As our elected officials and candidates told us over and over again, 2011 was the year of reform.
They informed us that voters were tired of our long history of corruption, waste, asset hocking, and insider deals. So they vowed that the days of bosses and governors on the take were coming to an end. At last—the time had come to clean up politics in Chicago and Illinois.
Well, maybe next year.
As another former governor heads off to prison and a new mayor cows everyone around him into submission, the reform movement could arguably use a little more forward progress. But that doesn't mean our public servants didn't perform with distinction this year. In fact, with 2012 upon us, it's the perfect time to bestow our first annual Reader awards for achievement in local politics. With so many governmental bodies collecting and spending so many billions of tax dollars, the competition for these awards was fierce. Those who came up short can take solace in the fact that the New Year will bring ample opportunity to stand out, including another set of budget deficits and two more rounds of elections for public offices and party posts.
So without further ado, the honorees are:
THE BILL CLINTON AWARD . . . for saying one thing and doing something else even after you're caught doing what you say you're not: Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who learned from the master himself. Emanuel promised not to raise city property taxes, so he raised school property taxes instead. He announced that he'd moved hundreds of police officers to new assignments, though the police ranks have actually been shrinking. He promised to reform the tax increment financing program—except for the millions in subsidies he plans to hand out to Sara Lee, various developers, and even a pizzeria. He swore off "smoke and mirrors" budget gimmicks, but then quietly continued to divert tens of millions of dollars from the water and sewer funds for expenses that have little to do with water or sewers. Good thing we have a vigilant City Council. Oh, wait . . .
THE POLITBURO AWARD . . . for unanimity in the legislative process: The Chicago City Council, which voted 50-0 to approve Mayor Emanuel's first budget, complete with tax hikes and cuts to the library and public health systems.
THE JANE BYRNE AWARD . . . for defeating the Machine and then promptly embracing it: So many deserving nominees, so few trophies. Among the leading candidates were Sixth Ward alderman Roderick Sawyer, who beat an incumbent backed by Emanuel; 46th Ward alderman James Cappleman, who swore up and down he would crack down on TIF abuses; and 47th Ward alderman Ameya Pawar, who pulled the biggest upset of the February elections after vowing to fight budget chicanery in all forms. And the winner is—oh, just split the prize. The three of you have managed to utter the word "nay" just twice in eight months of council votes.
THE RALPH METCALFE AWARD . . . for putting your career on the line by taking a principled stand against an all-powerful mayor: No one. In fact, we haven't had a winner in this category since 1972, when Congressman Metcalfe broke from Mayor Richard J. Daley over the issue of police brutality in the black community.
THE KRYPTONITE AWARD . . . for being the only politician in town our superman mayor fears might out-reform or even challenge him someday: Cook County Board president Toni Preckwinkle, who—impossible as it seems—gets even puffier press than Emanuel.
THE PADDY BAULER AWARD . . . for standing up for the rights of drinkers, smokers, patronage organizations, and backroom deal makers: Named after the alderman and saloonkeeper who once proclaimed, "Chicago ain't ready for reform," this honor goes to county commissioner William Beavers, who voted against Preckwinkle's budget on the grounds that it raised taxes on booze and cigars by an average of a few pennies for an evening's entertainment. Give Beavers credit—the self-proclaimed "hog with the big nuts" was the only one of 67 aldermen and county commissioners to vote no on their respective budgets.
THE LITTLE DUTCH BOY AWARD . . . for temporarily keeping a finger in the dam: Governor Pat Quinn, who resisted enormous pressure to rush through the passage of a bill that would give Chicago the right to own and oversee its own casino.
THE MITT ROMNEY AWARD . . . for ideological integrity: Also to Quinn, our first double-award winner. Way to go, guv! A lifelong progressive, Quinn followed up his courageous stand on the casino legislation by agreeing to dole out an $85 million-a-year tax break to the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, one of the wealthiest collections of option traders in the world.