OP-ED: Chicago Progressive Aldermen Just Pissing Everyone Off

(Chicago) – OP-ED: A weird thing happened Wednesday in the Chicago City Council: an organized opposition party showed up. And people are kind of mad about it:

Amid warnings of a return to Council Wars, Mayor Rahm Emanuel on Wednesday snuffed out attempts by the City Council’s Progressive Caucus to force a vote on two stalled ordinances: one sweeping tax-increment-financing (TIF) districts for surplus funds for schools, the other asking voters whether they support an elected school board.

The vote on the TIF surplus ordinance was 36-to-11. The vote on the elected school board was 32-to-15. But, debate on the parliamentary maneuvers that were doomed from the start dragged on for more than an hour. And the bitterness is likely to linger for a whole lot longer than that.

The TIF-surplus vote in particular put 32 aldermen who co-signed the stalled ordinance on the spot.

They were forced to explain why they supported it then, but would not invoke a City Council rule that allows ordinances buried in committee for more than 60 days to be moved to the floor for a final vote.

Don’t worry, I’m not going to talk about TIFs. Either you’re into the Chicago Reader and TIFs are a sinister magic fountain of money stolen right out of the hands of fired public school teachers, or you’re not a crazy person.

Let’s chat about something interesting instead, like the votes!

So there were two ways the votes could have gone. In one scenario, some aldermen who nominally supported the ordinances would “take phone calls” or otherwise find reasons to get off the floor, causing the bills to fail.

But that’s not what happened! Instead they were voted down outright, because everyone is mad at the Progressive Caucus. They didn’t actually do any work to get the votes to pass the bills, and put a lot of otherwise sympathetic colleagues, like Ald. Ameya Pawar (47th) on the spot:

“You have not done the work to build coalitions…Instead of engaging your colleagues to understand how this rough draft of the ordinance impacts all of us in our communities, you’ve turned your ordinance into a pledge in the same way that Grover Norquist forces Tea Partiers to sign a pledge, then holds it over their heads and says, ‘You need to vote this way,’ ” Pawar said.

And there’s nothing wrong with that! True, the Chicago City Council is traditionally a collaborative body, which is why everything usually passes with lopsided votes. But there’s nothing to say it can’t be a partisanbody instead, with clearly defined groups in eternal opposition to each other.

2nd Ward Alderman Bob Fioretti

So the bills failed. Who cares?

Now 36 aldermen are on record as “voted against funding public schools”*, and a smaller number are on record as “voted against funding public schools after promising they would.” It’s a fine attack, if not particularly accurate; assuming it polls well, some of those aldermen will sure be sorry in 2015!

In other words, the Progressive Caucus was acting like a typical opposition party: force everyone to take crummy votes, yell about it, wait for elections, profit!

There’s just one problem: the Progressive Caucus is not doing anything else political parties do. They’re just pissing everyone off.

Let’s assume for a moment this is how things are going to go, with the Rahm Emanuel Is Awesome Party versus the Real People of Chicago Party. The mayor has raised $4.7 million since the 2011 elections.. His aldermanic PAC has raised almost $1 million during the same time period.

The Progressive Caucus has started a PAC since it split from its sometimes-okay-with-the-mayor colleagues, but has little money. individual members are not raising big-time money either: Ald. Scott Waguespack (32nd) has raised $113,000 for 2015. Ald. John Arena (45th) has raised $155,000. Ald. Bob Fioretti (2nd) has raised $434,000, which is impressive in a tallest-midget sort of way.

If you want to have an opposition party, that’s great.

But then you need to actually run a party, and raise the money, protect your caucus and defeat the other side. It’s fine to force lousy votes, but if you’re not backing it up with anything in election season you’re just annoying people who might have otherwise supported you, like Pawar.

But the Progressive Caucus isn’t doing that. And that’s why no one takes them seriously. A vote here, a press release there, and then everyone moves on. The only question is how badly they’re going to be bludgeoned in their own reelections.

You could make an argument that this is all in support of campaign activity by Chicago labor unions such as CTU and SEIU. And that’s great for labor unions! They have been known to spend lots of money on municipal elections.

But it’s not so great for the Progressive Caucus. Labor unions exist to support their members, not politicians. They exist to support their members. They do not exist to support generally progressive candidates, nor should they.

And those votes didn’t help labor unions anyway, because they failed.

It’s fine to take messaging votes and mess with other aldermen. But until the Progressive Caucus backs up their posturing with their own fundraising and political operation, they’re just making enemies and influencing no one.

Twitter @WillCaskey

Will Caskey, a contributor to The Illinois Observer, is an opposition researcher and partner at Stanford Caskey. A Louisiana native, Will lives in Chicago where he continues to express annoyance with the term “Chicago-style politics.”

*Not actually a true statement; the single biggest recipient of TIF expenditures is school construction and rehabilitation.

(*Note to Political Insiders: The Illinois Observer also offers our exclusive, subscriber-only e-newsletter –The Insider – to, well, Illinois political insiders. Each Tuesday and Friday at 6:00 a.m. The Insider, whose Consulting Editor is Capitol Fax Publisher Rich Miller, arrives in e-mail boxes with the choicest Illinois, Cook County, and Chicago political gossip, insider information, and news tips. For more information and a free, 4-week trial subscription to The Insider, please go here).