How's this for irony? In the rough and tumble town that Chicago is, the gritty city of big shoulders and of bone-crushers like Mike Ditka and Brian Urlacher, some leading candidates to replace Mayor Richard M. Daley are campaigning on a platform of niceness.
How did Chicago, wallowing in industrial-strength politics, sink to such depths?
Is it because the public is rallying against the Daley years by demanding that the next mayor be a nice guy or gal? Nah. Is Chicago taking too seriously the national media's obsession with turning the political arena into a cathedral of civility? Should we change the city's unofficial motto, bestowed on it by Mike Royko, from "Ubi est mea?" ("Where's mine?") to "Please, you go first."
For native Chicagoans like me, this sudden demand for graciousness is like being transported while sleeping to a genteel place. Like Milwaukee. That discovering the way to get things done in Chicago is not by banging heads, but by harmony.
The mayoral candidates themselves raised the issue in a face-off on Friday before the Chicago Tribune editorial board. Carol Moseley Braun, Gery Chico and Miguel del Valle went after Rahm "Rahmbo" Emanuel for his famously abrasive personality. Said Braun, "None of us have a reputation for sending dead fish to people ... poking people in the chest, cussing 'em out. The question is one of temperament. This is the city of big shoulders, and we're considered to be tough Grabowskis and all of that but we're not mean-spirited and nasty.
Chico accused Emanuel of bringing a Washington-like confrontational style to Chicago, saying you don't have to be a tough, brutal person here to achieve your goals. He warned that an overly confrontational style in labor negotiations could gridlock the city with CTA, garbage and other strikes.
Emanuel saw a good thing in his "passion," acknowledging that he doesn't have a reputation of go-along-to-to-get-along with the special interests. Well, his opponents responded, we've all fought passionately, but, as del Valle said, "today I'm still considered to be a nice guy."
Allow me to interrupt all this comity by suggesting that banging some heads together may be what Chicago needs to end its spoils system. Daley, as powerful as he has been, pushing through whatever he wanted (e.g. the destruction of Meigs Field), has been unable (or unwilling) to rein in the spoils system. It took a federal jury to stop what Daley should have -- a practice of awarding jobs and promotions to the politically connected. Daley's patronage chief, Robert Sorich, and three other cogs in the Democratic machine were convicted of mail fraud in connection with the practice.
Daley would have everyone believe that he knew nothing about the practice because, if he did, he would have been accountable.
But, to borrow a phrase from the mayor, "everyone knows" that the spoils system exists, and that it is costly and unfair. How can the mayor not know? Because Daley had neither the will nor the ability to confront the spoils system.
Stopping the abuses would be tough. No room here for namby-pambies. Well more than a century of spoils and corruption are ingrained into the city's culture. Sometimes a dead horse's head showing up in someone's boudoir is required.
Certain folks in this town have had it their way for far too long -- the insiders, the connected and the public employees unions whose outrageous benefits and work rules have put the city in hock. Telling them that the ride is over will take more than passion. It will take a bruiser of exceptional determination and skill.
This city operates on the principle that everyone better know someone someone sent. That the way to get ahead is to "know a guy." Making nice is for losers. That's not my code; it's the way of the Chicago spoils system. Pretty pleases won't get the job done.
So, if we elect a tough mayor, then the next question is: What will he or she be tough about? Every candidate pledges to be for the middle class, the disadvantaged and the voiceless. And against the corrupt and greedy.
We know who's tough, but who's going to do the right thing?
This column also appeared in The Chicago Tribune