prior to the 2008 general elections Daley said “Every homeowner understands that higher property tax bills this year are also the result of our state's over-reliance on property taxes to fund education. Every homeowner also understands that as long as the legislature in Springfield doesn't fundamentally reform the way education is funded so that local property taxpayers don't unfairly carry the burden, there will be year to year pressure for our schools to increase taxes."
But where was Daley’s stand on con con that could have been the key to reforming our property tax mess and our under funded school system?

Hopes for long-overdue reforms in Illinois property taxation, school funding, and stronger political ethic laws were dashed with the defeat of the Illinois Constitutional Convention Referendum.
But yes Chicago and Cook County is ready for reform!

Despite the prejudicial wording on the ballot measure confused voters, and opponents sewed the seeds of fear that killed the initiative – the 1,442,196 yes votes for a Con Con was, at the very least, a demand for a more equitable tax system to better educate our children and to keep our property tax bills payable.
These yes votes translated into a whopping 60% increase from the 990,109 yes votes in 1988.
While dusty politicians, union and political lobbyists suggested that the best way to institute needed reforms was to wait on our legislators or elect new legislators to grapple with these issues---only 2 legislators were retired this election. We should trust that these legislators will not be influenced by special interests or be subject to the leadership, as the architects of perpetual gridlock.

Prominent thinkers endorsed a vote yes on calling a citizens convention. Paul Vallas, nationally recognized former CEO of the Chicago Public Schools for raising test scores and balancing budgets. And Cook County Assessor James Houlihan and Congressman Jesse Jackson Jr.---all know a thing or two about the dire need for more equitable systems for taxation and school funding.

Unfortunately, their support, along with the efforts of under funded grassroots organizations (left, right and center), was not enough to bring the national mandate for change in alignment with local needs for action.

Chicago minority communities strongly supported the referendum, while communities with higher number of union and public employees tended to oppose it. In Chicago, for example, minority communities cast the highest number of yes votes for the constitutional convention ---between 48% to 55% of the electorate.

The highest votes ---50% or greater voted yes for a con con referendum in communities like Englewood, West and East Garfield Park, Lawndale, Chicago Lawn, Chatham, and Greater Grand Crossing. These are neighborhoods with citizens that have seen first hand the inequities of our school funding and tax systems. These communities voted on faith and not fear in spite of a $600,000 radio and TV anti-Con Con ads.

In communities like Rogers Park, Logan Square, Village of Cicero, etc 49% cast yes votes for con con---- largely do to the excellent grassroots political canvassing and organizing of United Power for Action and Justice. Look out for this incredible force in any public policy legislation or referendum!

In Mt. Greenwood and Jefferson-Edison Park, with heavy populations of public employees and retirees, voters heard their pensions might be threatened, and they voted against Con Con by 70%.

In Chicago there was a 47% increase in yes votes compared to the last con con election in 1988. There was a 23% drop in the city’s no votes compared to 1988 election. In Cook County there was a 52% increase in yes votes and a 58% increase in Cook suburban townships.

A huge price was paid for the no vote stealthily orchestrated by union bosses and well connected political consultants. That price was a continuation of under funded public school system in areas that have low to modest priced homes and of course, higher property tax bills in the future.

Let's see how our civic leaders, teacher unions, mayors and legislators solve the largest district-to-district educational funding gap in the nation in the coming years.

Bruno Behrend / November 25, 2008 9:32 AM

No disrespect to any of the groups that did yeoman's work to turn the vote out--but they were all hopelessly outmatched by a relentless paid media effort by the [con] forces.

Ramsin,

You are 100% correct. I tried to impress this upon my colleagues on the "yes" coalition, but the difficulty in fundraising for "reform" causes most reformers (myself included, to some extent) to believe in the impossible. The fact that the print media was much more inclined to support a convention vote was on indicator of hope.

The fact is that absent at least $500K ($1,000,000 would be better) we never stood a chance.

That said, save a few hidebound editorial boards, every room we presented or debated in went our way (a little or a lot).

Any efforts to reform Illinois (or Chicago) will require not only scads of cash, but frankly, a bare-knuckled approach to opponents of reform.

I believe it was Chicago that originated the term "politics ain't beanbag."

Reformers need to know the nature of their opponents. They need to be ready to meet every every obstacle that will be placed in their path, and they will need to raise piles of money.

If the wealthy contributors (left and right) who believe in reform fail to contribute (substantially, I might add) to reform organizations, Illinois will never see improvement.

It's time some one told them that.

Good Man :) / July 3, 2009 8:54 AM

United Power for Action and Justice were outspent by the opposition to the Constitutional Convention. However, in the precincts were we worked we were able to have a tremendous impact. E.g. In Palos 44 the vote was 72.5% in favor of a constitutional convention.

Harry / July 8, 2009 4:21 AM

The United Electrical Workers at Republic Windows and Doors were notified on Wednesday that as of Friday, they were jobless. No severance. No vacation pay-out, as per their union contract. Nothing. Why? Because the business is plunging toward dissolution, unable to get a line of credit, and Bank of America was instructing them not to honor their obligations -- no line of credit to honor obligations.
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Harry / July 8, 2009 4:21 AM

So when the workers went in on Friday to pick up their pay checks, 200 strong, they sat down and refused to leave. It's a worker occupation, like the Flint strike of 1936-7.
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Harry / July 8, 2009 4:22 AM

Today they held a vigil event outside the factory doors; labor representatives from every major union -- AFSCME, SEIU, UAW, the Teachers, IBEW, and more -- showed up to show support. Congressman Luis Gutierrez made a strong statement in support of the workers as well.

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SEO / April 29, 2010 3:28 AM

Today they held a vigil event outside the factory doors; labor representatives from every major union -- AFSCME,north face fleece

adam holmes / July 9, 2010 1:42 AM

thank you for the article. Interesting. i have read lots of write-ups, sample college essays, articles about Chicago and its present situation in school. Try to visit your nearest essay library in town.

Alex Buffet / November 18, 2010 10:55 AM

I'm not sure that Chicago is ready to undertake some reforms. By the way, I'm just working on my term paper on Chicago economics in college and I should say no, Chicago is not ready for it.

james wei / November 19, 2010 1:47 AM

I would like to thank you for the efforts you've made in writing this posting.

JamesFloyd / January 4, 2011 6:17 AM

No disrespect to any of the groups that did yeoman's work to turn the vote out--but they were all hopelessly outmatched by a relentless paid media effort by the pro forces. Accounting Essays

DougScott / January 31, 2011 6:51 AM

Let's see how our civic leaders, teacher unions, mayors and legislators solve the largest district-to-district educational funding gap in the nation in the coming years. Custom Essay Writing

Judy Federico / February 1, 2011 6:56 AM

I think Chicago is ready =)

- Mia, a Singorama Review reader

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