Tuesday, September 18, 2007

The civil rights mayor strikes again

Posted By on 09.18.07 at 07:01 PM

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As a child of the 60s, Mayor Daley had plenty of opportunities to join the civil rights movement.

Born in 1942, he could have been a Freedom Rider, fighting to desegregate interstate bus service in the south. Or he could have been an activist, fighting to register black residents in Mississippi during the Freedom Summer of 1964.

Closer to home, he could have locked arms with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., as he marched for open housing through mobs of rock-throwing thugs in 1966.

But, no, Daley stayed out of all the great civil rights struggles of his youth. His one great contribution to black empowerment came in 1983, when he challenged Mayor Jane Byrne, siphoning off just enough white votes to enable Harold Washington to win the Democratic primary. Of course, Washington would have had an easier time of things in the subsequent general election against Republican Bernard Epton had Daley come out strong for his Democratic colleague. But after quietly attending a postprimary "unity breakfast" with Washington, Daley essentially hid under the table for the election, not wanting to offend white or black voting blocs. And he pretty much remained under the table until he ran for mayor in 1989, two years after Washington had died and his movement had splintered.

So I find it sort of curious that at this relatively late stage in his life Daley has become something of a civil rights crusader. The first sign came last September, when he gathered his favorite preachers and aldermen for a rally in Roseland against the big-box living-wage ordinance. According to Daley, if Target and Wal-Mart had to pay their workers a livable wage, they wouldn't come to black neighborhoods -- and that would be unfair to black residents.

His rally worked. Three aldermen -- including one black and two Hispanics -- flip-flopped and voted to sustain his veto, thus killing the big-box wage hike. Lost in the hype was the fact that on the same day as the Roseland rally, the Community Development Commission, a mayorally appointed board, unanimously approved the LaSalle Central Tax Increment Financing District, which will divert over $1 billion from the schools, parks, and county for the next 23 years. So downtown developers get access to hundreds of millions of tax dollars, and south-siders get a cap on already low-paying big box jobs. Power to the people, Mr. Mayor, right on.

Now the mayor's playing the race card against downtown high-rise residents -- most of them white and well-to-do -- who don't want the Children's Museum coming to Grant Park. According to Daley, those opposed to the move really want to keep black and Hispanic children out of their community.

Now, I'm not saying those in opposition are angels when it comes to integration. But for the last several months they've been badgering me to write stories about their opposition to the museum. And after hours of conversation with them,  I can tell you that racial concerns are the last things on their mind. They're up in arms about all the usual NIMBY issues of congestion, traffic, and loss of public space.

In any case, Daley's eagerness to stick the museum in the park is not about providing opportunity for disadvantaged minorities to begin with. It's about pleasing the museum's well-connected board members and finding a way to bring more cars to the underused Millennium Park parking garage.

Though it is sort of funny to think of Daley as a champion of civil rights with the second installment tax bills about to make it difficult for many south- and west-siders to hold on to their homes.  

Will Daley's tactic work this time? I doubt it. I can't see the council voting against local alderman Brendan Reilly (42nd) on a zoning issue. But at least the aldermanic debate will be an entertaining diversion from those tax bills. 

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