Former alderman Berny Stone will be missed | Bleader

Former alderman Berny Stone will be missed

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Former 50th Ward alderman Bernard Stone, who died Monday at age 87.
Suddenly everyone was talking about cleaning up government. The feds had imprisoned leaders of Mayor Richard Daley's patronage operation and indicted Governor Rod Blagojevich for his pay-to-play politics. Even the mayor was promising reform.

Not Berny Stone.

It was March 2009, and several of Stone's City Council colleagues were holding a press conference to call for crackdowns on fraud and waste in city government.

Stone, alderman of the 50th Ward since 1973, would have boycotted the event if he hadn't been forced to pass it on his way to the elevators outside council chambers. Once he realized what the presser was about, he decided to offer his voice to the discussion.

"Boo!" he shouted, literally giving the other aldermen a thumbs-down. "You're a bunch of stupid dummies!"

The incident was classic Stone. I thought about it and laughed all over again after learning that he had died Monday at age 87.

Alderman Stone will be missed—and not because he was right to defend old-school patronage, bully opponents, rubber-stamp the agendas of both Mayor Daleys, join other white aldermen in thwarting Harold Washington, build a wall down Howard Street to defend his ward from the creeping dangers of Evanston, or nod off during important council meetings.

As a reporter I loved him for being the blunt, cranky alderman that he was. The city is less colorful with him gone, and its politics are in many ways less honest—or at least less overt.

By the time I started hanging around City Hall a lot in the early 2000s, Stone really didn't give a shit what any reporter thought about the way he operated.

He knew who had elected him. He had a ward of longtime residents, many of them Jewish, and he understood that they supported the mayor and wanted good city services. He delivered. As long as he did, he could tell his constituents what they didn't want to hear, and tell them again and again and again, until they gave up and he did what he was going to do anyway.

When election opponents criticized a controversial development on Devon Avenue, Stone shrugged them off: "They don't know a damn thing about it."

Stone was chairman of the council's committee on buildings, and on a number of occasions I saw him move the mayor's agenda through hearings in mere minutes. He was unconcerned with such technicalities as whether a quorum was present to legally do what he had just done.

Then there was my own favorite interaction with the alderman. During a live taping of Chicago Tonight, he refused to say whether he and other aldermen had reviewed the parking meter deal before signing off on it. "None of your damn business!" he informed me.

That answered the question quite clearly.

"He told it as he saw it," says 49th Ward alderman Joe Moore, his neighbor, who tangled with him repeatedly over the years. "He didn't speak from a list of talking points. He didn't have a consultant frame his language. That's disappearing from politics, even at the local level."

"Reform" is still buzzed about at City Hall, but the power plays haven't disappeared. While the old-time patronage network is largely gone, it's been replaced by a group of wealthy campaign donors granted their own access to the mayor's office and city government.

Stone was particularly galled that day in 2009 because he saw his political end coming. He'd been party to enough political kneecapping to know that he was going to be taken out next.

Reform-minded aldermen led by Moore wanted to increase the power of the city's inspector general. Stone couldn't stand the IG's office because it had conducted an investigation that landed one of his precinct workers in jail. The guy was a Streets and San employee who'd produced absentee ballots that helped Stone eke out his last election victory.

Stone was from a culture and era that responded to voter fraud by growling about the do-gooders wasting our money investigating such crap. Why shouldn't a city worker be able to volunteer for his alderman's election campaign? Hell, it was the inspector general who was undemocratic!

What really galled him, though, was his belief that Mayor Daley was actually behind the whole thing. After decades of loyalty to the machine, the mayor and his people were going to throw Stone out like yesterday's garbage—while hiding behind the reformers?

Not if he could help it.

"It's bullshit!" he told me. "Bullshit!"

The IG proposal ended up foundering because Daley had no real interest in seeing it pass. Then the mayor decided to leave office himself.

But Stone's instincts were right. Rahm Emanuel shored up north-side support for his 2011 mayoral bid by cutting a deal with a Stone foe, state senator Ira Silverstein, to back Silverstein's wife for alderman. Debra Silverstein won in a runoff, denying Stone his dream of becoming the oldest alderman in city history.

While Stone often said things that were stuck in another era and worldview, Alderman Silverstein rarely says anything at all. And Mayor Emanuel appears to be just fine with that.

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