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Fortnight Journal: The Chicago Way

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The Chicago Way
Fortnight Journal
February 14, 2011

I.

The Chicago Tribune arrived on the ledge outside my family’s kitchen. It was December. I was home for the holidays from graduate school. On the front page, the Tribune featured an early poll of 721 likely voters in the Chicago mayoral race. This was the first real contest in 21 years for the highest office in the city; The Fifth Floor; the mayor’s executive suite at Chicago City Hall.

The poll showed a clear and early divide had emerged: There was Rahm Emanuel. And then there was everyone else.

Or rather, there was Rahm Emanuel with a double-digit, 32 percent lead, and then a fragmented spread that delegated mere single-digit percentage points to the other six candidates, in alphabetical order: Roland Burris, Gery Chico, Danny Davis, Miguel del Valle, Reverend James Meeks and Carol Moseley Braun.

As of this writing, the race has dwindled considerably. Davis and Meeks bowed out and endorsed Moseley Braun, making her the de facto black candidate in the race. Burris announced he was never running for mayor. Chico and del Valle continue to fragment the much coveted and talked about key to victory, the Hispanic vote. As of December 14 2010, and very much to this day, the race remains Rahm Emanuel’s to lose.

My Papa came into the kitchen a short while after I brought the newspapers in from the hallway of his apartment building. He took one look at the front page. More than that was unnecessary. Whereas the papers liked to call the mayor’s race a special election given the newly open field – open to machine candidates only, but nonetheless open – Papa liked to think of it as “a once in every other lifetime” election.

“Let’s see. We have one, two, three, four,” he counted with his finger, “Four black candidates, two Hispanic candidates, and one white candidate,” he paused. “This machine might be cold, it might be cruel, it might be calculating… but you sure have to admire its efficiency.”

II.

I come form a generation of Chicagoans that have really only known “the Daley regime,” as we call it amongst ourselves. There is only Daley. Before Mayor for Life Richard M. Daley, there was his father, the original Mayor for Life, Richard J. Daley. Between them, there was an interregnum. Five mayors filled the 13-year void of Daley family leadership at the helm of Chicago. Two were interim mayors (David Duvall Orr and Eugene Sawyer), therefore unelected, and three were elected (Michael Bilandic, Jane Byrne, and Harold Washington).

Bilandic is most famous for losing his reelection bid by not having the plows out on the streets in time before a major blizzard. The woman to whom he handed that victory, Jane Byrne, is most famous for winning because her opponent Bilandic did not get the plows on the streets in time before a major blizzard. One of the t-shirts I wore frequently as a teenager in a small act of defiance against the Daley regime was a Jane Byrne campaign t-shirt ,with stencils of the skyline and the Picasso statue in the Daley Plaza. The shirt had been procured from a Lincoln Park thrift store.

Most notably, though, Harold Washington made history as Chicago’s first and only black mayor to-date. The legacy of his term, and the bitter fight between Harold (as he was known throughout the city), and the City Council (spearheaded by Alderman and Finance Committee Chairman Ed Burke, the longest-serving and most powerful alderman, who remains at the head of the City Council to this day), effectively created the echelon by which city politics in large measure operates to this day. There remain ground operatives in the city for whom Burke is better known as “The Chairman.”

Mostly though, just as the postwar twentieth century has been called the American century, it was the Daley century in Chicago. I was five years old in 1989, a historic, revolutionary year elsewhere in the world, when Richard M. Daley seized power on The Fifth Floor. Some winds of change.

The truth, though, is a bit more complicated. As prestige, international attention, and even an American President have grown out of Daley’s Chicago, few have raised questions. Those who have raised questions (and of those questions that have been raised) have nearly all evaded the younger Mayor Daley, although flirting close with his inner circle. There have been scandals, but the Kremlin is not much moved one way or the other by them.

A sample of some of the more salacious scandals suggests money more than anything else is at play. There was the scandal concerning the sweetheart $68 billion deal to invest city employee pension funds that nephew Robert Vanecko received. Daley knew nothing, or so he told inquiring reporters. There was also the “Hired Truck” scandal in 2004 where private trucking companies were hired through what were politely termed “selective hiring processes” to do city work. More recently, there was the scandalous 75-year lease of city parking meters that has residents now paying more to park in downtown Chicago than in downtown Manhattan, in exchange for a one-time $1.15 billion payment to the city. That money is now gone. Daley anticipates a comfortable retirement later this year in his South Loop condo.

My work as an international photojournalist has made me sensitive to the narrative of totalitarian dictatorship. Some motifs include the domination of one-party rule, the imposition of rent-seeking tariffs and an oligarchic business-political class. And as with the standard, almost encyclopedic biography of a lasting third-world dictator, Daley is both king and a king-maker. But in fact, Daley, Our Daley, is much more than that. The cohesion Daley represents is not unlike Tito’s role in unifying the disparate ethnicities cobbled together under the banner of communist Yugoslavia in the Balkans.

Chicago is just 237 square miles of pure Balkans in the heart of the Midwest.

III.

Sure, Daley might be a feudal prince, but he is at least one who has sought to reconcile the blemishes of his father’s record in his own time. By Chicago standards, this is progress that cannot quite be discounted. Besides, almost anyone older can point to the inconveniences that came with the interregnum: council wars, garbage strikes, the grass in the park uncut.

Instead of stacking the poor into public housing units like Old Man Richard J. Daley, the younger Daley would dismantle these very units. In the good old days of Machine Rule, these public housing high-rises, “the projects,” were better known as so-called vote farms since their cohesion made for easy Democratic Party canvassing. Canvassing has been a notable pass-time of Chicago ward bosses, precinct captains and aldermen in Chicago for generations–a position customarily passed down for generations.

One of the finer details of Mike Royko’s study of The Old Man Daley, Boss, is where he lists, by ward, the names of the aldermen in the city and charts the progress from father to son over the course of a generation, demonstrating that politics in Chicago is indeed a family sport.

The outcome of the younger Daley’s “Plan for Transformation”–or, more accurately, the demolition of Chicago Housing Authority projects–would hand over large swaths of prime Chicago real estate on the Near North, Near West and South Sides to for-profit developers at the height of the housing boom. Local newspaper articles would first be largely positive of the effort, extolling the virtue of correcting euphemistic “blight.” The same papers would later deride the large number of unsold units and absence of so-called “mixed income” (read: ghetto people) units in the new luxury complexes.

To anyone who had paid attention, this last development was seemingly surprising only to the local newspapers, that clearly had not been paying very much attention. Nobody asked what happened to the people that used to inhabit the high rises who had vanished, somehow, seemingly overnight.

In fact, in a moment of unusual candor on the topic, Bruce Dold–editor of The Chicago Tribune editorial page and moderator of a mayoral debate on January 27 at WGN television studios–asked Rahm Emanuel, Daley’s all-but-assumed successor, if he felt he had earned the $320,000 he received from attending half a dozen meetings over the course of 14 months on the Freddie Mac board.

Emanuel responded that President Clinton had appointed him to the board as Vice-Chair of the Chicago Housing Authority at the time of the city’s restructuring according to the Plan for Transformation in the late 1990s. The reason Emanuel gave for his appointment was that “we were doing innovative things here in the city of Chicago with regard to mixed-income housing.”

What did it mean to tell a population of public housing residents, in effect, to go back to where they came from? Valerie Jarrett, the Obama aide and former Chicago Housing Authority chief, was Mayor Richard M. Daley’s go-between for the city and public housing residents as the wrecking ball’s timetable ticked. Emanuel, as Vice-Chair, was not so far behind.

But the “Plan for Transformation,” is not heralded as Daley’s greatest triumph because of its success in scattering the urban poor, once gathered around the city’s highly developed urban core, to its perimeter. Rather, the experiment signals the success of a far greater transformation in the alignment and allegiance of power in Chicago, and the largely successful and enormously financially beneficial integration of the city’s white and black elites.

IV.

The Chicago political arena is still very much a blood sport for any contender in theater. Its very parochial character is in large measure what makes it so fun. But parochialism is not the only key ingredient in the formation of an oligarchic power structure; so are larger-than-life personalities of an iconic stature, who demand an almost cult-like reverence. In this regard, Chicago consistently delivers. The cast of political characters, skeletons and obscurantia in Chicago represents an almost Fellini-esque space in American public political life.

In its fullest elaboration, a clear structure emerges; a hierarchical enterprise in which Daley and Obama currently sit at the top. Medvedev is Robin to Putin’s Batman, but it is not always so easy to strike the same analogy where Obama and Daley are concerned. There appears, much as is Obama’s disposition and mien, to be far greater collaboration, cooperation and opportunism on both sides. The appointment of Mayor Daley’s brother, William, to the position of Chief of Staff in the White House–after Rahm Emanuel’s departure from this position to run for mayor of Chicago, following Mayor Daley’s announcement that he would not be seeking reelection in October 2010–suggests much more of a revolving door attitude. In fact, it suggests downright orchestration.

While the game can be opaque, some moves can be delineated by bloodlines.

V.

My greatest education in the values of The Machine probably came as a child, before I knew much about The Machine or its values. It is hard to describe the moment or time when the values of this particular machine – protect your own, fight for your own, stay close to your own – became ingrained.

It is only possible to remember the moment that I first heard these words articulated aloud by long-time Chicago broadcast news reporter Carol Marin, describing for a CNN reporter former Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich’s early reaction (before he became the larger-than-life media and reality TV star of “The Apprentice” alongside Donald Trump) to his December 9, 2008 arrest on corruption charges.

But where did I learn these ethics? And why did they have to sound so lousy, nepotistic, and tribal when stated aloud? But tribalism is not merely about corruption–better defined as merely the power or ability to do something. American cities are not governed by tribalism; Orientalist tradition dictates that only Central Asia, Africa, and select jungles of the Pacific and Americas be allowed this indignity of misclassification.

But Chicago is evidently a very tribal place.