Progressive priorities for Chicago

The coming year will be pivotal for Chicago. The rest of the country will be focusing on the presidential election over the next couple months, but in Chicago the real action is elsewhere. Sure, an Obama victory might translate into greater resources for urban development, both because Obama is presumably more interested in tackling urban problems than the Cheney administration has been or McCain would be, and because Obama might pay back the favors he’s incurred during his years in Chicago’s political mire. And, of course, electing Obama would ensure that Chicago gets a presidential library at some point down the road.

But there’s not much Chicago can actually do to influence the outcome of the race. Obama will undoubtedly win Illinois, Durbin will undoubtedly win reelection to the Senate, only a couple members of the House are in danger of losing their seats, and the only important local race, for state’s attorney, will likely be won by Anita Alvarez, who’s busy integrating herself into the Chicago machine. (There is a Green Party candidate for state's attorney, Thomas O'Brien, for those repelled by Alvarez and her Republic opponent, Tony Peraica.)

But the election is still hugely important for Chicago and Illinois because the question of whether to call a state constitutional convention will be on the ballot. Every twenty years the citizens of Illinois can choose to rewrite the constitution, an option they declined the previous time they had the chance. This time we need to seize the opportunity.

Unbeknownst to most, the state constitution is one of the strongest obstacles to progressive change in Illinois. On all of the key short-term structural problems we face - a regressive tax structure, unequal school funding, pay-to-play corruption between business and political leaders - the constitution either silently accedes to the status quo or enshrines it in law. The General Assembly’s anemic attempts to address these problems have invariably failed.

If the constitutional convention passed, two delegates would be elected from each senate district to consider changes, and the outcome of their deliberations would be put before the voters for a yes-no vote. Ideally the new constitution would:
  • Eliminate the flat income tax, which not only leaves the overall tax structure regressive once truly regressive taxes like the sales tax are added in, it also hamstrings the legislature in raising revenue, forcing it to consider socially-destructive options like expanding gambling;
  • Mandate equal school funding, a necessary but not sufficient condition for overcoming the social devastation on the South and West Sides that is now spreading to some inner-ring suburbs;
  • Reform the campaign finance system by switching to public funding along the lines of Maine and Arizona's clean election systems;
  • Implement a nonpartisan redistricting process, similar to Iowa’s.
Of course to both write a progressive constitution and get it passed would require a major progressive mobilization to counter the status quo forces (especially big business) that are already working to nip the threat in the bud by defeating the referendum. That means major efforts will be needed to pass the constitutional convention in November, and sustained efforts to influence its outcome afterward.

Progressives not only have a once-in-a-decade chance to rewrite the ground rules of politics in Illinois, we also have a once-in-a-century chance to influence the distribution of resources that would flow to Chicago if Daley wins his bid for the 2016 Olympics. But the International Olympic Committee will make its decision in 2009 October and as Ben Joravsky points out in a must-read article, Daley will assuredly not be making concessions after that point, so we have to mobilize now to win the best deal we can.

One major demand should be converting the Metra Electric Line running thru the South Side to a new CTA line - the Gray Line, which I've written about here. Theoretically this shouldn’t be a difficult victory since it seems in line with Daley’s long-term plans and would address many of the transportation problems connecting Olympic venues. Even so, the plan still has no visible political support from the relevant agencies, Chicago-area politicians, or Daley himself.

But even as we push for the Gray Line, it’s important to keep sight of Daley’s goals: he’s seeking the Olympics as a way to dramatically accelerate the gentrification of the South Side. Already the South Loop has been completely transformed in the last decade with a frenzy of new luxury highrises being built; the neighborhoods of Kenwood and Oakland have been converted to lowrise condos for professionals; and the major public housing projects have been destroyed, scattering to the four corners all those people keeping down property values (well, actually only to the southern corners).

The Olympics would extend and deepen the transformation of the South Side thru the new Olympic Village housing on the site of Michael Reese Hospital, major improvements to public parks and infrastructure (including transit), and most important the indirect spur it would give to developers and housing costs - both of which can be counted on to drive out poor and working-class people.

As long as we have to live with the massive social inequalities that capitalism necessarily creates, it’s not entirely a bad thing to bring rich folks and professionals into poor neighborhoods - their wealth draws the commerce that would redline the ghetto and their political influence keeps up basic infrastructure. But left to itself gentrification will cleanse the neighborhood of all its original inhabitants, simply displacing the social catastrophe forced upon them to neighborhoods and suburbs further south.
That’s why we need to demand solid guarantees on affordable housing from Daley to balance his vision of gentrification and to make sure the Olympics bid increases equality instead of deepening it. Communities for an Equitable Olympics, a coalition of South Side community groups, has begun organizing to demand affordable housing and preference for locals in jobs and contracts related to the Olympics. We need to expand their base of support and help them increase the pressure on Daley.

Of course we have to remember that the constitutional convention, the Gray Line, and integrating affordable housing into the Olympic plans are only preliminary skirmishes in a much more protracted struggle to remake Chicago - to stop the progress of Daley’s efforts to build a gleaming city inhabited by professionals and cleansed of the poor, and create in its place an egalitarian and participatory Chicago.


nessie said...

Thanks for this well timed offering.
Here I was thinking that a constitutional convention would be a disaster given the current state of government functioning in Illinois--plus Lt. Gov. Quinn doesn't do the best job of explaining things, which is who I heard pushing for it. But I was left with a distinct impression of things coming out worse instead of better, or at least no better. Always good to have one's narrow mental confines prodded open--thanks for the provocation!

Jake said...

If we win the constitutional convention, everything will depend on whether we can mobilize to elect delegates who will pursue our agenda. And we might actually find some conservative allies - a lot of anti-tax activists would support ending pay-to-play corruption, and many good-government conservatives would back us on nonpartisan redistricting or ideas like binding referenda.

If all else fails and the final document is worse than the one we started with, we still have the chance to reject it at the polls, so there's not much to be nervous about. But the fact that big business is trying to kill the constitutional convention is reason enough to think we probably want to support it.

Anonymous said...

chicago liberation front
Gary, IN Reply »
|Report Abuse |#79 4 hrs ago
As I have said before,the The University of Chicago is not just an elitist arrogant institution it is also greedy and corrupt. After being exposed for dumping poor Black patients,in favor of wealthy and powerful patients,the Uof C shows its true self. The media including the Tribune is also in bed with The U of C . This explains why this politically sensitive story was planted in their Business section. The U of C has also forged an stronger alliance with the Daley regime.

Joe said...

I found out about this the same time i read your post. Looks interesting (especially for people like me, who are still unsure and relatively confused about the whole con-con thing..)

Does Illinois Need a New Constitution? You will decide!

Participants will include:

Hon. John Fritchey,
State Representative, 11th District

Dawn Clark Netsch, Prof. Emerita, NU School of Law

Kathryn Nesburg, Chair, Con-Con Committee,
League of Women Voters of Illinois

Hon. Patrick Quinn,
Lt. Governor

Richard Lockhart, Dean, Springfield Lobbyists

September 16, 2008

5:00 - 7:00pm: Panel Discussion and Forum

7:00 - 8:00pm: Reception in the Atrium

Student Services Building (SSB)
1200 W. Harrison St, Chicago
Meeting Rooms B & C

Convenient access via the CTA Blue Line (Racine exit - just north of SSB)

Parking is available at Harrison St. Parking Structure (HRPS), 1100 W. Harrison St.
which costs just $6.25 on entry at Harrison St. (after 3:00pm)