December 18, 2008
Chicago politics at the retail levelBy Annie Lake
When I lived in Chicago, I joined a neighborhood association with the intent of meeting neighbors, and ended up meeting political sleaze.
The association dealt with police, school, park district, and other issues in a city where, I learned, even garbage cans are political. You can't buy them; they're a special, rat-proof type only available ‘free' from the City. If you need one, you call your Alderman's office (unless you're on the Alderman's *&#! list, in which case, you get your neighbor to make the call). One of the Alderman's assistants passes your request on to Streets and Sanitation. In a week or so, guys from that department drop off your new can. By providing you with a garbage can, the alderman does you a favor, in return for which he or she expects your loyalty.
The City delivers all its services in a way analogous to free garbage can distribution. That you've already paid for the can or service with taxes is irrelevant. Loyalty is an additional sort of tax, payable by voting for the alderman and saying nice things about him or her.
Failure to show loyalty can, as I found out, result in punishment.
Service-for-loyalty might work, were it not for the fact that there weren't enough City services to go around. Chicago has fifty wards, each headed by an elected Alderman, and scarcity-fostered competition for services. Wards of Aldermen most powerful in the ruling Democratic machine tended to have, for example, less crowded public schools, cleaner streets, and better parks. Weaker aldermen had smaller slices of the pie, fewer resources with which to reward their patrons.
The group I joined served as advocate for citizens in a neighborhood spread over three wards with a population of around 85,000. The area was un-gentrified, mostly low-income, with poor schools, nasty parks, and lots of gang crime. The group would invite officials to public meetings where citizens would confront them and try to embarrass them into getting the neighborhood its fair share of pie. (Like Obama ‘organizing the community' in another part of town, we took our methodology from Saul Alinsky. The similarity ends there. Our group maintained an adversarial role toward the Democratic machine; he joined it.)
My role in the group was to put together its newsletter. You wouldn't think writing a throwaway with a circulation of five hundred would be a risky undertaking, but it proved to be so. TV and newspapers gave our group only occasional coverage, so the newsletter was our main means of communicating to the public what went on at the confrontational meetings. I never spoke at a meeting, or even asked a question, but I may have stood out because I was one of the few people there taking notes.
I was playing ‘newsletter lady' when I first encountered the person I'll call The Alderman, whose ward covered a big chunk of our territory. He was a longtime incumbent who presumably had enough clout to get our neighborhood the additional cops and other resources it needed, but had no record of taking initiative. Our group was a thorn in his side. He was all about ‘go along to get along' and we were all about encouraging people to speak up and make demands.
The meeting was a panel discussion about ways to improve police response time, held in a church hall, with maybe fifty people attending. The Alderman came in late with three or four guys, skeezy types who orbited around him like a pack of stray dogs hanging with their alpha dog. No doubt, they were his precinct workers. While the first panelist addressed the group, The Alderman lounged in the back of the room, talking too loudly with his entourage. Their voices distracted my attention away from the speaker, and I noticed other people turning around to watch them, too. I expected the discussion moderator or the speaker himself to ask The Alderman in a polite way to shut up, but neither one did. Of course not, I realized. The Alderman was the most powerful person in the room, doing us all a favor just by showing up, and if he wanted to behave like a rude sixth grader, he could.
By the time the second panelist spoke, The Alderman had joined him at the front of the room. His antics continued. Guys from his pack of dogs would stroll back and forth between the back of the room and the speaker's table, bringing The Alderman papers. He kept shuffling the papers and talking to his guys, showing no respect for the person at the microphone. At a second, better-attended meeting, The Alderman behaved the same way. Apparently, being a jerk was his customary manner.
I did not, of course, report, ‘The Alderman acted like a jerk. . . .' I remember writing that he failed to show up for a meeting, and failed to support one of the group's initiatives, but I made no serious accusations, nothing about pay for play or other crimes for which Chicago pols are notorious. The newsletter merely made it clear that our group opposed the Democratic machine. None of my articles was quoted in the media, and I never received any reader feedback about content. No complaints, no suggestions, nada. I assumed nobody read it.
Oh, but somebody did. I was in a grocery store one day when I looked up and saw The Alderman. We didn't speak (we'd never met) but he gave me a loooong look, a staredown in the cookie aisle, as if to say, ‘I know who you are and I don't like you.' A shiver of intimidation went down my spine, but on a more cerebral level, I was gratified. I walked away thinking, ‘This powerful guy sees me as a threat? Ha.'
By this time, aldermanic elections were approaching, and the group was co-sponsoring a candidate forum for The Alderman's ward. Being a major cog in the Democratic machine, accustomed to running unopposed, he must have considered it a slap in the face to find not one but two candidates opposing him.
The night of the forum was unseasonably hot, and there was no air conditioning in the auditorium we'd borrowed for the occasion. The place was packed with several hundred potential voters, an excellent turnout for our grassroots democracy show. I took a seat in the front row so I could get a photo for the newsletter. I was eight months pregnant and could not sit comfortably on the hard chair. I fanned myself with my notebook, anxious to do my volunteer thing and get out of there. A man I did not recognize took the seat beside me. He was wearing cut-offs, and he sat so close I could feel the prickly hairs on his bare leg. I inched away.
The Alderman and challengers took seats at the speakers' table and began their opening statements. The first candidate had no chance of winning, because he had no community group or political party backing, and was a poor speaker. The second candidate, the one our group supported, was a retired pastor with backing from an independent political organization. He had no chance of winning against the machine, either, but at least, he spoke well. The Alderman was doing his jerk routine. I could barely listen to any of them because the guy next to me kept moving his chair over, so his sweaty thigh touched my sweaty thigh. I inched away again. He moved closer again. I leaned back, and felt his arm on the back of my chair. Ew.
I got up and fled to the back of the room. From there, I saw my sweaty companion leave his seat and join some guys standing by the door: The Alderman's entourage. They seemed to be enjoying a joke.
The joke was on me, I realized. How could I be so naïve as to think I could promote opposition to The Alderman and get away with it? My writing was an act of disloyalty, and as punishment, he'd sicced one of his dogs on me to do the creepy touching.
I finished the current newsletter and told the group it would be my last. My reasons for quitting were several: the intimidation I had experienced, though minor compared to what other machine opponents may have experienced, made me feel like a fool. The Alderman's subsequent landslide win made opposition seem hopeless, involvement in the group a time-wasting hobby with no hope of changing how the machine works. After my child was born, I was too busy for political involvement anyway. The vast majority of Chicago citizens are politically uninvolved, for a similar list of reasons, and their apathy lets the machine get away with what it does.
The events I describe took place in the 1980's, between the two Mayor Daleys, while Harold Washington was mayor, and democracy seemed to have a chance in Chicago. Washington died of a heart attack in 1987, and after that, power shifted away from the reformers, enabling the younger Daley to become mayor in 1989.
Since the eighties, Chicago can claim progress in terms of new public landscaping, yuppification of vintage neighborhoods, and other exterior upgrades, but its underlying power structure is same old, same old. The neighborhood association still exists, still fighting for the same issues, its newsletter now on a website. The Alderman is still The Alderman of his ward. Daley is still mayor, with no opposition, other than federal prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald, the guy who put a wire on the governor and whose office is rumored to have a wire on practically every office holder. Most of the public schools are lousy, the murder rate is sky high, pay for play is the norm, and other than those nabbed by Fitzgerald, no officials are held accountable.
In recent years, the Chicago machine has metastasized, capturing the Illinois governorship and now, the presidency. I've never met President-Elect Obama, but what I've written here gives you an honest description of the political culture from which he arose.
Annie Lake is the pseudonym of a Chicago resident.