Former alderman Robert Shaw says someone needs to beat Mayor Emanuel and it might as well be him.
Former alderman Robert Shaw says someone needs to beat Mayor Emanuel and it might as well be him. Credit: Fran Spielman/Sun-Times Media

As part of my ongoing effort to introduce you to some of the candidates running for mayor—you’ll thank me for this later, Chicago—I was at Wallace’s Catfish Corner talking politics with Robert Shaw one afternoon last week.

That’s former south-side alderman Robert Shaw—not the late, great English actor who starred in Jaws, though if he were alive he might be an improvement over our current mayor.

I was at Wallace’s because that’s where you go to meet with Shaw, since he’s in the restaurant just about every day.

Naturally, the conversation turned to Toni Preckwinkle, president of the Cook County Board. I asked Shaw why he wasn’t supporting her, since she obviously had the best chance of defeating Emanuel.

“I’m going to tell you something,” Shaw responded. “I don’t think she’s running.

“C’mon, Alderman!” I said. “She’s up 25 points in the polls! Of course she’s gonna run.”

“I think she cut a deal with Rahm,” Shaw said. “Eventually she’ll get out.”

About ten minutes later, as if on cue, I had a call from my colleague Mick Dumke. He said the word was out: Preckwinkle was announcing that she wasn’t running for mayor.

When I broke the news, Shaw pounded the table. “What I just tell you?” he said. “I must be a political genius.”

I can’t say that Shaw’s conspiracy theories involving Preckwinkle and Emanuel are true, but I must admit that he probably knows more about Chicago politics than any man or woman in this race, including the mayor.

Shaw ought to have picked up a few things, since he’s been playing the game for more than 50 years. My main question is why he would undertake a campaign he can’t win.

To which he responds: “Why shouldn’t I run for mayor?”

Others are also weighing the question, including Chicago Teachers Union president Karen Lewis and Alderman Robert Fioretti.

Neither has been in the game as long as Shaw. He and his identical twin, William, were born in Arkansas in 1937. Their family moved to the west side of Chicago in 1945. There the brothers learned politics from the old Jewish operators in Arthur Elrod’s 24th Ward.

It was difficult for most people to distinguish one Shaw brother from the other. They even wore identical wigs, though Bob Shaw now goes with the shaved-head look.

In 1961 he moved to the south side, eventually landing in Roseland. He was elected alderman of the Ninth Ward in 1979.

Shaw looked unbeatable until he made a fundamental miscalculation that almost killed his career: he underestimated the strength of the movement behind Harold Washington’s 1983 mayoral campaign.

Instead, Shaw supported incumbent mayor Jane Byrne and ended up getting swept out of office along with her.

“By the time Harold announced, I’d already given my word to Byrne,” said Shaw. “And I paid the price.”

He immediately began his political rehabilitation. “I apologized to the people—every chance I got.”

It also didn’t hurt that his successor, Perry Hutchinson, was eventually indicted for taking bribes from a mole in a federal sting operation. Shaw defeated Hutchinson in 1987.

After Richard M. Daley became mayor two years later, Shaw evolved into something of a City Council independent who dared to criticize the mayor and vote against his budgets.

“[Mayor] Emanuel seems to have contempt for the black community.”
—Former alderman Robert Shaw

He was also adroit at needling Daley—such as the time in 1993 when he took to the council floor to point out that Michael Daley, the mayor’s brother, worked for a law firm that was handling zoning requests before the city.

“I said, ‘Who is this Michael Daley? Is he from the same Daleys as Mayor Daley?'” recalled Shaw. “The mayor was steaming. His face was beet red.”

In 1998 Shaw was elected to the Cook County Board of Review, which handles appeals of property tax assessments.

By then he and his brother were openly battling with Congressman Jesse Jackson Jr. for political control of the far south side and nearby suburbs. Jackson eventually won as his allies took over Bob Shaw’s old council seat and booted Bill Shaw from the state senate. Bill died in 2008.

But then Jackson encountered his own troubles, and now Bob Shaw is running for mayor while his old nemesis does time on federal corruption charges.

“Junior didn’t like me,” said Shaw. “I don’t know why. I got along with his father. I think it was some folks just don’t like to see other folks doing well.”

Shaw says his years in politics make him “eminently qualified” to serve as mayor.

He certainly understands the devastating impact of gun violence in black communities.

In 1997 Shaw’s son John—then 27—was gunned down near his south-side home.

“I know how parents feel when they get the news that a child has been murdered,” Shaw said. “It’s a feeling that I wouldn’t want anyone to have.”

If elected mayor, he says he’ll hire more police officers, especially black homicide detectives. “Many of the people doing the shootings are repeat offenders,” Shaw said. “It’s a simple fact that we need more black homicide detectives to help solve these crimes.”

Shaw says he appreciates Mayor Emanuel’s efforts to reach out to people whose children have been shot. But that’s about the only nice thing he has to say about the mayor.

“Emanuel seems to have contempt for the black community,” Shaw said. “Even Daley wasn’t this bad. It’s not just closing the schools and the clinics—it’s everything. The cameras at the red lights, that DePaul stadium deal, the crime.

“He only won the last time because folks thought the president supported him. That won’t work this time around.”

Despite his criticism of Emanuel, I must admit that, given Shaw’s reputation as a consummate wheeler-dealer, I assumed he’d jumped into the mayoral race in order to extract something for getting out.

Not so, Shaw insists. “First of all, I love Chicago. Second of all, I think I can win. I had 29 points in that last Sun-Times poll, didn’t I? Don’t forget—we have a runoff system.”

True. If no candidate gets more than 50 percent of the vote in the February election, the top two finishers face off in a runoff.

Shaw predicts there will be a runoff. “And I think I’ll be in it. I was right about Preckwinkle, wasn’t I? Well, you’ll see—I’ll be right about this.”