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The Ghosts in Chicago’s Political Machine

By posted at 3:27 pm on February 3, 2007 0

cover“Why is it that members of the same family get appointments in several sections of government and only large firms seem to get representation on boards dealing with zoning and construction?” Sound familiar?

This question was posed in 1971 by the newly elected alderman of the 44th Ward, Dick Simpson, to the “‘Boss’ of all Chicago,” Mayor Richard J. Daley. Simpson took the floor to question nepotism in Chicago politics when Daley appointed his powerful ally Ald. Thomas E. Keane’s son to the Zoning Board of Appeals.

The question prompted a tirade from Daley. “His face was purple with rage and his aides feared that he would have a stroke,” Simpson writes, adding that a one-hour recess followed to allow Daley to regain his composure. The issues that Simpson raised as an independent alderman 26 years ago still haunt Chicagoans and City Hall politics.

Rogues, Rebels and Rubber Stamps, Dick Simpson’s 2001 book, explains how historical events shaped the city’s politics through intriguing reconstructions of battles on the council floor using newspaper accounts, histories, memoirs and his own observations.

Simpson, who teaches urban politics at the University of Illinois at Chicago, also constructs a methodological study of city elections and roll call votes in the council. “From this montage of characters, struggles, and votes emerges the story of the council and the meaning of its history,” he writes.

What is the meaning of the council’s history, then? Simpson argues that Chicagoans never enjoyed a true, representative democracy. He presents a very strong case to support his thesis: that politicking and elections produced three types of councils, which provided – depending on who exercised power – a means for either the mayor or influential aldermen to have their way, or forced compromises between the two elements; but the emerging policies rarely benefited citizens – who remained and continue to be unrepresented.

Based on his study of voting patterns, Simpson characterizes the city council as the mayor’s rubber stamp, a fragmented body run by powerful aldermen and a forum engaged in “wars” when neither the mayor nor aldermanic voting blocks are dominant.

Current Mayor Richard M. Daley’s city council is a rubber stamp, as was his father’s, according to Simpson. In these councils, which became increasingly more common after the establishment of Chicago’s “Democratic machine” in the 1930s, aldermen vote with the mayor with very little to no resistance.

Rubber stamp councils enabled mayors to provide patronage jobs and get reelected with the strong backing of political, union, business, institutional and community leaders. These councils also streamlined policymaking. Simpson writes that mayors running rubber stamp councils “took away the ward bosses’ control of government services to make Chicago ‘the city that works.'”

The city worked in different ways when the council was fragmented. The most telling period of this model is the era Simpson calls “The Councils of Gray Wolves,” which was dominant from 1871 until 1931. The name was coined by McClure’s Magazine reporter Lincoln Steffens who characterized the alderman as gray wolves “‘for the color of their hair and the rapacious cunning and greed of their natures.'” He wrote that the aldermen were “‘a lot of good natured honest thieves.’

Now, that last statement might be applicable to Chicago’s modern aldermen, too. But they do not carry the clout of the gray wolves, who aligned themselves with business interests in their wards and mustered votes to pass legislation by logrolling. Simpson characterizes fragmented councils as having a “strong council-weak mayor form of government.” Unlike in a rubber stamp council, which acts on the mayor’s orders, aldermen in fragmented councils exchanged favors to secure benefits to their ward and, consequently, to further their political ambitions.

The era of Council Wars from 1983 to 1986 under Mayor Harold Washington produced a different dynamic. Despite constant gridlocks due to a majority of opposition aldermen and the mayor’s unwillingness to bend to machine politics, Chicago had a progressive experience. The mayor’s veto powers coupled with his need for opposition support to pass legislation made for a fertile ground of compromise.

As a result “came extended programs of affirmative action, freedom of government information for citizens, the signing of a court decree ending patronage, and the largest neighborhood infrastructure improvement program in Chicago’s history,” Simpson writes.

What does the future hold for Chicago politics and citizens? Mayor Richard M. Daley disrupted the traditional machine politics, yet he did create his own machine, according to Simpson. And, he still rules over a rubber stamp council – which means no real representation.

The current mayor moved away from old-style patronage jobs, but established a “pinstripe patronage” – one driven by city contracts to businesses. There is a shift from hands-on “builder mayors” that led pro-growth regimes, such as Daley’s father and Mayor Ed Kelly, to manager mayors who lead “management regimes” that substitute policy for patronage, such as the current mayor’s.

And the citizens? Well, they will just have to push for independent aldermen like Simpson, who organized a ward council and cast city council votes that represented his constituency’s decisions. Otherwise, the words of Ald. Paddy Bauler on the heels of Richard J. Daley’s election in 1955 might ring true for many years: “Chicago ain’t ready for reform.”

Note to non-Chicagoans: This post was written with a Chicago audience in mind. But Simpson’s work can also be taken as the study of a political microcosm and applied to politics everywhere – your local government, national affairs or even international politicking. It’s quite a gripping, historical read – I recommend it to everyone interested in politics or urban policymaking.

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