Dick Simpson. Rogues, Rebels, and Rubber Stamps: The Politics of the Chicago City Council from 1864 to the Present. Boulder: Westview Press, 2001. 356 pp. $26.00 (paper), ISBN 978-0-8133-9763-4.
Reviewed by Douglas Bukowski
Published on H-Urban (December, 2001)
"Rogues, Rebels and Rubber Stamps"--Says Who?
This is a book with a problem: Dick Simpson either does not know Chicago history or he prefers to ignore those facts that get in the way of his political agenda. But the self-indulgent reminiscences and obligatory preface by Studs Terkel ("Having tried most of my working life to give voice to the voiceless....") make for a fine if accidental primer on why reform always has such a short run in Chicago.
Simpson, a political scientist at the University of Illinois at Chicago, believes, "Chicago and its city council express aspects of American society in a visible and stark form not seen in other parts of the country" (p. 4). Exactly why this is so in the home of the Daleys rather than New York or Los Angeles is unclear since Simpson does not attempt a comparative approach. The lasting impression is that the author chose his subject because, well, he once worked there.
And that's fine. The Chicago City Council is definitely worth studying, not least of all for the characters who have been elected to it since 1837. Think of Bedlam, with inmates having access to press and podium. Using a roll-call vote analysis, Simpson divides the councils into two extremes--fragmented or rubber stamp bodies unable to challenge a mayor when necessary and the 4-1/2 years of Council Wars during the mayoralty of Harold Washington. This so-called "conflict" council witnessed an often times brutal form of politics that Washington himself said "ain't bean bag."
By Simpson's reckoning, at no time has there been a council "where multiple groups (such as business groups, neighborhood groups, public interest groups and political parties) [are] struggling for and sharing power. This multiplicity of interests naturally leads to competitive elections and a frequent turnover in public officials." Candidates in such a system have to prove themselves "to voters who then choose between real alternatives. Competitive elections in turn lead to a deliberative city council" (p. 7).
But what if Chicago already enjoys true representative government and Simpson flat out missed it? Given the quality of his research, anything is possible. First are the simple errors: p. 47--the Burnham Plan debuted in 1909, not 1907; p. 71--the Democratic candidate for mayor in 1915 was Robert Sweitzer, not Weitzer; p. 73--Big Bill Thompson never founded an America First Party, just a foundation; p. 108--as the child of an immigrant father, Richard J. Daley would be considered second-generation Irish-American, not first generation; and p. 119--members of the Cook County Board are commissioners, not aldermen.
Simpson compounds bloopers with an analysis that ranges from questionable to confused. No one has ever gone broke writing about the corruption of Chicago aldermen. But ask for some kind of hard measure to gauge the transgressions of a long-ago city council, and the silence is deafening. In this regard, Simpson offers nary a peep.
He accepts the popular view of aldermen serving between 1871 and 1931. These were the Gray Wolves, legendary for their avarice. It is Simpson's conclusion that "most aldermen [of that era] were on the take" (p. 51). His evidence? William T. Stead's If Christ Came to Chicago, first published in 1894, with a little bit of Lincoln Steffens, ca 1904. Simpson wields the tools of his profession--histograms, factor analysis, and factor plots--to crunch council votes, and yet he can't come up with anything original on aldermanic corruption.
Forget the defense of the Gray Wolves that they used boodle to fund the only social welfare game in town. Good scholars simply don't rest their work on musty allegation. To do so is to accept the prejudices attached, and the critics of Chicago's 19th century ward bosses, at least the local ones, were nothing if not prejudiced by class, faith, and ethnicity. Better to go through probate records and see just how much Johnny "De Pow" Powers, et al., left behind. Of course, that kind of research risks altering long-held--and very comfortable--assumptions.
Perhaps the problem is that Simpson finds himself in too much of a rush. The first 108 years of his story go by in just 130 pages while the next 30 years, spanning the career of alderman and activist Simpson, fill up 200 pages. Of particular interest is the first full paragraph on page 136. Nine sentences are made to bear the weight of the first person singular "I," invoked nine times. If only Simpson had paid equal attention to his predecessors.
Instead, he offers up cliche in place of insight. One of the good guys from before is Alderman Charles Merriam, who just happened to be a political scientist himself. But Merriam makes a curious choice for an author proud he "was a participant in the unpopular civil rights' movement in the turbulent 1960s in the South" (p. 136). Candidate Merriam could never quite figure out how to attract the support of black voters.
In 1911 Merriam may have lost the mayoral race (decided by just 17,000 votes) because of his failure to refute rumors that he belonged to an anti-black neighborhood improvement association. Though once burned, Merriam never learned. Running for mayor in the 1919 Republican primary, he told a black audience of meeting an elderly black Chicagoan while in Paris; he called the woman "Aunty." Later, the scholar Merriam defined reform as expert administration, not the participatory democracy that Simpson espouses.
Like countless other writers, Simpson employs comic relief through "Bathhouse" John Coughlin, a character whose color highlights his corruption. Coughlin admittedly grew wealthy selling protection to the whorehouses and gambling joints of his First Ward. He was also at times a rather unique voice in the council. During the preparedness frenzy of 1916, Coughlin introduced a motion calling on Washington to take all reasonable measures to avoid war with Germany. And with the American economy suffering from recession in 1921, the Bath proposed a $200 million bond issue for public works. "Then let the next generation pay the interest on these bonds," he argued. "We got to help those fellows out of work."
For Simpson, the past is but a prelude to his own public career. Understanding John Coughlin matters less than recalling those brave independent aldermen who challenged Richard J. Daley at the end of his reign. They championed participatory democracy; rights for blacks and women; good government (despite his New Left leanings, Simpson maintains a strong mugwump streak); and awareness of "national and foreign policy issues like the war in Vietnam." Humility does not appear to have been part of the mix.
While it may come as a surprise to Simpson, there is nothing new about Chicago aldermen being issue-driven. Consider the period 1915-1926, when the Gray Wolves allegedly prowled the aisles looking for boodle. And indeed they may have, though not to the exclusion of other business.
During a particularly bitter garment workers' strike in 1915, the city council tried to intervene on behalf of workers. Council members offered to arbitrate, and the Committee on Schools, Fire, Police and Civil Service drafted an ordinance to take the police out of the strike breaking business. How did Simpson miss this?
Or, for that matter, the crowd of 200,000 people who cheered the visit of Czech nationalist Thomas Masaryk in May 1918? Sometimes foreign policy issues and actors did not need to enter council chambers, though Eamon De Valera paid his respects in July 1919. And aldermen didn't wait for a roll call to express the views of their constituents. When Queen Marie of Romania visited Chicago in the fall of 1926, Alderman Terrence Moran explained his lack of interest in meeting royalty: "I lived in Ireland, and the tyranny of the kings and queens was one of the reasons why I left." There were "hundreds of thousands," Moran said, who held the same view. The question of a regime's legitimacy was not confined to Vietnam in the 1960s.
In March 1926, the city council sent a delegation to Washington to testify before Congress against Prohibition. This challenge to the federal government seems to have escaped Simpson's notice. So did the aldermanic committee that in 1922-1923 investigated charges of Klan influence in city government. Other issues from other times would likely yield yet more examples of activism. That is, they would with a little effort.
Simpson can never decide whether he's studying the council, mayors, or city hall squabbles. He also appears uncertain as to the structure of government in Chicago. Commenting on the miseries of reform mayor Edward Dunne (1905-1907), Simpson argues, "Dunne's failure demonstrates the limits of reforms initiated by a mayor in a strong council--weak mayor system" (p. 53).
Then he claims that machine Democrat Ed Kelly "was a strong mayor in the Chicago tradition [p 94]," and, that in times of crisis, "Chicagoans opted for a strong mayor and a rubber stamp council under [Anton] Cermak and Kelly" (p. 110). How could voters decide for a strong mayor if the system, unchanged over the years, favored weak ones? Surely Edward Dunne wanted to succeed every bit as much as Richard J. Daley.
If Simpson proves consistent about anything, it is in his view that "Harold Washington ran on a progressive reform platform and created a progressive government" (p. 327). But reciting an article of faith does not render it into historical fact.
There is no question that Washington belongs on the short list of brilliant Chicago politicians, along with the elder Daley and the now-forgotten Cermak. As those two masters of the machine did periodically, Washington embraced reform proposals for his own ends. That alone does not qualify him as a reformer who put issues before politics. Mayor William Dever (1923-1927), both Irish and Democrat, did when he took up the cause of Prohibition, at the ultimate cost of his career. Washington never took such a risk.
Rather, he led a coalition of outsiders. Affirmative action by race and gender, freedom of information, campaign finance reform--these were all issues sure to hurt Washington's enemies while securing his own base. Home equity insurance worked in the other direction.
Home equity was intended as a curb on white flight. Homeowners were guaranteed that property values would not fall as neighborhoods underwent racial change. The idea promised a way to maintain integration (as distinct from the Chicago tradition of resegregation) as well as the city's middle-class tax base.
Though initially receptive, Washington declared the plan "divisive" after black supporters complained it was one-sided. Speaking some seven weeks before his death in late November 1987, the mayor charged that equity proponents "don't seem to understand [his objections]. So I'm going to stop trying. You can't explain that to zealots, they don't hear that."
In the end, neighborhood organizations prevailed, and home equity was adopted in 1988. Did it make for bad law or good policy, or was it a kind of Miranda Decision for Chicago reformers? If accused criminals are entitled to certain rights, why not white ethnics opposed to a black mayor? Dick Simpson doesn't say.
Rarely has a scholarly work been so quiet on so much.
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Douglas Bukowski. Review of Simpson, Dick, Rogues, Rebels, and Rubber Stamps: The Politics of the Chicago City Council from 1864 to the Present.
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