As 2008 wound down, things were pretty quiet in the wacky world of Rogers Park politics—no major fights had broken out in, oh, several months. And then the Nation released a list of the year's "most valuable progressives." Picked as the most valuable local official in the country was none other than Rogers Park's representative in the City Council, 49th Ward alderman Joe Moore.
"In a city that has been rocked by corruption and scandals of the ugliest sort," wrote political analyst John Nichols, "Chicago Alderman Joe Moore stands out as an example of the sort of steadfast and effective grassroots progressive who has fought the powerbrokers again and again."
That ignited a fury of letters, e-mails, and blog posts trashing Moore, denouncing the Nation, and ripping Nichols for wading into a world that, by the reckoning of some neighborhood activists, he did nothing to learn about.
"When I saw Joe got that award I had to laugh," says Don Gordon, who ran against Moore for alderman in 2007. "Moore doesn't fight the tough fights. He doesn't take care of his ward. Obviously, the Nation knows very little about Rogers Park."
For his part, Moore says he was delighted to accept the award, "if only because I knew it infuriated the people who can't stand me. It must have made them miserable."
Rogers Park politics never disappoints. Neighborhood activists tend to get—how do I put this?—a little obsessive about their pet issues. And that's coming from a guy who could write weekly rants against Mayor Daley and the Board of Education for making high school runners train in hallways (still no public indoor tracks in Chicago!) if only his editors would let him.
Still, if they tend to foam at the mouth a bit, a lot of the riled-up residents of Rogers Park are really smart. And in terms of participation, they're models of citizenship.
To appreciate Rogers Park politics you have to think of it as a war. As one squabble ends (like the recent one over who's going to manage the long-awaited community center in Willye B. White Park), another one begins (like the ruckus over the Nation). Moore has been at the center of these battles for almost 20 years, but they really started under his mentor David Orr. When Orr launched his career in the late 1970s, the local hostilities were an extension of the national culture wars of the '60s. Orr was a young history professor who represented the idealistic kids ready to change the world and, locally, take on the Chicago Democratic machine. In his successful 1979 campaign for 49th Ward alderman, he found support among the neighborhood's renters, including minorities and former hippies and other liberal types. Resistance came from longtime home owners and political insiders who ripped him as a naive do-gooder. In what would become a recurring theme over the next three decades, his opponents accused Orr of being able to talk for hours about national issues like military spending while knowing nothing about ward-level concerns like filling potholes. Still, Orr was reelected in 1983 and 1987 and then won a 1990 bid for Cook County clerk.
Moore, meanwhile, grew up in Evanston and moved to Rogers Park in the summer of 1980. He was 22 years old, fresh out of Knox College in downstate Galesburg, and had a new job as the Illinois student coordinator for John Anderson's third-party presidential campaign (talk about long-shot, do-gooder causes). He found a one-bedroom apartment at 2022 W. Fargo. "I was making all of $75 a week working for Anderson," he says. "Rogers Park was the only place on the north side I could afford."
Moore earned his law degree from DePaul, volunteered in Orr's 1983 aldermanic reelection effort, and through his contacts with Orr got a job as an assistant corporation counsel in Mayor Harold Washington's administration.
In 1990, when Orr was elected Cook County clerk, he asked Mayor Daley to name Moore to fill his vacancy. Though by tradition the mayor follows the wishes of the departing alderman in such matters, Daley snubbed the rising young politician—whose county office made him something of a threat—and instead appointed a lawyer named Robert Clarke.
Characterizing Clarke as a machine guy, Moore, with Orr's help, won the seat the next year. He's held the job ever since.
By my count, he's one of only a handful of aldermen who—even by our wretchedly low standards—can even be considered independent. (I'm not sure if any of them are "reformers.") Moore led the charge to keep Wal-Mart out of the city by sponsoring the big-box living-wage ordinance, which provoked months of debate before the council passed it and Daley vetoed it. Moore and alderman Ricardo Munoz had the guts to call for public hearings about police conduct in the mass arrests of antiwar protesters after the invasion of Iraq. And—something that endears him to me—in 2006 he voted against forming the LaSalle Central tax increment financing district, a tax-diversion program intended to eradicate blight in poor neighborhoods that had no business in the financial district. (It was created anyway.)
On the other hand, he's become a fairly reliable vote for the mayor's other budgetary schemes—don't even get me started about his support of the Devon-Sheridan TIF, in which roughly $50 million in property taxes were turned over to Loyola University. And lately he's fallen into the habit of extravagantly praising Daley, the last thing a mayor with unchecked power needs. "It's true I called him 'the greatest big city mayor in our country,'" Moore says a little sheepishly. "It was at a dedication of a fire station in our community and I was caught up with the moment. I support the mayor when I think he's right and oppose him when I think he's wrong. We've had our disagreements, but he's given my ward everything we've wanted."
If that's true, Moore's critics would say he must not have wanted enough. They accuse him of allowing the 49th to fall into disrepair because he's either too lazy, incompetent, or distracted to make sure garbage gets collected, parks get cleaned up, gangbangers get chased from the street corners, or new businesses get recruited for struggling commercial strips. "He's the invisible alderman—from day one he's never here when it comes to basic service," says Gordon. "And that's primarily what people are looking for in an alderman."
Moore says that's not true or fair. "My critics blame me for everything that's bad that happens in the ward," he says. "Someone sprays graffiti, it's Moore's fault. There's a pothole—blame Moore."
Along with two others, Gordon challenged Moore in 2007, forcing him into a runoff when the alderman fell just shy of 50 percent in the first round of balloting. Gordon then dusted off the arguments that were once used against Orr: Moore, he said, was so concerned with "global issues" like banning foie gras that he'd neglected things that impacted the everyday lives of his constituents.
In many ways, the runoff election became a referendum on what people want out of an alderman. A vote for Moore was a vote for occasional independence in the City Council. A vote for Gordon was a vote for ward maintenance—and for supporting Mayor Daley.
Daley himself didn't weigh in. And Moore's independence didn't hurt him in the fund-raising department. In the seven weeks between the two rounds of balloting he raised $345,807, with money coming from developers, unions (SEIU alone contributed more than $125,000, AFSCE another $20,000), and other politicians (his City Council colleague Toni Preckwinkle kicked in $10,000). Gordon could only raise $113,999. More than half of that came from David Herro, an investment banker who said he opposed Moore's living-wage ordinance.
Moore eked out a win by 251 votes out of 7,803 cast. He says he learned a lesson from the experience—he'll be more attentive to local concerns. "I felt I might have allowed myself to get a little out of touch," he says.
Ironically, in community meetings and interviews with the media over the last few months Gordon has become more outspoken on citywide issues, criticizing the city's Olympics bid and Daley's tax policies. So you have the progressive retreating from broader issues while his critic has started taking them on. If this trend continues, maybe the Nation will have to give next year's award to Gordon.v
Ben Joravsky discusses his weekly column with journalist Dave Glowacz at mrradio.org/theworks. And for even more Joravsky, see our blog Clout City.