Thursday, July 27, 2006

Look at the politics outside the big box

Look at the politics outside the big box
By John Kass
Copyright by The Chicago Tribune
Published July 27, 2006

Recently, Mayor Richard Daley and President Bush were publicly cozy, officially celebrating the presidential birthday but informally advertising mayoral clout.

City Hall's political message was clear: Rich Daley has nothing to worry about. Federal subpoenas? C'mon, just look at him there with the president, laughing, eating cake.

But on Wednesday, Chicago aldermen blew out all the pretty candles in a 35-14 veto-proof vote, passing the big-box ordinance that will lead to a $10-per-hour starting salary for unskilled workers at select Chicago stores.

The measure was backed by the city's labor unions and opposed by Daley, who had never lost a vote to a council that he has, until Wednesday, appointed, intimidated and dominated.

As public policy, the big-box ordinance is certainly unconstitutional. It is an insidious attempt by Chicago politicians to squeeze businesses that hoped to open new markets--particularly underserved minority neighborhoods--while providing tax revenue and thousands of desperately needed jobs to unskilled workers, many of them black and Latino.

"I've got these white liberals telling me what's good for my community. But this big-box thing will cost black people jobs," Ald. Ike Carothers (29th) told me during Wednesday's pontifications.

"If I put out a notice that there were 500 jobs waiting in my ward--what Wal-Mart was offering for each store--you'd see a line of people from my ward all the way to Mississippi. People want jobs. That's it."

Eventually, Wednesday's histrionics will cost taxpayers even more money, once lawyers start generating billable hours. Ultimately, the 14th Amendment of the Constitution, requiring equal protection under the law, should trump the council's economic populism.

But what interests me is the power politics, which played out when the president breezed into Chicago on the day the mayor's political underlings were convicted in federal court. They were found to have illegally built Daley's giant political patronage armies that he used in the precincts to crush political dissent, including aldermen.

With federal heat on him, and political Chicago speculating that he had been weakened, Daley showed why he's a political mastermind. He cozied up to the president and took him to a couple of clout cafes, the Chicago Firehouse for dinner and the next day there was breakfast at Lou Mitchell's.

For years, Mitchell's was the place where mayoral political brains Jeremiah Joyce and Tim Degnan held court. There, they'd meet with petitioners, including labor leaders seeking help from City Hall. They'd arrange things.

So the meals with the president were an inside joke aimed at the city's political elite, who snickered that the president of the United States had been reduced to a mayoral prop. George loves Rich, went the song, so don't worry about federal heat, the mayor is strong, and since the mayor's strong, beware.

That was part of the subtext Wednesday at the City Council, with aldermen in the back-room annex speculating on the mayor's strength. They already knew he'd lost the Wal-Mart vote.

At his news conference afterward, Daley said Chicago is in dire need of sales tax revenue that flees to the suburbs as big boxes open up on the city's borders.

"I have to keep sales tax here somewhere," the mayor said. "It can't be all on Michigan Avenue."

That's one of his problems. The other is that the aldermen didn't buy the strong-mayor argument, otherwise they'd never have opposed him and would have rolled over, as they have in the past.

The other problem is that there is another voice giving commands now: the labor unions. Labor is led by people like Tom Balanoff of the Service Employees International Union, and Dennis Gannon, president of the Chicago Federation of Labor, representing thousands of workers.

For years, Daley has slapped unions around, particularly those representing city workers, police officers, firefighters, clerks and truck drivers, some of whom were tipsters to the feds years ago, when the FBI began investigating the Hired Truck scandal.

The mayor would cry poor, holding back contracts and pay for his union workers, while they seethed, watching mayoral cronies rake in millions upon millions of dollars in deals.

Now the unions see weakness. They know aldermen require street troops to run campaigns. And the mayor doesn't know anything about patronage anymore.

The aldermen "were worried about the unions running candidates against them," Daley said.

That's significant, because now it also demonstrates that most aldermen are no longer afraid of the mayor running candidates against them.

Yet don't consider this a council revolt. Aldermen are waiting. They don't know yet how weak Daley is. They don't know yet how strong the unions are. Chicago's aldermen are cautious, but they like cake as much as mayors and presidents. And they're tired of the crumbs.



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