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Election 2011 Thu Oct 21 2010

The Next Chicago Voter

This article was submitted by Michael Moreci

Political movements don't happen overnight. Changing a political structure, especially one so entrenched in its own power as the Chicago machine, requires organization, patience, and an ability to focus on the long view. But since Mayor Daley announced that he won't be seeking another term, community organizers across the city have seen the window to mounting an effort towards overhaul crack open after years of being nailed shut. And in this context, one name has been on everyone's tongue--Harold Washington.

For many, the former Chicago mayor who tragically died in office represents a myriad things, from progressive politics to community activism to grassroots politics. What gets lost in the nostalgia, according to Harish Patel, are the long years of organization that went into Washington's successful campaign.

"The movement was already established by the time Washington ran," Patel said. "That was in place for years."

Patel is an organizer for Chicago A.D., a collective focused on shaping Chicago politics now and in the future. In the few weeks since Daley's announcement, Chicago A.D. has utilized facebook as an idea-sharing forum and have hosted meetings around the city. What has galvanized Patel is the possibilities for Chicago and the enthusiasm that has swelled since Daley's announcement.

"There's a huge buzz among the younger generation of voters--they've never had a choice, they've never voted. Now it's a whole new ballgame."

Still, Patel is a pragmatist. While he recognizes the upcoming elections as an exciting time in the city's history, he also recognizes that, in order to topple the machine, it's going to take more than a trip to the ballot poll.

"You need a movement that can counter the machine politics of Chicago," Patel said.

"The root cause isn't Daley and what he stands for, but the manifestations of much deeper problems, namely the lack of democracy and lack of choice. That's what the machine stands for."

His goal, like other city organizers, is to take step one in the process and shake the cobwebs off the democratic process. Over the past two decades, the city's political machine has instilled a listlessness in its voters. Progressive candidates or those who challenged the machine were squeezed out of the process; candidates who fell in line were all but assured victory. Voters recognized this, and they largely stayed home. Although Daley captured 72 percent of the vote in 2007, turnout was low--43 of the 50 wards reported less than a 40 percent turnout.

But that is likely to change come January, according to Bill Wimsatt, author of Please Don't Bomb the Suburbs. Wimsatt has been involved with political organizing most of his life; in 2003, he founded The League of Young Voters and currently runs All Hands on Deck, a national consultation group that supports progressive candidates in all levels of government elections.

"People are on fire in Chicago," Wimsatt said. "More than anywhere else in the country."

Despite Daley's long-lasting tenure and the machine built around him, progressive politics are alive and well in Chicago, according to Wimsatt. What needs to be accomplished is what Washington did in 1983--put all the pieces of Chicago's tribal politics together and get the community groups united under one vision for the city.

Like Chicago A.D., the Progressive Alliance-Cook County (PA-CC) has been eager to seize this transitional opportunity. Yet, despite their moniker, their initiative isn't agenda-based. According to Maceo Brown, founding member and co-chair of the PA-CC, the goal is to first get people involved in the political process, and that begins with voting. In the weeks since Daley's announcement, the PA-CC has been active across the entire city and have already registered over 700 new voters.

The idea, Brown said, is to do more than get people to register or sign up for a mailing list. The PA-CC wants to open up a dialogue with people, to establish that fundamental democratic quality of allowing voices to be heard. This engagement, Brown believes, will translate to a more active dialogue, from demanding more from candidates to attending ward meetings and asking alderman tough questions. Without this, Chicago can easily slide back into the machine politics.

"We have a chance to redirect the course of the city over the next five to ten years," Brown said.

While Brown agrees with Patel that the forthcoming mayoral election is just the first step in the process of shaping Chicago's future, it is an important one. Regardless of what candidate wins, it'll represent a fresh start for the city--not only for the people, but the city council as well.

Many aldermen have been hamstrung by TIFs, a program that may ultimately be one of the darkest marks against Daley's legacy. As pointed out by Brown, TIFs have been used as leverage against aldermen, especially those who went against Daley's plans. With the TIF stranglehold breaking up, as announced in the recent budget report, city aldermen will have more ground to stand on when keeping the mayor's power in check.

"There needs to be a real clean break from the past," Brown said. "We need to have a better dialogue between the mayor's office and the city's council."

They key necessity, as stressed by Patel, Wimsatt, and Brown is to maintain active engagement and a strong, focused movement. The non-government organizations are looking not only towards this upcoming election, but the future as well. When it comes to citizenry involvement in politics, one of the most crucial tasks is staying active after the votes have been cast, as Patel pointed out.

"It's not just about getting behind someone who is progressive, but building something to keep the progressive candidate accountable."

In the meantime, establishing a strong foundation over the coming months is vital, if only to ensure that this window for change doesn't get nailed shut again. Both Brown and Patel believe that Chicago has an abundance of strong, community-based organizations--the hurdle is getting all those tapped into a shared network.

"We need to think short term and long term," Patel said. "We need to create and maintain a space where community-based groups have a say in what happens on the fifth floor of city hall. Washington's ideas of bringing the government down to the neighborhood still rings a bell in a lot of people."

This feature is supported in part by a Community News Matters grant from The Chicago Community Trust and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. More information here.

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troy / October 22, 2010 12:51 PM

"progressive politics are alive in well in Chicago"

Should be "alive and well."

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