Any way you look at it, in matters big and small, things went well last week for Mayor Daley. The CTA board shut its ears to the pleas of hundreds of riders and voted to eliminate several runs, as the mayor had requested. The City Council sheepishly went along with his downtown development plan. And former Fifth Ward alderman Larry Bloom, the quintessential Hyde Park reformer (or so everyone thought), was indicted on federal charges of corruption.

To his credit, Daley didn’t gloat over Bloom’s misfortune, though he might have. Bloom’s indictment symbolizes the long, sad decline of independent politics and suggests that Daley will be in office for as long as he wants. As one independent put it, it’s as though the city were a monarchy and Daley its king. Never in recent history has the independent movement seemed so weak, divided, dispirited, and helpless. And that has benefited Daley. “Daley’s consolidated his power in a way that even his father hadn’t,” says Richard Barnett, a longtime west-side political activist. “He does what he wants.”

Among the latest indications of Daley’s power is a recent study of the council voting record by Illinois Politics, a local monthly. In the last two years 29 of the council’s 50 aldermen voted with the mayor at least 80 percent of the time. Not once has the council dared pass a significant matter over Daley’s objection. By and large they do what they’re told without a whimper of protest. “They won’t even speak on the record when they’re mad at Daley,” says Victor Crown, publisher of Illinois Politics. “They’re so afraid of offending the boss.”

It was a little different back in the days of Mayor Richard J. Daley’s regime. Then at least five eloquent City Council independents were more than willing to present alternative budgets, harshly question administration aides at public hearings, and go to the press with evidence of corruption and waste.

“We met on a weekly basis to plan,” says Dick Simpson, a former alderman and now a professor of political science at the University of Illinois at Chicago. “We were what you would call a loyal opposition. The press came to us for a different point of view.”

Now there are only three solid independents–aldermen Helen Shiller of the 46th Ward, John Steele of the 6th, and Joe Moore of the 49th–and they rarely meet or act in concert. “We swore we’d get together on a regular basis, but it would never last,” says Moore. “So we more or less get together around specific issues.”

Daley’s power goes well beyond the council. He controls the Board of Education, the Park District, and the CTA. As the city privatizes more operations, Daley doles out millions of dollars in contracts, expanding his fund-raising base and making it impossible for any opponent to outspend him.

The black community, once fertile ground for political dissent, has become passive. According to Illinois Politics, one black alderman, Lorraine Dixon of the 8th Ward, voted with Daley 100 percent of the time; another, Carrie Austin of the 34th, voted with him 96 percent of the time. Several more have political dues to pay: four were originally appointed by Daley to fill vacancies; others, such as Dorothy Tillman of the Third Ward, depended on his assistance to win close campaigns.

The Latino aldermen are even more loyal. For years Hispanic and black activists labored in federal court (over Daley’s objection) to win court-ordered boundaries that guaranteed Hispanic voters in Humboldt Park, Pilsen, and West Town an opportunity to elect aldermen independent of political bosses. And how have those aldermen voted? Danny Solis of the 25th Ward and Ray Suarez of the 31st voted with Daley 97 percent of the time, Vilma Colom of the 35th and Billy Ocasio of the 26th 93 percent of the time, according to Illinois Politics. “It’s a rubber-stamp council,” says Simpson. “The opposition’s not organized and has no clear leader or identity.”

For most Chicagoans the sad fate of independents is a minor matter. Taxes are relatively stable, crime’s down, neighborhood after neighborhood is bursting with upscale development. And Daley has done nothing particularly offensive, unlike Jane Byrne, who angered black voters by replacing two blacks on the school board with antibusing white southwest-siders (what was she thinking?). He’s also the beneficiary of an economic boom that has left most cities in strong financial shape. So what’s to complain about? Sure, there’s no strong opposition to watch how Daley spends tax dollars, awards contracts, subsidizes upscale development, or cuts public transportation. But most voters don’t seem to care. “People don’t care about details,” says one city hall insider. “Democracy’s out, consolidation’s in. Long live the king.”

But for old-time activists like Barnett the current state of affairs revives memories of those days in the 1960s when the west side was controlled by white bosses who lived on the lakefront. “When I think of what we went through to elect an independent–the cheating, the violence, the corruption–it’s painful to see where we are,” says Barnett, who’s regarded even by Daley loyalists as the respected grand man of west-side independence. “Walter Burnett [alderman of the 27th Ward and a Daley loyalist] came up to me and said, ‘Mr. Barnett, I’ve been telling people I was your son.’ I said, ‘Walter, as soon as you lose I’ll claim you.’ I said, ‘You’re a puppet, Walter.’ There’s no great virtue in getting elected if it means staying loyal to a boss.”

In 1994 Barnett sued the city, alleging that the Daley-approved ward map unfairly kept blacks and Hispanics from an equitable share of wards. It was a map, by the way, that several black aldermen supported. “You lose something when you go into the back room and make your deals–you lose the ability to stand up and fight for your community,” says Barnett. “Getting elected has got to be about more than advancing your career.”

Joe Moore, who got his start in the fight against the 49th Ward regulars in Rogers Park, says he understands Barnett’s frustration but that times have changed. In 1995 Daley neither endorsed Moore nor worked against him; Moore won over 70 percent of the vote.

“I consider myself an independent, and by that I mean making sure that the tolls of government are used to benefit the many rather than the few and not being afraid to challenge the mayor where we disagree,” says Moore. “But I’ve never viewed the role of independents as to oppose people in power just for the sake of opposing them. The mayor’s very brilliant politically–he’s co-opted many of our issues. When I first took office the mayor’s people scoffed at community policing, but they came around. We were pushing for more dollars for the neighborhoods; since 1993 they’ve been pouring millions of dollars into rebuilding alleys and streets.

“I don’t think it’s fair to say the council’s been exceedingly quiet. Part of the reason people feel that way is that the media, particularly TV, simply does not cover political stories like it used to. And the mayor’s pretty sharp about deflecting debate. So many times when a controversial issue comes up the mayor leaves the rostrum and conducts his impromptu press conference in the hallways. The media herd follows him, and there’s no one left to hear us attack the administration.”

Moore agrees that it’s hard to rally large groups of people around causes. “Let’s face it, it’s not like the 60s,” he says. “Issues then were very clear-cut. Fighting city hall was an extension of the fight for civil rights and against the war in Vietnam. Issues these days are a lot more complicated.”

Many voters feel betrayed by the venality, weakness, and blind ambition of their erstwhile political leaders. Joe Kotlarz, Allan Streeter, and Perry Hutchinson are just a few of the self-proclaimed crusaders who either fell in line with the regulars or, much worse, wound up taking cash from slimy federal moles.

Now it seems as though Bloom, former holder of the sacred aldermanic seat of Hyde Park independence, has joined them. “It’s so sad,” says Moore. “Like everyone else, Larry’s entitled to the presumption of innocence, and I feel for him and his family. But this only increases cynicism toward government. It makes it look like everyone’s corrupt, like everyone’s the same, like you can’t trust anyone anymore.”

But Simpson says the situation isn’t hopeless. “In 1977 the council was as quiet, and there were only three independents. Six years later we got the enormous sea change of Harold Washington. There will be another sea change. You’ll see. We can’t foresee what it will be, but by 1999 or the early millennium something will happen to ignite a great change.”

Some independents think the CTA cuts, which hit black and Latino neighborhoods hardest, will be a catalyst. As for Barnett, he’s gearing up to unseat some of Daley’s black loyalists in the 1999 aldermanic elections. “We’ve got to start organizing again,” he says. “My wife told me, ‘Richard, you’re 66 years old and still out in the streets.’ My goodness, she’s right. The fight never ends.” o

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Dick Simpson, Richard Barnett photo by Nathan Mandell.