By Ben Joravsky

State senator Robert Molaro’s a mainstream southwest-side Democrat who’s never done anything particularly out of the ordinary in his long political career.

So why, everyone’s wondering, is he currently pushing one of the more radical propositions in recent state history?

No, he’s not calling for the legalization of marijuana or a hefty rise in the income tax. He wants to abolish residents-only permit parking.

That’s right. Molaro’s proposing to take away a right most Chicagoans hold sacred: the right to park in front of one’s home. More exactly, the right to keep outsiders from parking there first.

So far he has few if any public allies (most politicians think he’s nuts for even suggesting the idea). His efforts have been blocked by outraged senators, including several Republicans, who bleat about the sovereign home-rule rights of municipalities.

But Molaro persists.

“I’m not giving up–there’s a principle at stake,” he says. “These parking laws are a classic case of things getting out of control. They creep up on you–a little here, a little there. The next thing you know you have those residents-only signs everywhere. They’re taking public streets and making them private, and that’s not right.”

He has a point, not that anyone cares. Parking restrictions are too popular for rational debate. At last count there were several hundred such zones in Chicago (and many more in the suburbs), and the number’s rising. Chicago aldermen routinely approve them as courtesies to each other–giving everyone a chance to impress the folks at home as a big shot who can get things done.

Some zones make more sense than others. There are Lincoln Parkers, for instance, who can talk for hours about the frustrations of looking for a spot in which to cram their cars on a bustling Saturday night. And not long ago Marquette Park residents had to cope with a strange invasion of parked cars.

“We’d come home from grocery shopping and we couldn’t park in front of our homes,” says Joe Kulys, vice president of the Marquette Park Lithuanian Homeowners Association. “It happened once in a while and we said, ‘Oh, someone’s having a party.’ But then it happened again and again and it was a problem. You have to park several blocks away and walk home, which can be dangerous at night. I don’t know who owned those cars–some of them didn’t even have license plates, much less city stickers. I think it might have been squatters living in some of those illegally subdivided apartment buildings.

“So we went to our alderman and he gave us restricted parking. It works great. We still had some violators for a while. But after a few tickets they learned not to park here anymore. And now we can park in front of our houses.”

But other cases make one wonder if the trend is going too far. Some hospital officials, for instance, want to ban all parking (residential included) in the near-west-side medical district. For a time there were Lincoln Parkers campaigning to make virtually the entire neighborhood, including commercial streets, a residents-only parking zone. And Lakeview’s a mishmash of restrictions so bewildering that in at least one case residents on one side of the street are prohibited from parking on the other.

Many City Hall planners privately admit that parking permits won’t eliminate the root cause of congestion. “There are too many cars in the city, but you can’t pass a law making people give up that second car,” says one north-side aldermanic aide. “So we came up with residential parking.”

For the record, the Daley administration is washing its hands of Molaro’s proposition. “I don’t think it has a snowball’s chance in hell of passing,” says John Holden, spokesman for the Department of Revenue. “But as far as the city’s concerned it’s a local matter. If residents want them [restrictive zones] we have no objections. We’re pretty neutral on these things.”

Molaro says he once felt the same way. “My opposition has grown over the years,” he explains. “I understood why you’d have them around Wrigley Field, where you want to keep traffic moving and you don’t want to have people fighting over parking spaces. But then I started seeing signs sprouting up all over the city. You go to some streets and you can’t see a car for miles. And yet they have these residents-only signs. It’s crazy. Now everyone wants one. It’s vogue. It’s in. People think it makes their neighborhoods elite.”

Restricted parking is also, in his opinion, unconstitutional. “Think about it–why shouldn’t we be able to park wherever we want? In my case I pay my taxes–my taxes helped pave and maintain those streets. Now you’re saying I can’t park there! What, do the streets exclusively belong to the people who live alongside them? What’s next–a law that keeps me from driving down this or that street?”

If anything, Molaro’s opposition is hardening. “I know the people who live around Wrigley Field want their permit parking, but let me ask you, did any of them live there before the Cubs? No. They moved there knowing Wrigley Field was there. So now who are they to complain about the parking? You moved to an area knowing it was congested, so why should you get the city to pass a law that doesn’t make sense? I feel for you if you’re driving around looking for parking. But because you moved to a congested neighborhood does that mean I should lose my rights?”

His bill, introduced earlier this year, would prevent any municipality receiving state road funds (that’s probably every municipality in the state) from enacting residents-only parking. It was immediately assigned to a senate committee–from which it probably will never emerge. “The way it works is that you have ten senators on a committee and six have to vote to release a bill,” explains one legislative insider. “As long as the Republicans control the senate Molaro’s bill isn’t going anywhere.”

If Molaro did nothing else, at least he helped expose the hypocrisy of several Republican legislators. These officials worked themselves into a lather denouncing Molaro’s proposal as a usurpation of their home-rule rights while conniving with Governor Edgar to take control of Meigs Field. What, Chicago doesn’t have home-rule rights? And, while we’re at it, aren’t Republicans supposed to be against government regulation?

“The guy who really fought to keep it in committee was [northwest-side Republican] Senator Walter Dudycz,” says Molaro. “He went on and on about home rule. Privately he told me, ‘You know, I have zone parking in front of my house and I want to keep it up.’ So that’s what it comes down to–everyone who’s got one wants to keep it.”

In retrospect, Dudycz and his fellow Republicans may have done Molaro a favor by bottling up his bill. Had it been released from committee, he would have faced strong opposition not only from north-siders but from fellow southwest-siders such as Joe Kulys, who, like Molaro, cites his constitutional rights.

“I think any judge would agree that people should be able to park near their homes,” says Kulys. “I think Molaro’s proposal is a bad, bad idea and I’d work to fight it. As long as we pay our taxes why shouldn’t we have permit parking? That’s our constitutional privilege. That’s why we live here–that’s why we’re Chicagoans.”

Like most observers, Kulys doubts the bill will pass. He can’t figure out why Molaro would advance it.

“They have permit parking around White Sox park,” says Kulys. “Do you think Mayor Daley’s going to let the state take that away from 11th Ward residents? Do you think he’s going to let White Sox fans park all over Bridgeport? I don’t think so. I don’t think Senator Molaro has more clout than Mayor Daley. And how about those people in Lincoln Park? Can you imagine how enraged they’ll get when they find out what Molaro’s bill would do to them? I don’t think Molaro’s thought this thing through. How would he like to go down in history as the politician who took permit parking away from Chicagoans?”

Molaro says he plans to press on. “I may make it an amendment on a house bill and have it heard that way,” he says. “I have allies and detractors on this. Publicly I know most people can’t come out for it. But privately a lot of the aldermen love my bill. They’re sick of all these residential-only streets but they don’t know how to say no to their constituents. If my proposal passes they’ll have an out. This might be one of those things where I’m a little ahead of the times.” o

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Robert Molaro photo by Robert Drea.