The Machine’s New Clothes

By Carter O'Brien

I want a naked government.

OK, before images of Bill Clinton and Cuban smokeables come to mind, let me qualify: I want a government where I can see or (at the very least) where I can find out what the heck is going on. A transparent government, as it were.

As many of us know, this concept is not something that the powers-that-be have bent over backwards to provide, as they fear revolt might follow if we knew what was happening in the name (and with the $$$) of “We, the People”. However, this is a republic that functions as a democracy, so we, as a people, are going to continue demanding accountability until we get it.

To serve this end, I recently decided to get involved in the aldermanic race in Chicago’s 35th ward where I now reside. The apathy and complacency of most Chicagoans with respect to politics is staggering—there was a 34% turnout for this election—but getting involved seemed like the right thing to do. This was especially true because the 35th ward had 1) an extremely arrogant and not terribly competent alderman, and 2) a viable opposition candidate.

I decided to get involved after the opposition candidate knocked on my door one day. Rey Colon came off as a decent, straightforward guy—someone who actually cared about the people and the quality of life in his neighborhood. I gained even more respect for him after checking out www.reycolon.org, a very informative and up-to-date website that he was able to produce on a skeleton budget. Here he clearly outlines his goals—which are idealistic but exactly what you want to see your politician striving for, even if success is likely to be very difficult—and asks for input.

Rey Colon was a stark contrast to the incumbent alderman at the time. Vilma Colom was a stereotypical Machine patsy. With the support of Mayor Daley, she was considered a shoo-in, and thus she did not seem to feel accountable to her constituents. This is clear by looking at her website, http://www.ward35.com/site/epage/home_165.htm, which is just plain sad. It is rarely updated and it has no useful information other than the phone number of her office—not exactly what I expect from the web these days, and certainly not what I expect from a government official who has a budget that can easily pay for a decent website.

People I’ve known for decades here in Chicago thought I was nuts to work on an opposition candidate’s campaign. They told me it was hopeless, he had no chance of winning, I was wasting my time, and even by putting up a Rey Colon sign in my living room window (gasp!) I was asking for trouble.

To a large degree it was just hype, but to a certain degree it turns out they were right. As election day drew nearer, I started reading through the archives of a Yahoo group based around Logan Square and the 35th ward.

I found out lots of interesting things.

I found out that Machine candidate Vilma Colom’s campaign was being run by a convicted felon (convicted of vote fraud—I guess that’s experience for you). I also found out that her campaign was using threats of building inspections and permit issues to intimidate businesses that either showed no interest in displaying her signs, or actually supported Rey Colon. In the most egregious case mentioned in a Chicago Tribune story by John Kass, a building inspector actually threatened a business owner to the point where he backed out of a commitment to host a Rey Colon fundraiser.

Besides the fact that using your position as an alderman to bully people is wrong, one might wonder if the building inspector in question should have been somewhere else that day—like, say, downtown at the E2 nightclub, where 21 people died because the city supposedly “didn’t know” that the club was operating even though it had been hit with code violations and had been ordered to shut down.

Unfortunately, ordinary Chicagoans do not always understand that the city’s misuse of resources for political shenanigans often means that citizens who NEED these resources don’t get them.

Oh, and I found out that a woman working against the Machine in the last election got her car torched. Ouch.

So needless to say, I wasn’t sure what to expect on election day. I had volunteered to work for the Rey Colon campaign in any way they saw fit, so they asked me to attend a training session a few days before the election. There I learned about all the various tricks that the Machine candidates will use to steal elections, such as misusing absentee ballots, filling out ballots for voters who no longer live in the ward (or who no longer live at all), and vandalizing voting machines to prevent the chads from getting punched through. Reminded me a lot of the complaints about Florida’s system in 2000.

A few folks at the session asked some disturbing questions about how to avoid getting drawn into fights with Machine volunteers. The trainers warned us that inflammatory, derogatory, and sexist language would likely be used, and they advised us to stay calm and not get riled up. I was definitely overwhelmed by the enthusiasm of the volunteers and the trainers and by their political savvy. Folks that were assigned to be poll-watchers were given official booklets with all the voting rules, and they were advised to bring cameras to take pictures of any funny business going on. Our chances looked very good.

Thankfully, my election day experience was free of any fighting or funny business. I can’t speak for the rest of my ward, much less for the entire city, but I am happy to say that the Machine volunteers working outside my voting station were not at all unpleasant or intimidating. In fact, I enjoyed their company and I found them to be very normal, decent people. There were only a few guys who looked like stereotypical mobsters, in our own inimitable Chi-town flavors of Mexican, Polish, Irish, and Italian. They had the long black trench coats, shifty eyes, and a general look about them that implied an unhappiness that we, the people, were making them waste their time on this silly election—didn’t we already know they ran the town?

But this turned out to be a key point for the election: Most of Vilma Colom’s supporters had been brought in from other neighborhoods, while most of Rey Colon’s supporters were neighbors or personal friends of neighbors—people who had personal issues at stake. I had to laugh as the Machine volunteers periodically asked me when I was going home, since they were free to leave once I did. But I stuck it out for 12 hours in sub-freezing weather. I knocked on doors reminding people to vote (I got reports throughout the day showing who had and hadn’t voted), and I offered rides to those who had trouble getting around—the Machine spares no effort mobilizing their voters, so if we were going to compete we had to be just as proactive. But just being there outside the voting station helped the most, since it made the Machine feel obligated to have a presence everywhere the opposition did.

As I worked throughout the day, I discovered a puzzling phenomenon. There were Vilma Colom signs in the windows of many people who had indicated they would vote for Rey Colon when he and his supporters had gone door-to-door. This was not lost on the fellows I was competing with to rassle up votes, as we kept bumping into each other on the same front porches saying, “Hey, I got this person listed as one of our supporters!” My guess is that these people just felt they couldn’t turn down the pushy Vilma Colom supporters who were plastering her signs everywhere.

Whatever the case may be, a lot of these people did vote for Rey Colon, vividly reflected by his 58.4% landslide victory. UPSET! The only one in the city, I believe (although there is an impending runoff in another tight race where nobody got 50% of the vote).

What made the victory all the more satisfying was the fact that it caught the Machine, the media, and Vilma Colom herself by surprise. After the election results were finalized, she told the Chicago Tribune that she lost because people in her ward didn’t like Mayor Daley, and as the incumbent she was associated with the mayor. The only problem with that logic is that Mayor Daley won by an even bigger margin in the 35th ward (83%) than he did in the city overall (79%). Above and beyond the obvious and pathetic scapegoating, the idea that Mayor Daley’s support is a handicap is so ludicrous it needs no further embellishment.

Vilma Colom also blamed her loss on the weather—as if it were any warmer that day for people who were going out to vote for her opponent. Furthermore, it is accepted political wisdom that bad weather traditionally helps incumbents, as they have the machinery in place to get their voters (seniors, for example) to the polls.

After the election, I read more about the ward in various news articles and I learned that the areas that overwhelmingly supported Rey Colon were actually new areas added in the last remapping. All the wards in Chicago are rezoned every 10 years after the census info is finalized so that each ward maintains roughly the same population. In theory this sounds very beneficial for the people, but in reality it’s something I call “gerry-pandering”. I call it this because politicians pander to their special interest groups in the process of gerrymandering.

In fact, the original word isn’t very flattering either, Dictionary.com defines “gerrymander” as:

To divide (a geographic area) into voting districts so as to give unfair advantage to one party in elections.

The history of the word is quite revealing as well:

 “An official statement of the returns of voters for senators give[s] twenty nine friends of peace, and eleven gerrymanders.

 So reported the May 12, 1813, edition of the Massachusetts Spy. A gerrymander sounds like a strange political beast, which it is, considered from a historical perspective. This beast was named by combining the word salamander, “a small lizardlike amphibian,” with the last name of Elbridge Gerry, a former governor of Massachusetts state noted for its varied, often colorful political fauna. Gerry (whose name, incidentally, was pronounced with a hard g, though gerrymander is now commonly pronounced with a soft g) was immortalized in this word because an election district created by members of his party in 1812 looked like a salamander. According to one version of gerrymander's coining, the shape of the district attracted the eye of the painter Gilbert Stuart, who noticed it on a map in a newspaper editor's office. Stuart decorated the outline of the district with a head, wings, and claws and then said to the editor, “That will do for a salamander!” “Gerrymander!” came the reply. The word is first recorded in April 1812 in reference to the creature or its caricature, but it soon came to mean not only “the action of shaping a district to gain political advantage” but also “any representative elected from such a district by that method.” Within the same year gerrymander was also recorded as a verb.

Why do I mention this historical curiosity? Well, take a look at the 35th ward the way it was when Vilma Colom won the last aldermanic election in 1999:

It’s kinda funky, but by and large the area resembles a coherent geometric shape. Now compare that picture with the “new-n-improved” 35th ward that was in effect for the 2003 election:

What the…? Man, I looked at that map and I was just dumbfounded—why that big hole in the middle? Don’t those people share the same interests as the people that live in all 360 degrees around them?

Then I learned an interesting fact: The aldermen get to help decide which areas will be added and/or removed from their wards during the rezoning process. So Vilma Colom apparently chose to add all those weird areas to her ward, thinking that this was going to ensure her re-election in 2003. In reality, she showed none of the political smarts that are an aldermanic job requirement in Chicago, as she got trounced in the areas that she added. In the new northern area of her ward, for example, she alienated many of her new constituents by insulting them at a meeting regarding a contested plan to build a Home Depot. She called members of the neighborhood association “selfish”, told them to “get used to progress”, and said the despised Home Depot plan was “a done deal”. This isn’t an isolated example, but it is the best illustration of her attitude as a public servant. She later flip-flopped her position to try to minimize the damage, but it was too late.

Unreal. In retrospect, all the Machine workers I hung out with on election day didn’t have much good to say about Vilma Colom. What they did have to say should be a psychology case-study about local politics: They said that since Vilma Colom was already a two-term alderman, her seniority allowed her to get the 35th ward better services than a potential newcomer like Rey Colon. The “if you don’t rock the boat you’ll be OK” mentality.

The irony is that the 35th ward got lousy services, but Vilma Colom never bothered to talk to her constituents to learn or understand this. Many of the voters I spoke to on election day said that what solidified their support for Rey Colon was the rude and/or flippant treatment they got when they called Vilma Colom’s office about these poor services.

I disagreed with the Machine workers and I told them that having Rey Colon as an independent would likely mean better treatment for our ward, as he wouldn’t be simply another rubber stamp. I do not believe that aldermen who never argue with the mayor get preferential treatment in Chicago’s city council—why would the mayor go out of his way for people that essentially act as sheep? I am confident that having more independence on our city council will improve life for all Chicagoans, as only with open and engaging dialogue can issues be fleshed out and solutions be found. Having an alderman that the mayor respects is what a ward’s constituents want—thankfully my ward now has that.

Vilma Colom, like all poor losers, has chosen to blame everything (the mayor, the weather, negative campaigning, etc.) for her defeat but herself, but herself is where the responsibility lies.

So let this be a lesson to the other Machine politicians out there: Your days operating the city as a personal fiefdom are running out. With the upset victory of Rey Colon will come other righteous challengers, empowered by a victory over the Machine. All it takes is that one spark to get it started.


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Copyright© 2003 by Carter O'Brien.

Images: cityofchicago.org


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