Democracy with a small d: a plethora of referenda | Neighborhood News | Chicago Reader

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Democracy with a small d: a plethora of referenda

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Before Eddie Vrdolyak tried to make party-switching a movement and before Harold Washington even became elected mayor, Walter Dudycz decided he was so sick of the antics of the local Democratic Party that he would run for alderman as a Republican on Chicago's northwest side.

Dudycz, an athletic veteran of the Chicago Police Department, entered the 38th Ward race in 1983 against the long-entrenched organization of Thomas Cullerton. Although Dudycz lost he persevered, and the next year he was elected to the Illinois Senate from the Seventh District.

Dudycz did not go to Springfield to sit around. And last year, Chicago's only Republican senator became the champion of legislation that might be opening even wider the door onto political reform in the city. His bill permits individual Chicago neighborhoods to hold advisory referenda.

"This wasn't my victory," Dudycz modestly claimed. "This was the victory of Joe Sixpack and the ladies in babushkas."

Little more than a year old, his law has stirred up political activity throughout the city. From Garfield Ridge on the far southwest side to Wrigleyville on the northern lakefront, voters in several hundred precincts in a dozen wards will get to express their opinions next Tuesday on issues that range from night Cubs baseball to public school decentralization.

The limited referendum was first put to use during last April's mayoral election to build public support on the northwest and southwest sides for the guaranteed home equity project. Since that time, community groups, politicians, and activists throughout the city have taken advantage of it.

The following issues will be presented Tuesday to voters in the following wards:

In 16 precincts in the 15th and 18th wards, voters will be asked if a guaranteed home equity program should be established in their neighborhoods.

In the 23rd Ward, voters will be asked whether a three-fifths majority ought to be required of any taxing body that is voting to increase property taxes by more than 9 percent, and whether any proposed property-tax increase of more than 15 percent should be submitted to the public for approval.

In 137 precincts in the 30th, 33rd, 35th, 36th, 38th, and 45th wards, voters will be asked whether the Chicago public school system should be chopped up into local districts governed by community residents and teachers.

In 21 precincts in the 44th and 46th wards, residents will be asked if night baseball should be permitted at Wrigley Field.

And in the 47th Ward, voters will be asked whether the city should consider all options, including ending Commonwealth Edison's franchise, to lower electric rates.

Critics of such referenda maintain they are little more than glorified public-opinion surveys whose results are inevitable.

"It's a waste of time and money," said John Hogan, communications director of Commonwealth Edison, the target of the referendum in the 47th Ward. "The voters are being asked if they favor lower electric rates? Well of course they do. But what do you find out by having them say so on a referendum?"

But backers of limited referenda insist they will help issue-oriented community groups rule instead of machine politicians.

"I can't think of a more powerful tool in the political field than the referendum," said Erik Wogstad, a project director for the Save Our Neighborhoods/Save Our City Coalition, which originated the campaign to bring limited referenda to Chicago.

SON/SOC's goal was to hold a referendum that would demonstrate the massive support in northwest-side and southwest-side neighborhoods for a guaranteed home equity program--which would tax home owners in these neighborhoods to insure their homes' value against panic-peddling. When the question was put to about 90,000 voters last April, a staggering 90 percent voted yes.

"That referendum vote was a community mandate for guaranteed home equity," said Wogstad. An ordinance establishing the program was introduced in the City Council a short time later. "Guaranteed home equity would not have gotten this kind of attention or this kind of support if the community support had not first come out of the referendum."

Before Walter Dudycz's law was passed, an advisory referendum could only be held on a municipality-wide basis. In Chicago, that law effectively ruled out referenda on all but the most broadly based issues, because 10 percent of all the eligible voters had to sign petitions before a referendum could be placed on the ballot.

"This is democracy with a small 'd,'" said Pat Bower, a political organizer with the Northwest Neighborhood Federation, which is pushing the school decentralization referendum. "In a city the size of Chicago an issue can get lost in the cracks. But when you go to the ballot box, you force the politicians to take notice."

The series of events that brought Chicago the privilege of neighborhood referenda eventually pitted Dudycz's bill and grass-roots support against the considerable political muscle of House Speaker Michael Madigan.

Madigan, along with Senate President Phil Rock, originally had helped SON/SOC hammer out workable language for a limited-referendum bill, and Senator Dudycz agreed to sponsor the bill. Then, for reasons that are still unclear, Madigan tried to quash the legislation when it came up for a vote.

"I think a lot of the political powers began to realize that they were going to be opening up a can of worms with this," said Dudycz. "For years, Chicago politicians have been trying to control the vote, and with the local referenda they realized that they were not going to be able to control the people's minds. People would be able to say loud and clear how they feel about issues that affect them. I'm sure this is very scary for a lot of politicians."

"There was really a lot of finger-pointing on this thing," recalled Erik Wogstad, who brought two busloads of SON/SOC people down to Springfield last winter the day the Illinois House was going to vote on Dudycz's bill. "Initially, Madigan told us that the reason the bill was stalled was because the Du Page Republicans feared it would stimulate too much voter turnout in Chicago and hurt Republican candidates statewide. But when we went to "Pate" Philip [the Senate minority leader], he said it wasn't true."

Madigan finally relented, but all he offered SON/SOC was a compromise permitting a local advisory referendum one time only--during the April 1987 election--and only on the home equity issue.

"Madigan tried to ramrod the watered-down version through the House," Wogstad said. "He was telling us that only the watered-down version could pass and that half a loaf was better than none. But we were committed to having a bill that could be used later on, that we could later use as a mechanism to bring on other groups in other parts of the city on the home equity issue later. If we let them pass it as a single issue, all that would have been lost.

"But he gave it to us on a take-it-or-leave-it basis. So we said leave it. It was all pretty emotional. We finally got all 65 or so of our people to go into his office, and basically had a shouting match with him for about a half hour. We let Mr. Madigan know in no uncertain terms that we would remind the people in his district about this double cross during the next election."

The house rejected Dudycz's bill and the SON/SOC delegation boarded their buses and returned dejectedly to Chicago. Dudycz promised them he would resurrect the bill during the next legislative session. But later that same day, in the final minutes before the General Assembly recessed, Dudycz somehow brought his bill back from the dead. Astonishingly, it passed in its original form.

"That had to be one of the few times in the General Assembly's history that a bill was killed then resurrected and passed in the same day," said Dudycz. "When I called the SON/SOC people in Chicago and told them that it passed, they didn't believe me at first. Lee Daniels [Republican House minority leader] told me I had pulled off the near-impossible."

That voter turnout in Chicago will actually increase because of neighborhood referenda remains to be demonstrated. Turnout in those precincts that voted on the home equity issue last April was not appreciably higher than in comparable precincts, or in the same precincts in other elections.

"Personally, I don't think these general referendum questions will do doodly to increase voter turnout," said Chicago Board of Election Commissioners spokesman Tom Leach. "But on these questions that hit home--like Cubs lights--I think there is going to be tremendous interest."

Certainly, members of the Citizens United for Baseball in the Sunshine (CUBS) agree.

"We're expecting a 70 percent higher turnout than usual because of the referendum," said CUBS organizer Charlotte Newfeld. Even though the ordinance permitting lights at Wrigley Field has been signed, sealed, and delivered by the City Council and Sawyer administration, Newfeld says CUBS is continuing the referendum drive.

"This referendum is more important than ever," Newfeld said. "We have to send the message that this neighborhood is mad as hell and we're not going to take it anymore."

Owners of the Chicago Cubs insisted the lights ordinance had to be passed before the end of February for Wrigley Field to receive the 1990 All-Star game. But Wrigley lights foes contend that it's precisely because the community will come out so heavily against night baseball that the Cubs were so eager to see the City Council vote before the March 15 election.

"They're afraid of that referendum," said CUBS president Paul Kendall. "But I think it's a pretty darn democratic way to set public policy rather than using a phone poll."

"We only decided to go ahead with the advisory referendum after we analyzed the survey [on Wrigley lights] conducted by the Economic Development Commission," Newfeld said. "That survey was so bogus and skewed that we decided we could only set the record straight with a straightforward referendum question.

"To us, this isn't just advisory. We will definitely be taking our direction on this. We have said all along that if we couldn't get at least 70 percent of the people in the area to say they didn't want lights at Wrigley Field then we would drop the entire issue," she said.

"We want to show them that this is not a dead issue. Our goal is to have a higher turnout in the precincts that will be able to vote Wrigley Field dry."

Regardless of its outcome, Newfeld claims the Wrigley Field referendum has politically organized and energized her stretch of lakefront like never before. "They say that traditionally the lakefront is the swing vote in the city. Well, we have another mayoral election coming up soon and I think a lot of people are going to find out just how much we can swing."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Bruce Powell.

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