Tuesday, April 24, 2007

The Chicago Reader on Helen Shiller

Sorry, if all politics is local, I sure make sure my readers keep up with Uptown, Chicago's. After responding to Helen Shiller's March 2007 aldermanic opponent (James Cappleman) just yesterday, I today ran across in the pile of trash on my desk the March 30 Chicago Reader. An article there, "Helen's Voters: Democracy at work in the 46th Ward," pretty much said what I tried to say in my response to Mr. Cappleman regarding his loss to Helen in the election. There is a predictable (if painful) history here of a class struggle:

At the risk of generating dozens of screechy e-mails, I think it all comes down to good old-fashioned class warfare. Shiller’s made it clear there will always be a place for the poor in Uptown and some people can’t abide that. She says her cause is justice; her foes say she keeps the poor in Uptown so she can control their votes. “Shiller’s main motive was that she was building a political power base which included as many winos as she could drag to the voting booth,” columnist Mike Royko once wrote.

Funny, but not really fair: in a city notorious for its corruption, neither Shiller nor anyone in her organization has ever been indicted, much less convicted, for the sort of illegal electioneering alluded to by Royko. She’s not a lawyer; she doesn’t run an insurance or real estate business on the side. Clearly she’s not in politics to make money, although it looks as though her son, Brendan Shiller, is carrying on that great Chicago tradition in which the relatives of powerful politicians become zoning lawyers.

Some of the animosity against her is a remnant of the culture wars of the 1960s and 1970s. Born and raised in New York City and educated at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, Shiller came to Uptown in the early 70s as part of a vanguard of shaggy-haired radicals looking to change the world. Within a few years she and her comrades had created the Heart of Uptown Coalition, which oversaw health and legal clinics, distributed clothes and meals to the poor, and freaked out older white residents by aligning itself with the Black Panthers. In 1977 the group officially moved into local politics by running Shiller for alderman. In those days the ward was controlled by hard-nosed Democratic operatives who’d started in politics under the first Mayor Daley and were not about to let this crowd take over without a fight. She lost by 1,000 votes.

I’ve witnessed eight 46th Ward aldermanic campaigns since then, and though Shiller has won every one since 1987, when she ousted incumbent Jerry Orbach by 498 votes, they’ve all been pretty much the same.

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