49th Ward alderman Joe Moore (left) and 45th Ward alderman John Arena
49th Ward alderman Joe Moore (left) and 45th Ward alderman John Arena Credit: Brian Jackson/Chicago Sun-Times

You might have missed it with all the hubbub over Chick-fil-A, but last month Mayor Rahm Emanuel teamed up with Alderman Joe Moore, of all people, to temporarily stall the elected school board movement.

I say temporarily because I really want it to stay alive. I’m hoping it can set off a political movement leading to another Harold Washington.

OK, maybe that’s too much wishful thinking for one column. But even if it merely fires up a few thousand more engaged parents, I’ll be rooting for it.

Before we get to the details, a word about the issue. Chicago remains the only school district in Illinois without an elected school board. Ours consists of five appointees carefully selected by the mayor to make sure they do whatever he says, including, though not limited to, doling out more and more millions to his charter school cronies.

Then they sit there stone-faced, barely pretending to give a shit, while outraged parents, teachers, and students show up to board hearings to howl in protest. Meanwhile, the mayor says it would be a mistake to inject politics into the board of education.

Over the last several months, the Communities Organized for Democracy in Education—a coalition of parents, activists, retired teachers, and members of the Chicago Teachers Union—began advancing the idea of an elected board. On June 8, they announced they were gathering petition signatures for a citywide advisory referendum on November’s ballot: Should the current rubber-stamp board be replaced by a group of people you’ve had the chance to vote for?

Well, their language might have ended up a little different, but that was the gist of the question.

Mayor Emanuel counterattacked. By law citywide ballots can’t include more than three questions per election. So on June 27, Emanuel got the City Council—speaking of rubber stamps—to place three questions on the November ballot.

One, having to do with replacing ComEd as an electricity provider, was required. But the others are almost laughably trivial. Should the state pick up more teacher pension costs, “which will free up local funding that can be invested in the classroom?” Like anyone would vote no on that.

And should the U.S. Congress pass a bill “empowering the federal government and the states to regulate and limit political contributions from corporations?” You know, like House speaker John Boehner is waiting to hear from Chicago’s predominantly Democratic voters to tell him what to do.

They might as well have asked voters if they want the Bears to beat the Packers this year.

Anyway, after being outmaneuvered by Emanuel, the coalition went to plan two. They found ten aldermen willing to support putting the question on the November ballot in their wards.

But to make the deadline for getting on the ballot, they needed council approval by the July 25 meeting. And to get council approval, they first had to move the issue through a council committee.

That meant finding a committee chairman with the guts to defy Emanuel—no easy task. In the strange universe that is Chicago politics, the mayor decides who chairs the City Council committees. If chairmen want to keep their posts—along with whatever jobs, budget funds, perks, and prestige come with it—they can’t run afoul of the boss.

The obvious committee for such a matter was education. But it’s chaired by Alderman Latasha Thomas, an unbending mayoral loyalist, so that wasn’t going to work.

Having pretty much nowhere else to go, they turned to Moore. The 49th Ward alderman fought the good fight against Mayor Daley for 20 years before Emanuel tapped him last year to chair the human relations committee.

On Wednesday, July 11, aldermen Robert Fioretti (Second) and John Arena (45th) met with Moore in the Leona’s restaurant in his ward.

“We said, ‘Joe, you gotta do it,'” recalls Arena. “He said, ‘Is it relevant to my committee?’ And we said, ‘Yes—President Obama himself said education is a human rights issue.'”

Moore says he then called one of the mayor’s legislative aides to let them know, as a matter of courtesy, that he was planning to give the measure a hearing. “She wasn’t happy,” Moore says. “I’ve been around long enough to know that an elected school board is anathema to the mayor.”

Just to make sure of the ground rules, he called on a lawyer for the city’s corporation counsel. “I asked for a ruling on the deadlines,” says Moore. “He told me it had to be stamped by the city clerk’s office 48 hours before the meeting. I asked, ‘Forty-eight business hours or 48 regular hours?’ And he said, ‘Business hours.'”

His committee’s next meeting was at 10 AM on Monday, July 23, which meant the school board measure had to be stamped by the clerk’s office “no later than Thursday, July 19, at ten,” says Moore. “And I told this to John [Arena].”

But by the time Arena got the proposal to the clerk’s office, it was 10:03 AM. So Moore announced that the deadline had passed and the matter wouldn’t be on the committee agenda.

In other words, the mayor avoided a potentially embarrassing referendum in ten wards, just as he avoided a potentially even more embarrassing setback citywide.

All in all, it was a great three minutes for the mayor.

Arena remains irritated at Moore, who he claims backed off after hearing from Emanuel. “Joe said the mayor called and told him he was personally offended we were doing this,” says Arena.

To which Moore says that the mayor never personally called him. “I never talked to the mayor and I never told John I talked to the mayor.”

To which Arena says that he finds it “abhorrent and very disappointing” that an old independent like Moore would fold under mayoral pressure. “Joe acquiesced to the mayor—he blocked it for him. I’d expected something like this from Ed Burke but not Joe Moore.”

To which Moore says that it’s Arena and his allies who want it both ways. “The irony doesn’t escape me that the same group of aldermen who are strict adherents to openness and transparency for things like the mayor’s infrastructure trust are suddenly saying standards are technicalities when it’s their ox being gored.”

To which I say: Joe, there’s a big difference between three minutes on a filing deadline and giving the mayor carte blanche to sell off billions of dollars worth of assets.

To which Moore says: Hey Ben—kiss my ass!

He didn’t really say that. Might not even have thought it. But I’ll tell you this: I definitely want to be on the invite list the next time John and Joe get together at Leona’s.

So here’s what I make of all this.

Did Moore’s strict reading of council rules help the mayor hold on to some of his power? Absolutely.

Is that in the best interests of Chicago’s citizenry? Not unless you favor despotism over democracy—or remain one of the mayor’s charter school cronies.

Would Moore have stuck to such a strict standard if Arena’s proposal wasn’t threatening the mayor’s power? C’mon, people, you don’t even have to ask that question.

So should I rant and rail against Alderman Moore for being Emanuel’s tool? No, sorry—I can’t do it. As far as I’m concerned, Moore’s fought too many good fights for me to bash him for not wanting to put up with a tirade from Mayor F-bomb. At least this time around.

Besides, Moore’s right on one crucial point. If you’re going to fight the most powerful man in Chicago, you’ve got to dot all the i’s and cross all the t’s.

In politics as in boxing, the champ gets all the calls.