Lobbying by the Children’s Museum and mayor’s staff obviously had a bigger impact over the last few weeks—especially the last few hours—than the push from 42nd Ward alderman Brendan Reilly and other opponents of the museum’s Grant Park plan.
A couple of aldermen said Wednesday that mayoral aides offered them administration help for projects in their wards in return for their votes. While horse trading is part of politics, some of the projects probably would have—and almost certainly should have—received city help without the promise of a vote on a citywide issue. As one alderman put it: “I just wonder if they cashed in for too little.”
But this is why the mayor and his team are good: they don’t just ask (or tell) people how to vote. They also provide the goodies to help the decisions get made—and the arguments that can be used to defend them.
Way back when, Mayor Daley and allies like Father Pfleger suggested that opponents of the museum plan were essentially racist for not wanting black and brown kids in Grant Park. That didn’t go over too well, so the arguments kept changing. By the time of Wednesday’s vote supporters were reciting another line: the museum will offer poor kids the chance to expand their horizons by getting out of their neighborhoods and visiting the city’s front yard, which some aldermen referred to as the city’s “back yard.” (The fact that schools already can—and do—take field trips to cultural institutions downtown was generally left unmentioned, as was the thought that they can currently visit Grant Park at any time.)
Shortly before the vote an alderman and a mayoral staffer each made versions of this argument to me. Then, during the debate on the council floor, almost every alderman who spoke in support of the museum plan offered a variation of it. I can’t state for certain that cheat sheets were circulated. And in fairness, opponents of the plan shared some arguments too. But the sudden frequency of the cultural enrichment defense was odd if it wasn’t planned. Some examples:
Billy Ocasio, 26th Ward: “I envision parents having the opportunity to spend the day to take their children to the greatest backyard the city ever had: Grant Park. It is our greatest backyard. It is a backyard a lot of our children don’t get to go to very often. It is a backyard where they could run, observe, and explore things they’ve never seen before. Our children in our poor communities of the city may never have a chance to get down there. If you talk about the neighborhoods, our children need an opportunity to explore. Our children need an opportunity to see the rest of the city—to get out there and imagine and be creative. That’s what this provides them. This is our backyard—let the children come here and kick the ball around.”
Emma Mitts, 37th Ward: “Why shouldn’t our children be able to have the opportunity to go and experience the cultural diversity that this city has? You know, if I’d had that opportunity when I was a child I think I would have had a better life. But now I’m not going to deny these children that opportunity.”
George Cardenas, 12th Ward: “I took my family to visit Grant Park. I wanted to do my homework—I wanted to make the right decision. So we went there. I took my two daughters. It was a Sunday, and we’d just had breakfast. And to me, it was important because it was for my daughters that I was going to be making this decision. And I stood in Bicentennial Plaza, looking toward the lake, looking south toward Grant Park. And I said to my daughter, ‘Isn’t this beautiful?’ And she said, ‘Yes, Papi.’ And that to me was showed me what this was about.”
Toni Foulkes, 15th Ward: “I have to agree with my colleagues—it’s all about the children. I remember when I was young, going to see the King Tut exhibit. My friends and I took the Green Line downtown by ourselves. That one ride got me out of my comfort zone, going somewhere else by myself. Kinds in our communities like West Englewood need to get out of their neighborhoods.”
Ike Carothers, 29th Ward: “I come from a community where I really believe young people will relish the opportunity to come downtown. … And my colleague from the 42nd Ward, I’ve got to tell you, I hope you’re buying us all lunch, because this debate has kept us here a long time.”