Years ago I had a neighbor whose husband used to beat the crap out of her. One night her panic-stricken children showed up at my door pleading for help--"My daddy's ripping my mommy's eye out."
I wound up driving her to the hospital, and on the way I asked why she stayed with him. Blood dripping from her eye, she shrugged and said, "It's not so bad." But later she admitted she was scared--as rotten as life was with him, she was afraid it might be worse without him.
We, the voters of Chicago, are like my helpless and hopeless neighbor. In a few days we're supposed to vote on the next mayor, and we're too scared and beaten down to take a stand. Ask us how the city's being run and the chances are we'll shrug, "It's not so bad."
No doubt about it, Chicago's real estate market is booming. But cities all over the country are enjoying the same resurgence; it's transformed New York, Boston, San Francisco, even Newark, New Jersey. Our problem is that through waste, inefficiency, corruption, and, perhaps worst of all, political cowardice, we're squandering our riches.
Review the record: The Daley administration awards about $100 million in affirmative-action contracts to companies run by the politically connected Duff family. James Duff, who's white, is charged with racketeering in 2003 and pleads guilty in 2005. Yet in 2007 Mayor Daley is endorsed for reelection by congressmen Bobby Rush and Luis Gutierrez and other black and Hispanic leaders.
Daley's top City Hall patronage aide, Robert Sorich, gets four years in prison for overseeing a hiring operation where tests and interviews are rigged so the well connected get jobs over the well qualified. Yet good-government types like Miguel del Valle and Barack Obama praise him for cleaning up corruption.
His transportation and streets and sanitation departments ran the hired truck program, doling out about $40 million a year in contracts to truck drivers who basically did nothing but campaign for the machine on election day. Yet civic groups and the chamber of commerce praise him for being a fiscal watchdog.
I'm told over and over--by friends, insiders, cabbies, editorial pages--that scandals, including the heroin ring run by city workers out of the water department, are the price we pay for good services.
Good services? Back in the 70s New York City was a laughingstock for not being able to run its trains on time. Who's laughing now? According to a study by Straphangers, a not-for-profit association of public transit users in New York, the worst subway line in New York runs "without bunching or gaps in service 79 percent of the time." The citywide average is 87 percent (you can read the study at www.straphangers.org). By contrast, 13.5 percent of the CTA's tracks are under "speed restrictions," including 23.9 percent of the Red Line and 22.1 percent of the Blue; it's virtually impossible to ride any line without experiencing a delay, according to the CTA's own statistics. A poster at the snarky Web site ctatattler.com said Daley seems to care more about collapsible Olympic stadiums than rapid transit and cracked, "Perhaps if the CTA shop sold collapsible trains, etc, then it wouldn't take me almost 2 hours to travel 16 miles."
Service will get even worse after the elections, when the Red and Brown lines begin sharing a track through Lincoln Park to accommodate the Brown Line reconstruction. Crain's Chicago Business put it nicely when it said the CTA suffers from "crumbling structures . . . outdated signals . . . aging railcars . . . peeling paint . . . decaying rails and ties."
The CTA doesn't have the money to keep up with basic repairs because it's squandered hundreds of millions of capital-improvement dollars rebuilding the Brown Line, creating the Pink Line, and building an underground station at Block 37 that's intended to service high-priced express trains to Midway and O'Hare. These projects either embellish or duplicate existing routes, and it's not at all clear that express trains can run to the airports without cutting into current Blue and Orange line service. Yet the Block 37 station was unanimously approved without debate by the City Council as part of a much larger economic development bill. One alderman admitted to me that he and most of his colleagues had no idea what they were voting for.
Anything else? Why, yes: most public schools are underperforming and overcrowded, or are underused because upper- and middle-income residents wouldn't dream of sending their children there. The wave of the future for Chicago's poor kids is charter schools, which ask teachers to work longer hours for less money and fewer benefits. You tell me how the charters will ever retain a top-flight teaching staff against the higher salaries and benefits of the suburbs.
Meanwhile, the Park District cuts programs and raises fees. The city's ready to build that Olympic stadium but somehow can't find enough money to mop the floors or replace the burned-out lightbulbs in its gyms and field houses. I've coached or watched basketball in gyms all over the city, and I can tell you most Park District gyms aren't open to the walk-in public anymore because the parks don't have the money to pay staffers to supervise them. They don't have money because they've jacked up their capital debt on boondoggles like the reconstruction of Soldier Field, which provides benefits to almost no one but the Bears. The city still hasn't built one indoor track facility for its public schools--they have to rent the Proviso West track for their indoor championship--but it's ready to build its fourth privately used stadium in 20 years. Many parents don't even bother with the Park District--they enroll their kids in private youth leagues or clubs. God help the kids who can't afford the sign-up fees.
Yet Daley's proposals for audacious projects keep coming. The reconstruction of Soldier Field was followed by the construction of Millennium Park, which is to be followed by the 2016 Olympics. How the city's going to pay for the Olympics is anyone's guess. It can hardly tap the hotel-motel tax again, not after that was jacked for Soldier Field. It's promised not to use property taxes--about $100 million in those went for Millennium Park. The mayor says he has a list of investors interested in spending their own money to build the 5,000-unit Olympic village, but he hasn't identified them. My guess is that once the election is over and Daley's safely reelected he'll announce he's going to build for the Olympics with yet another tax increment financing district.
There are about 150 TIFs so far--it's hard to keep count (the Community Development Commission just approved two more at its February 13 meeting). Virtually everything the city tells you about TIFs (they don't raise taxes, they don't take money from the schools and the parks, they're the only economic tool we have, they're reserved for blighted areas) is either a lie or a gross distortion. As I've reported extensively (chicagoreader.com/tifarchive/), they're essentially a slush fund, which the mayor and aldermen spend as they like. They're occasionally used to build or improve a school or a park, but they're kept from the systems themselves, where they belong. At last count (in 2005), TIFs had absorbed about $400 million a year in property taxes from the parks, schools, county, and other taxing bodies. The mayor's supporters are proud of the robust development downtown and the property taxes it brings in. But the reality is that the new property taxes generated there are sucked away by one of the nine TIFs Daley has created in and around the Loop. So it's no wonder your property taxes are rising, even as Daley says he's keeping them down. (New York's real estate boom has generated a surplus, enabling Mayor Michael Bloomberg to propose a $750 million property tax cut; but then, New York City doesn't have TIFs.)
So let's see. We have corruption, a gutless and clueless City Council, a dysfunctional transportation system, lousy schools and parks, rising property taxes, off-the-books budgeting, and a mayor whose reelection is a foregone conclusion. Daley's so confident of beating his two challengers--William "Dock" Walls and Circuit Court clerk Dorothy Brown--that he's hardly campaigning. Instead he's hanging out with the likes of developer Judd Malkin, who flew him to the Super Bowl in his private jet and donated $200,000 to his campaign.
I understand why developers would adore the mayor. His idea of economic development is to hand out TIF subsidies that let big corporations like United Airlines, USG, and Brach's move into fancy new headquarters and get rent breaks. But why in the world are the rest of us rushing to reelect him? I've been especially mystified since voters (mostly white north-, southwest-, and northwest-siders) revolted against the patronage, nepotism, waste, and rising taxes of Cook County Board president John Stroger. Son Todd stepped into the race for his stricken father and was narrowly nominated and elected, thanks to massive black support, but he's caught the same flak. Why the Strogers but not Daley?
Obviously race has something to do with it. But what I hear from those friends, insiders, cabbies, and editorial pages is that they can put up with the scandals because the city doesn't look as dirty as it used to.
I suppose it depends on what we mean by dirty. Maybe that's code for poor--as in, the city's cleaner now that Daley moved all the poor people out. For better or worse, Daley's greatest accomplishment so far has been the destruction of Cabrini-Green, Robert Taylor, Henry Horner, and other outdated high-rise public housing projects. The CHA's so-called Plan for Transformation opened up the south, north, and west sides to gentrification and development. Of course, Daley doesn't come right out and admit he got rid of the poor people. He goes along with the idea that the plan was about finding them adequate low-income housing. But in fact, the CHA admits it can't keep track of all its displaced residents. I'll give them a hint. According to a recent study by Illinois Poverty Summit, a not-for-profit research group, the number of poor people living in the collar counties and suburban Cook County has risen by 100,000 since 1999. The CHA might want to try poking around those suburbs if it really wants to find its evicted tenants.
Make no mistake: public complacency about inefficient autocracies has been part of Chicago's political culture for decades--Milton Rakove's classic book on the machine run by the current mayor's father, Richard J. Daley, was called Don't Make No Waves, Don't Back No Losers. Only once in the last half century has the City Council done its duty to act as a check on the power of the mayor, and that was during the Council Wars of the mid-80s, when white aldermen waged a blatantly racial war on Mayor Harold Washington.
But the current Mayor Daley has even more authority than his father did (and he certainly has fewer independent-minded aldermen in the council to contend with). In a city that gave us Saul Alinsky and other firebrand grassroots organizers, even community groups pull their punches for fear of alienating the mayor. The coalition of activists behind the Developing Government Accountability to the People project deserve credit for daring to rate Daley's record. (Their study's posted at www.dgapchicago.org.) But some of its members privately confessed to me that they felt pressured to inflate Daley's grades (awarding him, for instance, a C on transportation) because they figured their funding agencies and the media wouldn't take them seriously if they'd given him all the Fs he deserved.
Is it folly to expect more from our mayor? Union and political activists tell me Daley's more vulnerable than he seems. If the two contenders with a reasonable chance of unseating him--congressmen Jesse Jackson and Luis Gutierrez--had run and hammered him hard, they might have kept him under 50 percent of the vote and forced a runoff. They were apparently trying to work out a deal: the congressman who didn't make the runoff would support the one who did, giving us a wide-open race for mayor. But people inside their camps tell me they figured they couldn't beat Daley and were waiting to see if U.S. attorney Patrick Fitzgerald's investigation of patronage and city contracts scandals would sweep him up before the election. When the summer passed without an indictment, the congressmen backed off. In the end both Gutierrez and Jackson chickened out.
What does that mean for the rest of us? You still have a choice. If you don't use public trains, buses, parks, or schools; if you're not a teacher losing a pension; if you can afford skyrocketing taxes (and believe me, after the election, they'll rise); if you're OK with Daley personally controlling billions of tax dollars; and if you feel corruption is the price we pay for decent garbage collection--then by all means vote for the mayor.
Otherwise, let me tell you about a recent conversation I had with a woman from the northwest side. We were reviewing the inadequacies of the Olympics funding scheme and figuring out that eventually the taxpayers will pick up the tab. She said, "This is horrible. What can we do?"
I said the first step seemed obvious: vote against Daley. She laughed and asked, "Who are my choices?" When I mentioned Walls and Brown, she scoffed, "Oh, they can't win." And I thought--so what? Thousands of voters didn't care if Tony Peraica could win--much less who he was or what he stood for--when they voted for him over Todd Stroger for county board president last November.
A vote for the opposition--whoever the opposition is--is a vote of defiance against a system that needs to be changed. A runoff, as unlikely as that sounds, might make the mayor agree to a debate. And even if Daley wins, oh, 65 percent of the vote, a lower-than-expected margin might give more aldermen courage to take an independent stand once in a while.
I've had people tell me that as much as they despise the mayor's policies they're afraid to vote against him because chaos will ensue if he loses. I remember machine aldermen using that line as far back as 1979, when Jane Byrne was running against Mayor Michael Bilandic. To hear them talk, you'd have thought the city would fall apart--the Sears Tower would jump in the lake, as Mike Royko satirically put it four years later, when it was Harold Washington running against the machine and chaos again was predicted. Well, guess what: under Byrne and Washington, and Eugene Sawyer for that matter, city workers picked up the garbage, cleared the snow, salted the streets. The trains and buses ran--a hell of a lot better than they run today. As Tony Peraica once put it, it's "infantile" to live in fear and awe of one man.
Dorothy Brown is a lawyer and a CPA. She was an auditor at the CTA, and she's been clerk of the circuit court since 2001. She's had about as much administrative experience as (or even more than) Byrne, Washington, or Daley had when they got elected. She's an unlikely agent of chaos.
It only takes one major rebuff for Chicago's elected officials to catch on. Look at how efficiently (to the point of overkill?) snow removal has been handled since voters ousted Bilandic after the blizzard of '79. Vote Daley out for mismanaging the CTA and future mayors will think twice before they allow it to fall into such disrepair.
At the very least, as voters we should have some self-respect. The city slaps us in the face and we ask for more. If we keep reelecting the slappers, we deserve the bad schools, slow trains, dimly lit gyms, and big tax bills they give us.
If we elect a bum worse than the one we threw out, we can vote for someone else four years later. Democracy's not that complicated. If we don't start behaving like we live in one, we'll have no one to blame but ourselves for the consequences.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Tim Boyle/Getty Images.