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City Hall: Battle of the Budget

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This is Chicago's budget season, which is, for pol watchers and media buffs, sort of two seasons in one. On the one hand, city government will, over the next few months, answer the question of how Chicago will set its priorities, provide for essential services, and allocate the $2 billion or so it will take to keep things running for another 12 months. On the other, a lot of energetic and imaginative Chicagoans will stage this year's edition of the most charming of Harold Washington's inadvertent innovations: the fall media carnival.

Soon, accusations and denials will fly from every corner of the city. Fast Eddie Vrdolyak will vanish into a phone booth, and out will pop the New Eddie (as we used to call him)—statesman with a pinkie ring, defender of the downtrodden, and (for sure this time) a candidate for mayor in 1987. Ed Burke will spend more time in front of the TV cameras than Don Craig. And mysteriously turning up in all sorts of stories will be Clarence McClain, "pimp and panderer" (Burke's favorite name for him), linchpin of the nefarious Washington Machine, the black Charles Swibel, "Mr. Fix-it" (Burke's second-favorite name for him).

If you like the New York Post, you'll like budget season, and this should be a vintage year. The 29 are behind on points just now, and the budget and its attendant media hoohah are ready-made for some fast catching up.

The battle over the 1986 budget is probably even more important to Washington's side, though. Most important, and most obvious, is that this budget will largely determine what shape the city is in—and what city services the voters will be receiving—in the months leading up to the February 1987 mayoral primary. This budget more than anything else he does in office, will determine how voters will answer when they ask themselves, "Has Harold Washington been good for me?"

But there are other reasons. Morale is one: It's generally agreed that Washington's side blew it in last year's budget battle. They've done better in subsequent months, especially in their handling of the infrastructure bond issue passed last summer. The administration showed it's getting its act together, and administration strategy for selling the much larger and more important budget looks pretty sound. If the administration can successfully put across its budget, Washington staffers are likely to hold on to the lessons they've learned and gear up for the reelection bid with energy and with a commitment to practical politics. If the administration blows it again, look for more chaos and a botched campaign.

To get what he wants in the face of a council majority opposed to him, Washington must take his fight to the people. That means, of course, first taking it to the press. His people must influence the media to ensure that the mayor is covered in a way he wants to be covered. It may seem perverse, but unconsciously the media respect a leader who can manipulate them. They correctly perceive that the ability to manipulate the news is an essential one for a political leader, and—more perversity—they seem willing to tilt the coverage to the side that's more adept at insinuating its views into the news. The budget fight has turned into a news extravaganza, and it's Washington's best chance to get the media to take him seriously. His advisers seem to be catching on to the importance of taking seriously a media-oriented strategy; they have what looks like a good plan; they've tasted success this year; now it's time to see whether they can actually win the year's big fight.

Last December, Tribune political reporter Phil Lentz began an article this way: "If Chicago's 'council wars' can be viewed as political wrestling match, the titleholder, Mayor Harold Washington, is being badly outpointed in the middle period by quicker and more agile opponents." (It's worth noting that the Trib ran the piece as a news feature; apparently the paper saw Lentz's point as so self-evident that there was no need to label it as opinion or analysis.) Another Lentz article ran in January, this one in the op-ed section: "Nearly two years into his term, Washington is in trouble. As the city budget fight showed, his political instincts are slow and questionable. Time and again he has been routed by shrewder and more calculating foes.

Things looked bad for Washington a year ago—you can't fault Lentz on that. But as usual it's a little harder than you might expect to assign the blame. Washington was routed all right, but so, I think, were reporters like Lentz, who are supposed to have certain responsibilities toward the rest of us. A highly political event like Chicago's budget hearings is hard to report on well; when you add shrewd and calculating figures like Burke and Vrdolyak and their allies, it becomes murder.

Need proof? You just have to look at the coverage of last year's budget hearings—what we might call "Making of the Carnival 1985."

At first the Washingtonians thought their 1985 budget would pass through the fall 1984 budget season without much fuss. The 29's initial reaction to Washington's October release of the budget was mildly complimentary. 29er Roman Pucinski praised the administration's "fair" budget, and his colleague Richard Mell said that it looked "promising" that the budget would pass without much of a fight. Perhaps the 29 were trying to lull the Washingtonians into thinking his budget would slide through easily. Perhaps they just didn't see the opportunities that would turn up down the line.

"The thinking was," David Orr, a lakefront alderman aligned with the 21, told me, "that instead of going in there and really taking off after the 29—taking all their money from their [council] committees, cutting back positions held by their workers—he administration went in there with what they felt was a compromise budget … .

"It wasn't until after the hearings started," Orr said, "that [the 29] really got rough. I think the administration really learned a lesson." What lesson was that? "What it feels like to get kicked in the teeth by a bunch of bullies," Orr said.

Working for the administration in mid-November, when the Finance Committee hearings on the budget began, must have been something like working for a Wall Street brokerage firm in the fall of 1929. In the days before Harold Washington, the budget hearings used to last a couple of days, and served mostly to let civic groups and the small group of dissident aldermen blow off steam. Last year the budget hearings lasted more than two weeks. One after another, Washington's department heads took the stand and took a drubbing. Burke and his staff had done their homework, ferreting out embarrassing items in the budget that won them lots of coverage.

Burke spaced the charges a day or two apart, keeping the administration on the defensive. One day it was Burke calling a news conference to tell of an $18,000 kitchen, pointing out that, at the same time, the administration proposed losing 500 police from the force through attrition. ("That reminds me of the kind of thing Walter Jacobson loves to do," said Lois Wille, associate editor of the Tribune's editorial page, when I mentioned the story to her. "There'll be a school board financial crunch, and he'll have a 'Perspective' saying, "look, the Board of Education just spend $18 for new venetian blinds, and they say they don't have enough money.'") There was the $7,000 shower to be built for the Streets and Sanitation commissioner, who, it was said, had to say through the night during snowstorms, and would need to "freshen up." Such a shower, Burke said, would be "more opulent than Cleopatra's."

Always Burke would offer some such quip to liven up the coverage. When he gathered reporters around to tell them that the administration had sent 60 top officials to a stress-management course run by Werner Erhard's EST organization, at a cost of $25,000, he pointed out that press accounts of EST training organizations reported that "People crawl around on the floor, and growl at one another and abuse each other verbally and call each other obscene names." He added, "They could have saved money and come to a City Council meeting."

As if his immune system had a flair for the symbolic, Washington was home sick with a bad case of the flu for a full week. The administration official most directly responsible for handling the budget was chief of staff William Ware, who was out of town much of the time once the hearings had started. We now know he was on the east coast in a hospital, where he was slowly dying. (Mr. Ware died in May, at the age of 37, from a rare pulmonary infection.)

Just when things were going awfully, the administration removed the creche from the City Hall lobby, a couple of weeks before Christmas, in response to complaints from religious groups. The story was played up by the media, as was Burke's quote that Washington was "the grinch who stole Christmas." By that time, though, it did not matter much. The 29 had been crowned winner of the budget battle.

While the administration lay buried between the charges, Burke went on the offensive, offering baubles to satisfy various constituencies, and also a sound fiscal proposal. After a few days of headlines based on Burke's criticisms of how many officials rode in chauffeured city cars, a Tribune story read, "The disclosure came as Burke pledged to push for a tax amnesty plan, which he said could produce $10 million for the city's ailing budget."

"Some of these things, like the kitchen and so forth, were exploited by the press, and not put in proper perspective," says David Orr. "If you're actually going to save thousands of dollars a year for the city by having an in-house kitchen instead of paying for catering, well, then, if it's explained that way, taxpayers will go along with it. If it's inferred somehow that it's all this frivolous waste of money, well, then, of course they're going to be against it." (As it turned out, the money for the kitchen was knocked out of the budget, but the issue received so much press that it prompted a few French food-related firms to chip in and donate a kitchen to the city.)

The administration would have done well to pitch this kind of idea to the press. Instead, coverage just reflected what Burke said. The 29 controlled the agenda, and the side issues pretty much forced the real budget issues out of the news. The media, it seems, are not particularly adept at distinguishing between the trivial and the important, at least not when the trivial comes out of the mouth of an important player like Burke. I mentioned to Lois Wille that when I asked a few friends to recall what they could about last year's budget battle, three of the things they mentioned were the kitchen, the creche, and the shower. "That is what I hate," Wille said. "I hate to see some really important issues involving the city's future get lost in a battle over a kitchen. A $14,000 kitchen. That's just, that's just …: " She gives up looking for the word to finish the thought. "It's really depressing."

But can a reporter just ignore the controversy completely? "I guess when something like the kitchen pops up you cover it, but almost as a sidebar and not lose sight of what the real fight is." The Tribune, though, played some of these issues prominently. Indeed, in Phil Lentz's analysis articles, it is these examples he offered as evidence of Washington's slow and questionable instincts. "That was a diversion tactic that worked very well last year," Wille concluded. Added Sharon Gilliam, city budget director: "I think we deserve criticism for being dumb enough to let that slide out there. But, you know, all this crap about the kitchen and the shower, really, when you get down to it, from a budget sense, only adds up to a total of maybe $100,000. And you spend two months screaming and hollering about one-hundredth of one percent [actually five one-thousandths of one percent] while $2 billion just sort of—" here her hands make an up, up, and away motion, as we both watch a budget flying away "—is never looked at or talked about."

Part of the problem, Wille and Gilliam say, is that in-depth analysis doesn't typically make for interesting copy. Issues in the budget are too involved, especially for television. Television, and to a lesser extent newspapers, are better able to handle the skirmishes, what the budget will mean to the owner of a $60,000 home and little else. Mike Flannery, who I think has about the best television has to offer in the way of political coverage, said, "I'm not so sure now how much time we actually devoted to these issues—I'd have to go back and look at the tapes. But you say that you've looked through the newspapers so let's say, yeah, the media devoted an inordinate amount of time to these issues. I fail to see how we're supposed to have covered it. How do we personalize it? They're building a shower for the Streets and San office, or they want a kitchen for Harold's office—those are the kinds of things that bring home a multibillion-dollar budget. You can't argue about $2 billion in a budget as diverse as the city's is. A $2 billion, or a $20 billion, or $200 billion MX missile program—OK, there you go. You've got an overarching concept that embraces the whole $20 billion or whatever it is. In Chicago, it's not that simple … . You've got to get down to cases."

Fair enough, but there are other more meaningful ways of getting down to cases than a kitchen. One example is focusing on the changes in the Purchasing Department. "The 29 were all over us last year to make cuts in the number of people in Purchasing," Orr said. "There's all this waste there, they said. Yet, it used to be, in the old days, you didn't really need a purchasing department, not like you need one now. Contracts were not given out in a way where many people were needed. Now when we need to be more professional than they've been in the past the 29 wants to cut it back." Perhaps Orr's perception of the past is purely partisan hogwash. Perhaps he's on to something—where in the past contracts were thought to go a small group of insiders, Washington has been pushing for an opening up of the contracts process, a reform that would require more personnel. Perhaps an exploration of these kinds of questions would have made for an interesting news report. "Perhaps," Flannery said.

Mentioned most often in unfriendly accounts of the budget battle is the issue of police. The 1984 budget called for a reduction in the force of 500 police, from 12,000 to 11,500, through attrition. When the idea was first introduced with the rest of his budget, in mid-October, it received little attention. The Tribune wrote an editorial in praise of the cuts: "The total [the mayor] proposes—11,500—still gives Chicago one of the highest cops-to-citizens rations in the country." At 12,000 officers, Chicago had 4.0 police for every 1,000 residents. In contrast, New York City has 3.4 police per 1,000 citizens and Los Angeles 2.3 per thousand. In the last five years, administration officials said, there has been a 15 percent drop in the number of calls to police. Weeks passed without much discussion.

Whatever chance the administration stood of winning approval for their proposal was all but wiped out in early November, when Ben Wilson, Simeon High School's highly touted 17-year-old basketball star, was murdered in daylight by two reputed gang members. The Wilson killing damaged Washington last budget season more than any other single event. The Wilson murder prompted scores of news stories on gang violence. In this environment, the 29 saw their opportunity and pounced. How could Harold Washington even contemplate cutting the police force when gangs were terrorizing the city? Were the staff increases for the budget and press offices really more important to him than the safety of our children?

There was, however, not so much a change in the environment as a change in the news media's coverage of the problem. The gang problem was statistically no worse in late 1984 than in 1983, or even earlier that year. It only seemed that way. Until the Wilson murder, items reporting a gang slaying were typically buried in the paper. Following Wilson's murder, articles on gang-related murders were suddenly defined as page-one news. (Black leaders had long argued that only the murder of a north-sider, or a suburbanite, hits the front pages.) The Tribune chose to play up gang-related stories in a particularly big fashion. A team of seven reporters churned out more than an article a day about this aspect of gang violence and that. The Tribune's mega-coverage ended with the turn of the year—the final day for 1984-eligible Pulitzer Prize stories. If it was not obvious then, it was clear in retrospect that the paper had its sights on a Pulitzer and was working toward entering as thick a file for the year as possible. (They won an honorable mention in the public service category.)

In the postscripts and analysis articles following the end of the budget season, Washington was criticized for his handling of the police issue. What a poor sense of timing. The majority bloc rejected any cuts, and won an additional 300 cops. The Washington plan included no reduction in the number of beat cops. Clerks would be hired to free up sworn officers stuck at desk jobs. Police serving as jail guards would also be freed for patrol. Auto pounds would be turned over to civilian operators, freeing more police. These details, however, were somehow lost in all the fuss.

This year the administration is calling for 500 more officer than last year, at a cost of $2.2 million dollars. A few top aids told me they think a cut is in order. But they acknowledge that even if the issue were winnable—and it probably is not, given the way it would play in the media—the fight itself would not be worthwhile, particularly because Washington and most of his allies are black, and the white council majority is trying to portray him as soft on crime. Smear literature making the rounds back during the 1983 election insinuated that the black candidate was not only soft on crime, but once in office he would actually promote it. (One handbill slipped under doors during the general election read, in part, "You, a white person, don't dare walk the streets or die in the downtown area …: . You will be robbed or killed, white women will be raped. With a black police chief there will be absolute chaos in the city.") Even asking whether we need as many police as we have is a question not worth the repercussions, administration officials say on and off the record. The $502 million proposed this year for police—accounting for about one in four collars spent by the city—is off limits. "Police service is a matter of perception, it is not a matter of reality," one administration official told me. "It's a public perception that unfortunately you cannot fight. No matter how much you try to explain to people that it's patrol strength and not total strength that matters; no matter how many studies you can cite from how many cites from all over the country done by everybody known to man that show that the number of policemen has little do with public safety; no matter what you do, you can't convince the public otherwise. People get accustomed to a certain level, and it becomes the benchmark." But why more money? Another aid explains, "We've got to win the police issue back." (Already at least one news report said that the majority bloc would be asking for 1,000 more police than last year.)

This is not the kind of thinking that would have prevailed last year. The administration still believed then that, because they deep down felt they were trying to clean up government, the media would be natural allies. The media would join the Good Fight. "Somehow we got the idea in our heads that the media was here to provide public information," Gilliam said. "That's not their role. They're about there because they are corporations that make money. They sell those things that will make money." This year, Gilliam said, "We can't kid ourselves."

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