Playing Both Sides | Essay | Chicago Reader

Playing Both Sides 

If you're a black alderman, who do you back for mayor?

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The last time a strong independent mayoral movement emerged from the black community, five black aldermen were swept out of office for making the mistake of backing the incumbent.

That was in 1983, when Harold Washington ignited a political crusade that drove Mayor Jane Byrne from office and transformed the allegiances of black members of the City Council.

Apparently that history lesson hasn't been forgotten by several of the current black aldermen--it might explain why 4th Ward alderman Toni Preckwinkle, 20th Ward alderman Arenda Troutman, and 28th Ward alderman Ed Smith felt compelled to lambaste the city for its recent patronage and affirmative action scandals at the November 15 City Council meeting, only to turn around and vote for the mayor's proposed budget for 2007.

"They're feeling the heat," says William "Dock" Walls, a former Washington aide who's challenging Daley in the mayoral race. "They know my message is getting out."

According to Walls, black aldermen realize disenchantment with the mayor is growing in the west- and south-side wards. In 2003 Daley won about 60 percent of the vote there. But he was up against no-name challengers who lacked money and organization. This time around he's got two potentially more formidable opponents: Walls, who can call on his association with Washington, and Cook County clerk of courts Dorothy Brown, who's used the black churches to build independent support for her campaign.

Whether Walls or Brown can actually succeed is the big question in local black politics. Aldermen don't want to be caught on the wrong side of a reform movement, but they don't know how strong one might be--or whether there'll be one at all. Thus the bind: if they oppose Daley, they'll have to deal with a vindictive mayor who doesn't take criticism lightly, but if they sit back quietly they might catch hell with the voters. So they walk a fine line, which itself could get them into trouble.

"You can't play it two ways," says Walls. "You have to take a stand."

Last week Smith speechified at a council meeting about corruption in the administration, and Daley counterattacked, sarcastically promising to send the inspector general into Smith's ward the next day so he could lodge a complaint. Afterward Smith was quick to insist that his criticism was never directed at Daley personally. "In no way did I mean to demean the mayor," he told me. "I said up front in my speech that the mayor's done a good job. I really like the mayor. I think he really cares about the city, and he works hard. If I have a problem with Mayor Daley, nobody will know but the mayor and me."

Smith and other black aldermen face a dilemma white aldermen don't have, since there's no sign that either Walls or Brown is catching on with white voters. In the 2003 election Daley and the incumbent black aldermen endorsed each other. This time around, both sides are more wary. Smith, for instance, says he doesn't yet know whom he'll support: "I don't know who all the candidates are," he says. "The mayor hasn't even said that he's running."

Most City Hall insiders divide the black aldermen into two camps. There are the loyalists--like 16th Ward alderman Shirley Coleman and 29th Ward alderman Isaac Carothers. And then there are the more independent-minded types, like Preckwinkle and Smith, whose roots go back to Washington. They're the ones facing the heat. As the campaign unfolds look for them to continue to denounce the city without naming the mayor, just as they criticized his government while voting for his budget.

The LaSalle Central TIF: In Like Flynn

When Mayor Daley proposed the LaSalle Central tax increment financing district in June, I predicted it would sail through the confirmation process from start to finish without one member of an oversight committee asking a single question.

I was wrong.

At the penultimate hurdle, the November 14 meeting of the finance committee, 44th Ward alderman Tom Tunney spoke up. Reading from a list put together by Cook County Board commissioner Mike Quigley, with whom he shares his Belmont Avenue ward office, Tunney asked several pertinent questions regarding the impact TIFs have on taxes and school funding.

TIFs don't take money from schools, aldermen Bernard Stone and Ed Burke responded. Then they launched into one of those jargon-filled explanations TIF boosters use when they want to confuse the hell out of everybody. Tunney nodded, apparently satisfied, and the debate ended.

A TIF freezes the amount of property tax dollars the schools, parks, county, etc, can draw out of a TIF district for 23 years and channels the remainder into a discretionary development fund. If the schools are getting $100 the day a TIF passes, that's all they'll get for the next 23 years; meanwhile inflation and other factors will cause their costs to rise. So where does the extra money for the schools come from? Higher taxes, of course. Does a TIF cost the schools money? Absolutely. TIFs absorb money that could otherwise be spent on teachers and classrooms and after-school programs and that indoor running track the school board's been promising to build for about the last 50 years.

As soon as Tunney was finished, Alderman Burt Natarus called for a quick vote. First, Burke cautioned, there were people signed up to speak. Natarus sighed, slumped in his chair, and looked bored as four separate witnesses pleaded that the council at least study the impact of the other 140-plus TIFs (two new ones were proposed that very day) before adopting a new one. The instant the last speaker finished Natarus again called for a vote. The finance committee unanimously approved the TIF, and the next day the full City Council adopted it without debate, just before approving the budget. So now the TIF program, intended to eradicate blight in low-income neighborhoods starving for investment, will be applied to one of the city's hottest real estate markets.

One last point of interest about the LaSalle Central TIF. The finance committee didn't have a quorum when they adopted it. There were only five members on the floor, one of whom appeared to be sleeping.

One of my fellow TIF geeks spotted the significance right away. He got a copy of the City Council rules, and sure enough there it was: "a quorum of the Committee on Finance...shall be fifteen (15) members." Robert's Rules of Order, which governs council proceedings, says that "in the absence of a quorum, any business transacted...is null and void."

We all got excited until someone called a lawyer, who said the issue would be moot once the full council approved the TIF.

In the end it's only appropriate that the council broke its own rules when passing the LaSalle Central TIF. When it comes to TIFs the only rule is that every rule is meant to be broken. Enjoy your taxes.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Alderman Ed Smith photo/Jon Randolph.

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