By Ben Joravsky
Dick Simpson’s two terms in the City Council ended in 1979, but somehow he never really got away.
The former north-side independent, one of the few aldermen with the guts to defy the old Mayor Daley, has just written a history of the council called Rogues, Rebels, and Rubber Stamps. “I guess it’s remarkable that I’m still following the council after all these years,” says Simp-son, who teaches political science at the University of Illinois at Chicago. “It’s also remarkable that the council really hasn’t changed that much. It’s returned to the old rubber-stamp ways.”
What’s even more remarkable is that Simpson, given his background, would care so much about the City Council. Unlike most aldermen or students of Chicago politics, he’s from out of town–born and raised in Texas.
In the early 1960s Simpson got caught up in the civil rights movement, and in 1966 he moved to Africa to write his dissertation. “I was studying two up-country towns in Sierra Leone when the cities in the U.S. went up in flames,” he says. “I read about the riots in Time. I wrote my dissertation adviser and said, ‘The cities look like they’re having problems, and I’d like to be part of the solution.'”
He moved back to the States and in the summer of 1967 went to work as a political science professor at UIC. “I had no intention of getting involved in local politics, believe me,” he says. “I was only vaguely aware of the Democratic machine. I knew that Richard J. Daley was mayor, and that was about it.”
He got involved in the antiwar movement and volunteered in Eugene McCarthy’s presidential campaign. One thing led to another, and he wound up managing the aldermanic campaign of John Stevens, a black social worker running against the machine-backed candidate in the 42nd Ward. “That was my introduction to machine politics,” says Simpson. “The 42nd Ward back then linked the Gold Coast to Cabrini-Green. John lost by only 742 votes. We actually lost it in Cabrini-Green. There were paper ballots in four precincts, and I remember we lost one precinct by 400 to 12. Think about it–a black candidate losing by that margin to a white candidate in an all-black precinct in the late 60s? Something fishy was going on. That’s when I began to understand Mayor Daley’s political machine in a very direct way.”
After the Stevens campaign, north-lakefront independents drafted Simpson to run for alderman against the machine in the 44th Ward. At the time, many local regulars were indignant that a man so new to town would run for that office, since career politicians typically waited years for such an opportunity. “Usually you’re born and you die before you get a chance to run for alderman,” says Simpson. But the north side was changing demographically and politically in a way the regular organizations didn’t understand. “It was a time of great rebellions–environmental, civil rights, antiwar. We were out to destroy the machine and overturn city government–not by violent revolution, but by beating them at the ballot box.”
Simpson managed to win, beating a regular whose name he can’t remember. But the City Council was a strange, almost surrealistic place for a young idealist to be. The machine aldermen were puppets in a drama scripted and directed by Mayor Daley and his floor leader, Alderman Tom Keane. Says Simpson, “Aldermen were told what to say and when to say it.” If they dared speak out of turn, Keane essentially told them to be quiet. When it came to voting, they followed the lead of First Ward alderman Fred Roti, who voted according to Keane’s command. If Roti made a mistake–if he misunderstood Keane’s direction and voted yes instead of no–all the other aldermen did the same. Then Keane would halt the proceedings and have them vote the right way.
“I respected Keane’s intellect,” says Simpson. “At any given time there were only five or six aldermen who understood the budget, and he was one of them. But he was arrogant, more arrogant than he should have been, and he treated all of us with contempt.”
Simpson was one of seven independent-minded aldermen who dared to vote against Daley on a regular basis. They were a diverse bunch that included a socially conservative Republican (John Hoellen), a black activist (Anna Langford), and a militantly antibusing white priest (Francis Lawlor). “We had lunch meetings every two weeks or so to plan our strategy,” says Simpson. “We had remarkable cohesion given our different backgrounds. Then as now, there are basically three kinds of reforms. You have good-government reformers who are always looking for ways to cut spending. You have activists who represent blacks and Latinos who feel locked out of government. And then there’s a third group, who are really looking to open up government. That was me. I believed in citizen participation. I set up little city halls in the community so my constituents would have a say on things like zoning.”
The independents introduced alternative budgets and countered the official spin put out by Daley and his acolytes. On some issues the independents managed to get as many as 14 out of 50 aldermen to vote against the mayor.
“The machine was trying to slate smarter, younger aldermen to keep up with the changing times, and these guys wanted to be with us,” says Simpson. “In the back rooms they were very cordial, they would agree that we were right. But when push came to shove, they didn’t have the guts to vote with us. They really felt restrained, because the machine had put them in office. The machine was smart enough to know they couldn’t put in the typical old cigar chomper–we had beat them. They had to put in someone who looked like us and talked like us. They just couldn’t vote like us.”
Within a few months in office, Simpson had proved he wasn’t afraid to challenge Daley on everything from police brutality to nepotism. Their most famous exchange came during a debate in July 1971, when Simpson criticized Daley for appointing Keane’s son, Thomas Keane Jr., to the Zoning Board of Appeals. In his book he describes Daley’s reaction, a perfect example of the mayor’s skill at deflecting criticism by displaying outrage over a phony issue. “I hope the halls of all the great educational institutions will stop being places for agitation and hatred against this society,” Daley bellowed, his face beet red. “And talk about the young people! With their cynical smiles and their fakery and polluted minds, and the idea that I made this appointment because a man’s name was Keane and he was the son of a famous member of this council! I made this appointment because I have known Tommy Keane, the boy I appointed, since he’s been a baby. And I know his mother, Adeline Keane, one of the greatest women I know, not only in this city but in any city in the United States…a fine Polish-American woman, who raised a fine boy. And should that boy be told by any professor or faker that he shouldn’t hold office because his name is Keane and she’s his mother?”
Exhausted from holding down two full-time jobs, Simpson decided not to run for reelection in 1979. But he never stopped following the City Council. This latest book, published by Westview Press, stems from several studies he’s done of City Council voting patterns and traces the history of the council back to the 1800s.
Some of the passages describing the rank corruption at the turn of the century are funny, in a sad and pathetic way. “The leading Democratic paper of the time, the Chicago Herald,” Simpson writes, said that an alderman is “in nine cases out of ten a bummer and a disreputable who can be bought and sold as hogs are bought and sold at the stockyards.” Since then, scores of aldermen have been indicted on various charges.
During the five years of Mayor Harold Washington’s reign, the council acted as an independent body–if only because so many of the white aldermen couldn’t stomach the idea of a black man in charge of City Hall. Since then, however, the council has gone back to rubber-stamping.
“In some ways it’s even worse than it was in my day,” says Simpson. The current Mayor Daley expects aldermen to follow his command, and if they don’t he can be as vindictive as his father was. Simpson quotes Daley lashing out at aldermen in 1999 for not voting to confirm James Joyce, the mayor’s choice for fire commissioner. “He’ll lead the department, with or without your support, and that’s why I selected him!” Daley thundered. “This will be a vote we’ll remember and I think you will apologize someday!” As Simpson points out, the vote in favor of Joyce was 42 to 5, so it was hardly as though the mayor’s rule had been seriously challenged. When the appointment was announced, the five aldermen who’d voted against Joyce refused to join the standing ovation, and Daley snapped indignantly, “Even though you vote no, you should stand up and clap. Number one, that is something that I think our parents and church leaders taught us.”
Simpson says he had a dream of local democracy, but it’s been largely wiped out. Now, for instance, many aldermen act like feudal lords on zoning matters, and residents often learn of zoning changes only after they’ve been made.
Moreover, there’s no organized independent bloc in the council these days. On occasion, five or six aldermen might vote against Daley, but they rarely get together to plot strategy, much less present an alternative budget. Most of the time they vote as directed, reciting the lines the mayor’s floor leaders give them.
“I was pretty amused in the last few weeks when I read in the papers that the aldermen were arguing that they weren’t rubber stamps, even though they were routinely approving Mayor Daley’s Soldier Field plan–I guess they were trying to help me sell copies of the book,” says Simpson. “I don’t think there’s any question that Daley’s created a new machine. He took the old machine–or what was left of it–and fortified it, in a sense, with huge amounts of money he gets in campaign contributions from bankers, lawyers, developers, and other insiders looking for city business or favors. Then he uses that money to hire political consultants to run Clinton-esque campaigns.”
Simpson says he believes the council will undergo another transformation. “I’m optimistic things will change since political conditions don’t stay the same forever,” he says. “The City Council is always a microcosm of the larger struggle for social justice in America–that’s why I remain fascinated with it. But I don’t see that change happening soon. Mayor Daley may not have as big an army of precinct workers as his father, but then he doesn’t need that huge army. More and more campaigns are run with television ads anyway, and that’s where his huge advantage in raising money really pays off. The army he has is big enough. There’s an old saying–the one-eyed man in the kingdom of the blind is king. Well, Daley’s machine may not be as big as his father’s, but for the moment it’s the only machine there is.”
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Nathan Mandell.