By Rick Kogan, originally published in the Chicago Tribune on 02/20/2019
I was not young and I was not naïve when, on a cold day late in 2005, I decided that it would be a good idea to spend the upcoming year interviewing every one of the city’s 50 aldermen.
I decided to do this because I had recently had a conversation with an otherwise smart reporter who admitted that he did not know the name of the alderman in the ward in which he lived.
I then conducted a random survey around the Tribune offices and at various taverns. Confirming my growing and uneasy suspicion, not one Chicagoan I asked could name more than a handful of aldermen and, indeed, a great number of these people did not know the name of their own alderman.
So I set out to meet and interview every alderman and write about him or her weekly for what was then the Tribune’s Sunday magazine. It was quite an experience, I will tell you, one that began with one of the people now running for mayor, Toni Preckwinkle, who had been elected 4th Ward alderman in 1991 by the thinnest of margins (109 votes). Her ward incorporated parts or all of such neighborhoods as Hyde Park, Kenwood, North Kenwood and Oakland, and she remained its alderman until moving on to other things in 2009. But in 2006, she told me, “When people come to me and say they are thinking about moving into the ward, there are two questions they ask: ‘Are the streets safe?’ and ‘Are the schools good?'”
My aldermanic odyssey ended 50 weeks later with Michael Chandler, the alderman of the 24th Ward, which was on the harsh West Side and included much of the Lawndale neighborhood. First elected in 1995 (he retired in 2015 and died in Arizona two years later), he told me, “I really do believe that there can be a good future for the children of this ward … For every negative story I can find 100 positive ones. There are beautiful people here, all over the city, and they are rich in spirit and hope.”
In between were 48 encounters that took us (my companion in this endeavor was former Tribune photographer Charles Osgood) to every corner of the city and provided us uncommon insights into how the city works — and doesn’t. The men and women we met were of varying degrees of intelligence, power and effectiveness. They were the City Council, the legislative body of Chicago, meeting at least once every month to debate and vote on all manner of things important to the way the city operates. But they also oversee, on a more intimate level, the needs, concerns and complaints of the 55,000 people, on average, who live in their wards.
I bring this up because not only Election Day is Tuesday and you might be wise to learn what you can about the people running for the opportunity to run the ward in which you live. More than one of the aldermen interviewed in 2006 viewed themselves as “little mayors.”
I also bring this up because there are two new books that remind me and will remind you that politics once attracted people worthy of admiration.
“Clear It With Sid!” (University of Illinois Press) is by Michael Dorf and George Van Dusen. It is about Sidney R. Yates, who was an Illinois congressman from 1949-1963 and 1965-1999. It tells the whole story—from his West Side childhood as the youngest of six children son of a Lithuanian blacksmith and his wife; his losing race for alderman of the city’s 46th Ward; his eventual rise to political power and influence — with particular emphasis on his savvy and strenuous battle to save the National Endowments for the Arts.
The authors have a deep knowledge of and affection for their subject and capture the many facets of this charismatic figure. He was durable and witty too. In his later years he said, “First the knees go. Then the nouns go. Then you go.” At 89, he became the oldest person to ever serve in the House. Yates died the next year, in 2000.
Durbin is the author of the preface to another fine new book, Conversations with Abner Mikva: Final Recollections on Chicago Politics, Democracy’s Future, and a Life of Public Service by Sanford D. Horwitt, a speechwriter for and friend of Mikva’s for decades.
In that preface, Durbin writes that Mikva “was a patriot in every sense,” calling him “my hero … a paragon of both progressive values and independence from party orthodoxy. In an era of cynicism and disappointment, [his] record of public service is proof that the good guys can win without selling their souls.”
The book is crafted from the monthly conversations Horwitt had with Mikva at various places during the last three years of Mikva’s life, which ended in 2016, after a career as Illinois state legislator, congressman, federal judge, White House counsel, professor and mentor to a generation or two of young people, including a fellow named Obama.
The first line of this book is, “Abner Mikva saw death coming but not Donald Trump,” and the following 180-some pages are peppered with frank observations and opinions about a gallery of politicians and topical matters, some of them controversial. Horwitt is a stylish writer and though this is not a conventional biography it will surely provide a rich and solid foundation for any yet to be written.
Together, these two books, these two politician’s lives, will make you wonder why, in the main, politics attracts too few people of character, intelligence and substance.
It will also remind you, as you go to the polls, of Chicago’s shady political image.
It was 1948 and Mikva, attending law school at the University of Chicago, walked into the 8th Ward Democratic headquarters to volunteer for an upcoming election.
Ward Committeeman Timothy O’Sullivan took a big cigar out of his mouth and said, “We ain’t got no jobs.”
Mikva said, “I just want to volunteer …”
“We don’t want nobody who don’t want no job,” said O’Sullivan. “Who sent ya?”
“Nobody sent me,” said Mikva.
O’Sullivan mulled the answer and then said, “We don’t want nobody nobody sent.”
Now, if you haven’t already done so, go vote.