What's This Election About? | Feature | Chicago Reader

What's This Election About? 

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Judging by the blasts of hot air whooshing around in the final days of this campaign season, the Cubs can expect a warm day for their home opener on Tuesday, April 4. That, coincidentally, is election day, and as it approaches the city seems to be getting hotter and windier.

This week, for example, you can be comfortable in shirtsleeves no matter what the temperature is; all you need to do is cozy up to the nearest TV screen, where Rich Daley's latest $175,000 media buy will warm you with tales of how Tim Evans proposes (according to Daley) to spend enough on AIDS assistance to buy Wrigley Field, Comiskey Park, and all the players on the Cubs and Sox combined.

Alternately, you might fan yourself with balmy airs from almost any day's copy of the Tribune, whose editorial endorsement of Daley contends that this election is about which candidate is the better manager. The Cubs' corporate owners apparently believe that in government, like baseball, all managers have the same objective. It doesn't seem to have occurred to them to ask for whose benefit or for what purposes City Hall is to be managed.

Those questions are, of course, what this election is really about. What will be the direction and priorities of city government for at least the next two years?

While political crystal balls are even less reliable than those hurled by the average Cub relief pitcher, there does appear to be a pattern in the Daley and Evans campaigns that portends a real difference between the two, and thus posits a fundamental question for voters to decide on Tuesday. Simply put: Will the box-seat season ticket holders regain the upper hand at City Hall? Or will those who can barely afford bleacher seats--whose interests rarely predominate even in the best of administrations--continue to get at least a fair shake?

But before adressing in detail the question of what the election is really about, I'd like to consider two issues that it's definitely not about, despite what you may have heard: fiscal restraint and managerial ability.

Fiscal restraint. For the last two weeks of the campaign, Daley's media adviser, David Axelrod, has let loose on Tim Evans with a tried-and-true pitch--accusing the opponent of being a Big Spender. Axelrod well knows the standard script for this one. He always works with Democrats, and Democrats almost always see this pitch thrown at them by Republican opponents.

Thus on March 23, Axelrod announced that Daley would now concentrate on the theme of overpromising by Evans. The next day Daley began running ads that, according to the Tribune, "portray city government as a vacuum cleaner sucking up tax dollars. The ads also attack Evans's proposals as too costly."

Very effective for the purpose of terrorizing taxpayers. But not very effective for boosting Daley's campaign credibility. Calling Evans a Big Spender doesn't make him one.

In fact, both Evans's record and his campaign platform support his claim to being a "fiscal conservative." He served as chairman of the City Council Finance Committee under Harold Washington--whose sound fiscal management persuaded the Wall Street rating agencies to boost the city's credit ratings. As a key member of Washington's financial team, Evans met with the high priests of bond ratings--Moody's and Standard & Poor's. He knows how they size up Chicago, and how important their good opinion is to the city's cost of borrowing. As even the Sun-Times's foremost Daley booster--political editor Steve Neal--acknowledged in a column last fall, Evans has more experience in municipal finance than any mayor in a decade.

Evans not only shepherded Washington's balanced budgets through the City Council, he also cut his own Finance Committee staff and budget. When he took over as committee chairman in 1987, he reduced the committee's number of employees from 67 to 43, while trimming its budget by one-third. In 1988 he cut the committee budget by an additional $132,000.

Evans's platform in this campaign is one of fiscal conservatism. In a speech given February 20--well before Daley launched his "overpromising" theme--Evans set forth his position on fiscal policy. Noting that Chicago faces a "revenue gap"--costs are rising faster than revenues by roughly $50 million a year--he nonetheless stated, "I do not [his emphasis] want to raise taxes."

If elected, he pledged to establish a Revenue Commission to recommend long-term steady sources of revenue for the city, and strategies for increasing the city's take from state and federal revenues. Under an ordinance he introduced in City Council last year, this commission would have equal representation from business, government, and nonprofit community groups.

To hold down costs, Evans promised to beef up the Productivity Assessment Unit within the Budget Department, and "to experiment with joint management-worker teams to improve productivity and redesign various work processes."

Daley's TV ads, of course, mention none of this. Instead, Daley depicts Evans as an overpromiser bent on busting the city's budget.

Perhaps the best example of this is Daley's characterization of Evans's position on AIDS funding. As quoted in the Tribune, Daley argued, "In one of his health programs [Evans] promises to provide food, shelter and medical care to those living with AIDS. There are 30,000 persons with AIDS. If it's only $20,000 per person, we're talking about $600 million."

Daley would thus have Evans promising to spend $600 million--about one-fifth of the city's entire budget--to care for AIDS patients. If you believe that, I have a nice stretch of the Chicago River I'd like to sell you.

To begin with, Daley's arithmetic requires a little clarification. Roughly 2,000 Chicagoans--not 30,000--had been diagnosed as having AIDS through the end of 1988. Roughly half of those have already died, and will not need further services.

The Centers for Disease Control do estimate that in the next five years 25,000-30,000 Chicagoans will have developed AIDS or AIDS-related illnesses. Assuming that this projection is the number Daley had in mind, the more basic flaw in his arithmetic is that Evans has not promised to spend $20,000 of city money per AIDS victim or anywhere near that.

In fact, Evans has not promised any particular level of either city funding or services for persons with AIDS. He has promised to develop a comprehensive, long-term plan for combating AIDS by August 1989. He also promises a new health commissioner to replace Dr. Lonnie Edwards, and a qualified person to direct and coordinate the city's AIDS efforts.

Daley's assumption of $20,000 per person rests entirely on Evans's further statement that his administration will "provide food, shelter and medical care to those living with AIDS."

Evans's deputy director for research, Elwyn Ewald, explains that these services are already being provided, within existing city, state, and federally funded programs, to many persons with AIDS--primarily in the gay community. Evans intends both to coordinate planning so that delivery of such services will be more effective, and to ensure that they also reach the growing number of AIDS victims in the city's African American and Latino populations.

Funding would come in part from ensuring that the city effectively utilizes state and federal programs. From 1983 through 1987, for example, the Department of Health returned, unused, some $69,000 in state and $92,000 in federal AIDS funds. In addition, it did not even apply for hundreds of thousands of dollars in available federal assistance.

Funding would also come from expected expansion in federal programs. AIDS cases are increasing not only locally but nationally; federal funding has been growing and is likely, of necessity, to continue growing.

At some point, of course, additional city funds will be needed. In 1988 the city contributed $748,000 to the AIDS office. However, Evans's commitment on AIDS does not negate his commitment to fiscal prudence. Ewald says that additional funds would have to be reallocated from other city programs, unless new revenue sources can be found--under a mayor who does not want to raise city taxes.

Balancing service needs with fiscal restraint will not be easy for Evans, or any mayor. One can only hope that if Daley is elected, his fiscal management will be more responsible than his charges against Evans.

Managerial skill. Whatever this election may be about, it is not about which candidate is the better administrator. Neither Daley nor Evans can credibly claim a record as a top-notch manager. Regardless of which man is elected, managerial efficiency at City Hall will likely turn more on the skills of the chief of staff, the budget director, and other senior executive appointments than on those of the mayor himself. Under either man, that reality is likely to be a saving grace: Daley, to his credit, relied heavily on his professional prosecutors at the state's attorney's office, and Evans has shown good judgment by recruiting Mayor Washington's former chief of staff, Ernest Barefield, as his campaign manager.

Even if managerial acumen were to be regarded as an important issue, it is hard to fathom how one could assign high marks in this category to either candidate.

Most of Evans's experience has been as a legislator, not as a manager. As head of Mayor Washington's political office from 1985 to 1987, he did have considerable responsibility for managing and coordinating electoral campaigns, but not even his friends praise his administrative performance in that post. Often he was late to meetings, he failed to return phone calls, and he was too frequently neglectful of details.

Daley has had eight years of experience as state's attorney, heading a staff of more than 1,000 attorneys and support personnel. His principal administrative distinction, however, was to leave much of the running of the office to the professionals in it. On the toughest managerial challenge he personally faced--anticipating, preventing, and ameliorating the problem of overcrowding at Cook County jail--he was a flop.

In recent months several front-page newspaper stories have chronicled the overcrowding crisis at Cook County Jail--hundreds of inmates sleeping on the floor, in violation of court orders, even after thousands have been released to the streets despite having been denied bail by judges.

Invariably these stories have mentioned County Board President George Dunne and Sheriff James Dvorak. They are indeed the officials with principal responsibility for jail overcrowding.

But they are not the only ones. A considerable share of both the causes and the potential cures for jail overcrowding falls under Daley's purview. Yet the news coverage rarely mentions Daley in this connection.

For example, the increase in the number of detainees at the county jail stems largely from Daley's refusal (until recently) to subject drug cases to the same felony-review procedures used for other crimes. Careful review at the time of arrest could screen out the large numbers of "bad" charges currently being dismissed by the courts--and could do so before the persons accused on such charges add to overcrowding at the county jail. Thus Daley's well-cultivated image as a prosecutor who's "tough on drugs" comes at the cost of a severely strained county penal system.

The jail would remain overcrowded even with only "good" cases. However, Daley has also failed until recently to pay adequate attention to a number of ways to reduce the length of time that persons properly charged remain in jail--such as speedy processing of prosecutions, diversion of some prisoners to nonpenal alternatives, and more efficient use of available courtrooms. As the John Howard Association, the court-appointed monitor of jail conditions, pointed out in a report provided to Daley six years ago, a comprehensive plan incorporating such measures has long been needed to cope with overcrowding. Yet Daley has never responded to the recommendation for such a plan.

In short, as the official in charge of managing the prosecution of persons charged with crimes, Daley bears significant responsibility for the overcrowding crisis at Cook County jail. Until the Tribune stops ignoring this fact, its endorsement of Daley's supposed managerial ability will be hard to take seriously.

The Real Stakes. Daley and Evans differ on a number of specific issues. Daley refuses to commit to a state tax increase for schools; Evans does. Daley proposes a deputy mayor for education; Evans opposes the idea. The list goes on and on. Unless you're a single-issue voter, merely reviewing their specific differences is more apt to confuse than to help in choosing between them.

The real question is whether there are likely to be systematic differences in approach between the two. Though it's risky to predict from campaign promises how they would actually conduct themselves in office--witness Jane Byrne, who campaigned as a reformer but governed as anything but--it nonetheless appears that Chicago can expect to move in decidedly different directions depending on which of these two candidates is elected.

From their records, their positions on issues, and their constituencies, at least one striking pattern emerges. In my view it is not primarily, as one might expect, a matter of race. While blacks on the whole can expect to do better under Evans, an even more important difference may have to do with one's economic standing.

Elsewhere in these pages David Moberg discusses Daley's so-called "new machine." Whatever weight one attaches to that hypothesis, the clear reality is that people of substantial means--particularly real estate developers--overwhelmingly favor Daley.

On the other side of that coin, much of Tim Evans's support comes from the poorest areas in the city. The lowest-income census tracts show up, for example, not only in Evans's own ward but also in the wards of such staunch Evans supporters as Second Ward Alderman Bobby Rush and Third Ward Alderman Dorothy Tillman.

If either mayoral candidate is to be responsive to the constituencies that elected him--and when push comes to shove most candidates usually are--Daley can be expected to be more responsive to moneyed interests, and Evans to the interests of those not so affluent.

Not that this electoral choice can be reduced to the rich man's candidate versus the poor man's candidate. The issues facing the city are too complex, and any mayor has to keep an eye on broad public consensus, which often cuts across class lines. Moreover, Daley and Evans are both strong-willed men and experienced politicians; neither will be a puppet for the people who put him in office.

But important differences are already reflected in many of the positions taken by the candidates. For example:

Schools: Evans strongly supports a state income tax increase for public schools--to which lower income families, of necessity, send their children. Daley, many of whose constituents can afford to send their children to parochial or private schools, has avoided such a commitment.

Housing: In December 1988 Evans supported a proposal in the City Council to allocate about $10 million in city funds to provide housing for the homeless and for other affordable-housing measures. Daley's Council allies opposed it. Even now, Daley's campaign proposals for housing assistance call for federal tax credits, more state funds, and funds from developers--but not city funds.

Affirmative action: Daley has adamantly resisted the use of numerical goals in affirmative action in city employment. Yet he has repeatedly vowed to stick by the city's 25-percent minority set-aside program for city contracts. Why are numerical standards so unacceptable in one context and not in another? One reason may be that employment goals would affect working-class blacks and whites--Daley has to account to the thousands of white city fire fighters and police-officers in his southwest-side support base--whereas the set-aside programs directly affect only business people. By supporting the contract set-asides, Daley helps himself with the kinds of black business interests that have already cozied up to his campaign. This may be a precursor of what we can expect under a Daley administration: a strategy of appealing to upper-income blacks, dividing them from the masses of African American voters.

Jobs: In their economic development platforms, Evans has placed greater stress on manufacturing and industry, while Daley has given more emphasis to the commercial and service sectors. The Clybourn Avenue corridor is a case in point: Evans supports a protected manufacturing district there (and elsewhere), while Daley seems to want to let development i.e., conversion to Treasure Islands and condos--take its course. For Evans, the industries are important as a source of good jobs for working people; for Daley, commercial development reflects the interests of his largest contributors.

Standing alone, none of these examples is convincing. Each lends itself to alternative explanations. On schools, for example, Daley's white voter base includes a higher percentage of senior citizens and yuppies than the relatively younger and larger African American families, with more school-age children, in Evans's core constituency. One could thus plausibly explain their respective positions on the basis of age rather than class.

Still, when one puts all the examples together, and considers them along with the patterns of financial and voter support for the two candidates, a coherent picture emerges. Daley is more likely to reflect the interests of affluence in Chicago, and Evans to reflect the interests of poor and working people.

April 4 will be a big day for both Daley's and Evans's core constituencies, box-seat holders and bleacher bums alike. In the morning they will head to the polls, and in the afternoon to Wrigley Field. There is also another significance to that date--April 4 will be the anniversary of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Twenty-one years ago next Tuesday, he was slain while in Memphis, where he had gone to support striking garbage workers.

No one cares to speculate on which team--the Cubs or their opening-day opponents, the Philadelphia Phillies--Dr. King would have rooted for this April 4. But one can fairly ask which mayoral candidate he would have supported. And the answer is pretty clear.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Tony Griff; photos/Jon Randolph, Marc PoKempner.

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