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Democracy Chicago-Style 

Iraqis visit a place where there is never a regime change.

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By the time City Hall tour coordinator August Sallas got the six Iraqi law professors--five Arabs from Baghdad and Basra and a Kurd from Sulaimaniyah--to the empty City Council chambers and settled them into the seats of Ed Burke, William Beavers, and other aldermen, they were worn out. They were slumping, squirming, and leaning forward with their heads on their hands, trying to digest Sallas's civics lesson. For two weeks this month, as part of a DePaul law school program paid for by the United States Agency for International Development, the Iraqis had been traipsing in and out of the Club Quarters hotel on Adams with a translator to visit law offices, courtrooms, police labs, the American Bar Association, and the state's attorney's office, observing how we practice law here so that they could go back and figure out how to teach law in the new Iraq.

Sallas had already taken them to a Board of Elections office to see what a ward map and a poll sheet looked like. And he'd shown them pictures of all the women who had ever been elected to the City Council--from Anna Langford to Emma Mitts--and told them that since 1837 there have been 45 mayors, including one woman. One professor asked what year the woman was elected and if it was before or after Harold Washington.

Sallas also had them study a bulletin board that listed the times of all the City Council committee meetings. One of the Iraqis wanted to know whether any citizen could come to a committee meeting and express opinions.

"Ohhh, yes," said Sallas.

As the Iraqis fidgeted, Sallas pointed out various notable spots around the City Council chambers--Bernard Stone's seat, the public seating area, the spot where the police and firemen sit when they're going to get awards for valor, the railing where the TV cameras set up, and the chairs where the newspaper reporters take notes.

"They're always looking for stories to write about," said Sallas. "And everything is open to the public. There are no secrets in politics. It's live."

Then Sallas explained that when the City Council meeting is called to order, everyone says the pledge of allegiance. "And then a rabbi, a priest, or a minister is invited to give an invocation. They alternate--like the Baptists, the Pentecostals, the Methodists, priests from the Catholic faith, rabbis from the Jewish faith . . ."

A din broke out. The Iraqis were asking all at once, "Any Muslims?"

Sallas said no, he didn't think so.

"Why are there no Muslims?"

Sallas said he didn't know.

Then the Iraqis, who were scowling, wanted to know how many members of the City Council were Muslims. Sallas said he didn't know, but that there were 19 African-Americans.

"The mayor is very sensitive to every ethnic community and minority group in Chicago," he said. "Puerto Ricans, Chinese, Greeks, Pakistanis, women, vets, senior citizens, gays. He really wants everyone's votes so he pays attention to every group. There are 24 different parades for all the groups. . . . We have a very diverse city."

Then he changed the subject to the city budget. It's about four and a half billion dollars, he said. "The city hires every trade you can think of--electricians, plumbers, carpenters, glaziers, doctors, nurses, computer programmers, technicians, lawyers--300 lawyers."

When he told them that Streets and San picks up the garbage every week, the Iraqis were impressed--and asked Sallas to repeat it twice to make sure they didn't misunderstand. "Weekly? Weekly?"

"And we have a lot of snow. Do you have snow?" asked Sallas. The Iraqis said no, and Sallas said, "We have a big problem with snow--people have to be able to get to work and do business."

The Iraqis interrupted, wanting to know whether there was a Communist Party. Sallas said he wasn't sure if we had one anymore. "But we have LaRouchies and the Ross Perots," he said.

The Iraqis then asked if it was required that U.S. presidents have a British background. Sallas explained that only the earliest ones were Brits because that's where they came from, but that today it is in fact against the rules for a president to be foreign-born: "Like Henry Kissinger--he can't run."

Each of the Iraqis then took turns sitting in Mayor Daley's chair, and they pulled out digital cameras and snapped pictures of one another pretending to be the head of Chicago.

Then they went up to the fifth floor for a visit to the mayor's office. But the cop who guards the office said the mayor was unavailable, and that even his press conference area was off-limits for the tour. They could, however, stay in the outer office and look at pictures of all the previous mayors.

"There's Big Bill Thompson--he was our worst mayor," said Sallas. "And there's Cermak. He was assassinated." The Iraqis looked confused.

"Like John Kennedy," explained Sallas.

The Iraqis said, "Ahhh," and shook their heads. "How many presidents were assassinated?" one wanted to know.

As the group left the mayor's office, one of the Iraqis obsequiously said "thank you" to the cop. The cop averted his eyes and said tersely, "You're welcome."

As they walked to the elevator Sallas told them about the Freedom of Information Act and the Open Meetings Act, and then he introduced them to attorney Frank Avila Jr., the son of a commissioner for the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District, who was waiting for the elevator. "I'm a first lieutenant in the army reserves," Avila told them. "I want to go to Iraq."

The Iraqis smiled and walked over to a statue of George Washington. One by one, they put their hand over Washington's hand while their countrymen snapped their pictures.

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