Moving on from “business as usual”

Overcoming the realities of Chicago politics requires a concerted effort from voters

By Jake Grubman

In February of next year, “business as usual” will come to an end in the city of Chicago.


That’s what I’ve heard, anyway. That’s what likely mayoral candidate Rahm Emanuel told me in the video statement that kicked off his campaign. And, at a time when Chicago has a legitimate chance to make changes to its political landscape, that’s what I’m hearing from all of the top candidates.

Whether it’s State Senator James Meeks, Alderman Bob Fioretti, Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart, or City Clerk Miguel Del Valle, every candidate in this race has spent the early part of the campaign posturing for the all-important title of “progressive candidate.”

But, even with all of the candidates talking about the end of “business as usual” when Daley exits City Hall, does anyone legitimately believe that? That term reached new heights of popularity during Barack Obama’s presidential election in 2008, but usual business was born right here in the Windy City.

We’re talking about a city that has run on regular doses of Democratic machine politics since at least the ’30s. Business is so “usual” in Chicago that the city had to take a second to catch its collective breath when Daley officially announced that he would be hanging up his gavel (or whatever a mayor hangs up when he’s finished). Business is so “usual” in Chicago that there just isn’t a Republican candidate in the field. Business is so “usual” in Chicago that, following Daley’s announcement, the city’s ethnic communities retreated to their corners of town to discuss who their candidates would be. And, beyond the rhetoric coming from Emanuel or Fioretti or Meeks, business very well might stay “usual” after the February election­—if we as voters don’t expect more from our candidates than in the past.

Effective change always starts with bringing people together, and just as Harold Washington used a strong coalition of various groups around the city to challenge the status quo in the ’80s, the only candidate worth electing this time around will be the one who can actually bring multiple groups together around a platform of legitimate and feasible change.

In an article for the Chicago News Cooperative in mid-September, U.S. Representative Bobby Rush is quoted as calling for coalition-building in the race for mayor. The coalition he’s referring to, however, is one joining the city’s African-American neighborhoods with each other—not with Chicago’s other communities. And although Rush didn’t rule out the possibility that such a coalition could support a non-black candidate, he called that a “far-fetched position.”

That is business as usual: Everyone wants to get his or her share of the pot without consideration for how a cohesive government should actually work. “Government” becomes “business as usual” when our leaders focus only on what benefits themselves.

For those who think the Chicago area is already moving in the right direction, consider this: Todd Stroger was elected Cook County board president less than four years ago. It was just a U of C generation ago that Chicago’s county weighed its options and somehow decided that Stroger was the right guy to control the county’s $3 billion budget. Since then, he has paraded supporter after supporter into cushy jobs and rich contracts, all at the expense of the Chicago taxpayer.

That’s what “business as usual” looks like here.

Consider this: The head of the Cook County Democratic Party, Joseph Berrios, has received his salary working as a living conflict of interest in his current role as Commissioner of the Cook County Board of Review. As revealed by Chicago Magazine last month, the Dems’ head takes contributions from property tax attorneys and swings tax reductions right back in exchange. And consider that Alderman Toni Preckwinkle, the profoundly intelligent Hyde Park leader who has rightly commanded the respect of voters across the city, has endorsed Berrios for County Assessor, an even more powerful role.

That’s what “business as usual” looks like in Chicago.

These questions have been buried beneath the mass of coverage that Emanuel has received since Daley announced his retirement from the top post. Everyone seems to want to focus on his legitimacy as a Chicagoan: Some say he was born on Lake Michigan and raised on Chicago-style hot dogs; others say, no, he was raised in ritzy Wilmette and, as a Washington politician, can’t possibly know what Chicago is all about.

But those are the wrong questions. Emanuel’s life in Chicago has nothing to do with culture change. If voters are truly looking for the end of “business as usual” in Chicago, we need to stop expecting “business as usual” in Chicago and stop electing politicians whose motto has become “Where’s mine?”

The reason we have such rampant corruption is that voters accept such rampant corruption. These aren’t bad people—not all of them, anyway. But corruption is what happens when people smirk, smile, and shrug when they hear about millions of dollars wasted on the city’s corruption tax.

So let’s take a far-fetched position and actually believe that there are candidates who are good, honest, and fair. “Business as usual” will continue well beyond next February if the voters don’t make a concerted effort to change it.

Jake Grubman is a fourth-year in the College majoring in Law, Letters, and Society.