Modeling an Open Chicago: Taking The City Back

4 10 2010

This is the first in a series.

They know what’s best for you.


With an open Mayoral seat, Chicagoans a generation removed from the last competitive election for that office are unsure of their footing. The media is either causing or reflecting that confusion, unsure where to start an analysis of what this election “means,” what will determine its outcome, who the players are. Path of least resistance: we focus on the personalities running, the staff they’re hiring, the money they’re raising. Is this a new chance at democracy? Have we had democracy all along? Does Chicago need a strong hand? Or are we looking for the next Harold? White? Black? Latino? Man? Woman? Gay? Straight? Machine? Progressive?

The cat’s away. The mice are frantic.

“Progressives” are eager to make this election a change election, to “take the city back” from what they perceive as decades of corporatist policies under Daley’s leadership. Their archenemy is Rahm Emanuel, the insider’s insider who has openly mocked progressive leadership nationally and who made a curious insta-fortune on Wall Street after his years in the Clinton White House. And, it should be noted, who made his bones raising money for Mayor Daley. Whet Moser of the Reader directs us to a painfully prescient piece by David Moberg from those days, wherein Moberg by simply looking at Daley the Younger’s fundraising deduces that the “new Machine” will be run by big money rather than neighborhood patronage:

There’s long been an intimate, curious, and even sordid relationship between money and politics in Chicago. But this election marks an important turn: Even though he is not the incumbent, Daley has raised an unprecedented amount of money in a very short time (about $6.1 million as of Monday and still growing), thanks especially to a high number of very big contributions. Some observers fear that this phenomenon portends the consolidation of a new political force in Chicago–a “new machine.” Not a machine of pinky rings and tavern owners, but one of alligator briefcases and law-firm partners. In some cases, especially in the big law firms, there may be a hope of quid pro quo attached to these big donations; compared with the past, however, the payoffs for most of the political contributions are likely to be less direct, but more lucrative.

Moberg’s prediction came to true in part, but there was more morphing before we got the full picture. Daley’s raising large sums from the Masters of the Miniverse here in Chicago was fused onto a form of identity politics patronage that came into being under Harold Washington to create a civic juggernaut. The “new Machine” raised huge money, privatized services and threw work at the trades to keep that money flowing, and empowered racial and ethnic powerbrokers through key appointments and horse trading for political offices to head off “in-group” organizing efforts of the type that built Harold’s 1983 campaign.

That in a few sentences is what I’ve called Machine Lite. Machine Lite will not die due Daley’s departure. Whoever wins will come under the influence of those social, political, and business networks that have grown wealthy and powerful over a generation.

Those progressives eager to “take the city back” may be looking to Harold’s 1983 campaign for instruction on how to build a campaign that can keep Rahm out and dismantle the Machine. As we look to February 2011, we would all do well to forget February 1983. No analogy can be drawn to the Washington campaign, though there may be lessons we can learn from it.

Did Mayor Daley’s cratering approval ratings reflect disappointment with specific policies–the parking meters, the Olympics obsession, losing cops on the beat–or the cumulative effect of twenty years of consolidating power at the top alienating the average Chicagoan from their local government? If it’s the former, we can’t anticipate a change election–at least not in 2011. If it’s the latter, feel even more dread: there’s a lot of work to be done that nobody seems interested in doing.

We need to figure out what an “open Chicago” would like, how it would work, and how it could be kept safe from the same old players.

The Washington Moment

Harold Washington’s first campaign wasn’t built as a campaign. It was formed out of a number of movements agitating for generations. Particularly in Chicago’s Black community, stunted political expression had created a large stratum of activists with years of experience in activist politics and strong connections with like-minded groups. Black political power in Chicago had had no period of expression and was still essentially locked out of meaningful institutional areas. The hunger for political expression united disparate groups still closely linked to the more radical organizations of the 1960s and 70s. More than fifty organizations formed the Task Force for Black Political Empowerment that served as the organizing force in the black community that powered Washington’s campaign and gave him “The Numbers.”

The Chicago Black United Communities, the Black United Front of Chicago, the Chicago chapter of the National Black Independent Party, the remnants of the National Black Congress, and the African Community of Chicago provided enormous activist energy in every corner of the community along Nationalist lines. Leaders from groups like the Political Action Committee of Illinois, the Communist Party of the United States (through the involvement of people like Ish Flory), and Citizens for Self-Determination, all Leftist groups, ensured that a movement to bring people power to local government could match the human resources of the Machine proper, which would be split among the “traditional” candidates.

That movement, meeting in Lu Palmer’s basement, saw the opportunity and drafted Harold Washington to capitalize on it. Even then, Washington required the intervention of national Black leaders he had cultivated relationships with through the Congressional Black Caucus. John Conyers of Detroit even relocated to Chicago for a month with a squad of his crack organizers to buttress the effort.

There’s none of this this time around. A generation later, the Black political establishment in Chicago is as varied and disparate as the white and ethnic political establishments. There is real power held by organizations and individuals with a vested interest in the status quo as well as outsiders with differing agendas and approaches with no interest in working with one another.

In 1983, only generations of political disenfranchisement were enough to weld these groups together, much less with Latinos, Puerto Rican nationalists, and a smattering of white liberals. It was almost impossible. Don’t take it from me–I was two years old at the time. Take it from Washington spokesman Chris Chandler, speaking to John Kass, then a reporter for the Tribune:

We formed an almost impossible coalition of black businessmen, black nationalists, white liberals, community leaders, Hispanics…It was like a campaign of 10,000 volunteers. There was a lot of tension between the groups, a lot of tension.

–“The Legacy; Death of a Mayor Leaves a City in Transition,” Chicago Tribune, November 29th, 1987

Forget “the Washington coalition” as an electoral strategy. It was a moment in time.
If Chicagoans truly want to take our city back, we need to forget electoral strategy altogether. An Open Chicago doesn’t mean “It’s Our Turn.” It means making sure we never need another Washington moment again.

Modeling An Open Chicago

On our city’s crest is the motto Urbs in Horto. The City in a Garden. Mike Royko suggested it be changed to Ubi Est Mea? Or Where’s Mine? Without bothering to Latinize it, the Daley era has perhaps nudged us towards a new motto: “They know what’s best for you.”

It’s one thing to collect the best and brightest to guide you. It’s another to assume one’s wealth and power mean they know best. But that principle guided Mayor Daley’s administration at least for the second half of his administration. Chicago has been out of the hands of Chicagoans. No matter what candidate is elected, the institutions that have been built to facilitate rule by the few will not go away. Maybe we’ll convince them to give more to the neighborhoods, more to the working class, more to uninsured, more, more, more, however we like it. But that’s still reaching a hand out instead of building for ourselves.

After Mayor Washington’s first election, the activists and organizations that powered him to office devolved into bickering over how to build an appropriate government and policy apparatus. This was reflected in his transition apparatus, or rather apparatuses (apparati?), the Transition Oversight Committee and the Financial Advisory Coordinating Task Force. Whereas his campaign policy committees had been dominated by professionals and community and labor representatives, these committees were more strongly reflective of the city’s upper-echelon business communities. And most disconcerting to Nationalist activists, where Washington’s campaign policy group was 71% Black and about 16% white, the TOC was 50% white and the FACT 70% white. Community labor groups were almost wholly locked out of these groups. (These figures come from several sources acknowledged below.)

Veterans of the Washington transition have written about a desire to make local government a “laboratory of democracy” that would raise citizen standards for their elected officials. If we want to avoid constant craving for a new Washington Moment, it seems that the priority of progressive and other reform-minded Chicagoans should be on how to rebuild government to make participatory democracy necessary for the city to function at all.

But how?

It may well be that the tools are already there. Institutions like local school councils (LSCs) and park Local Advisory Councils (LACs), and the potential for TIF advisory boards could form the cornerstone of placing development and economic policy creation to the neighborhood level. There’s no easy answer, obviously, nor does the answer necessarily live somewhere waiting to be found.

If we don’t accept that “they” know what’s best for you, the era of sinking all of our hopes and energy into electing the “right” man for the job must end. Modeling an Open Chicago and building a movement around that has to be the first step.
In this series, we’ll look at various issues and try to raise some questions about what an open Chicago movement would look like.

Works consulted: Clavel, Pierre, and Wiewel, Wim, Harold Washington and the Neighborhoods: Progressive City Government in Chicago, 1983-1987; Alkalimat, Abdul, and Gills, Doug, Harold Washington and the Crisis of Black Power in Chicago; Holli, Melvin, and Green, Paul, Bashing Chicago Traditions: Harold Washington’s Last Campaign.



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