Helen Shiller of the 46th ward says farewell

May 10, 2011

There were, in fact, toasts to justice and to the people at Helen Shiller’s aldermanic retirement party. And that seemed appropriate enough. The mood was festive but also nostalgic.

Drawing hundreds of long time supporters last Friday night to a bash at the Aragon, Shiller – who didn’t run for re-election this time or tap an heir of any sort – mostly sat by, relaxed and smiling, and listened to the praise and accolades of allies and friends. (Full disclosure: I'm a family friend.)

Shiller was, perhaps, the City Council’s last great – and real – progressive, with impeccable roots and remarkable consistency.

Friday, folks mentioned how she defended subsidized housing, helped pass the human rights ordinance, the domestic partners ordinance, and tripled the city's AIDS budget in 1992. Someone brought up her work with women, how she got the city to fund a domestic violence tracking system and domestic violence counseling.

And, of course, Wilson Yards, the project that consumed her for most of her 24 year tenure in the City Council. But that stretch of nothing is now a huge Target store and retail that Uptown desperately needed, and she got it all without sacrificing low-income housing, her signature and much-misunderstood concern.

Most Chicago politicians with that long a career get rich or go to jail. Shiller did neither. For some, her détente deal with Mayor Daley in 2003 tarnished her independence credentials forever. But what few people realize is that it was Shiller who made Daley say uncle: He tried three times with all he had and couldn’t beat her, and the only way to buy her was to just help her out with the damn Wilson Yards project.

So let’s give credit where credit is due, cuz we’re not going to see anyone like her for a long time. Among her less known accomplishments:

  • Shiller initiated and passed the nation’s strongest anti-apartheid ordinance in 1990;
  • changed city regulations in mid 1990s to allow childcare centers to
    serve evening and night workers;
  • helped change city regulations in the early 2000s to make it easier for
    storefront theaters to open;
  • created a program that helps first time homebuyers purchase condos in
    gentrified neighborhoods.

She was also about the only alderman besides maybe Ed Burke who actually read the city budget, serving as a checks and balance to the mayor but also against the avarice of some of Daley’s most shameless allies. No one, but no one, is gonna take her place doing that in the new City Council.

So: To the people, Helen, and to justice!