Warning: Chicago-y post ahead. If you’re not much interested in this town, you can take the day off Writing Boots. Then again, if you’re not much interested in Chicago, you’re not much interested in America. —ed.
Chicago political boss Paddy Bauler famously said almost 100 years ago, “Chicago ain’t ready for reform yet.” These days, it seems to me, we can’t tell the difference between progress and progressively dressed procrastination.
The confusion is especially acute in the run-up to a mayoral election, and we’ve got one coming February 28 (before an inevitable run-off that will take place after that). Nobody I know is sincerely enthusiastic about any of the nine candidates, each of which falls into one of two camps: The lesser of several electable evils, or the leader of several also-rans.
Searching for some perspective, I just unearthed a story I wrote for our alternative paper, the Chicago Reader, 20 years ago. It makes our modern mayoral elections—despite their own madnesses, thoroughly portrayed in a documentary about the last election—
—seem at once more democratic than they used to be, and at the same time, just as hapless.
Here’s what I sent the Reader in August, 2002 (which is better than the half nut-numbed version the Reader wound up publishing):
On the hot and humid evening of Thursday, August 1, a couple dozen people gathered in a union hall near the corner of Jackson and Homan on the west side of Chicago to talk about ousting Mayor Richard M. Daley from office.
A tremendous fan cooled the auditorium initially, but it had to be turned off in order for the speakers to be heard.
The room was sweltering, but aside from one outburst of emotion—more on this in a moment—the rhetoric was less so.
Convened by a newly formed activist group called The Accountability Committee, the meeting was more a calm and tactical planning event than a fiery pep rally.
No one in the overwhelmingly African-American group, it seemed, had to be convinced as to why the mayor must go. It was clear that the audience took Daley’s neglect of and even hostility toward the black community for a fact. Complaints mentioned but not dwelled upon during the meeting ranged from what the group feels is Daley’s purposeful destruction of affordable housing to what members claim is a lower number of top city administration jobs for blacks than during the Harold Washington regime in the 1980s.
The question wasn’t why Daley should go. The question was how.
As his audience fanned themselves with the print materials they’d been handed, a calm and collected man named Bruce Crosby led off the meeting by explaining the group’s purpose: to avoid another mayoral election characterized by a powerful incumbent steam-rolling a late-arriving and under-funded challenger.
Crosby, a voting rights activist going back to 1980, co-founded the Committee with veteran Chicago policewoman Pat Hill, former president of the African American Patrolmen’s League.
Over the last year, Crosby recounted, members compiled a list of 17 potential mayoral candidates, which they ultimately winnowed down to 10. The 10 names—most of whom Crosby candidly acknowledged have not indicated their willingness to run for mayor—are listed on a public plebiscite election poll. [The list included an oddly named State Senator, Barack Obama.]
This survey will be circulated widely at the Chicago Defender’s annual Bud Billiken parade on Saturday, Aug. 10. Results will yield a leading candidate who, if he or she is willing, will serve as the Committee’s candidate for mayor in the February 2003 election.
Once a candidate emerges, the Committee will try to build momentum through a citywide conference planned for early September. One purpose of this conference will be to identify organizers to help the candidate compile the daunting 25,000 signatures required in order to get on the ballot. …
In the hot union hall, the group discussed possible locations for the citywide conference. North side activist Roger Romanelli, one of a handful of white members of the Committee, reported that he’d been looking at various venues to hold the conference. He told the group he favored Chicago’s Cultural Center as the best available facility. It’s visible, it’s centrally located, and it holds at least 500 people, Romanelli argued. The only downside, he said, was that there was a charge to use the Cultural Center.
“What about parking?” asked a group member. Others quickly agreed that the Loop was no place to hold the citywide meeting, and soon Romanelli had a dozen suggestions of west- and south-side churches and schools where conference attendees could park for free.
The talk swung back and forth from big statements to important details. “Daley is one of the most corrupt politicians in the nation—in the history of the nation,” said one organizer. Minutes later, the conversation focused on getting local food stores to donate provisions for marchers in the Billiken Parade. “We still need to move on Moo and Oink,” Crosby said.
But who would be The Committee’s candidate?
Crosby told the audience that the early favorite—in the early plebiscite tally and in the esteem of the Committee’s leaders—is funeral home director Spencer Leak.
Why? Partly because other candidates have shown no interest. Crosby reported that Roland Burris declined on grounds that he’d be a “laughing stock” if he ran for mayor so soon after his overwhelming defeat in the governor’s race.
Leak, on the other hand, told the group “he feels more like running now than ever before,” Crosby said. In response to a question from an audience member, Crosby listed Leak’s qualifications for the job. He’s president of Leak and Sons Funeral Chapels, which has been in business since the 1930s. He’s also the former chief of the Cook County Jail and commissioner of the Illinois Department of Corrections.
And, importantly, Leak “thinks Daley is doing a terrible job.”
But a subsequent conversation with Leak, who wasn’t at this meeting, revealed that he has no intention of running for mayor. Yes, he believes revolutionary changes are needed in this city—he spoke passionately about the need to “free ourselves from this violence that’s tearing our city apart”—but he doesn’t think those changes are best made by a politician.
“This city doesn’t need a mayor,” he said. “It needs a prophet.”
Confronted with the news that his leading candidate didn’t intend to be a candidate at all, Crosby expressed his surprise and disappointment before suggesting, hopefully, “Maybe he portrayed a more cautious view with you than he did with us.”
The one Committee candidate who is unabashedly enthusiastic is Robert Floid Plump, who showed up toward the end of the Aug. 1 meeting in an orange knit skullcap with a “Dump Daley” button on the front and began an ebullient, if disjointed stump speech. The members, many of whom were obviously familiar with Plump, let out a collective groan as Plump waved his flyers in the air and proclaimed that he was “Harold’s Choice.” When he went on to say that he could win “with or without you,” a table in the back of the room erupted.
“Don’t you insult us,” one of the men at the table yelled.
“Don’t you dare insult the next mayor of the city of Chicago,” Plump shot back.
The meeting was over anyway, and the shouting match was all the prompting people needed to make for the door. They streamed out into the still humid but cooler night.
Later, Crosby said that if Plump got the most votes in the plebiscite, the Committee would back him. “We would respect the process,” he said.
Postscript: Daley wound up winning the 2003 election with 78.46 percent of the vote. None of the candidates mentioned above wound up running, and nobody ever heard of “The Accountability Committee” again.
Post-postscript: Just ahead of the last mayoral election in 2019, I received an email from a trusted young friend urging me to vote against candidate Lori Lightfoot, on account of she was “weaponizing” her credentials as a gay Black woman to fool everybody into thinking she was more progressive than she was. Then Lightfoot won, and over the next four years it turned out the kid had a point.
The default stance of a Chicago voter is a know-it-all smirk and a confident declaration that, “of course” I’m voting for so-and-so. But this year many Chicagoans are scratching our heads and asking each other searchingly, “Who are you voting for?”
And actually hearing back, “I’m not sure.”
Maybe that’s a good sign.
Post-post-postscript: One close-watching Chicago friend insists he and others in his circles are enthusiastic about one candidate—the same one I expect to vote for on Tuesday, Brandon Johnson. Also, voter ambivalence doesn’t seem to equal voter apathy, as early returns show remarkably high early-voter turnout so far.