Time for a Revolution | Politics | Chicago Reader

Time for a Revolution 

No way is Mayor Daley going down without a fight. But perhaps you've noticed: he rarely ever gets one.

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If someone as sharp and charismatic as Junior had launched a full campaign, crisscrossing the city to hammer away at waste and backroom deal making, it could have forced the mayor to adjust the way he does business at least a little. Perhaps more significant, it could have made the simple but profound statement that such a campaign was possible: that someone could take on Mayor Daley, scrutinize his record, draw him into an open debate about the issues, enliven the electorate, and establish a modest tradition of competitive democracy in Chicago.

Instead Junior as good as told everyone that he didn't think Chicago was ready for a modern, issue-based campaign against Daley, and within a year he'd undertaken a ruinous behind-the-scenes effort to get himself picked to replace Barack Obama in the U.S. Senate. Jackson ended up with a damaged reputation and a new nickname, "Senate Candidate Five," after federal court filings revealed that he'd discussed the seat with Rod Blagojevich while the governor was allegedly trying to sell it to the highest bidder. Jackson hasn't been accused of any wrongdoing, but he's too politically damaged to run for anything besides his current job.

The mayor emerged from his 2007 triumph cockier and more insulated than ever. He pushed budgets through the City Council that raised fees and fines while cutting services. He mobilized business leaders and city resources around his obsessive quest for the 2016 Olympics, made plans to privatize Midway Airport, handed off the meter system with no serious deliberation or public input, and let aldermen know they might not get much-needed investments in their wards if they didn't play along.

But lately, unlike in years past, Daley has been unable to persuade the public that the City That Works is working. Strapped for cash, the CTA has reduced its already unsteady bus and train service. The Park District keeps hiking fees as its facilities decline.. The school district is facing a billion-dollar budget gap. The city, unable to keep pace with its infrastructure demands, is reportedly hearing proposals to turn over more city assets—including the water system—to private companies.

Even Daley's been forced to acknowledge that there are problems—but he's blamed them all on the devastated economy. "Cutbacks, layoffs, you know it's going to get worse every year," he said in 2008, at the first signs of a downturn. "So we're in the same dilemma. It's not going to go away. It's going to get worse and worse."

Yet how the city has reacted to the recession is a mess of Daley's own making. As those people in the next booth suggested, nothing is more revealing than the parking meter deal.

It was presented to the public as an answer to some of the city's budget woes—deficits of half a billion dollars a year in 2009 and 2010. By taking the $1.2 billion up front, Daley aides said, the city would be able to cover some short-term expenses while socking away hundreds of millions of dollars to help stabilize finances for decades to come. But the deal wasn't carried out with the public in mind. It was conceived and executed behind closed doors by city officials and connected lawyers and financial advisers who worked to figure out what they could get for the meter system rather than what they should get. They acted with the mayor's blessing and consent.

In the end the city got its $1.2 billion cash injection, but evidence suggests we should have reaped at least twice as much. A private company now makes more than a million bucks a week on the parking system and requires the city to compensate it every time meter locations, hours, or rates are changed—even for public festivals or road construction.

Worst of all, the Daley administration will have spent most of the money, including the "rainy day fund," by the end of next year. For the subsequent seven decades the city will be robbed of millions of dollars a year in interest that should have been available to fund public safety, infrastructure, or social services.

Last August the mayor and his top aides made their annual show of accountability by sitting through three public hearings on the budget in which citizens were free to address them. I attended the one in South Shore. It was remarkable: the mayor and his team remained impassive as a parade of people stepped to the mike to complain about crumbling streets, high crime, failing schools, shuttered public health clinics, nonexistent recycling services, and high taxes.

"I've come before you three years," one woman said. "There's nothing I can say to you, mayor, or nothing I can do to you, mayor, that would compare to what God has in store for you if you don't choose to honor this village's request and do right by these Chicago citizens . . . I ain't too proud to beg, but I am too black to keep coming here and kissing your behind."

Daley didn't respond. In fact, he looked bored. Minutes later, while another citizen was speaking, he got up to stretch his legs in a side room.

Politicians, activists, and other observers say voters have grown angrier in the months since. "The mood of the people, the neighborhood people, the people out of work, the people who don't feel government is representing them, they're hot, they're agitated, and it doesn't have anything to do with the economy," says 38th Ward alderman Tom Allen, who's recently been critical of Daley's management of the budget. "It has to do with respect and people feeling they're being ignored."

Race may not play into the next mayoral election the same way it has in the past: Allen represents a predominantly white ward in the northwest-side bungalow belt, an area that's always backed Daley—to the tune of 86 percent in 2007. South Shore, where the mayor's behind was brought into the conversation, is much different, a predominantly black, once-prosperous community that—like many on the south and west sides—has been slammed by disinvestment and crime. Daley has also fared well in these neighborhoods in the last few elections. But right now "there are a lot of people in the African-American community looking for a candidate," says Cliff Kelley, a former alderman who hosts a popular call-in talk show on WVON radio (1690 AM). "Folks want this guy out, and they don't care what the next guy looks like."

There's also been a burst of independent activism in some Latino parts of the city. In February Jesus "Chuy" Garcia defeated incumbent Joseph Mario Moreno in one of the Democratic primaries for Cook County commissioner. While Moreno is allied with Democratic "regulars"—those who make up what used to be called the machine—Garcia would be making his first return to office since the HDO knocked him out of the state senate in 1998. Already some of his supporters are pushing him forward as a leader of a progressive resurgence.

So voters of all stripes might be ready for a choice other than Daley next February. But the path to a first-rate challenge is littered with obstacles.

The first is money. Anyone who wants to be taken seriously will need to be able to afford a sustained ad campaign, primarily on television. Analysts tell me this would require at least a couple million bucks. "I wouldn't want to go into it with less than four or five million," says one local pol—who, like many others I spoke to for this piece, didn't want to be identified because he feared retribution by the mayor.

But where's the money going to come from? Maybe a wealthy independent candidate like New York's Michael Bloomberg could pull it off. But area business leaders have been big supporters of Daley through the years and are unlikely to endanger that relationship as long as there's a chance he's running—and the mayor will probably delay any announcement for months. Who would want to risk future business prospects by taking on Daley—or even backing someone else taking on Daley?

What about progressive unions, which ponied up millions of dollars for favored aldermanic candidates in 2007? "I don't see anybody out there who can do it," says Jerry Morrison, executive director of the Service Employees International Union's Illinois state council. "So I have no reason to believe there's going to be a mayoral race, and the unions aren't going to support anyone who's not a serious candidate."

Any formidable challenger will also need to build a first-rate political organization. With the decline of patronage there are few existing organizations with reach beyond a single ward—I can't think of more than a couple—and they've always been aligned with Daley. The mayor doesn't have the troops he once did, but he's still got the funds to hire people. Anyone running citywide will have to spend the money and time to recruit and coordinate volunteers, craft and spread a message, and gather the 12,500 valid signatures needed to get on the ballot. The clock is already ticking. "The more time passes, the more likely it is that we know the result of the election next year," says another local elected official who didn't want to be named.

Adds a local political consultant: "What thousand people do you need to call? You want to be out there. You want to be ready to hit summer festivals, food tents. You want to sit down with people and say, 'Do you live in the city? Tell me what's wrong.' You need to hit block clubs and community meetings. You start with where your base is demographically and geographically and then start extending from there. Talk about issues particular to your part of town and then move outward to the rest of the city. It's like spreading asphalt—eventually you want to cover the whole driveway."

And that's just the offense. Challengers need to build name recognition as broadly and as soon as possible, but they also have to think about how to do it without being undercut, backstabbed, or crushed before the contest is even under way. "Whoever does run has to be braced for the fact that they're going to be fucked with," an alderman told me.

"You have to be willing to see your political career go down in a blaze of glory," said another.

And hey, don't all jump in at once—seriously. Analysts say the mayor can only be beat if he's faced with one or two serious challengers—any more will dilute the anti-Daley vote. That's what happened when three challengers came up short against a weakened Old Man Daley in 1975. "The challenge is to keep other people out of it," says the political consultant. "Make him fear the one-on-one fight. Identify the stalking horses."

Last but not least, anyone who runs has to come in with a record of accomplishment and a sincere desire to run the city, neither of which is a small thing. "As much as people have been critical of Mayor Daley, myself included at times, it's a hell of a job," says state senator Kwame Raoul, a pragmatic progressive who emphatically adds that he's not interested. "It's a real headache. There are times, like now, when there's nothing you can do right."

Some pols and operatives don't believe anyone can give Daley a real challenge. "Is the anger out there? Sure, but I've seen it before, and on Election Day people say, 'Well, OK, fine,'" says an elected official who's considered his own mayoral prospects. "People have to actually see you as someone who can do a better job—and then they have to take a chance on you. There's no one in Chicago who's done what's necessary to get into that position."

"But we've got to have somebody run," says Second Ward alderman Bob Fioretti. He worries that if voters and elected officials don't start contemplating life after Daley, the city will descend into chaos when he's gone—whether he leaves of his own accord or not. "At some point this comes to an end, whether it's through death or otherwise," Fioretti says. "And I know the fear out there about what happens then."   v

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