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Chicago’s little-known experiment in radical democracy

  • January 17, 2020

City & Commons

In the 1970s, Chicago’s 44th Ward was placed under direct democratic control of its residents, challenging the corrupt mayor’s near-total control over the city.

Chicago in the 1970s functioned as a one-party mini-state, with the charismatic mayor Richard J. Daley acting as the city’s strongman. Through elaborate channels of corruption and patronage, Democratic Party leaders throughout Cook County — the administrative jurisdiction that Chicago resides in — manipulated elections and public finances to maintain power.

First elected in 1955, Daley was mayor of Chicago and chair of the Cook County Democratic Party. His role in these two positions gave him an unprecedented amount of power. For both acolytes and critics, he was the unequivocal “boss” — of the council, the party, the city, of nearly everything in Chicago. In this role, Daley also controlled the Democratic “political machine,” a form of party organization that was common throughout late nineteenth century urban America — and notoriously strong in Chicago — that granted political leaders near-total control from the city council all the way down to the street level.

While the authoritarian rule of the Daley machine was overwhelming, it was not complete. While Daley exercised great influence over the city’s politics, an ambitious progressive alderman by the name of Dick Simpson stood up against the party machine to lead a campaign for direct democracy in Chicago.

In a direct challenge to the Democratic machine, Alderman Simpson created the 44th Ward Assembly and for the first time in Chicago’s history, ward politics were put under the direct control of its residents. Average citizens — not machine candidates or city bureaucrats — were empowered to make decisions on the future of their ward.

The Democratic machine eventually regained control the 44th Ward and quickly dismantled the assembly, but the legacy of the 44th Ward Assembly changed Chicago. It broadened the conversations about the need for greater democracy throughout the city. To this day, it serves as a powerful example of direct democracy in one of the United States’ largest cities.

Challenging the establishment

Chicago’s aptitude for corrupt politics dates back to the city’s founding. It is said that when Chicago held its first election in 1833, there were more votes counted than there were residents of the city. Historians agree that the story is apocryphal, but its sentiment demonstrates a deeper truth about Chicago, where corrupt machines were not aberrations but a general feature of how politics operated.

Through most of the city’s early history, this corruption was committed equally among Democrats and Republicans as they wrestled each other for power. Only on rare occasions was their duopoly disrupted by socialists or independent candidates. All this changed after the New Deal.

In many American cities, the New Deal weakened local machines because the expansion of social services made their offers for patronage less appealing. However, in Chicago the New Deal had the opposite effect. The New Deal resulted in the collapse of the city’s Republican Party: its opposition to Roosevelt’s agenda and its inability to appeal to white urban ethnics — particularly Chicago’s Catholic dominated Irish, Italians and Poles — forced it into humiliating electoral defeats.

In its absence, the Democratic Party was able to establish hegemonic control. Mayor Edward Kelly, elected in 1933, promoted himself as a progressive New Dealer while using the city’s new federally funded largess to support an elaborate system of favoritism, patronage and graft.

Under Daley’s direction, the Cook County Democratic Party’s Central Committee selected aldermanic candidates to run for office. Precinct captains would then organize support for the candidates under the quid pro quo that after the election the winning candidate would provide a government job or other forms of patronage to the precinct captain. In this environment, independent and upstart politicians who wanted to get elected outside of the political machine, and had no interest in using favoritism in exchange for political support, had very little chance of winning elections. Independent candidates could overcome the efforts by precinct captains only through the organization of overwhelming grassroots support.

In 1968, a group of young progressives who had worked on Eugene McCarthy’s presidential campaign established Chicago’s first Independent Precinct Organizations (IPOs) as a rival force to the Cook County Democratic Party. Unlike the party, IPO candidates were expected to contribute monthly dues of $2.25 and volunteer their time campaigning for candidates rather than using their public office to bestow patronage upon their supporters.

One of the IPO’s principal architects was University of Illinois–Chicago political science professor Dick Simpson. Simpson saw IPOs as accomplishing three main goals; to recruit qualified progressive candidates to challenge establishment Democrats; to engage the general public in issue-specific campaigns; and, lastly, to serve as a model for a new type of politics in Chicago. The creators of the IPOs assumed that the hegemony of the Cook County Democratic Party and the corruption associated with it could be eliminated if everyday citizens were more directly involved in politics.

Unlike the top-down structure of the Cook County Democratic Party, IPOs did not endorse candidates through a central committee. Instead, candidates seeking an endorsement from an IPO would need to win a two thirds majority from the general membership at a special endorsement meeting.

The IPOs were successful. In a little over two years, they had successfully elected two delegates to the Illinois Constitutional Convention and two progressive independent aldermen to the Chicago city council, one of them being Simpson from the 44th Ward. Simpson immediately clashed with the Democratic machine.

On July 21, 1971, Aldermen Simpson questioned Mayor Daley’s proposed appointment of Thomas Keane Jr. to the Zoning Board of Appeals. Keane Jr. was the son of 31st Ward aldermen Thomas Keane Sr., Mayor Daley’s floor leader, and he was the vice-president of Arthur Rubloff Co., one of the largest real estate firms in Chicago.

Mayor Daley, not used to opposition from the council, shouted down Simpson. After the exchange, another alderman made a few sycophantic remarks in defense of Keane Jr. and Mayor Daley read a maudlin poem by Grace Noll Crowell entitled “Sons” before going into a hysterical tirade where he accused Simpson of “polluting the minds of young people.” The vote to approve Keane Jr. for the position passed with a near-total majority.

A new source of political authority

As alderman, Simpson wanted to continue with the project of encouraging democratic participation that began in the IPOs. After his election, Simpson drafted a document entitled “Creating a 44th Ward Assembly.” The document was part manifesto and part organizational guide for creating a metropolitan version of town hall democracy in the 44th Ward.

Inspired by the work of political philosopher Hannah Arendt and “The Port Huron Statement” by Students for a Democratic Society, Simpson sought to combine New Left idealism with Chicago pragmatism. During the summer of 1971, he lobbied community leaders to support his plan and eventual got a formal endorsement from the 44th Ward’s IPO. On January 9, 1972, the 44th Ward had its first assembly.

The ward assembly was scheduled to meet on the second Sunday of each month, meeting at least ten times a year. An emergency meeting could be called by the alderman or by two hundred ward residents. A quorum of 25 percent of delegates was needed for any meeting. The assembly was open to the general public, but only delegates were allowed to vote.

Newspaper clipping from Chicago Tribune, June 22, 1973

The assembly had two forms of delegates. The first was precinct delegates. Each precinct in the 44th Ward would elect two representatives at locally organized “coffee meetings.” With 63 precincts in the 44th Ward, this voting model produced 123 delegates. The second was organizational delegates. Each civic organization in the ward that could prove it had a minimum of 25 members could elect a delegate to the assembly. At the first meeting, 55 local organizations were represented.

The assembly elected a steering committee of 10 to 15 members that included both precinct and organizational delegates. It also had two standing committees — finance and social services — and could create additional committees as needed. Simpson, as the ward alderman, served on the steering committee and as the chair, but was denied a vote in the assembly. In addition to the initial ward assembly, a Spanish language Asamblea Abierta was created, along with a variety of issue-specific participatory committees whose members were nominated by Simpson but approved by the ward assembly. The amalgamation of institutions and committees were understood by Simpson to be a new source of political authority within the ward. According to Simpson, writing in the local Lerner Booster Newspaper, “The Ward Assembly is to become a new instrument of local government — partly representative, partly a town hall meeting, but fully open to the public.”

The ward assembly had actual political power. At the first meeting, two covenants were introduced. The first was directed at the precinct and organizational delegates. Assembly members agreed to faithfully represent the people of the ward and fulfill the obligations of the assembly. In the second, the alderman agreed to be bound to any decision passed by the assembly that had a minimum of a two-thirds majority. Both covenants were renewed on an annual basis after assembly elections.

Simpson actively promoted his abnegation of aldermanic power. While campaigning for the ward assembly, he told the local Lerner Booster Newspaper, “if the assembly’s vote was just advisory some people might say ‘Why should I bother to attend if the alderman can disregard our advice?’ This way, they have the power to control my vote.”

Simpson’s status as founder did not deter delegates from challenging his authority. Once, two independent politicians who were politically aligned with Simpson stopped by the ward assembly to campaign. Simpson sought to introduce the candidates but was rebuked by assembly members who reminded Simpson that the assembly was a policymaking body not an opportunity for electioneering. In stark contrast to how Mayor Daley ran city council meetings, Simpson accepted the protest from assembly members, admitted he was out of order, and continued with the meeting.

The objective of the ward assembly was two-fold: first, to direct the alderman on legislation in the city council, and second to organize ward services. In directing legislation, the 44th Ward Assembly had several accomplishments, including the passage of a historical ordinance. The ward assembly urged Simpson to pass an anti-redlining ordinance that would prevent financial institutions that worked with the city from denying mortgages based on the geographic area of the borrower.

Despite the fact that the ordinance was pushed by an independent alderman, many machine Democrats signed on to it. In May of 1974, the ordinance passed the city council with Mayor Daley’s blessing. Since its passage, Chicago’s anti-redlining ordinance has been recognized as a model, duplicated in other cities in the United States.

In the context of organizing ward services, the assembly produced a 44th Ward Almanac that reported on the state of the ward and provided social services information to residents. It also decided on the terms for sidewalk sales and art fairs, undertook special drives to raise funds for local food pantries, organized the annual 44th Ward Fair, and identified sites for future parks and playgrounds.

An effective and inspiring example

Despite these accomplishments, other aldermen — even independents who were politically aligned with Simpson — were unwilling to duplicate the 44th Ward’s model. To a large degree, the success of the ward assembly was due to Simpson’s personal dedication.

Newspaper clipping from Chicago Tribune, January 10, 1972

When Simpson was elected as alderman, he stayed on as a professor, often working 80 hours a week. Additionally, many of the ward assembly’s activities were not funded by the city. Instead, Simpson donated the entirety of his alderman salary to the assembly. This arrangement could not last forever.

In August 1976, Simpson introduced legislation attempting to institutionalize ward assemblies throughout Chicago. Simpson’s legislation was less radical than what he had practiced in the 44th Ward. Unlike in the 44th Ward, nothing in Simpson’s ordinance bounded aldermen to follow the will of assembly delegates. The bodies that Simpson was proposing were participatory and advisory. Even with this significant modification, the ordinance failed to pass in a 41 to 4 vote.

Ward assemblies were a radical change to machine politics. At the time, aldermen had nearly unrestricted control over ward services. The broad autonomy given to aldermen meant that they were free to distribute services or make zoning changes as they pleased. The arrangement inevitably led to corruption. Ensuring direct oversight and guidance from ward residents prevented aldermen from using their public office for graft. Because of this, the Chicago machine, and Mayor Daley at its helm, had every reason to oppose ward assemblies.

In an editorial published in the Chicago Tribune in 1976, Simpson wrote, “Thus far the Daley administration has fought to keep ward assemblies and the principle of participatory politics from spreading in Chicago. Yet an assembly exists in the 44th Ward and can be brought to every ward if Chicagoans are willing to fight for it in the polling place. Perhaps it is time to reinstate democracy and to bring it to Chicago.”

Unfortunately, not only would participatory politics not be brought to Chicago, it would eventually disappear from the 44th Ward altogether. Simpson voluntarily retired as alderman in 1979. Bruce Young, a social worker who shared Simpson’s progressive politics, initially proved to be a faithful successor, but he resigned early from his seat. In the vacuum, the Democratic machine recaptured the 44th Ward and immediately set to work in dismantling the ward assembly.

Since Simpson and Young, no other alderman has been willing to engage in such a radical experiment in participatory democracy, not even the six socialists who were recently elected to Chicago’s city council.

Nevertheless, the 44th Ward Assembly’s ideas have had a lasting impact on Chicago. Citizen-led issue-specific committees, especially in regards to zoning, have been adopted by aldermen. Throughout the 1970s, Chicago had several aldermen accused of corruption related to zoning changes. In 1973, Alderman Casimir Staszcuk of the 13th Ward was sentenced to 18 months in prison for accepting a bribe for backing a zoning change on behalf of a developer.

In 1974, Alderman Frank Kuta of the 23rd Ward and Alderman Paul Wigoda of the 49th Ward were convicted for the same reason. Again, in 1975, Alderman Donald Swinarski of the 12th Ward was accused, but not convicted, while Alderman Edward Scholl of the 41st Ward pleaded guilty to the same offense. In response, many aldermen accepted the need for residents to be involved in zoning decisions, and voluntarily created their own Community Zoning Boards.

Additionally, since the 44th Ward Assembly, Chicago has had a unique history with participatory democracy that sets it apart from other major cities in the United States. Its education system is partially run through local school councils, where parents, teachers, community members, and — in the case of high schools — students can have some direct influence over how their schools operate. Similarly, in 2009, the 49th Ward started a participatory budgeting process for certain city funds, making Chicago the first major city in the United States to do so.

None of these examples are as encompassing as the 44th Ward Assembly, but they do indicate that Alderman Simpson’s goal of bringing democracy to Chicago is far from dead. The 44th Ward’s experiment is an effective and inspiring example of a far more radically democratic urban future.

Marco Rosaire Rossi

Marco Rosaire Rossi is a graduate student in the Political Science Department at the University of Illinois-Chicago. His previous work has appeared in Z Magazine, The Humanist and New Compass.

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