City Hall: Enemies of the People | Essay | Chicago Reader

City Hall: Enemies of the People 

The Mayor didn't have to go after the aldermen who'd crossed him. His constituents have become sophisticated enough to do it themselves.

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No one is sure who was the first to break the news, though it almost certainly happened early in Harold Washington's first term as mayor. Maybe it was Tom Todd. Todd is a Chicago lawyer and a frequent spokesman for Operation PUSH, and many people recall a speech of his at PUSH headquarters one Saturday morning that made the accusation: several black aldermen weren't loyal to the mayor. He named names: Perry Hutchinson, Niles Sherman, and Marian Humes. (Soon afterward many people in the know added Wallace Davis to the list.) And that was that.

"It was from then on that they were branded the folks interested in jumping to the other side," one well-connected black activist explained. "You're talking about a fairly sophisticated electorate in the black community. We've gone through a real education about government and politics in the last few years. You've got people discussing the budget and bond initiatives at bars, and in barbershops, and at parties. Folks would be talking about it hanging out on the corner. Can you imagine, two winos hanging out at 47th and Cottage talking about the city budget?

"You'd be out in the community when someone would say, 'Hey, I heard someone's flirting with the other side. I heard someone's going to jump.' People would say, 'Yeah -- who? Hutchinson? Humes? Niles?'

"They could never shake it."

They couldn't, and they didn't. In the recent round of aldermanic elections, five black incumbents were unseated; four of them were Hutchinson, Humes, Sherman, and Davis. What's going on? Is this just the proof of what Eddie Burke's been saying all along -- that Harold's just a boss of a different color? Or is there more to it? Throughout his first four years, Washington at his best has been breathing new life into old, moribund political structures (City Council not least among them). Has he come up with a way to give new meaning to the gentle art of dumping political enemies?

Loyalty is a matter of degrees. One man's undying allegiance is another's token effort. Before Washington it was easy to be a loyal alderman. You sided with Daley (or Bilandic, or Byrne) on every critical issue, and on virtually every trivial one, and you were OK. Your seat in council was secure.

Today, your voting record isn't enough. Consider the case of Marian Humes. She's voted with Washington almost every time, but her constituents have consistently treated her like a renegade. Last year this time, some of them even picketed her ward office after she walked out of a council meeting early, supposedly for a doctor's appointment, and missed an important vote.

Of course there was more to the matter than a missed vote. Humes just isn't part of "the Movement," and she never was. She was first elected alderman of the Eighth Ward in 1977, after one of the council's two independent blacks, William Cousins, was made a judge. Humes, the Regular Democratic Organization's candidate, reclaimed for the Machine the seat that Cousins had held since 1967. There are those who successfully made the switch from Machine to Movement: John Stroger, for instance, the Eighth Ward committeeman and Humes's sponsor back in 1977, is now a part of the Movement, in a leadership position in fact. Stroger certainly wasn't among those who generated the energy to get the train rolling -- in fact, he fought it -- but he did jump aboard once he saw where it was headed.

Humes -- well, she never did quite get with the program. While Humes was a regular Saturday morning visitor to PUSH, she didn't talk the same language. The black community was divided for years. Now unity is sacred, and unity means, in part, backing the Movement's agenda. One important item on that agenda is a black-Latino alliance, leaving behind the days when black was pitted against brown. Humes couldn't buy it. "She was always mouthing off during caucus about how much the fat-cat Latinos were getting from this administration," one alderman said. "We were getting far too many jobs, too many contracts, too many appointments -- all at the expense of her constituents.

"She would sometimes get real abusive about it."

Humes, too, like several of her black colleagues in City Council, wasn't ready for reform -- if it meant she couldn't share in the spoils lavished on loyalists of administrations past. For instance, she expected untethered control over city dollars coming into her ward. Instead, Movement-oriented community groups -- precisely the groups that had opposed Humes -- were handling money that traditionally would have gone through the alderman's office. Maybe if she'd had some ties there she'd have kept more authority. But she didn't.

Alderman Larry Bloom tells of a quarrel he had with Humes during a meeting of the then-21. The Washington administration's community development budget slated money for the South Shore Council of Commerce, in both Humes's and Bloom's wards. Humes opposed the grant because SSCC was headed by a possible candidate for her council seat. "She used the political consideration argument straight up," he said. "Her only point of contention with this group was that she didn't want money going to a group headed by a potential opponent, like it was her right as an incumbent who backed the mayor to make such determinations."

When the issue before the council was the recently passed ethics ordinance, she did her best to destroy it, before it was passed 49-0. "She's always tried to act like the sincerest reformer in the council, but it's been a long while since anyone's bought her act," one well-placed north-side activist said. "We all knew her act. Whenever she got up on her high horse, you always know she was up to something. If she was blasting the head of housing on some issue, you'd know she was trying to cut a deal on something else. Maybe they were trying to fire one of her people. Maybe they were funding a local group opposed to her."

In the Eighth Ward aldermanic race, Humes didn't even manage to force a first-time challenger into a runoff, even though there were five others in the race. A ten-year council veteran, she was able to muster only 23 percent of the vote.

(Certainly Humes wins the award for the least graceful loser of the election. While retiring aldermen like Marty Oberman were enjoying the hoopla and good-natured teasing of their final session, Humes was promising revenge. Count on her writing a book about her experiences as alderman, she said. She looked around the council, shot her colleagues a haughty look, and then promised all of them that they were sure to be mentioned. She was no less antagonistic at her first council meeting following her loss. I wasn't there, but one reporter said, "She stood up in opposition of everything. It was real obvious that she was really pissed off. She even argued over the date of the next meeting.")

Is the Humes race an example of bossism? In one sense, perhaps. Humes crossed the boss and it cost her her political future. Yet Washington did not endorse Humes's foe in the race, and he did not campaign against her. It wasn't the man up high who was the enforcer but his supporters. If it's bossism, it's a new kind, at least: grass roots bossism.

"We've been saying this for four years, but the press never seems to understand. The movement is bigger than Washington," the well-connected black activist said. "Politics is only one piece, and Harold Washington is simply our representative in that piece. He's the main guy out front. Everyone has a role to play and Harold's is to be the main man out front."

It wasn't, the activist continues, that Humes betrayed Washington, but that she was disloyal to the movement behind him. "We have a lot invested in this man -- our dreams and aspirations. When we see a violation of Washington, it's the same as a violation of the people's dreams and aspirations."

As Niles Sherman's aldermanic race shows, black Chicagoans are so protective of their man out front that they'll even buck his stated wishes to defend him. For a time, it wasn't clear whether the mayor would endorse Sherman or not. "What it came down to was the mayor's firmly felt commitment to the idea that someone's being an ally of yours counts for something," one top Washington operative said. "Well, not really an ally, but someone who works in the same vineyard -- at least a cousin. Someone who voted with you every single vote, whether he did it so he was able to show his face at church on Sunday, or so he'd feel safe on the street, or whether it was all because of a deeply felt love of the mayor. Whatever the reason, the mayor would have to have a real good cause to oppose you." (We'll get to Washington's rationale for not endorsing Humes shortly.)

Sherman lost anyway, by 14 votes. (Sherman claims he lost because of vote fraud on the part of election judges, forgetting, perhaps, that as the ward's Democratic committeeman, he was responsible for appointing at least half of them.) Many who count themselves, but not Sherman, as part of the Movement were pleased. "It shows these clowns that just because they support the mayor, that's not enough," said Richard Barnett, a longtime participant in west-side independent politics. "The mayor's coattails can't carry them in, not if they're not accountable to the people in their ward. The mayor has to support some of these folks -- they've supported his programs -- but the people don't."

Another person supposedly heartened by Sherman's loss was Washington himself. The top operative quoted above said that Washington was "pleasantly surprised and bemused" when told of Sherman's defeat. "It tells you that the black community doesn't miss much. . . . The mayor didn't have to come down on Niles like some old-time boss. The people took care of it."

Who can explain precisely why a candidate wins or loses? Aldermanic races, parochial and quirky affairs, are particularly hard to read. Pinpointing the single reason an alderman lost is no easy chore.

Some point to the Humes, Hutchinson, Sherman, and Davis losses as proof of the black electorate's sophistication: black Chicago will simply no longer tolerate the kinds of leaders their community had in years past. The defeat of the four also, they say, shows that black Chicago subscribes to high-minded, good-government ideals.

There's certainly something to both these arguments. Yet there are extenuating circumstances in each of the ward races that make it hard to draw clear conclusions. There were accusations, for example, that Niles Sherman's ward operation was deficient in tending to potholes, abandoned buildings, and the like. And three of the four suffered at least to some degree from Operation Incubator (alias Molescam). Davis was under indictment (as was Cliff Kelley, who rounds out the list of black incumbents who lost) and Hutchinson and Humes were tainted by media accounts tying their names to the investigation.

While the expectation was that the feds' City Hall sting operation would hurt Washington and the movement behind him, in the end it helped purge the black caucus of aldermen out of sync with the community's politics. (That Michael Raymond -- the mole -- approached the likes of Wallace Davis and, supposedly, Perry Hutchinson, to buy influence is ironic. They're black, the thinking do doubt went, so they have influence. Yet Davis and Hutchinson wield no more power in this administration than Richard Mell. But what do you expect from an operation masterminded by a group of white Republican men?) "It worked out perfect from the mayor's standpoint," a top aide said. "He had a ready-made excuse for not endorsing a Humes or Hutchinson."

Perfect, perhaps. But Molescam contributed to the bizarreness of the political season by leading the Movement into a couple of mighty strange alliances.

The problem was deciding who to side with in the runoff between Perry Hutchinson and Robert Shaw. "A choice between two snakes," is the way Richard Barnett summed up the options. Each had served one term as the Ninth Ward's alderman -- Shaw from 1979 to 1983, Hutchinson from 1983 to 1987. On the one hand, not many in the black empowerment movement would be sorry to see Hutchinson go. "Isolated" is a word several black aldermen used to describe their colleague. "Perry is the only one of us [black aldermen] who I could ever imagine really jumping over to Vrdolyak," one said. Hutchinson, alone among the council's black caucus, was not likely to be seen at PUSH of a Saturday morning.

Yet Alderman Shaw was no crusader, either. A year ago, I was speaking with black activist Lu Palmer about the makeup of the City Council's black caucus and how it compared to the one serving under Byrne's tenure. Palmer saw a marked improvement; the black community had cleansed itself, he said, of "the most antiblack black aldermen" -- black aldermen who would vote with the Machine even when its agenda was insulting to blacks. The first example that popped into his Mind was Robert Shaw.

Shaw stuck by Byrne despite a series of abuses she inflicted on the black community. For instance, in the spring of 1981, Byrne proposed replacing two blacks on the school board with two white women long associated with the fight against school desegregation. At the time, the school system was 61 percent black; the addition of two whites would lower black representation on the board from 45 percent to 27 percent. Shaw was one of five black aldermen joining their white colleagues in approving the two nominees. (None of the five were reelected in 1983.) He was one of the few black politicians to endorse Byrne in the 1983 primary. In its 1983 endorsement of Hutchinson, the Sun-Times editorial board wrote, "Shaw has distinguished himself mainly by his self-serving appeal to the office and unflagging allegiance to Mayor Byrne, all to the detriment of his constituents."

In, 1979 Mike Royko wrote a column pointing out how well qualified Shaw was to be a Chicago alderman. "There was the lady who said that Shaw, while holding a flunky job in City Hall, offered to place her on the city payroll -- if she would join him between the sheets," Royko wrote.

"There also was the allegation by his aldermanic opponent that Shaw once hustled a saloonkeeper for a $1,500 bribe.

"And there was his very effective campaign tactic of distributing anti-black campaign literature, bearing his white opponent's name, in black neighborhoods."

In 1980 Royko wrote another column about Shaw, after Shaw was picked up for going through a red light. The way one of the cops told it to Royko, Shaw threw a tantrum. "Shaw got all huffy and puffy," the cop said. "He starts saying to everybody: 'Maybe you don't like working in this district. Maybe you'd like to get transferred to another district.'" (Shaw denied making any threats.)

Royko's then-colleague Roger Simon. had his fun at Shaw's expense. Here's a snippet from a Simon conversation with Shaw: "Are you still denying that your wife works for the city?

"'Yes.'

"Even though her boss admits that she is?

"'Yes.'"

Shaw's justification for getting his wife and son hired by the city? "My obligation is to take care of family and my children and my wife," he said. "And anybody else in the Ninth Ward.

"I would be derelict in my obligation to my family if I did otherwise. And -- you can print this -- if anybody doesn't like that, they can go to hell. Will you print that?"

Sure, Simon said.

"I want you to print the 'go to hell' part," Shaw said.

Later that year, Simon reported that Shaw never attended Lincoln University, let alone earned a BA in political science there, as he frequently claimed as a candidate. In 1986, an article in the Sun-Times ran under the headline "How Shaw Lied to Win Jobs." The subhead read, "Ex-Alderman Falsified His Credentials in Seeking State, CTA Posts." Among the examples cited: Shaw claimed on a job application to the CTA that he had been an executive in the state department of labor between 1975 and 1979. A state spokesman told the paper that no Robert Shaw had worked for the department -- and no one with his social security number had worked for the state -- during those years.

In 1981, Shaw sponsored a bill that abolished merit testing for new city employees, except in the police and fire departments. The Sun-Times denounced Shaw's "despicable" proposal, arguing that if it passed, the only test of a job candidate would be "whether the applicant can produce a letter from an alderman or ward committeeman."

And this year? Candidate Shaw was rather contrite about his past misdeeds, including supporting Byrne and failing to endorse Washington in the 1983 Democratic primary. He crisscrossed the ward assuring his old constituents that if he were elected, he wouldn't make a move without first clearing it with the mayor. "You know, for all of Shaw's shit over the years," one black activist said, "the one thing you can't say is that he'll be disloyal. Not the way he stuck by Byrne."

So who to endorse? Washington declined to get involved, and many of the local Movement people wanted to wash their hands of the whole affair. But a surprising number of them were busy working for Hutchinson. The consensus among the Saturday PUSH crowd was that the election of Shaw would be a step backward, not forward. There was, from their point of view, more hope in a Hutchinson victory. Their thinking went like this: If he won and was never indicted by the feds, or if he was indicted but found innocent, then he would stay in the council, and if he was no better than Shaw, at least he'd be no worse. If he was convicted, the mayor would then name his replacement, which would certainly lead to an alderman far more progressive and community minded than either Shaw or Hutchinson.

The race between Wallace Davis and Sheneather Butler presented a similar choice. Again Washington endorsed no one, but many in the movement's west-side brigade backed Davis. That seems absurd: Davis has serious legal troubles (in addition to the Molescam indictment, he has been charged with pistol-whipping his secretary, allegedly after learning that she had given evidence against him), and he's never been quite at home within the mayor's coalition. Here too it was the possibility that Davis might end up convicted that drew many Movement supporters. "It was a great chance to get rid of Davis and at the same time get someone interested in community empowerment, coalition politics," one alderman commented. "We were able to put together an organization that got across the message that it's not Wallace Davis that's the issue here, it's the seat. It was Butler's politics against someone of Washington's choosing, [if] Wallace went to jail."

It is understood that the real power behind Butler is her father, the Reverend Jesse Butler. Before becoming alderman, Sheneather, 26, was a library assistant. The senior Butler, an aide to Cook County Sheriff James O'Grady, served as her campaign manager, and several times he was quoted speaking on her behalf. Jesse Butler was one of those black preachers who supported the Machine in return for food baskets and the like for parishioners. He was tied to the 27th Ward Regular Democratic Organization, headed by Ed Quigley, which was infamous as the worst of the west-side "plantations" -- predominantly black wards ruled by white politicians. In independent circles, Quigley went by the moniker Quig the Pig.

The 27th was also notorious for its rough tactics. Jesse Butler was arrested and charged with electioneering during the April 7 election. Davis supporters accused him of bringing a gang of "hoodlums" to one precinct and roughing up a couple of people. Richard Barnett was one of those making that accusation. He was an election-day troubleshooter for the Washington campaign, and his area included a senior citizens' home on West Madison. "From what residents were telling me," Barnett said, "the Reverend Butler and his thugs took over the building the night before, threatening anyone wearing a Davis button or with a poster up." One Davis supporter joked that it was the first time a candidate sitting in the pokey had had an election stolen from him.

Another thing understood about the Butlers, at least among Washington campaigners, was that Jesse was the unacknowledged head of Jane Byrne's operations on the west side. He hosted a primary campaign appearance by Jane at his storefront United Life Church. During the days of speculation over the new City Council's reorganization plans; press accounts singled out Sheneather Butler as the only black alderman the antiadministration bloc was bothering to woo.

How Sheneather Butler and Robert Shaw managed to win is an interesting question. "These Machine leaders didn't exist without a Machine constituency," said the black activist quoted earlier. "Things have changed, but that Machine-oriented constituency still exists. In a race of 11 or 12 people, that's a soild bloc." Eleven candidates ran in each of the two wards. In the 27th, Butler had a congregation's worth of precinct workers and needed only 14 percent of the vote to make the runoff.

Even the harshest critics of plantation politics have great respect for the Machine's organizing abilities. (In the 50s and 60s, Shaw was part of the 24th Ward regular organization, another infamous west-side plantation.) "Both Shaw and his brother are two guys who know how to play," said Anthony Gibbs Jr., a Movement veteran and now a city official. "Both know how to get out the vote. Shaw's brother is a state rep, so the organization survived. . . . He also had great name recognition." There was also Shaw's pledge to Washington. "One thing about our community," our black activist sighed, "is that we're superfair. Sometimes too fair." Still, he says, "If there was anyone in that race but Hutchinson, there's no way Shaw wouldn't have gone down."

Perhaps Butler's win wasn't really much of a victory at all. Consider the controversy around the proposed Bears stadium. It is targeted for Butler's ward, yet not long ago Butler was complaining that west-side community leaders, with Nancy Jefferson at the helm, were excluding her from their negotiations with developers. "They're looking over me like I'm just a resident," Butler was quoted as saying. "They seem to think Nancy Jefferson is the alderman."

In a sense, Butler is right; Jefferson does get the respect you'd expect an alderman to get, while Butler seems to have the status of an average resident. It's still the Movement that dominates local politics, and it's from these ranks, and from the ranks of their counterparts in the white and Latino communities, that Washington has put together a government. Jefferson, whose connection to the Movement dates way back, was no doubt disheartened by Butler's victory -- she worked on Davis's behalf -- but there are ways around such annoyances when you're on the winning side. No quirky election in the 27th Ward is going to change that. If Butler learns that lesson quickly enough, she might even be reelected in 1991.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Kurt Mitchell.

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