Can Chicago function as a democracy?

Whoever inherits Daley's City Hall office will face problems lined up to the horizon

It didn't take long after Mayor Richard M. Daley announced his retirement that talk began turning to his "heir apparent," or at least the lack of one.

Why hasn't he endorsed an heir apparent? Why didn't he groom anyone for the job?

The absence of a clear line of succession has some people worried about
the return of Council Wars and "Beirut on the Lake," the consequences of
the ugly brawl for the orb and scepter of Daley's father, Richard J.

What is this, the Grand Duchy of Daley?

rmd1.jpg

Jose M. Osorio, Chicago Tribune / September 8, 2010

Mayor Richard Daley speaks with Chicago aldermen and others during a break in a City Council meeting at City Hall after announcing his retirement

The Illinois Constitution -- which sets the ground rules for how cities
in this state govern themselves -- does not endow on departing municipal
monarchs the power to name their successors. It says the people decide.

Then why are we even talking about an heir apparent and why the edginess about whether notions of democracy and Chicago are compatible?

We hear it asked: Is Chicago ready to be a democracy? The question is
reasonable; Chicago has had little experience with this form of
government. Bosses run Chicago. The William Hale Thompsons, Anton
Cermaks and Edward J. Kellys. To paraphrase the late 1950s-era alderman
and saloonkeeper, Paddy Bauler, Chicago ain't ready for democracy.

Not a few people see value in Daley's "strong leadership," for bringing
the city together, for ending (or at least submerging) the racial and
ethnic hostilities that have historically divided this city. It has
almost become a cliche in recent days: Daley held the city together by
bringing everyone "in."

Uh-huh. If he is to receive credit for the sea change, it wasn't that he
just opened up his City Hall office for every faction and said, "Take a
seat at the table." He did it by giving them stuff. You know, stuff
like senior centers, street sweepers, after-school programs, block
parties, career academies, school buildings, neighborhood parks, job
training, cultural events, flowers and fences, consumer protection,
ex-offenders rehab, health and wellness initiatives, home modification
programs for the disabled, arts grants, lead abatement assistance,
summer jobs programs, and so forth. Ribbon-cutting stuff.

Stuff that, when you add it all up, costs money, lots of it. To the tune
of an estimated budget deficit of $655 million next year.

All this kumbaya has virtually sunk this city, and whoever inherits this
mess has some serious cutting to do. Cutting that will have to be
balanced racially, ethnically, geographically and, pray tell, by sexual
preference. The problems line up to the horizon: gang warfare; sinking
credit ratings; the remainder of a 10-year labor contract that Daley
gave to major city unions in 2007; other out-of-control employee costs;
tax increment financing boondoggles; Block 37; ill-considered, overly
ambitious and underfunded capital projects; three-person garbage trucks.
What will it take to govern this city? Higher property taxes? The sale
or lease of more city assets just to keep the lights on? What's left to
privatize?

Questions about whether Chicago can function as a democracy presume that
the City Council will stir itself out of its slumber and break out of
its special interest chains. Can aldermen govern, left on their own
without a boss instructing them? Prospects don't look good. Just
consider the Wal-Mart
debate. Here was a bunch of aldermen who thought it was a good idea to
keep one business out of the city while trying to encourage others to
come in or remain. Virtually every aldermanic candidate who has filled
out an editorial board questionnaire has "committed" himself to economic
development. Yet, some will try to tell Wal-Mart to go away.

Here, we're not even dealing with the corruption issues that afflict Chicago, Cook County and Illinois government. I give public integrity a zero chance of making an appearance short of a magnitude 8.0 earthquake.

The pressing question isn't whether the city will enter a golden age of
democracy. Or even whether democracy can survive here. Or who the next
boss will be. It may not matter because the more fundamental question is
whether Chicago, which is in such a mess, can be governed anymore -- by
anyone.The Illinois Constitution -- which sets the ground rules for how cities
in this state govern themselves -- does not endow on departing municipal
monarchs the power to name their successors. It says the people decide.

Then why are we even talking about an heir apparent and why the edginess about whether notions of democracy and Chicago are compatible?

We hear it asked: Is Chicago ready to be a democracy? The question is
reasonable; Chicago has had little experience with this form of
government. Bosses run Chicago. The William Hale Thompsons, Anton
Cermaks and Edward J. Kellys. To paraphrase the late 1950s-era alderman
and saloonkeeper, Paddy Bauler, Chicago ain't ready for democracy.

Not a few people see value in Daley's "strong leadership," for bringing
the city together, for ending (or at least submerging) the racial and
ethnic hostilities that have historically divided this city. It has
almost become a cliche in recent days: Daley held the city together by
bringing everyone "in."

Uh-huh. If he is to receive credit for the sea change, it wasn't that he
just opened up his City Hall office for every faction and said, "Take a
seat at the table." He did it by giving them stuff. You know, stuff
like senior centers, street sweepers, after-school programs, block
parties, career academies, school buildings, neighborhood parks, job
training, cultural events, flowers and fences, consumer protection,
ex-offenders rehab, health and wellness initiatives, home modification
programs for the disabled, arts grants, lead abatement assistance,
summer jobs programs, and so forth. Ribbon-cutting stuff.

Stuff that, when you add it all up, costs money, lots of it. To the tune
of an estimated budget deficit of $655 million next year.

All this kumbaya has virtually sunk this city, and whoever inherits this
mess has some serious cutting to do. Cutting that will have to be
balanced racially, ethnically, geographically and, pray tell, by sexual
preference. The problems line up to the horizon: gang warfare; sinking
credit ratings; the remainder of a 10-year labor contract that Daley
gave to major city unions in 2007; other out-of-control employee costs;
tax increment financing boondoggles; Block 37; ill-considered, overly
ambitious and underfunded capital projects; three-person garbage trucks.
What will it take to govern this city? Higher property taxes? The sale
or lease of more city assets just to keep the lights on? What's left to
privatize?

Questions about whether Chicago can function as a democracy presume that
the City Council will stir itself out of its slumber and break out of
its special interest chains. Can aldermen govern, left on their own
without a boss instructing them? Prospects don't look good. Just
consider the Wal-Mart
debate. Here was a bunch of aldermen who thought it was a good idea to
keep one business out of the city while trying to encourage others to
come in or remain. Virtually every aldermanic candidate who has filled
out an editorial board questionnaire has "committed" himself to economic
development. Yet, some will try to tell Wal-Mart to go away.
Here, we're not even dealing with the corruption issues that afflict Chicago, Cook County and Illinois government. I give public integrity a zero chance of making an appearance short of a magnitude 8.0 earthquake.

The pressing question isn't whether the city will enter a golden age of
democracy. Or even whether democracy can survive here. Or who the next
boss will be. It may not matter because the more fundamental question is
whether Chicago, which is in such a mess, can be governed anymore -- by
anyone.

Comments

Leave a comment
  • Dear Dennis,

    You know the answer as well as anyone; No. Any city the size of Chicago cannot be run as if it were a small Greek city-state with the citizens meeting in the plaza to vote by raising their hands. To make Chicago work, skids need greasing and nepotism by necessity runs amok. That said, the problems are overwhelming and dangerous, not just for the city but for the state, the county and its municipalities. I am quite sure that there are many life-long residents of Chicago like me who are seriously considering leaving Illinois permanently because the chances are good for a dim and dangerous future here. As a friend said recently, "You can get over a crooked or autocratic pol but you can't get over the people who elected them".

    Regards,

  • Like Jim, I to am seriously thinking of leaving Chicago and I'm sick over this thought.But I do wish to try one more thing before I leave,an election without a machine hack running.We will need help from the media and we just might get it with the help of the BGA.It won't be pretty but it will get interesting.Thanks Mr. Byrne for this place to start.Get involved,that's all I can start with.Democracy? mmmmmm

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