Policy wonks, patronage, and the possibilities of the grassroots
Apr 10, 2009
18 Min read time
I drive south, from Chicago’s West Garfield Park into North Lawndale, through a shattered landscape of dollar stores and vacant lots and an occasional renovated building (New Condos! 75 percent occupied! Going Fast! . . . and largely dark at night when I drive past, giving “going fast” a meaning the PR people did not intend). It is a landscape that began to crater more than 40 years ago and never recovered.
It is December 1, 2008. This afternoon, WGN radio is reporting that President-elect Barack Obama has selected Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton as his Secretary of State. It occurs to me that right here, the corner of Madison and Pulaski, is almost exactly midway between Hyde Park, on Chicago’s southeast side, and the northwest suburb of Park Ridge. Drive the fourteen miles to Hyde Park, and you will find yourself in the enclave community that the president has called home for the past seventeen years or so. Turn around and drive northwest, you will end up in Park Ridge, where Hillary Clinton was raised before heading off to Wellesley College and Yale Law School.
Think of this as an exercise in social geometry. The announcements of cabinet appointments are all taking place downtown, just miles away from the heart of the west side, where the other winners in the city and region—the lawyers, developers, real estate interests, and media and public relations elites—congregate. The corporate and civic institutions of downtown, the academic and health institutions of Hyde Park, and the still-thriving bedroom communities of Park Ridge form a triangle. In its center, on Madison and Pulaski, the urban core is widening and collapsing like a toxic asset on a bank’s balance sheet. You can spend your entire life in Chicago, moving from one point of the triangle to another and never coming to grips with the reality of this stretch of Madison. And you can spend your entire life here and have no sense of the parallel reality of the people on the commuter trains, at the U of C, or in the office towers downtown. But on Madison is where many Chicagoans—and many Americans—live.
During three summers in the late 1960s, I worked for the Contract Buyers League of Lawndale, led by the late great Monsignor Jack Egan and a determined Jesuit seminarian named Jack Macnamara. Paid ten dollars a week as a junior member of a large and talented staff, I did hundreds upon hundreds of title searches, poring over the plats and maps at Chicago Title and Trust and going half-blind staring at microfilm records.
My colleagues and I read the story of the dismantling of a major part of the city. White families, panicked by real estate speculators, sold low. The speculators’ pitch was not subtle. Each night, sometimes in the middle of the night, the phone would ring, and a real estate representative would describe how the coming black buyers would destroy the neighborhood. Often, the caller literally spoke your language—in the case of my family, Croatian.
Once the whites had left, the real estate sharks turned around and sold the same homes at much higher prices to working-class black families. There was a catch, of course: the early version of the adjustable-rate mortgage. Black families, denied normal mortgages by any bank because of their race, had to buy their homes on contract. They had no equity until they made the very last payment. Equity was not earned month-by-month, year-by-year, as in a normal mortgage, but only as a “bonus” at the end of twenty years of faithful and timely payments. Any late payment or short payment meant that they lost everything.
Ruth Wells and Clyde Ross were just two of the thousands of people who faced this real estate gauntlet. They, like other Lawndale homeowners, went to work no matter how sick, no matter how pressed, no matter how worried they were about their teenage kids, because they could not miss a single payment. And because they eventually would, they would find a sheriff on the porch, waiting to evict them. When they met Egan and Macnamara, Wells and Ross emerged as leaders of the group of contract buyers that decided to push back. They picketed the banks that held the mortgages of the sleazy real estate operators. They recruited a top legal team to represent them. They analyzed and documented every transaction in an entire section of the city and proved that there was a clear pattern of abuse and exploitation. Before RICO, they exposed a real estate racket and flushed out the racketeers. They won in court and forced the mortgage companies to reimburse them for their losses.
But the victory, against great odds, was too little and too late. In dozens of other neighborhoods, the racketeers, or their unindicted sons and daughters, went back to work. They kept scamming both the whites who fled and the blacks who came. The dollars that could have gone into home maintenance, home improvement, tutoring for the kids, went to hustlers who worked with the blessing and protection of the Democratic machine. Before long, block after block was bled dry. About half of the neighborhoods of the city started to die.
I remember Lincoln’s description, in his second inaugural address, of how “all the wealth piled by the bond-man’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk.” The longer the evil was tolerated, or ignored, or worked around, the greater the price to be paid by the entire nation: “until every drop of blood drawn with the lash, shall be paid by another drawn with the sword.” The modern Lawndale version was not slavery, not total, not horrific, not enforced by the lash, but it was marked by relentless toil and modest wages that gave way to slowly losing—seeing stolen—most of what you worked so hard to earn. Your toil was not unrequited when you did your work. It was unrequited over time.
I responded to these experiences and many others like them by becoming an organizer. I have worked for more than 30 years with colleagues in the Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF) as we found and developed local leaders who sought to build and sustain their communities. When I began, there was still some sense that governmental solutions with a liberal bent could solve many of society’s seemingly intractable problems. But that sense was already fading and was swept off the stage by President Reagan’s government-is-the-enemy creed and a quarter-century of prayers and incense-burning at the altar of the market. Today, both temples lie in ruins. And, once again, people are watching their lifetimes of work reduced to dust.
Meanwhile, in what Peter Drucker called the “third sector” and what others refer to as civil society, my colleagues and I have carried out many experiments in citizen organizing and social problem solving—some very large in scale, some more local; some clearly successful, some not; and some in too early a stage to evaluate. These are experiments, often undertaken in partnership with local government, that neither the governmental sector nor the market could or would conduct alone. These experiments have already transformed parts of cities and counties and regions. As conditions for working people continue to deteriorate and as traditional responses keep coming up short, these experiments command greater study.
• • •
Before and after the recent presidential campaign, there was more attention than usual paid to the world of organizing. After all, the president himself had been an organizer for three years. In fact, he had attended the ten-day training session that my colleagues and I conducted more than twenty years ago. Although he never worked directly with our network, we stayed in touch, on and off, through the years.
Clinton, his most serious challenger, wrote her senior thesis at Wellesley about the IAF’s founder, Saul David Alinksy, whose centennial year is now being marked. Alinsky, it is said, offered her a job. She declined, declaring that she believed more significant change would occur within the system, rather than from without.
Even Rudolph Giuliani spent several minutes of his prime time speech at the Republican Convention shining a light—a negative one—on organizing. He pretended not to know what organizing was, or what an organizer did. Giuliani failed to mentioned that as New York City mayor he spent scores of hours with our groups on a range of critical issues; he attended assemblies, met individually with fifteen leaders, and sought our assistance in times of great crisis. His convention performance backfired, exposing to a national audience his utterly untethered ambition.
I have few doubts about the intelligence of the team the new president has assembled. But I worry very much about their two cultures—about how they have been formed, about how they have prospered while so much of America has faded.
Since Obama’s victory, many people have asked me if I feel better now that a former organizer is in the White House. They may have been posing rhetorical questions: they assumed I would be thrilled. But I found myself asking another question: where did the three years of organizing experience fit into the overall formation of the president as a public person? And the answer to that question—that the influence of organizing ranked lower than other influences—led to a second question: what were those more formative influences, and what impact would they have on his administration and the nation?
The first influence was one Obama shared with Clinton—the set of relationships, contacts, loyalties and beliefs that began in the nation’s elite colleges, law schools, and graduate schools and were reinforced, in public- and private-sector careers, ever since. I’ve written elsewhere that Clinton and many in her political generation:
left their hometowns and are, in some sense, stateless, even placeless. They weren’t formed by decades of party-building, door-to-door voter work, and carefully crafted alliances in a neighborhood or town. To the extent that they are the product of a place, a time, and a people, the place would be college campuses and high-powered law schools. The time would be the late 1960’s and very early 1970’s. And the people would be other intense college kids, law school students, and political operatives.
This non-geographical tribe places an extraordinary value on academic and other forms of intellectual achievement—as students, as professors, as authors, as opinion leaders. Many members of this tribe care deeply about the issues, particularly the issues of people in great distress. But their caring often expresses itself in sophisticated policies and programs that, conceived from the top down, will almost certainly run afoul of realities on the ground. The best of them, cloistered from the lived reality of most Americans, acknowledge that fact, and try to listen to those who are more closely connected to it. The worst of them have contempt for the experiences of working people and sneer at pragmatic critique of larger policy issues as “anecdotal.” The majority, incredibly busy and personally ambitious, is somewhere in the middle. The White House and most federal agencies will be filled with the members of this tribe.
The president is himself an intellectual and an academic. He seems to enjoy the company of the best and the brightest from Stanford and the University of Chicago and Harvard. He kept, cultivated, and expanded his relationships to academics and experts since his days at Columbia and the Harvard Law School. Support for his candidacy surged in part because he communicated to academics that he valued them, admired them, and would invite them back into the center of power and policy. Academics of all ages were deeply committed to his campaign. They served as leaders and organizers on campuses for him. And they were thrilled by his victory, their joy exceeded only by the pride of the nation’s African-American community.
While the newly elected president was mobile as a younger man, and while he shares Clinton’s fondness for this tribe of high achievers, he also did something that distinguished himself from her and many others like her: he moved to the south side of Chicago and became rooted in a political culture and a physical place. Here he came under a second strong influence, one that has received little attention in the media. In Chicago, Obama gained for his campaign a key quality that his opponents in the Democratic primaries and the national election lacked: the unparalleled toughness and thoroughness of the Cook County Democratic machine.
When Tip O’Neill—the savvy Congressman from Cambridge, Massachusetts who rose to become speaker of the house—said, “all politics is local,” he was talking about the kind of “local” that Cook County officials and machine politicians everywhere understood—neighborhood, ward, borough, precinct, populated by people known both by face and name. An effective pol would know where each person worked and prayed, drank and voted.
As most urban machines have rusted and stalled, Cook County’s has only become more fuel-efficient. A third generation of Madigans and Daleys, families that first appeared on public payrolls in 1924, now hold a range of powerful offices—mayor of Chicago, assembly speaker, state attorney general. The non-blood family that began with former Chicago city council powerhouse Wilson Frost and continued with former Illinois Senate President Emil Jones adopted a talented and bright young man named Barack Obama. One of the machine’s favorite consultants, David Axelrod, played a pivotal role in the presidential campaign. Axelrod had spent much of the previous decade advising Mayor Richard M. Daley. In the transition meetings downtown, William Daley and Rahm Emanuel were major figures—one a blood descendant of the Daley tribe and the other an adopted and adopting son. If you suggested one hundred–year term limits in Cook County, no one in the machine would laugh, and every machine operative would find some reason to object.
The machine is orderly, tidy, predictable, and very tightly connected. The machine is also disciplined. No matter how long your tribe has ruled, no matter how many times you have been elected, no matter how secure your seat, you must pay your respects to its rituals and practices. Robo-calls, email blitzes, or Bruce Springsteen concerts simply will not do. You go door-to-door. You do an exhaustive analysis of every voter on every block in every precinct and ward. You lock up the pluses (sure yes votes) and ignore the minuses (sure no votes). And you focus, with laser-like intensity, on the zeros (the undecideds, the not-yet-determined). You do not trust this work to junior volunteers, or amateurs, or idealists. The machine “don’t want nobody nobody sent,” as a young and enthusiastic Abner Mikva was told at the beginning of a long and estimable career in public life. This pointed tutorial came from a machine operative who rejected the future Congressman’s innocent offer to help in a local campaign.
On the ground, politics is serious business: the core, consistent, profit-making business of the city and county. In many campaigns, there are few, almost no, true volunteers. Campaigns are run by reliable pros. And campaign headquarters somehow attract seasoned workers who are paid by the city or county or state. The workers fill every desk at all hours of day and night, and they show up at mid-day by the hundreds, flooding out of government agencies, for “campaign events.” These repeated miraculous gatherings of political supporters paid by public agencies, particularly in the few contested elections that occur, rival the apparitions at Lourdes.
During the February primary, I worked on a freezing day at a precinct in Oak Park to try to build support for a Constitutional Convention proposition (opposed by the machine and later defeated soundly). After 30 minutes or so, another worker came over to me and asked, “What clock you on?” At first I did not understand. Then I realized that he was asking who was paying me. “Nobody’s clock,” I said. He was incredulous. I asked him, “What clock you on?” He could not have been more forthcoming. “I work in the city—reviewing architectural plans. That clock. Plus a few others. I make out really great today.” Later that night, mired in a sleet storm in the southwest suburbs, I asked another indefatigable machine worker what he was doing. “Passing out cards for some judge,” he said. I asked which judge; “How the hell should I know?” he replied. When I pointed to a long Polish name on the cards, the machine worker said, “Yeah, him.”
What the president pulled off was remarkable. He mobilized the resources and relationships of both tribes—the non-geographical networks of elite colleges, law schools, law firms, and the like, and the most efficient geographically grounded political machine left in the nation. These two groups opposed each other during an earlier age of political reform, lived parallel lives at best, and had very different interests and habits. But they have shared one common experience over more than four decades: both tribes have thrived while the larger worlds around them crumbled.
The academics and professionals who lived in Hyde Park or Evanston, downtown or Oak Park, in Ann Arbor and Madison, in Columbus and Bloomington, in scores of other university enclaves or towns, did very well. The University of Chicago continued to expand and prosper during this period while the president taught at its law school and the first lady worked in a senior management position at its medical center. The northwest Chicago suburb where Clinton grew up remained a pleasant bedroom community for white-collar workers who commuted downtown or to the office parks beyond O’Hare airport. But these bubbles of prosperity were the exception. As Richard C. Longworth has described in Caught in the Middle, quality of life in large older cities, indeed the entire Midwest, declined dramatically for most, catastrophically for growing numbers. A 2008 Milwaukee Journal Sentinel article noted that the unemployment rate for black men in Milwaukee is over 50 percent.
While the professional tribes were thriving, those who maintained the machine culture of Cook County learned that there was no necessary relationship between political success and social progress. They did not have to deliver decent schools, an honest and effective police force, affordable housing, respectable public housing, and accessible medical care to the majority of their constituents. They did not even have to protect the working-class white neighborhoods that historically served as the machine’s base. They perfected their control of the west and south sides of the city even as population drained and conditions deteriorated. Of the scores of bungalow neighborhoods of lower-middle-class residents, now just a handful remain. The city has lost nearly a million residents from its population high-water mark in 1947—most of them white ethnics.
But in return for electoral support, the machine had two obligations. First, it had to honor the unwritten agreement made decades ago between the city’s mayor and local aldermen. In that agreement, the mayor got what he wanted on all big decisions—budget, airports, downtown development, tourism, and the arts—and the aldermen got what they wanted in their wards. Of course, the local pols then had to support the machine 100 percent at election time, and the machine had to protect them from upstarts and activists who wanted to rock the boat, or nightmare of nightmares, throw the hacks off the boat. The unwritten deal had a major downside: a license to steal, a root cause of the endemic corruption in Illinois.
Second, the machine had to keep finding ways to deliver jobs, contracts, favors, and opportunities for profit to its most loyal supporters. Real estate and zoning, insurance and title work, have always been mainstays, as has tax assessment. Private and public colleges, including community colleges with construction and patronage opportunities, have played bigger and bigger roles. Hospitals and medical centers are today’s troughs. While there is not much fat in honest-to-god affordable-housing development, the foreclosure business is booming for lawyers, sheriffs, court clerks, and moving companies.
One of the great new growth areas for patronage and profit has been criminal justice and incarceration. In 1970 there were only 7,326 men and women in prison in Illinois. By 2005, there were 44,000. Illinois now ranks 49th in state dollars dedicated to education, while it is near the top of the list in state funding for prisons. In December 2008 the Chicago Tribune reported that then-Governor Rod Blagojevich “hired 208 prison guards who don’t have a prison to guard.” Bruce Western, a Harvard sociologist, writes that the probability of incarceration, particularly for young black men such as those on the west and south sides of Chicago, is now greater than that of graduation from high school.
• • •
Like the majority of voting Americans, I was glad to see the Bush era repudiated. And I have few doubts about the intelligence of the team the new president has assembled. But I worry very much about their two cultures—about how they have been formed, about how they have prospered while so much of America has faded, about how much evil they have tolerated or ignored, and about whether they will grapple with deepening and multiplying institutional crises.
There is a chance the president learned some approaches and lessons, skills and tools, from the world of organizing that may prove useful in the years ahead. Although his organizing tenure is short in comparison to his legal, teaching, writing, or political careers, he might be more open to these lessons than any of his predecessors. But he will also have to fend off the academics who tend to see change only in terms of technocratic policies and who are unable to learn from experience whether the policy actually works. The president will also have to muscle out the machine operatives who could not care less about policies and priorities, but have perfected the art of transforming all of Washington’s money into ever-expanding pools of patronage and local influence.
The devil is not in the details. He’s in the large space between policy and patronage—in the muck and mire of implementation, in the nether world where neither the media nor federal prosecutors tread.
As we say in organizing, the internal fights are always the toughest.
April 10, 2009
18 Min read time