Chicago needs a government for and by the people

Harold Washington campaigns for mayor of Chicago. He made history in 1983 when he became the city's first African-American mayor after receiving 51 percent of the vote. [Photo by Arthur Grace/ZUMAPRESS.com]

Harold Washington campaigns for mayor of Chicago. He made history in 1983 when he became the city's first African-American mayor after receiving 51 percent of the vote. [Photo by Arthur Grace/ZUMAPRESS.com]

A confession: I haven’t really trusted any politician since Harold Washington died.

That was a few days before my 30th birthday. So, turning the ’60s adage inside out, I haven’t trusted anyone since I was over 30.

Harold was my hero. There is youthful adulation in the piece I wrote when he died, but I stand by it today: “He was a spellbinding orator with a razor-sharp wit, brilliant and brash, earthy and exuberant, warm and charming. He loved words and rhetoric, he loved to laugh, he loved people and politics.”

He was an extraordinary individual, but he was also a product of his times. It was a time when people took extraordinary risks to stand on principle. African Americans in the South risked physical assault to register to vote or ride buses across state lines; they pushed a southern president to take big political risks for civil rights legislation.

By the time he ran for mayor in 1983, Washington had compiled a record as a Machine-backed legislator with the guts to break from the party on civil rights. He’d defeated the Machine-slated incumbent to go to Congress, where he was a vocal opponent of Reaganism. He took to City Hall a basic refusal to back down on matters of principle.

In addition to good-government reforms–like freedom of information, neighborhood budget hearings and limits on campaign contributions–Washington made a strong start on a progressive social agenda: equitable city services, affirmative action, affordable housing, “linked development” requiring downtown developers to invest in neighborhoods. He brought community organizations to the table, particularly in task forces to stop housing abandonment, plant closings and gang recruitment.

With federal funding declining under Ronald Reagan, Washington campaigned for a city income tax.

How things have changed. For many, Mayor Rahm Emanuel now embodies the neoliberal ideology that has come to dominate American politics. Recent decades have seen a sustained assault on progressive taxation and ushered in an age of austerity, of cutbacks and privatization. Government programs foster private profits, and the benefits of economic growth go largely to those at the top.

And at the moment, as The American Prospect argues, America’s cities seem to be a prime arena for ideological struggles over this agenda.

This blog will address issues of government accountability, but broadly construed—looking beyond individual corruption and malfeasance to ask who it is that government serves, to what powers and interests it is ultimately accountable.

It will attempt to address some of the evasions and shortcomings of our leaders and representatives. But it will also pay heed to the people on the outside working to make government accountable to the communities it should be serving.

These are the folks I covered for 15 years at Newstips for the Community Media Workshop, where my charge was not to write about politicians and officials but nonprofits and community groups.

To me, they are a constant source of inspiration. They all remind me of Milt Cohen, the longtime activist who recruited me to write my first article for the student newspaper at the University of Chicago. It was on a block club opposing a condominium conversion. Milt was a great mentor and friend, and a great example, for many years.

Milt and Harold were comrades-in-arms. Milt played a key role in the voter registration that preceded Harold’s election, and he told me that the campaign victory that followed was the highpoint of his life.

When Harold Washington declared Milton M. Cohen Day later in 1983, he said Milt “has dedicated his life to the unceasing struggle for the civil and economic rights of all people and has worked for fifty years in the cause of progressive change and reform politics in Chicago and a more democratic, humane and peaceful America and world.” And he noted that to honor Milt was to honor “thousands of rank-and-file activists who work day and night in the struggle for jobs, justice, and peace.”

Milt took risks too. He opposed racial discrimination in the 1930s, fought in the Spanish Civil War, opposed nuclear weapons at the height of the Cold War, and walked out on the House Un-American Activities Committee.

I remember a tenants rights action shortly after I’d met him, when we’d dropped in on an alderman’s ward night. The alderman hid in his back office and refused to talk. It was quite a crowd, and there was Milt at the front, with his shoulder against the office door, pushing.

People keep pushing, keep believing that the doors should be open, that government should serve the people. To me that’s the greatest story of all.

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