I moved to town six years after Leon Despres–Hyde Park’s legendary independent alderman–retired from the City Council. So it seems as long as I can remember, folks have been saying the council needs another–just one more –alderman Despres.
Two years ago I was walking through Washington Park, asking park users for their thoughts on Mayor Daley’s proposed Olympics. Pretty much everyone I spoke with was against it, though no one thought it could be stopped. I spent about half an hour talking to some old-timers at the tennis court. We ran down a roster of south-side politicians, looking for one–that’s all–who would oppose Daley’s Olympic land grab, but we came up empty. “We need another Leon Despres,” one tennis player told me. “That’s how long you got to go back to find anyone with guts.”
Despres, who died Wednesday at age 101, set the standard for council independence, leading the fight for racial integration, open government, historic preservation, ecological conservation, fair hiring–you name it. He wasn’t afraid to defy the old Mayor Daley, who may have been even more intimidating than his son, if that’s possible. “Throughout his career, he [Despres] had been at the forefront of just about every decent, worthwhile effort made to improve life in this city,” Mike Royko once wrote. “Being in the forefront, he is usually the first to be hit on the head with the mayor’s gavel.”
Funny line–it sort of sums things up. It takes a lot of courage to stand up to the Daleys, and political courage is always in short supply around here. In fact, it’s kind of futile to expect any alderman to be as courageous as Despres. It’s a little like expecting every Bull to be as driven as Jordan or every local journalist to be as funny and insightful as Royko. In some ways, we’re lucky to have had one Leon Despres. But hey Ric Munoz, Toni Preckwinkle, Joe Moore, Leslie Hairston, Scott Waguespack, and even you, Helen Shiller: at least you can try.