By David Moberg

Richard Daley is a mayor who champions the rigorous testing of students, but there are no standardized tests for public officials. Elections, such as the one next week, can be seen as a popular report card of sorts, but they’re more reliable as a measure of fund-raising, image making, and political savvy than of how well an elected official is doing his job. What’s more, they measure him against his opponent rather than against what is needed and what is possible.

Now ending his third term, Daley benefits from the nation’s second-longest growth period in this century, with economic conditions even healthier in the midwest than on the coasts. Over the past few years any mayor with a modicum of competence would have presided over rising revenues and declining crime and unemployment. But a mayor’s policies add or subtract; they steer the city in the right direction or the wrong one.

To evaluate Daley, I turned to a variety of academics, advocacy group leaders, independent political analysts, and think tank experts, some of them Daley supporters and some critics. The standard of judgment was not social utopia but reasonable expectations, defined in part by the best practices of other cities. For example, it wouldn’t be reasonable to expect Chicago to have a comprehensive municipal health insurance system covering everybody, though that would solve a lot of problems. But a strong patient bill of rights might have been possible (Daley blocked passage of a good bill, pushing through a weak substitute). And where the mayor enjoys ultimate political control–for example with the schools, the parks, and the CTA–he’s graded on his appointees’ performance, even if they run a separate political or administrative unit.

Grades and test scores can be arbitrary and unjust, failing to capture the nuances of a student’s performance. That’s one reason so many school reform advocates are up in arms about the Chicago school board’s preoccupation with standardized test scores. But what’s sauce for the students should be sauce for the mayor. Also, there’s no grade inflation here. A grade of A means excellent; B, good; C, fair or average; D, poor; and F, failing.

Now for the report card:

Image Maintenance and Enhancement A

It’s amazing what a few flowerpots can do. Wrought iron fences may not please all sensibilities, but the mayor has spiffed up the city–mainly but not only along the north lakefront and downtown. He’s found a relatively cheap way to make people feel better about their neighborhoods. He’s also helped polish Chicago’s image to the nation and the world, contributing to tourism and even to business-location decisions. A reviving city with declining crime, improving schools, and a lively atmosphere attracts or retains young, affluent singles and couples and more middle-class families as well. Which is fine, so long as lower-income families don’t pay the price.

If image were everything, Daley would be a solid performer. Unfortunately, there’s a real world out there.

Education B-

If image were everything, Daley would deserve an A for education. President Clinton and secretary of education Richard Riley hail Chicago schools as a model for the nation, a big turnaround from being called the nation’s worst by the secretary of education in 1987. After a slow start, Daley and his lieutenants–schools CEO Paul Vallas and board president Gery Chico–did make some improvements, mainly putting $1.4 billion into refurbishing and expanding school buildings. Vallas improved fiscal discipline and efficiency and negotiated two teacher contracts that have opened the schools each fall without disruption. Above all, Daley and Vallas have publicly insisted that the measure of Chicago’s schools should be how well they educate children. It may seem obvious, but it’s a big change from the old days.

But if his cheerleading deserves an A, on educational policy Daley earns a low C. He’s mixed reasonable measures with strategies that go contrary to much of what has been learned here and elsewhere about what makes schools work. School reform has gone through two phases. A decade ago the state enacted one of the most radical big-city school reform efforts in the country, giving local school councils of parents, teachers, and community representatives power to set policy and select principals, who had new authority to run their schools. There were striking results in some schools and improvement overall, but roughly a third of the elementary schools and most high schools showed little progress. In 1995 the state legislature initiated a second chapter of reform when it gave Daley control over the Board of Education and the board new powers to intervene in floundering schools. Since then standardized test scores, which had started improving under the initial reform, have continued to rise overall, and the number of Chicago public schools on the state’s academic early warning list has dropped sharply.

Though even ardent advocates of the original reform acknowledged the need for stronger mechanisms to hold schools accountable, the Board of Education in recent years hasn’t acted to salvage and strengthen the original model of reform but rather to reconcentrate power, policy making, and resources in the superintendent and the central office. New dictates on the curriculum and on testing have interfered with the educational programs of many schools. Teachers complain about time spent “teaching to the test.” Some of the system’s most highly touted new policies–especially ending “social promotions” and retaining kids who don’t pass tests after summer school remediation–are intuitively appealing. But they’ve been tried before and shown to be failures, especially by comparison with more ambitious and admittedly expensive strategies to provide additional support to students who perform poorly.

Completely off the public’s radar, Daley has ignored the $340-million-a-year city college system, which he also ultimately controls. These two-year colleges could play a crucial role in preparing Chicago students for decent-paying technical jobs and in retaining, developing, and attracting businesses to Chicago. But the system remains an expensive patronage haven that performs dreadfully, with a graduation rate half the national average. Daley flunks the community college test.

Chicago schools might deserve the hype they’re getting if Vallas were to turn his considerable energy toward a different goal: a system of smaller schools whose teachers and principals are accountable first to local school councils but ultimately to rigorous citywide standards. Unfortunately, the trend is toward a discredited bureaucratic centralism that might yield better test scores in the short run and score political points for the mayor.

Government Administration and Political Leadership C-

If the mayor were graded solely on services like clearing snow-clogged streets and picking up garbage, he’d score high. He’d also get a high grade for appointments–such as housing commissioner Julia Stasch, director of cultural affairs Lois Weisberg, and health commissioner Sheila Lyne–that experts outside government praise highly. But there are widespread complaints of political cronyism, patronage, and city departments subordinated to the mayor’s political ends.

As a political leader, Daley deserves plaudits for initiating a dialogue with metropolitan mayors. But he’s widely seen as erratic, ineffective, and often disengaged in dealing with state and federal government. Sun-Times columnist Steve Neal has noted his disconcerting habit of seeking scapegoats for his problems and making vindictive attacks on his own staff (most notably during the great tunnel flood of 1993). Daley wins praise for his attention to detail, but beyond catering to business and developers and enticing the middle class to live in a city that is clean and orderly, he gives little sign of a grand vision.

Judgment is mixed on the mayor’s record with the city budget. The Civic Federation, a guardian of tax and budgetary accountability, commends his progress in clarifying budgets, but the whole process is less open to public debate than when Mayor Washington’s antagonists scrutinized every budgetary squiggle. The repeated eruption of contracting and conflict-of-interest scandals calls into question the image of managerial professionalism that Daley tries to project. The mayor has tried to contain the public relations damage by promoting three ethics ordinances, but critics like Terrence Brunner of the Better Government Association regard them as ineffective. Politically connected businesses continue to be favored with contracts, and Daley resists one key reform: prohibiting political contributions by firms, or their principal officers, that have any contracts with the city. With Daley’s growing control over the City Council, there is diminishing oversight from that unreliable watchdog. “Any mayor who doesn’t have a legislative body that critically reviews what he does won’t be catching mistakes and making improvements,” argues Toni Hartrich, associate professor of public administration at Roosevelt University. About 200 of the nation’s largest cities, including New York, Philadelphia, and Detroit, have all city programs independently audited to help weed out abuse and inefficiency, as antipoverty crusader Doug Dobmeyer recently reported. But not Chicago.

The healthy economy has boosted tax receipts and made budgeting easier for Daley. He has kept property tax rates down before elections, though they’ve risen afterward. There has been no effort to assess the regressivity of the city’s tax system, but heavy reliance on sales taxes, utility taxes, higher mass-transit fares, and user fees seems likely to make it worse.

Daley’s decision to turn over the jobs of thousands of workers in the city, parks, schools, and other jurisdictions to private contractors typically is portrayed as making government more efficient. Like his Republican counterparts, Daley seems convinced that private business is nearly always better than government. Despite the mayor’s support from organized labor, an official of a union representing city workers describes the city’s labor relations staff as reflecting “a combination of incompetence and indifference, with a dash of outright hostility thrown in.”

The putative merits of subcontracting are overblown. A 1997 study by the Chicago Institute on Urban Poverty Policy concluded that the real savings from privatization were less than half the amount claimed by the city and most of those savings came at the expense of workers, who were typically paid one-fourth to one-half less after privatization. The study concluded that “privatization…effectively transforms living wage jobs into poverty wage work,” thereby increasing poverty-related expenses for government, including the city’s. But privatization lets the mayor hand out contracts to grateful businesses owned by longtime friends or people who can be counted on to support him politically. Daley’s much-touted privatization of abandoned-auto towing, for example, saw the politically connected owners of Environmental Auto Removal reimburse the city under media pressure in 1997 for nearly $1 million that the firm had been overpaid. And it saw Daley pal Michael Tadin leasing a parking lot to the city over seven years at a cost of more than five times the fair price of the land.

The sorry record on privatization makes Daley’s long fight against requiring city contractors (and originally all businesses receiving city aid) to pay a living wage of $7.60 an hour less excusable. Daley finally agreed to a compromise last year simply to provide political cover for a hefty pay increase for himself and the aldermen, but now the city is trying to interpret the legislation so that virtually none of the 2,000 to 3,000 workers who should be covered will actually be guaranteed the living wage.

Dispensing patronage and winking at aldermen’s abuses of power in their wards may help Daley silence potential opposition. But the mayor has enough political power to run a completely honest, aboveboard government and get away with it. Why doesn’t he?

Crime and Police D+

Chicago’s crime rate has declined in recent years. So has the nation’s, and other big cities’ crime rates have dropped faster. Last year Chicago had more murders than New York, which has more than twice the population. Daley certainly takes crime fighting seriously: he wins points for his crusade against guns, which finds him joining other cities in at least symbolical lawsuits against manufacturers, and he has added 1,600 officers to the police force. Neither the improvement in crime statistics nor responsibility for the city’s relatively poor showing can be laid only at the mayor’s doorstep, yet he deserves credit for launching an innovative community policing strategy and blame for quickly undercutting it.

After initially positive results from a community policing strategy that involved active neighborhood participation, the mayor dropped the Chicago Alliance for Neighborhood Safety (CANS) as trainer and organizer. Recently, according to CANS surveys of beat meetings, there has been a decline in community involvement and implementation of the problem-solving strategies that are supposedly the foundation of the Chicago Alternative Policing Strategy.

CANS also compared outcomes in Chicago with those in San Diego, which emphasizes the community problem-solving approach, and in New York, which has a tough “zero tolerance” strategy driven by competition among police districts to improve their crime statistics. In the first half of the decade, crime rates in both San Diego and New York dropped by around 37 percent, compared with a 16 percent drop in Chicago (though there are suspicions that the New York system encourages falsified reports). Complaints about police practices dropped by 8 percent in San Diego, soared by 60 percent in New York, and increased by 19 percent in Chicago during the period of the CANS study (though it appears local complaints have leveled off since). Daley undermined his own best effort with community policing in large part, it appears, because he feared real independent community involvement in government.

Most cities, big and small, have been adopting civilian review boards over the past decade, but Daley resists the idea. When there have been public revelations of police misconduct, Daley has typically spoken out, according to Mary Powers, the longtime coordinator of Citizens Alert, a police monitoring organization, “but he doesn’t act on it.”

Finally, Chicago police are adopting limited videotaping of confessions–but not videotaping of the entire interrogation, which might have headed off the kind of torture identified with former police commander Jon Burge. Ten men are on death row in Illinois prisons at least in part on the strength of confessions elicited by Burge’s men in the 80s; all were convicted while Daley was state’s attorney. Anthony Porter just became the tenth innocent person freed from death row since the state restored the death penalty. Despite Daley’s implication in this sorry record, he shows no sign of learning from it or correcting it.

Civil Liberties F

Civil Rights B

As mayor, Daley has continued to use crime fighting as a rationale for trampling on civil liberties. In 1997 the Illinois Supreme Court rejected Daley’s sweeps of public housing and his antiloitering ordinance that police had invoked to arrest more than 40,000 young people over a three-year period. Neither strategy might have been tempting if community policing had been implemented more vigorously. Perhaps even worse, Daley has petitioned the courts to roll back the ban on police spying that resulted from a 1981 settlement of a lawsuit charging the police Red Squad with illegally spying on and disrupting legitimate political organizations.

If Daley flunks on civil liberties, his record on the rights of women, gays and lesbians, and minorities is stronger. He has appointed African-Americans and Latinos–as well as women and gays–to prominent positions, even if they aren’t part of his innermost circle. He has also delivered basic city services relatively equitably among neighborhoods. The administration has continued to press affirmative action in contracts and hiring despite strong protests from police and fire union officials. Nevertheless, hiring and promotions in both departments remain racially skewed. Last August the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission concluded that Chicago has “utterly failed” with affirmative action at the fire department and that “the city was more than twice as likely to hire any given white applicant than any given black applicant….It is essentially impossible that this disparity was not caused by bias.” There have been continued complaints about police misconduct and racism in the police and fire departments. Daley also spent tens of millions of dollars fighting a losing battle to defend a ward remap that minimized black political representation. But despite often harsh criticism and occasional praise, the most common reaction among African-Americans appears to be wary surprise that Daley is not as bad as they’d feared.

On the other hand, Daley has won over even his harshest critics among gay activists–“going from D-minus to A,” according to Rick Garcia, director of the Illinois Campaign for Human Rights, for specific measures such as extending city benefits to domestic partners of gay city workers and for a generally supportive stance. Women’s rights groups applaud city initiatives against domestic violence and sexual harassment among city employees, a plan to help upgrade day care centers, and the construction of a special center to assist young victims of sexual abuse. Yet other work has been stymied, including a promising “Voices for Girls” program to increase the sensitivity of public agencies to young girls’ needs.

Jobs and Economic Development C

If Daley has a grand strategy for Chicago’s economic future, it’s promoting real estate development in the greater Loop and attracting more middle-class and young professional residents to the city. It is a strategy that encourages trends under way before Daley took office.

The real challenge for government is to steer these shifts in housing, jobs, and retail markets to benefit as many residents and neighborhoods as possible. Nobody can deny the value of the Loop as a generator of jobs and property tax revenue, but according to an analysis late last year by the Neighborhood Capital Budget Group, the city continues to neglect the neighborhoods and their own economic activity, including the remaining manufacturing industries. The group concluded that nearly three-fourths of neighborhood industrial projects were unfunded. Daley has increasingly put money into street repairs and other neighborhood improvements. He has also reversed himself to support the preservation of manufacturing by designating industrial corridors and protected manufacturing districts. But only 5 of the 50 wards are scheduled to receive enough funds even to maintain their crumbling infrastructures, and the city estimates that about one-fifth of its capital spending will be in the greater Loop.

Chicago’s network of community development organizations criticizes the mayor for relying too heavily on tax increment financing districts. When the city designates a TIF for a certain period–like 10 or 20 years–all of the increased city revenues from the area are set aside for improvements to that area. TIFs make the most sense when they are used to spur initial development in neglected areas by borrowing money against expectations of future taxes. The number of TIFs has soared from 26 in 1996 to 64 today, with another 20 under development, according to Jacqueline Leavy of the Neighborhood Capital Budget Group. But many of the TIFs are downtown, where development would likely take place without them. As a result, the city can make exaggerated claims that its TIFs have spurred huge investments when in reality they are unnecessarily giving away revenue to developers and downtown businesses.

There’s another problem with having so many TIFs. If the city were to borrow money to seed investment in all of them, hoping to repay the bonds from the increased revenues, its debt load might become imprudently large. To succeed, the industrial-area TIFs in particular need that kind of initial investment in preparing sites and training workers. They’re not getting it. And in years to come the real bill for these TIFs will hit the city, the schools, and other public agencies when they’re deprived of their share of new tax revenues generated by the city’s growth.

Community organizations that have played a key role in strengthening neighborhood commercial and industrial districts are frustrated with Daley’s reluctance to involve them in planning economic development. That’s especially true with the city’s federal empowerment zone, which has shown little progress since a necklace of neighborhoods from Woodlawn to North Austin was targeted in 1994 for special federal aid through grants, tax breaks, and regulatory flexibility. “There was a betrayal of the ground-up reinventing government of that legislation,” argues Nik Theodore, of the Center for Urban Economic Development at the University of Illinois at Chicago. “The politics of grant awarding has been very poor.” He complains that the city has failed to work as partners with community groups, helping them to conceive and carry out projects.

Daley has recently put less emphasis on megaprojects, but his record is erratic and he apparently still harbors dreams of casino gambling in Chicago. The Loop-oriented blockbuster mentality often interferes with strategic economic development planning. For example, while the CTA trains suffered from a lack of investment, Daley expended political capital in a losing fight for a “central area circulator” transit project that would mainly serve conventioneers and Loop workers. The city has dragged its feet on tapping the potential of transit stations to stimulate local economic development and increase the use of mass transit.

Transportation C

After a disastrous start promoting a new airport at Lake Calumet, Daley has wisely resisted proposals for a third airport in Peotone and elsewhere and fought against suburban Republican efforts to gain more control over O’Hare. Daley may simply want to control jobs, contracts, and tax revenues, but whatever his reasons he deserves high marks for investing in Midway and O’Hare. Expanding the capacity of the two airports (and following through on Daley’s neglected marriage of convenience with Gary to develop that city’s airport) makes more sense than building in Peotone. What’s missing from the mayor’s plan is Chicago as the center of a high-speed rail network. There’s growing support for it in the region, and Chicago could become a manufacturing center for such a network–reviving the moribund rail industry that once thrived on the south side–as well as a transportation hub. High-speed rail linking the Loop and the two airports to other midwestern cities could greatly reduce the need for future airport space, freeing O’Hare to be a hub for long-range flights.

The biggest transportation issue, however, is the deteriorating CTA. Though the public transit system is extremely valuable infrastructure, Daley has given it little attention, demolishing a part of the south-side line rather than developing potential connections with Metra. The strategy of higher fares and service cuts guarantees further declines in ridership and a spiral of shrinkage that will hurt Chicago’s low-to-moderate-income workers most of all. And abandoning mass transit will increase auto congestion, maintenance costs for streets and highways, and air pollution.

There are ways to reverse the decline. If the CTA cut fares, increased service, and undertook needed repairs and expansion, it could boost the number of riders by about 40 percent, according to a study conducted by the Midwest Center for Labor Research for a coalition of citizen groups and transit worker unions. Cities from New York to Orlando have succeeded with such a strategy. Chicago has contributed $3 million a year to the CTA since 1976, but if it contributed at the rate New York did during its refurbishing of mass transit in the 1980s, this city would contribute $54 million a year. If Daley wanted to mount a fight for transit funds, there are opportunities to raise money from the federal and state governments, both of which are relatively flush now. But he doesn’t seem to care.

Environment C-

Daley’s mixed record on transportation issues–good so far on the airports, not so hot on the CTA or high-speed rail–translates into a mixed record on air pollution. The city has encouraged bicycling and experimented with hydrogen-fueled buses, but it is far behind other big cities in introducing low-emission vehicles.

Despite Daley’s obsession with planting trees, his environmental record has few triumphs and many blemishes. He deserves points for helping to make redevelopment of contaminated urban land, or “brownfields,” a higher-profile national issue, but so far the city has made little progress toward reusing its own heavily polluted lands. Joanna Hoelscher of Citizens for a Better Environment charges that the city’s behavior in several instances, such as the construction of new schools on polluted sites in Little Village, suggests that “they seem to be willing to totally ignore health considerations in their haste to develop.”

The city’s blue-bag program has proved to be deeply flawed, just as critics predicted. Chicago recycles 7 to 8 percent of its waste as marketable commodities like glass, paper, and metal–about half the rate of other cities. The city makes exaggerated claims for its solid-waste management that are based on dubious accounting. For example, it counts the weight of water that will evaporate from garbage as waste “diverted” from landfills. And though it claims it’s recycling one-fourth of all its garbage, about 40 percent of that “recycling” consists of residual material that is simply sifted out of the garbage and used as cover for a landfill run by Waste Management.

A year and a half ago Daley took a leading national role to fight the Clinton administration’s proposed tightening of regulations on particulate and ozone pollution. There was no basis for Daley’s claim that the regulations would deter businesses from locating in cities like Chicago, argues Ron Burke, deputy executive director of the American Lung Association of Metropolitan Chicago, but there was evidence that the higher level of particulates that Daley defended was linked to 3,500 premature deaths every year in the Chicago area. Similarly, Daley was prepared to spend large sums to renovate the city’s Northwest Incinerator, despite compelling health and environmental arguments against it, and dropped the plan only when a change in state law boosted the construction cost.

Housing B-

As the private-housing boom spreads through Chicago, the two biggest housing issues for the city are how to preserve and expand affordable housing and how to make sure that a healthy mix of income levels exists in the neighborhoods. The Daley record is uneven. To his credit, the mayor responded to pressure from a coalition of not-for-profit affordable-housing advocates and developers, who have great hopes for his new housing commissioner. In recent years the city has subsidized mortgages for more than 2,000 moderate-income home buyers and built or renovated 2,900 single-room-occupancy units and about 4,500 units of multifamily housing. Without additional pressure, the city negotiated a five-year renewal of its first five-year plan, which doubled the funds to $1.3 billion, most of it state and federal money but with more city money than in the past. As part of that plan, the mayor recently announced plans for four new SRO buildings. The city is funding rehabilitation of a 24-unit apartment building at 58th and Michigan that an organization of homeless women selected from the city’s stock of abandoned buildings and will operate after a renovation that begins in April. And it’s helping to provide social services for the formerly homeless people who live in the SROs.

Yet the mayor supports policies that are increasing the need for affordable housing and decreasing its supply. Chicago’s “fast track” demolition policy destroys houses and apartment buildings that might be rehabilitated into affordable housing, and the city does little to assure that low-income people are included in new projects and not driven out of gentrifying neighborhoods (though a property-tax deferral plan is available for the poor in neighborhoods with rapidly rising housing prices and taxes).

The most critical issue is the Chicago Housing Authority. The demolition of a projected 19,000 units of CHA housing–about half its total housing stock–is driven by federal policies, and the federal government appointed the present administrator, but the next mayor will soon reclaim responsibility for the CHA. Under Daley, the city has supported the demolition of housing at Cabrini-Green and at the ABLA homes on the west side, opening prime land to market-rate development while providing federal Section Eight rent-subsidy vouchers to many of the displaced public-housing residents. The city fought Cabrini-Green residents who were trying to preserve affordable housing in their area and give CHA residents more power over the development plans; the compromise Chicago eventually agreed to is now stalled in the courts.

Even before the demolition began, the private market provided less than half the affordable housing the city needed, according to a 1997 study for the Nathalie P. Voorhees Center at the University of Illinois. (The study’s authors feel they’ve been harassed by the city for having provided research helpful to critics of the CHA and City Hall, such as the Cabrini-Green residents who were suing the city. After the study came out, city lawyers subpoenaed the research, the people interviewed, funders of the study, and others.) Those who can find housing often end up in what has become a racially segregated ghetto of Section Eight housing in the far south suburbs, where poor black families live far from potential jobs and enjoy even less political power than they had originally.

“The whole city policy is happening without an option for the poor,” argues John Donahue, director of the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless. He claims that homelessness–especially of families–is on the rise despite economic good times because of a shortage of affordable housing. “The option is for developing the city and not really for solving social problems.”

Parks B

When Friends of the Parks graded the Park District last June, they awarded “good” marks for operations, recreation, programming, landscaping, and capital improvements. They gave the Park District an “excellent” for initiatives such as new festivals, the restoration of the Garfield Park conservatory, the acquisition of new parkland, and the ice-skating program. The group also handed out a “fair” rating for governance and a “poor” for community participation.

Yet Friends director Erma Tranter notes that 55 out of 77 city neighborhoods have less that one-fifth the recommended amount of park space, and that despite its acquisition of new land, occasionally in joint efforts with the school board, the Park District still gives away parkland to private projects for political reasons. Overall, she agrees with Blair Kamin, who said in his Tribune series on the lakefront that the Park District has no long-term plan. It also shows little interest in involving citizens in the plans it makes, long-term or short.

While Daley’s plan to transform Meigs Field into park space might make sense in the long run, there are far more pressing neighborhood needs for the same money. At least Daley could have exacted state aid for mass transit or some other worthy purpose in trade for keeping Meigs open.

Culture B

Under Daley’s cultural director, Lois Weisberg, the city has played an energetic role in promoting the arts despite a small budget. The Cultural Center, for example, has turned into a lively gem, with great art exhibits, innovative programming, and an inviting ambience. Gallery 37 is a hit in providing arts experiences for young people (though it serves only a few, while the vast majority of kids suffer from cuts in the school system’s arts programs). Though there’s often grumbling about programming and public support, the summer festivals remain popular. Theater producers appreciated a tax break. The Park District has been recruited as a partner in the arts. Outdoor sculpture exhibits enliven city streets and Navy Pier.

Skeptics point out that the city’s big money has been going into revival of old theaters and the construction of new ones downtown, though it’s not clear that these spaces will be economically sustainable or suit the cultural needs of the city. What is driving those decisions may not be cultural policy but the crass and perhaps not altogether savvy use of culture as a tool for promoting downtown real estate development.

Participatory Democracy F

It’s not entirely Daley’s fault that voter turnout has plummeted in recent mayoral elections and that Chicago’s lively oppositional politics has collapsed. But the mayor has done everything he could to discourage any popular involvement in civic affairs that would compromise his hold on power. Despite preserving many of the reforms that emerged during Harold Washington’s brief tenure, he has largely rejected Washington’s belief in community participation in planning and implementing public policy.

While more democracy is a worthy goal in its own right, the city loses on other counts when the mayor rejects a strong, direct, independent role for its citizens. Stronger participatory democracy would offer officials new sources of ideas and a better understanding of what people want. It would mean that thousands of citizens were mobilized to help solve the city’s street-level problems, such as crime on the block, lackluster teaching at the local school, and a failing local business strip. The city could tap into a resource that money can’t buy. Citizen involvement can make city programs more flexible, more responsive to local conditions, and more effective and ultimately efficient, even if it takes time and demands a willingness to give and take.

Yet time and again, citizen groups complain that the Daley administration shuts them out. They say this about the schools, the parks, community economic development, transit planning, the empowerment zone, community policing, recycling, and nearly every other area of city life. Even when Daley embraces a good idea, he seems to sabotage it out of a fear and distrust of democracy.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration by Mike Werner.