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Council Follies: When Activists Attack

Animal-rights groups peck away at the City Council as it considers two different ordinances to repeal the foie gras ban.

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On June 13 the City Council passed a resolution honoring several of Chicago's top chefs, and as usual 14th Ward alderman Ed Burke offered the longest, most eloquent praise of the day's honorees. "'There's no sincerer love than the love of food,' the Irish writer George Bernard Shaw once said," Burke intoned. Shaw, a celebrated vegetarian, also reportedly once said, "Animals are my friends . . . and I don't eat my friends." But that didn't come up.

Shaw might have been interested in the proceedings a little while later, when 50th Ward alderman Berny Stone and 44th Ward alderman Tom Tunney each introduced an ordinance that would revoke the city's ban on the sale of foie gras. Stone had been promising to do so for weeks, and Tunney, the owner of the Ann Sather restaurants, is a former chairman of the Illinois Restaurant Association, which has opposed the ban since it was enacted in April 2006.

In the audience taking in the action were representatives of several animal-rights groups, which have been aggressively lobbying aldermen to keep the ban in place ever since Stone announced his plans to get it nixed.

"They've been driving me nuts," Stone said, noting that his office had been bombarded with phone calls. "And the thing is, I actually agree with them."

Perhaps on one level. The alderman says he, like his callers, believes that the production of foie gras is cruel--it's made by shoving tubes down the throats of ducks and geese to force-feed them and fatten their livers. But Stone tells the activists, and anyone else who'll listen, that he and his fellow aldermen overreached last year when they voted almost unanimously for the ban. "This is not about ducks," he said. "It's about the authority of the City Council."

Chicago, Stone added, has become a "laughingstock" around the country, mentioning Mayor Daley and a few out of town friends who he said have convinced him that the ban has to go. "If you do this, the next step is the City Council starts legislating what you serve, what you eat, what you cook," Stone said.

As clear as Stone is--this time--about where he stands, other aldermen aren't, and activists from across the country hope they can keep a majority behind the ban.

Until a couple of years ago, most aldermen had pretty clear guidelines on how they should vote on citywide legislation: they did as they were told by Daley and his Intergovernmental Affairs staff. Once in a while, they might need to listen to constituents, but it was rare that the mayor's people would ask them to run afoul of key businesses, developers, or campaign contributors.

But that changed in 2005, when a coalition of antismoking groups launched a sophisticated lobbying effort in support of a ban on indoor smoking. The measure had stagnated in a council committee for nearly two years, but after activists used phone banking to apply direct pressure on aldermen it sailed through with minimum input from the mayor.

A few months later, 49th Ward alderman Joe Moore got the foie gras ban passed over Daley's quiet objections with help from the Humane Society and other groups. Then Moore, a coalition of unions, and several of his council colleagues led an even more aggressive campaign for the big-box living wage ordinance. The council passed the measure, but it was reversed when Daley convinced three aldermen to flip and support his veto of it.

Minutes after that victory last September, Daley started boasting about revoking the foie gras ban. "That's another one they're going to take care of," he said.

The repeal effort languished as aldermen generally tried to avoid controversy during the municipal elections. This May, though, Stone started talking about it again, prompting the mobilization of an even bigger coalition of animal-rights groups than the one that drove the initial foie gras debate. People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, the Humane Society, Farm Sanctuary, and other groups organized phone banks and e-mailed thousands of supporters across the country, encouraging them to call the mayor's office and aldermen in support of the ban. Close to 100 people gathered outside the May 30 council meeting, calling on Daley and the aldermen to keep the ban in place.

The repeal wasn't introduced at that meeting, but activists kept up the pressure. Local staffers of PETA and the Chicago-based Mercy for Animals spent a couple of weeks driving from ward to ward to request meetings with aldermen and get constituents to call their offices--sometimes by dialing their own cell phones and handing them to people on the street. "We're getting people on the ground," said RaeLeann Smith, a local PETA activist.

The week before the June 13 council meeting, the Humane Society ran full-page ads in the Tribune and Sun-Times showing a duck with a pipe forced down its throat. "Duck. Duck. Goose," it read. "Don't let some politicians play games with animal cruelty." It asked readers to call 311, connect to their aldermen, and urge them to keep the ban in place. PETA placed a similar ad on the Reader's Web site and ads on Google as well. Between January and April, the city recorded about four calls to 311 about the ban; it's received more than 200 since the beginning of May.

But it's hard to say if the push has actually influenced the aldermen. "It's not an issue for people in my ward," said Carrie Austin, whose ward (the 34th) was visited by PETA and Mercy for Animals activists. "Gangs and drugs and crime are more important to them than foie gras." Austin said she thought foie gras was a waste of the council's time and that she favored the repeal.

Other aldermen say they're still deciding. "I'm torn," said 27th Ward alderman Walter Burnett, whose office has been receiving an unusually high number of calls, letters, and e-mails from people on both sides of the issue. "I don't know how I feel about it at this time."

Donal Quinlan, a spokesman for Alderman Burke, said their office has received scores of calls on the issue, more than three dozen of which Quinlan has taken personally. "Every single caller opposed the repeal of the foie gras ban," Quinlan said. He said he didn't know what position Burke would take but that he's been informed about the influx. "I have sent a short memo telling him that people are calling about this," he said. "That is a high number of people taking the time to make the call to us."

The lobbying obviously didn't persuade Stone or Tunney not to proceed. And neither repeal measure was sent for preliminary consideration to the council's Committee on Health, which conducted last year's hearings on the ban. Health chairman Ed Smith (28th) has criticized the repeal effort, even threatening to resign his chairmanship over it. When he was asked after the June 13 meeting if his committee would take on the repeal ordinances, he said, clearly irritated, "You know better than that. They sent them to Rules."

The Committee on Committees, Rules and Ethics is chaired by the 33rd Ward's Richard Mell, a powerful machine Democrat who almost always sees eye to eye with the mayor, so this didn't bode well for the ban. Its supporters vowed to keep the heat on publicly uncommitted aldermen. Two days after the council meeting, PETA's Smith and Daniel Hauff, campaigns director for Mercy for Animals, drove a rented Dodge Caravan down to the Tenth Ward, on the southeast side. Alderman John Pope had told Smith he was still undecided, and the activists wanted to gather signatures supporting the ban from his constituents. Their first stop was at a Burger King on East 106th Street.

Smith marched into the restaurant, ordered two bottles of water, and asked the manager and a couple other workers if they'd heard of the flap over foie gras.

Met by confused looks, she said, "It's made from force-feeding a duck four times what they'd normally eat in a day, and so the City Council banned it, but now some people are trying to get them to change their minds and undo it." Within moments, all three BK employees had signed her petition and she had permission from the manager to try to get more signatures in the parking lot.

Smith and Hauff approached anyone they could find--a guy in his 20s smoking a cigarette in the shade of the restaurant, a woman backing her Jeep out of a parking space, an elderly man who spoke only a little English, a local teacher who invited them to talk to his class. All listened carefully and ended up adding their names to the sheet.

Debra Jasso looked skeptical when Smith asked if she'd sign a petition for Alderman Pope. "Me and Pope don't get along," Jasso said.

"Well, then you'll definitely want to sign this," Smith said. "You don't want him to flip his vote."

Jasso listened to Smith's description of foie gras production and grabbed the clipboard. She said she'd once volunteered as an election judge for Pope but worked for one of his opponents in the last election. "Kids are getting killed down here, and he hasn't done nothing about it," she said.

Smith and Hauff eventually moved a few blocks west, collecting signatures at a bus stop, in a liquor store, outside a Walgreens, and near the entrance to a pet shop. Over several hours, only a handful of people declined to sign, mostly because they were nonresidents. One guy, heading for a currency exchange at 106th and Ewing, listened to Hauff but then shook his head. "If we knew more about the meat industry, we'd all be vegetarians," he said. Singling out foie gras, he said, was hypocritical. He mentioned a few other issues he thought deserved more attention: "How about the soldiers in Iraq? How about the war?"

A few feet away, Smith stopped a slightly bent man headed into the corner liquor store. He cut her off as soon as she mentioned foie gras. "You don't have to tell me about it," he said, reaching for her pen. "I know it's cruel."

"Did you hear him?" Smith asked Hauff. "When people know about this, they agree it's cruel."

Late in the afternoon, Hauff got their 100th signature of the day and the two decided to take a break. They headed up to the north side to Karyn's, for a vegan lunch.

For more on politics, see our blog Clout City at chicagoreader.com.

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