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Monday, February 19, 2007

Mayor-for-life reigns in a faux democracy

Voters seem content to seal Daley's power and ignore challengers

By Dennis Byrne
Chicago Tribune

And now, a question from the department of metaphysics: Is it really a democracy when nearly everyone votes for the same guy, whether the reason is that he has ...

A. Performed so wunnerfully that no one else in sight could do better. Or,

B. Gathered so much power unto himself that few, if any, challengers have a chance of beating him.

Thus, the Chicago mayoral election, in which Mayor Richard Daley is considered to be a cinch to be recrowned as city sovereign for one, or both, of the above reasons. Serious voters can ponder why they have so little choice, which is the essence of a functioning democracy. True, getting three out of every four votes is not the same thing as the 100 percent that the Kremlin regularly turned out because no one else was on the ballot.

Chicago is not alone in this. In countless suburbs, you literally have no choice, because only one name appears on the ballot for many village, school and other municipal offices. There, few challengers step forward because few are interested in volunteering for a non-paying job that easily can turn into a full-time one. There, candidates are elected by acclamation.

This pretty much describes the Chicago mayoral race, as Daley's competition has been written off by the power elites--business, media and so forth. And by legions of folks who say they don't plan to "waste" their vote by voting for a "loser"--one of the most stupid concepts ever to undermine democratic government. Even organized labor, which is pouring money into anti-Daley challengers in some aldermanic races, dares not make a serious effort to unseat Daley.

Which has to fry the patience of Daley's two major opponents.

In any other city, a candidate who racked up 800,000 votes in a prior election--as Daley challenger Dorothy Brown did in Chicago during her 2004 re-election as Cook County Circuit Court clerk--would be considered a strong opponent. Here, she is casually written off as not having a chance, despite an impressive resume. She is an attorney, a certified public accountant, holds a master's degree in business administration and now manages an office with an annual operating budget of $100 million and a workforce of more than 2,000 employee positions. Daley's other major opponent, William "Dock" Walls, an aide to the late Mayor Harold Washington, is no Spanky the Clown (the perennial local candidate who, indeed, never had a chance).

For a while, it looked like we'd have what many folks considered to be a "real" race, as Democratic congressmen Luis Gutierrez and Jesse Jackson Jr. were stoking up their mayoral campaigns with heavy rhetoric about Daley's failings, principally the administration's dismal history of corruption.

Mocking Daley, Gutierrez said, "The essence of [Daley's] message is, `You know me, trust me, I have a record, but the hiring incident isn't part of my record. Jon Burge [former police commander] isn't part of my record. The scandals of contracting, those aren't part of my record. Every time there's an issue, `that's not part of my record.'"

Good stuff. But then, when Democrats won control of the House, Jackson and Gutierrez opted for the sure thing--more powerful positions in the House. In endorsing Daley, Gutierrez decided Daley wasn't so bad after all, saying Daley has made significant steps to clean up corruption.

Even for a town as cynical as Chicago, this was an act of towering cynicism.

It has been a generation now since Chicago was last bitten by real democracy, and the wounds apparently never have healed. The bitter battles that split aldermen in "council wars" during the Washington administration is the only reference point for many Chicagoans. That democracy can descend into such hostility may have been too much for Chicago voters to handle, because they've settled down to ratifying a mayor-for-life every four years.

Still, this election is a chance for voters to take democracy out for a test drive. For the first time in years, there's real competition in a number of aldermanic races, involving real, qualified candidates. True, it might be a scary thing for some Chicago voters to get back on after getting thrown by council wars. But if democracy can blossom in Eastern European capitals after decades of autocracy, why not Chicago?

Maybe it's time to give it another try.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Dennis, thank you for yet another excellent editorial this AM.

Between you, Kass and the other rapidly disappearing middle-of-the-road columnists still at the Tribune, some sense of sanity has been maintained at the paper, where PC has crept insidiously into even the sports and home section.

Unfortunately, the Oprification of the Tribune is simply too much. The Tribune is unreadable, untrustworthy and just plain bad. What the hell happened?

I'm writing to tell you that after 20+ years as a subscriber to the Trib, I have cancelled my subscription. Chalk up another victory to the liberals who now control your newsroom.

No more will I wake up to read that Barrack Obama is the second coming of Christ (opps, can't use that word - secular), that the United States is the source of all evil in the world along with white males in general (but not gay ones), that socialism will work if we just try a little harder, that illegal immigrants deserve full civil rights, that our President should be impeached (despite no terrorist attacks since 9-11, a robust economy. low unemployment... oh never mind, that is never reported), and that sure, Cook County is hopelessly corrupt and we are all overtaxed but "it works!". And certainly I'll miss each and every headline proudly proclaiming the "first black" "first woman" "first Hispanic" "first gay"... you get the point. What a bore.

I'm white, Republican, male, married with children, live in the suburbs and drive an SUV. Therefore, from your editorial dept's perspective, not in the Tribune's demographic. I'm employed as is my wife, but we're not a "working family" because we are not union. We don't exist.

Here's a challenge to you: write a column about me and the other thousands of lost readers. Liberals love the word "disenfranchised." We are your "disenfranchised" ex-readers. You have never been afraid to bite the hand that feeds, so sharpen up your teeth. Give the Tribune what it desperately needs -- a reality check.

Thanks again Dennis. I'll catch you on-line.