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City Council Follies

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It wasn't the Rumble in the Jungle, but a couple of aldermen at last week's City Council meeting did have their own version of the rope-a-dope method. No one scored a knockout, however.

The main event featured aldermen Ginger Rugai, Robert Shaw, and John Steele. Rugai's 19th Ward includes Beverly, an integrated, upscale southwest-side neighborhood, while Shaw's 9th and Steele's 6th wards are largely poor and black. Rugai has mixed it up with Shaw and Steele before, over two recent Beverly projects. In '95 she backed cul-de-sacs that wall off north Beverly from neighboring black neighborhoods, and last year she got portions of 95th Street rezoned to exclude service businesses like hair salons, which are largely minority owned.

Now Rugai wants the city to use its power of eminent domain to take over some 95th Street businesses. It seems a Borders bookstore that's thinking of moving into her ward could use a parking lot. Shaw questioned--politely and, uncharacteristically, quietly--whether service businesses dislocated by the parking lot could reopen elsewhere on 95th, despite the zoning change.

Rugai started the rope-a-dope, letting Shaw and Steele pound away with the same question over and over, from different angles. She never answered it. First she simply sneered, "Uh, the interest that's always expressed by my esteemed colleagues from the 6th and the 9th Ward in any redevelopment in the 19th Ward...leads me to wonder if perhaps they wouldn't want to consider being in the 19th Ward themselves, their interest is always so pointed and focused." Calling someone an "esteemed colleague" in council debate is often the verbal equivalent of spitting on them.

Steele--also quietly and politely--tried getting a straight answer on whether the service businesses would be allowed back on 95th. Rugai would only respond that there would be relocation assistance, so Steele asked the city's corporation counsel. Alderman Edward Burke spoke up instead, giving a longer, fancier version of Rugai's answer in a reasonable, affable tone. Float like a butterfly...

Shaw and Steele gave up, exhausted. Shaw postponed the vote with a parliamentary maneuver. Rugai was incensed, and hinted that the entire $5 million plan with Borders would fall through if it wasn't passed that day.

"My colleagues from the 6th and the 9th Ward continually focus only on development or changes or planning that occur in the 19th Ward," she fumed. "I just want them to be aware of what they have done, and I want them to be aware of my vigilance and my focus on any development or any planning [in their wards]; probably there isn't much and that's why I haven't been able to focus on it." That provoked a ripple of laughter. "But I will be focusing on it from here on in."

Shaw took one last swing. "I am an African-American man, and I'm gon' be that till I die!" he shouted. He said Rugai was using an "underhanded method to get rid of African-American businesses." He finished, "I'd be less than a man to stand here and go along with that kind of thing. I'm not about to do it!"

Rugai wanted another shot at Shaw, but Alderman Lorraine Dixon, refereeing for an absent Mayor Daley, intervened: "Alderman Rugai, I'm going to ask that the body just relax for just a minute or so, so we are not attacking each other."

Rugai didn't stay in her corner long. She barked at Shaw in a fierce staccato: "To. Call. Any. Economic. Planning. In. The. 19th. Ward. Underhanded. Is. Such. A. Joke," she hissed. "To. Call. That. Underhanded. Is. Just. Evil."

Sting like a bee.

--Cate Plys

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