City for Sale

Chicago, Illinois

“He wields near-imperial power, and most of Chicago would have it no other way,” Time magazine enthused about Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley in an April 18 article naming him one of the country’s five best mayors. Daley, Time declared, has used his power “to steer the Windy City into a period of impressive stability, with declining unemployment and splashy growth.”

Stability? A nice euphemism for politics in a place where there’s less official opposition than in your average Central Asian dictatorship–and about as much corruption.

Declining unemployment? Never mind the fact that one in six Chicago families subsists below or near the poverty line, even though one family member is working, according to a recent study–or that a quarter of kids under five are poor, government statistics show.

Splashy growth? That’s one way to describe the uncounted thousands who’ve been forced out of impoverished neighborhoods in recent years, thanks to the real estate speculation and skyrocketing rents, spurred on by targeted tax breaks often geared to Daley supporters.

Then there’s the proposed $55 million “doomsday cuts” in public transportation that would cut service by almost 40 percent and lay off 2,000 workers unless the state legislature–run by Chicagoans–comes up with the money.

But none of this bothered the editorial writers at the Chicago Tribune, who recently hailed Daley’s “strong sense of fairness” and his efforts to “narrow the racial chasm”–an astonishing description of what still remains one of the country’s 10 most segregated cities, some 16 years after the mayor first took office. In fact, a 2003 Harvard University study found that racial concentration in Chicago schools is “only a few percentage points from an experience of total apartheid for Black students.”

The Wall Street Journal isn’t phased either. Earlier this year, it praised Daley as “a fix-it, a problem-solving man”–strange praise for a mayor who did nothing while an estimated 15,000 households went without heat during last year’s frigid Christmas week. It was on Daley’s watch in 1995 that a heat wave killed 700 people in what one disgusted city official called “murder by public policy.”

How does Daley get away with it? The mayor has repackaged the ham-fisted methods of his father, who held the office from 1955 until his death in 1977. Daley Senior’s crude bossism, so repugnant to 1960s middle-class liberals, has given way to his son’s style of a can-do manager who tailors himself to yuppie sensibilities.

Where Richard I was caught on national television shouting, “Fuck you, you Jew son of a bitch, you lousy motherfucker, go home” to a U.S. senator at the 1968 Democratic National Convention, Richard II installed rainbow street sculptures for the city’s main gay district.

Where Richard I engineered “urban renewal” to corral African Americans into the high-rise ghettos of public housing, Richard II ordered those units demolished–for the good of the poor, of course, who are being shunted off to poor, segregated neighborhoods, while high-priced condos are built on the site of their previous homes.

And where Richard I relied on the Chicago cops to hound African Americans and Latinos and crack the heads of protesters…well, some things never change.

* * *

WELCOME TO the Chicago of the 21st century, de facto capital of Blue State America. While California is governed by the Republican’s Arnold Schwarzenegger, and the mayor of New York City and governor of New York are also Republicans, Illinois is dominated by the Democrats–the Chicago Democratic machine, whose reach extends from the city’s wards to the state legislature and the governor’s mansion.

This Democratic utopia is devoted to corporate-dominated politics, symbolized by a $16 million tax break to get Boeing to relocate its headquarters to Chicago. Next comes the handover of 100 Chicago public schools to private business, putting kids under corporate control and gutting the teachers’ union contract, even as 800 teachers face layoffs next year.

The school selloff reflects the way that the old patronage machine of Daley Senior has been restructured for the free-market, neoliberal era. Handouts today go not only to loyal ward heelers, but to transnational corporations with more clout than the old man ever dreamed of. As a recent University of Illinois-Chicago study put it, Daley’s “patronage precinct captains are supplemented by candidate-based, synthetic campaigns using large sums of money from the global economy.”

As a consequence, the elder Daley’s backroom deals with unions have given way to his son’s in-your-face, take-it-or-leave-it demands for job cuts and concessions. City College teachers had to wage a three-week strike last autumn to hold the line, and Chicago’s municipal unions have been without contracts for more than two years as Daley demands $20 million in concessions.

But there’s one element of today’s Chicago politics that the elder Daley would recognize: nepotism. The current mayor’s brother, John, sits on the Cook County Board–which encompasses Chicago–and sold insurance to crooked trucking firms that did business with the city. Another mayoral brother, William, former architect of NAFTA and secretary of Commerce in the Clinton White House, is president of the telecommunications company SBC, which smoothed the way with Illinois regulators for a takeover of the regional phone company.

To be fair, the Daleys aren’t the only Illinois Democrats who treat politics as a family business. Gov. Rod Blagojevich moved from the U.S. Congress to the governor’s mansion thanks to his father-in-law, Chicago Alderman Richard Mell. Blagojevich, who campaigned against the scandals that imploded the state Republicans, promptly rewarded campaign donors with $24.3 million in state construction contracts.

When he’s not seeking TV cameras to record his imports of prescription drugs from Canada, the governor is taking a hard line with union negotiators and demanding cuts in public-sector workers’ pensions and social spending–even though state poverty has soared 31 percent in the last five years.

Of course, there’s a legal watchdog overseeing all this: State Attorney General Lisa Madigan, whose father happens to be the Chicago-based speaker of the Illinois House of Representatives.

Time Magazine once denounced such practices as an “intricately developed system of crony capitalism, in which personal connections trump the rule of law or markets almost every time.” But that was in reference to East Asia in 1997. In today’s Chicago, Time praises Daley for having “professionalized the city by hiring skilled managers and burnished its business-friendly image.”

Chicago certainly is business-friendly–especially to businesses with connections to the Outfit, as the city’s mob is known.

The current roster of wrongdoing by public officials includes the “hired truck” scandal, in which Outfit-tied companies billed the city for bogus work on construction sites; the towing scandal, in which impounded cars were sold to mob-tied companies that resold them for profit; the road-paving scandal, in which a contractor’s father told reporters he bribed Daley administration officials to obtain $40 million in contracts; and the fake-minority business scandal, in which the city funneled $100 million in city contracts to white businessmen in the Outfit-linked Duff family–longtime Daley campaign contributors–working through dummy companies.

And that’s the short list.

* * *

WHAT HAPPENED to the “people’s movement” that propelled Harold Washington into office as the city’s first Black mayor in 1983, seeming to vanquish the old Daley machine for good? The reality is that Washington was never the radical that his racist opponents alleged him to be. When he died suddenly in 1987, his camp fractured.

In 1989, Daley won a special election, undercutting the divided Black vote by cultivating alliances with Latino politicians like Luis Gutiérrez, who was rewarded with a promotion from alderman to Congress. An outspoken liberal in Washington, he’s a loyal Daley ally at home.

Likewise, Daley positioned himself as gay-friendly to court the white “lakefront liberals” who had backed Washington, and he encouraged gentrification to win over younger middle-class voters.

This liberal camouflage has led many to forget that Daley built his political base as a race-baiting Cook County state’s attorney–on whose watch Police Commander Jon Burge presided over a torture ring that sent innocent men to death row on the basis of coerced confessions. Racist police violence is still endemic in Daley Junior’s Chicago–in 1999, Robert Russ and LaTonya Haggerty, two unarmed young African Americans, were killed in separate police shootings in a 24-hour period.

Such outrages should be fuel for political opposition, but Daley has bullied and bought off virtually all his would-be rivals. Thus, Alderman Helen Schiller, an old Washington ally and one of the last of the white liberal reformers, supported Daley in his last two reelection campaigns.

Dick Simpson, a former alderman turned university professor, studied Chicago City Council voting records and concluded that today’s council is even more of a rubber stamp than under Daley Senior. Even the Rev. Jesse Jackson Sr., based in Chicago, and his son, Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr., effectively have a non-aggression pact with the mayor.

When protesters do take to the streets against the war on Iraq or other issues, they’re typically surrounded by cops in riot gear–and often denied the right to march on their chosen route. The First Amendment applies in Chicago only when the mayor says it does.

* * *

CHICAGO IN the reign of Richard II demonstrates the futility trying to rebuild the left inside the Democratic Party. The liberal independents that do make it outside the machine–Chicago-based Sen. Barack Obama being the latest example–invariably conform to the corporate agenda, while turning a blind eye to the everyday outrages of life in this one-party city-state.

Below the radar, however, grassroots activism in Chicago continues on a variety of issues–exposing racist police violence, resisting gentrification, opposing budget cuts in public transportation, organizing labor solidarity, fighting the militarization and privatization of public schools, and more. The second annual Chicago Social Forum, to be held May 1, will highlight this opposition by bringing together more than 60 groups to organize workshops on these and many other issues.

As in the rest of the U.S., rebuilding the left in Chicago will take time and patient organizing. But the grievances are mounting, and the potential is there. The more organizing that’s done now, the sooner the day will come that Richard II finds a real challenge to his “imperial power.”

Visit the Chicago Social Forum website for more information on the May 1 conference.

LEE SUSTAR is a regular contributor to CounterPunch and the Socialist Worker. He can be reached at:












LEE SUSTAR is the labor editor of Socialist Worker