Where's the Beef?

February 20, 2007

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Chicago politics is known to be one part street fight, one part chess match. And last fall, it looked like this year's city election was shaping up to be a real brawl.

After some controversial city council votes, business and labor were both promising the fight was on. But with just a week to go until election day, the reality is anything but the predicted battle.

As part of our municipal election series, Chicago Public Radio's Ben Calhoun reports. ***************************************************
It was supposed to be a match up of historic proportions. Business against labor. A classic. A scorcher.

It started last summer with the so-called big box ordinance. Labor wanted it. Business didn't. Aldermen passed it, but then crumbled when Chicago Mayor Richard Daley vetoed it. That was opening shot.

STERN: We took names. We know how they voted. We know where they live.

In October, Andy Stern, the president of the Service Employees International Union, or SEIU, came to Chicago.

STERN: Politics for us is not about left and right. It's about right and wrong. And there were some aldermen that were real wrong and we should send them back home into retirement.

Around the same time last fall last-if the unions were one side, Jerry Roper was on the other.

ROPER: Jerry Roper. R-O-P-E-R

...who's President of the Chicagoland Chamber of Commerce. And who, last fall, said the chamber planned to go after aldermen who pushed the big box ordinance.

ROPER: To be as politically active as the unions have been. And we're going to be playing much more heavily than we ever have done before. Both sides promised to slate candidates, promised money-promised a face off. In the months since then-a coalition of unions, lead by SEIU, has delivered.

The unions have they made endorsements. They've recruited and trained candidates, given those candidates money. They've sent out hundreds of people to canvas wards and set up a call center.

SOUND OF COUNCIL CHAMBERS

But the word at the February city council meeting was that the battle's been pretty one sided. Several aldermen said that unions have been doing a lot in aldermanic races-but so far business interests haven't gotten that involved.

LYLE: I'm very scared to say that there is no involvement and then tomorrow I open the newspaper and there are full-page ads because they have the money to do that.

Alderman Freddrena Lyle was scared going into the election, because according to all calculations, she should have been on business' hit list. She was a co-sponsor of the big box ordinance. But Lyle says, at least up until now...

LYLE: There is some involvement, but I have not seen the resources, the money, the troops or anything like that. I haven't seen any fundraising done by business, or any major pushes so far.

Jerry Roper with the Chamber of Commerce admits that organized labor has put a lot more directly into aldermanic races than business has.

ROPER: WOULD YOU SAY THAT BUSINESS HAS MET LABOR PUNCH FOR PUNCH? No. Not at all.

So why does it look like what should have been a battle has turned into a dud? Is business just sitting this one out, letting the unions outspend them? Not so fast.

Even if big business isn't putting much directly into aldermanic races-campaign disclosures show it's been pouring money into Mayor Daley's campaign fund. Daley who's long been cozy with business leaders.

DALEY: We're very very active in the business community. It is a huge commitment, a planned commitment, from my administration.

Business is sinking plenty of money into city politics, its just going to the mayor. The catch here that Daley probably won't have to spend a ton of it-which means he could funnel a lot of that money into key aldermanic runoffs.

MILLER: That's fine but what's new?

Alton Miller was Mayor Harold Washington's press secretary. He's an Associate Dean at Columbia College and a veteran of Chicago politics. Miller says what's new is not what's happening now, but what happens next.
 
MILLER: Daley's going to serve another term, maybe two more terms, but what happens after that? What's down the road for Chicago?

Miller says that's what's really at stake here. Who's going to call the shots in city politics not just over the next four years... but long after that, for years to come.

MILLER: They're talking big. But they're not talking about this election only.

Miller says these questions won't be answered in a single election cycle. He says this year's more of a test run.

MILLER: One of the fun things about the next couple weeks is going to be to see how SEIU and the other unions do in fielding people actually out on the street, especially in bad weather, let's see how they do.

Miller says it might not be the fight people expected. But this year Chicago's getting a glimpse of a brewing political war. He says, given time, it's one that could reshape Chicago politics.