By George Castle, Special to Chicago Jewish News
Ward heeler Paddy Bauler once summed up the Chicago Way upon hearing Richard J. Daley was elected to his first term as mayor in 1955: “Chicago ain’t ready for reform yet.”
And through uncounted federal investigations, big-name aldermen convicted of corruption charges, Shakman Decrees, the softening of the old Democratic machine and the latest court-mandated reforms of the police department, Paddy’s proclamation still stands well into another century.
Ed Bachrach sure would like to consign “ain’t ready” to the city’s colorful and byzantine history. The businessman-public policy advocate is stirring up an alternate-future conversation for Chicago during the present mayoral primary with a book “The New Chicago Way: Lessons From Other Big Cities” co-authored with Austin Berg.
The problem is, the two platoons of candidates, both big-name and quasi-obscure, primarily focus on the old Chicago Way even while advocating reforms like aldermanic term limits and curbs on outside aldermanic income. While in other cities the business community sets the tempo with the municipal government following suit, in Chicago the political power centers on City Hall and radiates out through business, culture and even the executive suites and locker rooms of pro sports teams. Departing Mayor Rahm Emanuel, the only Jew ever to hold that office, existed in two worlds. He worked in the corporate community before he was White House chief of staff under Barack Obama, and in essence double-dipped in wielding power levers over government and business in his two terms.
If even the most ardent reformers keep looking inward at the way things have always been done, then Bachrach has a huge challenge, too. Altering Chicago attitudes ingrained over more than a century would be like turning around the proverbial ocean liner in a bathtub.
Simply put, Bachrach and Berg propose a city charter, or constitution-like document like ones that govern many other major U.S. cities. If enacted, such a charter would dampen down the near-autocratic power the Chicago mayor possesses over the police department and city schools. A professional police commission and city law department not beholden to the mayor could either prevent the Jason Van Dyke-Laquan McDonald tragedy or at least freeze the crime scene so that a professional investigation could immediately commence. Doctoring the evidentiary reports and suppressing incriminating video would not be allowed.
Bachrach has a different view of the city having not grown up in any of Chicago’s 50wards, operated like small duchies by aldermen with the last Republicans voted out of office by the 1980s. He was even beyond the reach of old suburban Republican organizations, like the ones that produced Don Rumsfeld along the North Shore in the 1950s or Elmer Hoffman’s GOP mini-machine in DuPage County at the same time.
Now residing on the Gold Coast, Bachrach grew up in downstate Decatur, birthplace of the Chicago Bears, as the fourth generation operator of Bachrach Clothing, one of the agri-business city’s examples of Jewish immigrant retailers who set up roots in the heartland. Bachrach’s worked closely with Cohen’s Furniture. The city had one synagogue, reform Temple B’nai Abraham. Although the Bachrachs were pillars of the community, that did not exempt Ed from hearing anti-Semitic comments growing up.
Involving himself in public discourse, Bachrach is president of the Center for Pension Integrity in Chicago. He also is the founder and chairman of Build Cambodia. He teamed on “The New Chicago Way” with Berg, an award-winning writer and director of content strategy at the Illinois Policy Institute.
About the only candidate with a position aligning with ones advocated in “The New Chicago Way” is Bill Daley, scion of Chicago’s most famous political family. Daley has suggested cutting the number of aldermen from 50 to 15. Bachrach said a slash to 20, if not 15, would be satisfactory.
“Do away with wards and aldermen,” Bachrach said, with “councilmen” as the replacement term. “The word alderman comes from ‘elderman,’ the chief of a village.”
Sure enough, an alderman often is an immovable object standing in the way of an irresistible force. Members of Cubs ownership and team business chief Crane Kenney, for example, are contributing to an opponent of longtime 44th Ward Ald. Tom Tunney, whom they see as standing in their way of turning a remodeled Wrigley Field and adjoining property into a huge entertainment complex. Going back 35 years, Tunney predecessor Bernie Hansen blocked the early installation of lights at the ballpark while walking into the front office to happily pick up complimentary aldermanic tickets to the 1984 National League Championship Series.
“What I hear from all the candidates are piecemeal suggestions of a reform here, a reform there,” said Bachrach. “There is no starting point, no ending point and they don’t talk about how it would be implemented. The presumption is that they would implement through city ordinance. And what the City Council giveth, the City Council can take away.
“I have tried in the past three weeks at public forums and elsewhere to ask any candidate who will listen to me whether they will endorse a change in state law or change in the Illinois constitution that will allow for a voter-approved city constitution. But they haven’t allowed any (spoken) questions. They’ve allowed questions submitted beforehand in writing. I submitted them and they didn’t ask the question.”
Perhaps none of the candidates wants to give back the power and prestige that comes from the Chicago mayoralty. The job has been accurately rated one of the most powerful elected, administrative jobs in the U.S.
In “The New Chicago Way,” Bachrach and Berg show the massive power of the mayor by recounting Richard M. Daley’s one-man decision on March 31, 2003 to destroy the lakefront Meigs Field airport in an overnight raid by city construction equipment:
“Neither the Daley Administration nor the City of Chicago incurred any punishment for the actions at Meigs, save for failure to give adequate notice of the closure. Members of the City Council took no legislative action. The Park District, headed by a Daley appointee, complied with the mayor’s order. And city lawyers disposed of lawsuits against the administration in short order.
“Much more than merely fodder for headlines, the Meigs raid represents a microcosm of the political culture that has brought Chicago to its knees. Discerning citizens now see its influence in the schools, in city ledger lines, in elections, in mini-fiefdoms controlled by local aldermen, and in the harrowing, grainy footage of young men gunned down by police. Meigs lays bare the perverted political process in Chicago, one fueled by a dangerous decision…on the will of a single person.
“Indeed, the Windy City is a modern metropolis of millions functioning with a government built for one-man rule. Deliberative democracy is dead here. Chicago is home, rather, to a form of government that resembles strongman authoritarian regimes that persist in far corners of the world. The mayor is the strongman; any perceived checks on mayoral power were proven illusory that night in 2003.”
Any motivation to seriously tackle pressing problems often gets lost in the political swirl.
“In 2011, in Rahm’s first campaign, he said he was going to concentrate on three things: crime, schools and finances,” Bachrach said. “But like everyone else – and I don’t care if you elected Moses or King Solomon as mayor – in the current government structure, they’re going to end up making poor decisions. There isn’t a distribution of power and decision-making satisfactory for deliberative democracy in the city of Chicago. It should be constitutional (like at the federal level), but it isn’t in Chicago.
“The mayor is 100 percent in Chicago. He calls all the shots. Rahm fell into the trap. And one of these people will have to be elected. They will have the same syndrome unless we get reform.
“I’ll use a quote from Ronald Reagan: Are you better off now than four years ago? Look at the homicide rate of 2017 or 2018 vs. 2010. Look at city finances. Look at the obligation debt. Look at the pension debt.
“I interviewed (former police chief Gerry) McCarthy for this book. I’m only recounting what he told me. He was trying to bring more accountability to the police department, but he was facing a lot of obstacles. He feels the way he was summarily dismissed as a political scapegoat was completely antithetical to the spirit of trying to bring that accountability to the police department.”
But with an independent police commission, beyond the reach of a mayor’s powers, McCarthy does not likely walk the plank without extensive public hearings.
Meanwhile, personality over policy holds sway over the election process. The prominence of public figures often overshadows a more serious discussion of reform.
“Everybody in Chicago has a cult of personality,” Bachrach said. “Who? Who? Who? Who? It’s like a treeful of owls. People should be asking how are we going to be governed. They should be talking about the governing structure of other cities. Other cities don’t get hung up on all these who’s.
“They’re running their campaigns with sound bites that are intended to commit them to as little as possible and get them as many votes as they can.”
Further centralizing power in the mayor and a usually compliant City Council is the very scheduling of city municipal elections. Bachrach advocated a change to November to align voter awareness and participation with the scheduling of national and statewide elections.
The present system of a February primary, in essence the real election barring run-offs in one-party Chicago, acts almost as a voter suppressant given the winter climate. Such scheduling did help Jane Byrne pull the city’s all-time upset on Feb. 27, 1979, a short jog on the timeline after Mayor Michael Bilandic’s much-botched cleanup from the Jan. 14-16 blizzard.
“We’re the only major city in the U.S. with municipal elections at that time,” Bachrach said. “You could have someone come in first with 12 percent and somebody comes in second with 11 percent. You’re going to have a runoff with two people with 23 percent of the vote. The whole election system is designed for capture by special interests. It used to be the machine. Now it’s public employees. The (proposed) charter has to address elections.”
The main barrier to change seems to be simply the ingrained attitudes of both voters and power-brokers. Change would have to start with moving these attitudes off dead center, as Bachrach and Berg write:
“…speaking to scores of everyday Chicagoans, the (authors) have met universal skepticism. The skeptic’s lament comes in many forms: you cannot fight City Hall; those in power will never give it up; the corruption is so endemic that the situation is hopeless; the elite only care about themselves and not everybody else; it is a one-party town, what do you expect; the unions control the city; the city has never given black Chicagoans a fair shake and never will.
“Speaking with elites has sometimes revealed a different form of reluctance. They fear putting governance of the city in the hands of voters. They retain negative memories of the contentious “council wars” of the Harold Washington Era. Some feel Chicago’s problems are not unique and that other cities are currently or have recently dealt with the same issues. Others see no trouble that the current boom cannot outgrow….Even if they wish to see selected changes, they think some changes should come only as a result of crisis. What would it take to change and where will the impetus come from.
“Raphael Sonenshein, in his report on the Los Angeles charter revision effort, captured the spirit well. ‘The good-government argument for reform sat off the coast, awaiting a political storm to carry it to shore.’”
The only thing out in Lake Michigan at the moment are disintegrating ice chunks from the polar vortex. New ideas stay in the deep freeze even with the wild fluctuations in temperature, both climatic and emotional.