Over the years, various rabble-rousers have led sit-ins, marches, and boycotts to protest one municipal plan or another. But Pat Quinn and his band of neighborhood activists are using a relatively unusual strategy to fight the proposed $587-million Bears stadium–shame.
They want to embarrass Mayor Daley into dropping his massive Soldier Field rebuilding plan–or at least keep him from allowing the Chicago Bears to sell renaming rights to the highest corporate bidder. So they’re going door-to-door throughout the city, collecting the tens of thousands of signatures they need to get a nonbinding referendum on the issue on the ballot in next March’s election.
“Every veteran I’ve talked to feels very strongly about this–they do not want Soldier Field renamed,” says Quinn, the former state treasurer who makes a living as a lawyer. “That would desecrate the memory of the veterans for whom it was named. It would be pretty hard for any public official to do that just to build a new football field for the Bears. Put it this way: it would be hard for them to defy the will of thousands of voters.”
Over the last 20 years no politician in the state has been as adept at Quinn at ballot-box initiatives. In 1980 he burst onto the scene with a successful statewide drive to scale back the number of legislators in the General Assembly from 177 to 118. In 1983 he helped organize another referendum, calling on the state to create the Citizens Utility Board, an advocacy group for utility consumers. These initiatives helped Quinn launch his own political career, while earning the enmity of mainstream politicians, who viewed him as a headline-seeking pain in the neck. “In both cases we were up against the leaders of both parties,” says Quinn, who thinks the same is true of the current campaign.
The Bears deal is backed by Governor George Ryan and Mayor Daley and by former governor James Thompson, who lobbied for it on the statehouse floor. So far it’s been approved by the City Council, the state legislature, and the Chicago Plan Commission, because very few elected officials have seemed willing to defy its powerful supporters.
Of course the deal has opponents. The Tribune has editorialized against it, and the advocacy group Friends of the Parks sued to block the deal on the grounds that it violates the Lakefront Protection Ordinance. The criticism of Tribune architecture critic Blair Kamin has been particularly withering–he’s called the 16-story, steel-framed structure, which looks a lot like the new Comiskey Park, a “monumental eyesore, one that brings the gargantuan modernism of McCormick Place smack into the middle of the handsome classical ensemble of the museum campus.”
Like many observers, Kamin can’t understand why Daley would push so hard for a deal that undercuts his efforts to establish himself as a vigorous foe of lakefront development. But Daley has argued that he has no choice, because the city needs the stadium to keep the Bears in town, and he has vowed to battle any legal challenge, no matter how much it costs the city in lawyers’ fees.
So far Daley and the Bears seem most vulnerable on the renaming issue. Soldier Field was named in honor of soldiers who fought in World War I, and it might not have been built if politicians hadn’t promised to make it a tribute to vets. “The stadium was built in the early 20s,” says Quinn. “They ran out of money, so they had to go out and get a second referendum for more money. The city pledged that they would call it Soldier Field after those heroic veterans who had served the country.”
Veterans say it would be a monumental disgrace to attach any other name to the field. “People have died for this country–they’ve paid the ultimate sacrifice–and they deserve to have their memory honored,” says Marius “Scotty” Gallagher, a southwest-side resident who served in the army during World War II. “I’m not sure Mayor Daley or the Bears understand this.”
The fight is about more than just symbols. The Bears intend to help pay for their end of the deal with money raised by leasing naming rights to the new stadium; an article in Crain’s Chicago Business says such a lease might make them $10 million a year. And as Quinn points out, “If they can’t change the name, they can’t sell the naming rights–and maybe they can’t build the stadium.”
Quinn and his allies, including Gallagher, believe the matter should be put to voters. So last November they tried to take advantage of an old statute that allows voters the opportunity to have a binding referendum on whether to fund construction of a new stadium. But Daley managed to thwart their efforts by having city lawyers file an objection with the Board of Election Commissioners, contending that Chicago voters weren’t eligible to vote on such a referendum because they don’t reside in a municipality that’s “coterminous” with a township.
“The old law made mention of townships, because way back then we still had townships,” says Quinn. “But townships aren’t relevant anymore. The city just used this as a way to keep the question off the ballot. They took it to the Board of Elections. I can’t say it was a shocking development, but on a three-to-nothing vote the board ruled with the mayor. It’s not exactly fair to city voters. For instance, a voter in Cicero can vote on a stadium deal in his town, because that municipality is coterminous with its township. But a Chicagoan can’t. Frankly, I think we could have won on appeal, but that takes a lot of time and money we didn’t have.”
Instead, Quinn and his allies decided to embark on a more difficult quest. They’re petitioning to have a referendum placed before the voters in each precinct of the city. “To get a referendum on the ballot you need the signatures of 10 percent of the voters in a precinct,” says Quinn. “There are 2,542 precincts in the city. We’d like to get the issue on the ballot in as many of them as we can by next March’s [gubernatorial primary] election.”
That means collecting a lot of signatures and knocking on a lot of doors. “To help with the effort we’re looking for as many volunteers as we can find,” says Quinn. “To get a copy of the petition all you have to do is download one off of our Web site, at www.taxpayeraction.com. The question we want to put before the voters is a simple one: ‘Shall the Chicago Bears be allowed to sell the right to attach a corporate name to Soldier Field and collect an estimated $250 million over the next 30 years from the sale of naming rights to the stadium?'”
Daley contends that’s a loaded question, guaranteed to generate a strong negative vote just by playing to voter hostility toward a big payout for the Bears, whose owners, the McCaskey family, are unpopular with fans. And sure enough, says Gallagher, voters have been eager to sign the petitions.
The campaign started with a petition drive in Quinn’s home precinct, on the far northwest side. Then it moved to Mayor Daley’s precinct on the near south side. “We went door-to-door–we talked to the mayor’s neighbors,” says Angie Schiavoni, a 20-year-old college student who lives on the north side. “People were very supportive. We went back there every night for five nights, and it was no trouble getting signatures. People were enthusiastic to sign. We took this as a good indication. If Mayor Daley’s own neighbors want to see this on the ballot, voters really do want to have a say.”
Schiavoni, like Quinn and Gallagher, brought signed petitions with her to a Park District meeting on the matter, determined to show the board members the depth of opposition to renaming Soldier Field. But the commissioners didn’t open their meeting to public comment on the matter, as they quickly voted to give general superintendent David Doig permission to sign a deal with the Bears.
“There were at least ten of us looking to speak, but the commissioners went into a side room and then came out,” says Gallagher. “All of a sudden someone says something about ‘all in favor’ and ‘all against.’ We tried to say, ‘Hey, don’t we get a chance to talk?’ But they told us that you have to sign in to talk. Well, no one told us about signing in. It was just one of those cut-and-dried deals done on the fly to keep us from speaking out.”
Afterward Daley told reporters that there had been no need to allow veterans a chance to speak, since opponents of the deal had had opportunities to air their objections at previous hearings. “This has been talked about,” he said. “There have been public hearings all over.”
The Bears have taken a little more conciliatory approach, at least toward the veterans. They have pledged to give at least $200,000 a year to veterans’ groups and to keep the Soldier Field name as part of the new title. “The Soldier Field name will not go away–it absolutely will stay on the stadium,” says Scott Hagel, the public relations director for the Bears. “Also the historic south wall, with its dedication to the soldiers of World War I, will remain untouched.”
So will the new stadium be called something like Peoples Energy Soldier Field or Com Ed Soldier Field?
“How it gets put together has not been decided,” says Hagel. “The key thing is that Soldier Field will remain. No matter what we do, our ultimate goal is to enhance the tribute to the veterans. You have to understand that we are going to do nothing–and would never do anything–to dishonor the veterans who have served our country. We have a very strong link to the military through our organization. George Halas, our founder, served in both World War I and World War II. Our chairman emeritus, Ed McCaskey, served in World War II as well. So it’s not something we pursue lightly, and when the time comes to pursue corporate sponsorship we will pursue it with responsibility.”
Gallagher is not impressed. “They sweep $200,000 off the counting floor to buy us off,” he says. “It’s an insult. If it was $10 million a year I’d be against it. I can’t speak for all the veterans in the city, but I know the fellows at my American Legion lodge feel the same way. If the Bears think they can silence us with their donations they’re wrong. I’ve already started going door-to-door in my precinct. I got 50 signatures on the first day. Everyone wants to sign. I haven’t met anyone who’s in favor of renaming. There’s a principle here that goes beyond money.”
Running With the Demons
It’s a normal weekday practice for the Demons basketball team, with a dozen teens and preteens racing across the floor, barked at by coach Michael “Skeet” Horton. “I don’t know what you’re complaining about,” says Horton as the players, chests heaving, break between sprints. “I’m not tired yet.” And with that he has them run some more.
The kids are gearing up for another summer of games and tournaments across the country, but their biggest foe is financial–they’re running out of money. “We’re trying to raise $10,000 to get our kids to all the tournaments and keep our programs going,” says Vince Carter, the founder and director of the Demons (and the subject of a story that ran here February 11, 2000). “We don’t like to leave any kids behind, but it gets harder every year.”
The Demons are an outgrowth of Project Education Plus, a not-for-profit youth service group Carter founded in 1980. His idea was to create an after-school and summer tutoring and recreational program for children in and around Cabrini-Green. The basketball team was the carrot Carter used to bring in the kids and get them to study harder.
“We’ve always used sports to give kids opportunities and help them work against the negatives in the community, such as gangs, dropping out, and drugs,” says Horton, who played for the Demons in the 1980s, when he was growing up near Cabrini-Green.
Back then there was only one Demons team. Now Carter, Horton, and coaches Leon Williams, David Taylor, Bobby Locke, Marchellose Williams, and Sha Hopson oversee ten teams–four girls’ teams and six boys’–for kids ages 10 through 18. They practice at the New City YMCA, where Horton is director of sports and recreation. To play, each Demon must make passing grades and volunteer at the Y or a local senior citizen center. Members of Horton’s team of 12- and 13-year-olds even run their own free summer basketball camp for younger children.
The big expense comes when the teams take to the road for tournaments, which are held as far away as Florida and Texas. “It costs money to get the kids to the games,” says Carter. “If we drive a van we have to pay for gas. If we go by plane there’s airfare. There’s also hotels and tournament entry fees. We tell the kids they should raise about $400 to $500 for the travel, but it’s hard for a lot of them. We have to go outside the community.”
Carter and Horton don’t want to cut back. “Getting out of town for a weekend or whatever is a big thing for the kids,” says Horton. “They’re learning how to behave properly in restaurants and hotels. They’re learning a lot of little things that maybe you take for granted, like Minnesota is north of Illinois. In other words, that there is a world outside our area.” He asks that anyone interested in making a donation or getting involved call him at the New City YMCA or at Project Education Plus (312-642-4191).
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jon Randolph.