City Council Follies | Year In Review | Chicago Reader

City Council Follies 

Politics as Entertainment

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The problem with daily newspaper coverage of the Chicago City Council is that the Sun-Times and Tribune feel obliged to report the actual news from council meetings. That leaves them little space to report, for instance, when Alderman Dorothy Tillman claims that it was Martin Luther King who said "We have nothing to fear but fear itself," or when Alderman Bernard Hansen invites Tillman and Alderman Robert Shaw to a Cubs game and offers to buy them a beer if they don't throw it in his face.

Luckily this report, soon to become a semiregular feature in these pages, labors under no such constraints.

March 25

Alderman Shaw dabbled in a new hobby, razzing Mayor Daley about city business involving the mayor's brother Michael and his law firm, Daley & George. Shaw demanded that an $85 million bond issue for Midway Airport be postponed because Michael Daley is a consultant for the bond issue's senior manager, Smith-Barney. Alderman Edward Burke retorted by quoting Jack Webb: "We want the facts, ma'am, nothing but the facts."

So Shaw claimed that Smith-Barney pays Michael Daley $15,000 a month, and that according to the company, Michael Daley does nothing for his salary. "If I believe that and if members of this council believe that, I can sell you a bridge in Brooklyn!" he trumpeted.

"We're not interested in any New York real estate," sneered Burke. "We're happy here in Chicago."

April 13

Nimble council security guards preempted a fistfight after Alderman Ted Mazola tried grabbing Alderman Dexter Watson's microphone during the debate over moving the Maxwell Street Market. Mazola apologized for his failed microphone charge, but Watson made a speech he can save and use again if he turns to pro wrestling:

"And I will get my respect...and if anybody doesn't realize that, they will realize it when I am through that I will get my respect....Come to the 27th Ward, come to Dexter G. Watson, you will respect me, FIRST, and then you will address me. And that's the way it will be!"

Watson added that he bought his first pair of gaucho pants at Maxwell Street.

Lost in all the hoopla was Alderman Shaw's invention of the kosher pork chop. During the Maxwell debate, Shaw recalled how he had arrived in Chicago in the late 40s. "Many times after that I purchased items in the Maxwell Street area, and one of the things I purchased recently was a hotdog, not a hotdog, a pork chop. I think it was kosher," he said.

Aldermen also sucked up to Gerald Sullivan after approving his appointment to the board of the Chicago Park District. Alderman William Beavers said he was happy to finally see someone at Parks who knew more than cow pastures. This was a dig at Park District superintendent Forrest Claypool, a downstate native who started last year with no background in parks and recreation.

Alderman Charles Bernardini defended Claypool: "The fact that Forrest grew up in central Illinois and is familiar with cow pastures is not necessarily negative," he said. "That should be very helpful with the farm in Lincoln Park Zoo."

May 4

Alderman Burke introduced a laudatory resolution for a crooked politician whose crimes paralyzed the nation for months and left several generations of Americans permanently disillusioned. Alderman Thomas Murphy was the only one who noticed.

"Ordinarily I never speak ill of a person who's deceased," Murphy began slowly after Burke finished a personal homage to Richard Nixon. "And I feel a little uncomfortable even getting up and saying this, but I don't want to be part of a resolution honoring a president who would have been impeached if he remained in office and only resigned to save that embarrassment."

Mayor Daley winced. "I would say that you extend your condolences to anyone, whether you like them or not," he said sorrowfully, cocking his head at Murphy as if contemplating whether to send him to bed without dessert.

"You hafta be dead to have something good said about you!" Alderman Tillman snickered loudly to everyone as she walked back to her seat. "I don't wanna be dead! Everybody wanna go to heaven, but no one wants to die!"

May 18

Chicago's new city motto may well be "Cupio meam MTV," judging from the heartfelt council debate over an application from 21st Century Cable to provide cable service along the lakefront.

"First of all, I'd like to say that this is probably one of the biggest issues in the City Council in recent history, as far as I'm concerned," said Alderman Eugene Schulter in a voice shaking with emotion, and on a day when the council would vote to bail out the Chicago Skyway with a $110 million revenue bond issue.

"For the last 15 years my constituents have suffered because of the cable television monopoly," thundered Alderman Burton Natarus. "It's been terrible! The service is terrible. Workmen show up at the door, leave the parts, go home, don't finish the job. In the middle of a big game I have gotten calls in my home that the television set goes off! So they say to me, 'Alderman, turn on the set. Turn on the channel. Make certain that we have coverage.'"

Point of information, as the aldermen would say: At press time, unlisted phone numbers were still available in the 42nd ward.

June 16

Alderman Michael Wojcik made a moving tribute to clout during memorial speeches for recently deceased alderman Lemuel Austin Jr.

The people of the 35th Ward will miss Austin, said Wojcik, "because he always came to our cocktail parties, and made us feel good. He came there and people'd say, 'Who's that?' And I'd say, 'That's Alderman Austin, he's chairman of the budget,' and they said, 'Alderman Wojcik, you got a lotta clout!' And I'd say, 'Thank you, Alderman Austin.'"

July 13

Mayor Daley rapped his gavel--for a routine point of order during an entirely nondescript meeting--and broke it. "This gonna be a day like this?" he cracked, then yelled mockingly, "I want those pay phones out!", referring to his then-pending proposal to ban pay phones on private property in the city.

August 3

The last meeting for retiring Alderman Anthony Laurino prompted many fond reminiscences of the quiet, diminutive alderman, who would look more at home playing cards at a folding table in front of an Italian social club.

Alderman Brian Doherty, the council's only Republican, recalled Laurino's help during Doherty's early days at the council. "It was either the first or second meeting, and I believe it probably was a setup, but uh, they started blasting the Republican Party and the president and things, and I got up and said a few things and created a little stir in the council. Well [former city corporation counsel] Kelly Welsh came off the dais, came around and he said to me, 'Doherty,' he says, 'You're not gonna do this every meeting, are ya?' Tony lifted up his head and said, 'Hey, leave the kid alone. They started it.' And I really appreciated it. For a new kid that meant a lot to me, Tony."

Doherty, who sits in the council's last row with the voluble Alderman Natarus on his left and Laurino one seat down, then recounted a little-known council fact: "Every time Burt Natarus finishes speaking, Tony turns around and says, 'You're a helluva man, Burt.'"

No word on whether the comment was sarcastic.

September 13

Debate over Mayor Daley's proposal to ban pay phones from private property turned from a cakewalk to the Bataan Death March when Alderman Tillman stood to oppose it. In a numbingly long speech that eventually decried the hardships that would come for people unable to afford home telephones, Tillman sought some sympathy of her own:

"I don't have a cellular phone!" she said. "I can't afford one. I have three kids in college at one time and they take all of my money, so I can't even afford a cellular phone. We don't make enough money in City Council to get one, so I can't afford one."

Next Tillman created a technical brouhaha when she moved to postpone voting on the ordinance, which was technically impossible because it had already been placed in the council omnibus, a compilation of legislation that the council routinely passes at the end of each meeting.

"The motion passed," Alderman Lorraine Dixon, presiding for the absent Mayor Daley, told Tillman. "Thank you! What motion?" said Tillman. With Tillman loudly denying the motion had ever passed, Alderman Patrick Huels finally proposed taking the pay phone ordinance back out of the omnibus and then postponing it.

"You're damn right I'm right," Tillman said to Alderman Ed Smith as the roll was called.

October 5

Alderman Huels brought back the now slightly revised pay phone ordinance, asking Mayor Daley to pass it along with a vote already taken on the Finance Committee agenda.

"Hearing no objection, so ordered," Daley mumbled.

"I'd like to address the issue of the pay phone ordinance," said Alderman Ed Burke.

"Hah! It already passed!" giggled Daley, before recognizing Burke after all.

Burke went on to commend Alderman Tillman for bringing useful changes to the ordinance. "So occasionally I do agree with Alderman Tillman," he smirked, "and I wouldn't want this occasion to pass without taking the opportunity to congratulate her. Thank you, Mr. President."

"That is a first," Daley giggled again.

November 2

Either Alderman Watson has a faulty hearing aid, or he is pursuing a world's record for speaking exclusively in a hostile shout. Today the prickly alderman got in a shouting match with Alderman Natarus.

Natarus had already spoken during the debate over authorizing funds to restore the landmark Reliance Building, but he tried to speak again. Alderman Dixon, presiding for Daley, hadn't yet responded to Natarus when Watson's hand shot up too. "Madame Chair, Madame Chair," Watson hollered, in between shouts of "You spoke once!" to Natarus. Dixon ignored them both and called the roll.

Afterward Natarus sauntered over to Watson's seat. "I apologize. I asked permission to speak again and--" he began. "You spoke once!" shouted Watson, pushing his face into Natarus's like an angry baseball manager. Natarus calmly apologized again. "Thank you!" shouted Watson grudgingly. "You're welcome," said Natarus evenly, adding, "Stop yelling at people." "You're not my father!" yelled Watson, who one hopes is on blood-pressure medication. Natarus wandered over to commiserate with Alderman Mazola, who could no doubt empathize.

Alderman John Madrzyk had resigned abruptly two weeks earlier when Illinois house speaker and 13th Ward Democratic committeeman Michael Madigan reportedly told him to. That set the stage for nearly a half-hour of fond reminiscences of the longtime alderman, who didn't show up for his last meeting.

"I first came down [to the City Council] when there was turmoil," related Alderman Beavers. "And Madrzyk took me to the side and he said 'Beavers, let me tell you something.' He said 'I like the way this council is today.' He said 'I can talk.' He said 'When I first came down here,' he said, 'I spent three years before I could say one word.' He said one day [the first] Mayor Richard Daley called him upstairs and he said he was trembling, he was trembling like this." Beavers held his hands up and shook them to demonstrate. "He thought he had messed up. He said the mayor told him, he said, 'You can talk a little now. Just don't go [overboard].'"

"I would refresh my colleagues' recollection," said Alderman Bernard Stone, "that the Chicago Tribune at one time honored John Madrzyk as the number one alderman in the city of Chicago, the best."

Tribune reporter Robert Davis cringed in the press box as nearby aldermen Mazola and Carole Bialczak turned to stare at him incredulously. "That was a joke!" Davis protested, throwing up his hands. "That was a joke!"

November 10

For a nearly all-Democratic City Council, it was an oddly cheery meeting just two days after Republicans routed Democrats from the U.S. Congress and the Illinois legislature. Alderman Doherty, as noted earlier the council's only Republican, sought to speak in support of ratifying the fire fighters' contract agreement. "Chair recognizes Alderman Doherty as the only person who's happy today in the council," snickered Mayor Daley.

Alderman Burke later introduced a correction to the journal of an earlier council meeting. "There's a correction for an old journal...where the name Garcia appears instead of the name Munoz," said Burke, referring to former alderman and now Illinois state senator Jesus Garcia, and his replacement, Alderman Ricardo Munoz.

Daley giggled. "Maybe Garcia'd like to come back here, heheheh!, the way the General Assembly's goin', heheheh, Alderman Munoz!"

November 16

The debate over Mayor Daley's 1995 budget was a canonization hearing for budget director Paul Vallas, until Alderman Watson stepped in. Watson spoke one sentence in a normal voice before shouting, mainly because his ward had been left for last in street resurfacing this year. Soon he moved on to complain about rats, disrepair, and drug dealers in his ward, and insisted that Daley has not visited his community.

"The mayor is invisible in the 27th Ward!" Watson screamed. "I invite you to come out there Mr. Mayor when you get an opportunity to! I drove you through one of my community streets! The driver, your driver had the audacity to try to drive through the community speedily, and I had to tap him on the shoulder and say, 'Slow Down! I want the mayor to see the drug dealing over here!'"

At this point Daley, who had endured Watson's speech slumped in his chair staring blankly in the other direction, leaned toward the microphone and said quietly, "Excuse me. That's wrong."

Watson started but recovered quickly: "That is not wrong, and you know it's not wrong. So don't, don't, don't do that. Don't do that to me," he blustered. "Don't do that to me, Mr. Mayor. You know--"

"I just want to say, I'd like to correct the record," Daley said again quietly.

"Well that's wrong!" yelled Watson. "You know that the driver drove by, and he wouldn't stop, I had to tap him on the shoulder and tell him slow down! 'Cause he wanted to zip on through there!"

"I met with every alderman in their communities, we drove around, and we did not drive fast," Daley insisted, still calm. "I just wanna tell you that."

"Oh he did it, you know he did it, you know he did it Mr. Mayor!" shouted Watson.

Daley continued defending his driver. "I spent time with every alderman, and did not drive fast. Just wanna tell you that."

"We drove down Thomas, he drove faster than he could because he was tryin' to get on through there so quick that he didn't wanna see the drug dealers on the street!" Watson yelled, eventually working himself up to a full-fledged attack on Daley. "You are a disgrace to us! Why do we have you as a mayor, you don't even care about us? You are not fit to be the mayor of the city, the city, the city of the, the city--" Here Alderman Burke stepped in to object to personal attacks.

One alderman standing near the press box shook his head. "Geez, I hate to say it, but he's an embarrassment. He's a fucking embarrassment," he sighed.

November 30

Two aldermen of vastly differing weight classes nearly mixed it up in a dispute over council procedure. Often an alderman will mosey into the chambers after an important vote and ask the clerk to record his or her vote after the fact. Today's discussion began when Alderman Tillman indulged the habit, drawing an objection from Alderman Burke.

"She was just in back discussing a number of serious--we were just discussing a number of international and national issues with myself, I was back there," giggled Daley, looking vaguely embarrassed.

Soon Alderman Joseph Moore tried to get his vote recorded too. "I was in back too," he explained. After a small murmur of protest he added, "In discussion with Alderman Tillman!"

Alderman Watson spoke next, also wanting to go on record for a previous vote. "I was in back," he said, provoking some laughter and also Alderman Natarus.

"It's very, very bad policy and we oughta quit fooling around!" Natarus boomed. "This is nonsense. You're either here to vote, or you're not here to vote. And if you don't wanna be here on a vote, since we don't have abstentions, then take a walk."

By now, Alderman Tillman was laughing loudly at Natarus, waving her arms at him in mock protest. "Oh c'mon," said Natarus directly to Tillman. "This is a legislative body, and everything we do here has to do with legality and the law. I know you don't believe that. Outside the law is OK with you."

"I beg your pardon!" Tillman cried quickly.

"Chair recognizes Alderman Tillman," said Daley wearily.

"Mr. President, thank you," said Tillman. "I wanna say that I resent that statement comin' from Alderman Natarus very much."

"Well I'll repeat it," said Natarus belligerently.

"Well you better watch it--" shouted Tillman before Daley cut her off: "No, let's not repeat it," said Daley.

"You wanna step outside after this?" challenged Natarus.

"Yeah!" yelled Tillman, now waving her arms in a "come and get me" manner.

"Why don't we all go outside and come back in, heheheh?" said Daley, just as the entire council was about to erupt. As an antidote, Daley recognized Alderman Burke, who lulled everyone back to sleep with some boring Finance Committee business.

"Why don't we all get together, we'll play Mother McAuley in volleyball, get out all our frustrations?" Daley laughed as Burke finished up. The council had earlier honored Mother McAuley High School's volleyball team for winning the 1994 state championship.

"They're too tough for us," said Burke.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Marc PoKempner, Bill Stamets.

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