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Monday, December 4

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Daley Mon Jan 04 2010

Getting Past Daley: An Open Chicago

Crains' Greg Hinz covered a new website, Next Chicago Mayor, that calls whence the next local executive. There's much fun to be had in voting for Bill Murray to run for Mayor, but that the site is getting mainstream coverage is telling of the fatigue people are beginning to feel for the Mayor's brand of power politics. But is Richard M. Daley the problem? Would just replacing him at the ballot box really fix any long-term problems?

Richard M. Daley infuriates people. Frustration mounts: the Mayor's long tenure in office and the unwillingness of elected officials and high-profile institutional leadership to frontally challenge him makes his critics feel helpless. Helplessness contributes to anger, to the point it becomes irrational. That element of the so-called "anti-Daley crowd" allows the Mayor's supporters to color all opposition as unserious, jealous, or neophytic.

Mayor Daley is powerful, but he isn't the problem, and the focus on him makes true grassroots democracy difficult to build. He has with the help of a diverse group of institutions and organizations rebuilt the Machine, though it looks quite different from the classical city Machine associated with his father. It's Machine Lite, and it doesn't wholly fit any particular political ideology or specific set of interests. Nor is it a reflection of one individual's thirst for political power: undoubtedly, the Mayor and his allies perceive the current political system as the best--or only--way to govern a city with a painful history of racial turmoil and class warfare. When the Mayor gets flustered and denies he controls a "machine" he isn't being duplicitous, he honestly believes it. He is surrounded by powerful people from different racial and ethnic groups, business and labor interests, who willingly cooperate with him precisely because they see a benefit to the concentration of power in the Fifth Floor.

In other words, the dynamic causing trouble isn't the Mayor's ability to retaliate against his opponents: it's his ability to reliably deliver to his allies.

I'm certain the Mayor honestly believes he is running the city the only way it can be run, that his support far outweighs the "anti-Daley crowd" hysterics. And why should he think otherwise? He regularly wins reelection with huge majorities. Efforts to organize across neighborhoods and regions are regularly scuttled by local power brokers with loyalty to the status quo; efforts to organize across racial and ethnic lines face a similar problem. From his vantage on top, he sees that alternatives to the political order get no support. Is he wrong?

And this doesn't happen by force: it happens because people make a rational political decision based on the available options. Allies of the status quo--take for example the United Neighborhoods Organization--exist in their community. They deliver things: whether, objectively, the policies they help implement are good or bad is not the point. It's transactional. If you know a person in the neighborhood who has the ears of someone in power, that provides security, or peace of mind. If you get just a little--or even if you get nothing--what could make you decide to disassemble that system? What's more, that instinct is reinforced by an all too common appeal to the in-group: ethnically, racially, or economically.

The status quo political system--Machine Lite--is a sprawling complex of business and labor interests, community groups, geographically focused political organizations, churches, and racial, religious, and ethnic organizations. These groups represent the organizing capacity to move people to the support or apathy that protects the system as we experience it. In other words, they have members, or constituencies, or employees. They have influence over decision making. So how do we move them away from their position in support of--or neutral toward--the status quo?

The challenge is overcoming the transactional decision making that has kept them tethered to the status quo.

The cliche is the committeeman that delivers the driveway permits; (how many driveway permits are we possibly talking about?); your alley being clean; your kids getting to and home from school safe; street lights replaced. For a smaller circle, it means a livelihood: working for the city or working for a program funded by the city. Take a look at the vendor payments made to the 60651 area code, on the city's West Side, the bulk of it in the 37th Ward:

Bethal New Life, Inc.
Westside Holistic Family Center
Austin Youth League
Chicago Commons Association 02
Wipeco, Inc.
Douglass-Tubman Youth Ministries Ministries, Inc.
Chicago Anti-Hunger Federation
Humboldt Park Economic Dev. Corp
Freedman Seating Company
Westside Health Authority
Support Advocates For Women
School Street Movement
Greater St. John Center Hope
Ruth Kimble
West Grand Ave Church Of God
Westside Holistic Families
F.A.I.T.H., Inc.
Concerned Citizens Inc
I Care Ministries
Trinity Resource Unlimited Inc
Worldwide Family Center
#2 Mount Pleasant M.B. Church
Nobel Neighborsacs
Village Resource Ministries
Bethel New Life 01
Robinson Bus Services, Inc.
Applied Research-Technical Institute
P-K Tool & Manufacturing Company
First Community Land Trust Of Chicago
Sharon Jaddua
Rene'S Auto Classics, Inc.
Austin Career Education Center
Omni Inc, Initiative
N & L Pest Control Co., Inc.
Mary Scott Boria
Northwest Austin Council
Chambers Gasket & Manufacturing Co
Healing Temple Of God In Chris
Christ Evangelistic Life Changing Ministries
Lilly'S Learning Center
Grand Av Body Repair Shop Inc
West Humboldt Park Homes Llc
Dorothy Luckett
Rhema Community Devel. Corp.
Universal Elevators Co.Inc
Midwest Fence Corporation
Systems Furniture Resource Group, Inc.
Leon Miller
Greater St John Holiness Church
Westside Sexual Assault Serv.
Industrial Systems, Limited
Chicago Commons Association
New World Christian Ministr 02
West Side Job Link
Comprehensive Community Org.

If you're truly a reformer, it's that decision making, not the personality in charge of the system, that you should focus on if you want to make, rather than shout for, change. What kind of issues should you discuss and what kind of program should you offer that can both alter that decision-making process and actually improve the way things work?

The administration doesn't call these groups in for back-scratching meetings. These are the result of relationships built with and knowledge gained of the current system. In fact, the majority of these vendors very likely came upon their contract or grant through a reasonably fair, good government process. Even if they have problems with the system, they have a pretty compelling reason not to overturn it without some assurance that it's not going to negatively affect them.

When a political reform organization's program is just to shift the balance of distribution, they're reinforcing that decision making. When community groups don't demand power for themselves and instead just try to sway decision makers in their favor, they reinforce the system as it is.

How do you convince that group that they should bite the hand the feeds them? Your only shot is to convince them that it is possible for them to feed themselves.

Obviously making political points about the problems of the incumbent administration is an important part of making that argument; but it can't be the only part. People will only be moved so much by negative impulses, turning over what's there. Meanwhile people with an incentive will actively protect the status quo. So we have to consider fundamental political reform with that in mind. It's not enough to motivate the apathetic with anger, you have to assure the interested that while the system and their relationship to it may change, it will change in a positive way.

Cynical politics would be to just promise them more of what they already have. But that's not change. The challenge is to envision and articulate something democratic and fair.

The most powerful institutions, the juiced-in, are unwinnable: by definition democratic reform means taking away their power. But everyone else is on the table. To convince them to move away from protection of the status quo will require a definition of reform that addresses their self-interest: "Dump Daley" doesn't do that. At its best it reinforces a quid-pro-quo politics that defies reform; at its worst, it plays into fears that change means transferring power to a new, alien group of power brokers.

A serious program of defining how an open Chicago would operate and what it would look like needs to begin in earnest. How can we displace power from the Fifth Floor without simply empowering local power brokers and parochial interests? How do we return decision making to the neighborhood level without sacrificing a citywide vision for economic prosperity? Can we have neighborhood democracy and comprehensive urban planning?

Not just position papers and policy debriefs. Also a vision with a mechanical political element that shows the path to change. Not just good government process reforms beloved of Lakefront Liberals, but power politics reform that speaks to the powerless and disenfranchised. And the articulation of some principles: that we are all Chicagoans, that more is to be gained by solidarity across divisions than a bunker mentality inside of them; that the color, gender, or ethnicity of power does not change how it is exercised against those excluded from it. Strong and articulate voices need to speak these principles, and agile and creative minds need to conceive of the vision.

So rather than asking who The Next Mayor should be, we should be asking for those voices and minds to get together and build something real.

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Slats Grobnik / January 4, 2010 3:07 PM

Daley's specific set of interests = focusing just about all policy on wooing foreign investment. Aside from the corruption and patronage, that's what angers so many. Daley the 2nd's legacy will have been making Chicago a "Global City." For all its good, the main gripe will have been that bringing those multinational and financial firms did little to help those displaced by failed housing policies; to improve the schools; to increase employment and training opportunities for the poor; etc. Daley made Chicago more accessible to the world, but less accessible to large swaths of the city's inhabitants.

We need cross cultural consensus on what policies are best and a broad base of support for them, but we also still need a new mayor.

D Durnick / January 4, 2010 6:39 PM

An insightful, intelligent analysis.

And, of course, the first comment is -- though tempered -- still couched in the reflexive "anti-Daley" crowd rhetoric ("corruption and patronage")

beth / January 4, 2010 8:24 PM

I agree whole-heartedly, but quite a big vision. While I agree that toppling Daley without a honest and engaging vision of what's next, what is fundamentally disempowering and what we need to do to change it, is counter-productive, we have to set some attainable goals. Something winnable, with real targets, just to get folks to the table. And even that won't necessarily get them there. People want their voices to count, but they also need to see action to have real buy-in. Electoral participation, even simple voter registration, is one of the best places to start. And absolutely, we need to stop "organizing" residents to go to current power-brokers systems for hand-outs, it just leads to empty faith in false prophets.
Nice post, Mr. Canon.

Tim Lapetino / January 5, 2010 9:15 AM

Well worth the read. This is the most intelligent take on the Mayor I've read. Very thoughtful and balanced.

Lucy / February 11, 2010 1:11 AM

I recently came across your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I don't know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often.


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