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The Professional

Streetlights, Garbage, and Horseshit: Burt Natarus, the Quintessential Alderman, Shows You How It's Done

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Burton Natarus, alderman of the 42nd Ward, bounds into a charity fund-raiser in a swanky Oak Street hotel, perky and bright and eager to meet the voters. A jazz combo plays softly in a corner; drinks and cheese and crackers are passed about on trays. The sun's last rays slip through the window and glitter on the jewelry decorating the guests, who include some of the Gold Coast's more prosperous merchants.

His first greeting involves an uncollected heap of garbage in a nearby alley. "I called your office about it earlier today," complains a lady in black.

Natarus tries not to choke on his soda. "Please! How about a "hello?"' he says. "How about a "hi,' how about a "how are you?"' He drains his soda, allowing time for the laughter to cease. A small crowd gathers, and he launches into a bombastic speech on the many city officials he's discussed that garbage with. From there he moves on to potholes, streetlights, asphalt, and an overall assessment of city services throughout the years.

It's vintage Natarus. Since 1971 he's been alderman to the Gold Coast, the richest, pushiest ward in the city. They don't just want services, they expect them. And if they don't get what they want, they call Natarus, who would, it seems, do almost anything to placate them. Responding to constituent complaints, he's introduced ordinances to put diapers on horses, ban motorcycles from LaSalle Street, and regulate bike messengers. He passionately defends these proposals, indifferent to the ribbing they earn him, determined to take care of his ward.

He has two opponents in this Tuesday's election, a couple of neophytes in their early 30s--one a self-described "independent Republican," the other too ashamed to say. Natarus is leading in the polls, but both the Sun-Times and the Tribune have endorsed Dennis O'Neill, the Republican. Natarus is the council's most aldermanic alderman; if the anti-incumbency revolution comes to City Hall, he would be among the first victims it would claim. So Natarus is running as hard as he can, campaigning around the clock.

"We'll introduce you and then you can give a few remarks," he's told at the fund-raiser.

Natarus eyes his watch. In the next hour, he's due at another fund-raiser at the Washington Library, a meeting at Lake Point Tower, and a gathering at the Chicago Historical Society.

"You'll never make them all," I tell him. "You better pass one up."

He smiles with a bit of swagger. "Oh, you don't know me. Just watch. I'll make them all."

It seems Natarus has been around here forever, but he's not even from Chicago. He was born 61 years ago in Wausau, Wisconsin, the son of Jewish immigrants from Russia who ran a millinery store. After graduating from law school at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, he made his way to Chicago in 1958. He rode south by train, checked in at the Lawson YMCA, found a job as a lawyer for Montgomery Ward, and signed up with the local Democratic ward organization. Within a few months they had him working the precincts near Clark and Division.

"I've always been a Democrat," Natarus says. "I felt the Democrats have a social conscience. George Dunne was the committeeman then, same as now. Our organization has always been open to anyone. I walked in and they put me to work."

He was eager and helpful and he wanted to belong. They promoted him to precinct captain, and he brought out the vote for JFK, LBJ, and Richard J. Daley. He opened his own law practice and was elected president of the first tenants' council at Sandburg Village. He loved those meetings; they gave him a platform, and he immersed himself in the legalistic minutiae of high-rise living.

The north side was erupting with the politics of discontent--independents against regulars, hippies against cops, Weathermen against the world--but Natarus never strayed from the organization. "Burt was a very capable young man," says Dunne. "And loyal, always very loyal."

He let it be known he wanted some role in government. His hero was FDR, and inspired by the Kennedys he saw himself dedicating his talents to the public good. He was still young, not yet 30. But when he examined all the positions he might hold, there was only one for him: "I wanted to be an alderman," he says. "You help people and your community. You debate the issues. It's all I ever wanted."

He had to be patient, though. He wasn't about to buck the organization, and others stood ahead of him in the line for alderman. When the incumbent, Dorsey Crowe, died in 1962, Natarus presented his qualifications to slate makers, but Meyer Goldberg was chosen. When Goldberg moved up to judge, Natarus again stepped forward, but Ray Fried got the nod. Only after Fried died was Natarus tapped to run. He won easily and joined the City Council in the spring of 1971. In his freshman class were Eugene Sawyer and Edward Vrdolyak. "There were so many interesting people in the council when I got there," says Natarus. "I'll never forget Rex Sande, who preceded Dick Mell in the 33rd Ward. He was in counterintelligence in World War II. They dropped him behind enemy lines. I remember he could never stand the cold. He was always rubbing his hands.

"Tom Keane was the finance chairman. He was a smart man. He knew the rules, he knew the law, he ran the council. But he was also a cold man, a rude man. My first day, I went up to him and said, "Mr. Alderman, my name is Burt Natarus; I'm the newly elected alderman of the 42nd Ward and I'm looking forward to working with you.' He stared at me, didn't even crack a smile, and said, "Go sit down. We'll call you if we need you.' That was my welcome to the Chicago City Council."

On Oak Street outside the hotel, Natarus heads for his car, a red '89 Camaro, before changing his mind and darting down an alley. I tag along behind him and Morene Dunn, Natarus's longtime publicist.

"What are you looking for?" I ask.

"This," he says, pointing to a mucky layer of newly poured asphalt. He drops to one knee and rubs the gooey gravel between his fingers as if searching for some hidden meaning.

"Hey Burt," calls a man with a shaggy beard and shabby clothes standing behind a garbage can. "Looks good."

"Yeah," says Natarus. "All they have to do is give it another light coat."

"Who was that guy?" I ask as we walk to his car.

"I don't know, but you don't want to be rude," he says. "Guys are coming up to me all the time."

Natarus fastens his seat belt, turns over the engine, and pops in a tape. "Yanni Live at the Acropolis," he says. "I love this guy. Listen."

The car fills with symphonic music. "I was sitting in bed watching a pitch for WTTW and they said send in your money and you'll get a tape," Natarus says. "Send in more money and you'll get a disc. I got the tape."

He pulls up to a stoplight and says, "I love driving. Sometimes I'll head out for Wisconsin or downstate Illinois and drive for hours. I can relax in the car."

The light changes, and we head south for the library, the strains of Yanni blasting through the night.

From the outset, Natarus had a reputation in the council as a young fuddy-duddy: "Sad Sack Burt," spoilsport of the party. Someone in his ward got upset with the mounds of dung left behind horse-drawn carriages, so he introduced an ordinance requiring diapers on horses. His council mates got a big hoot over that, as did newspaper columnists, cartoonists, and other sideline skeptics.

The more criticism he drew the more defensive he became. "I'm only doing what my constituents wanted," he told reporters. "That's how democracy works." Few aldermen were so impassioned. These weren't abstractions, he said, but real problems of everyday existence.

"He'd get so upset if you criticized a stand he was taking," says one constituent. "He'd say, "The whole world's against me.' I'd say, "Burt, it's not like that.' And he'd say, "What, you too?"'

He had good reason to be paranoid. His constituents were rich, demanding, and persistent. If they had a problem, they called Natarus, expecting an immediate solution. If they didn't get it, they called him again, any time, day or night.

"I think he was always worried that there was someone out there plotting to run against him," says the constituent. "I remember once I was asking him about something and he turned to me and said, "You're going to run against me.' I said, "No, Burt, honestly, I don't want to be alderman."'

Bogged down by local concerns, he ignored many of the wider issues of city politics. Vrdolyak and some of the other Young Turks tugged at the end of Richard J. Daley's leash, straining for a greater piece of the patronage pie. But Natarus never tried to build a patronage machine. Many of his new council mates had clawed their way to the top of local organizations by beating the incumbent. Natarus, of course, was handpicked by George Dunne. He was loyal to Mayor Daley because Daley and Dunne were close allies. And when Daley died he was loyal to Michael Bilandic. And when Bilandic lost to Jane Byrne, Natarus was loyal to her--until she and Vrdolyak conspired to oust Dunne from his party chairmanship. In 1983 he supported Richie Daley against Byrne and Harold Washington in the Democratic mayoral primary--the only time Natarus has opposed a sitting mayor for reelection.

In that campaign Natarus was challenged by activists from Cabrini-Green, who linked their campaigns to Washington's and declared the time had come to elect a black alderman in the 42nd Ward. The Gold Coast vote, however, pulled Natarus through.

It was after Washington's primary victory that Dunne and Natarus made the most principled moves of their political careers. Instead of running with the mob of white Democrats bolting the party to support Republican Bernard Epton, they backed Washington for mayor. "Why shouldn't I?" Natarus said. "Harold's a Democrat. I'm not about to switch parties because a black man is our nominee. There had always been blacks and whites in our organization. Cabrini-Green is in our ward. We slated Jesse White to run for state representative. We were never going to support Epton--that's not what we're about."

Natarus paid dearly for supporting Washington. During the days of Council Wars, he was stripped of his council chairmanship by Vrdolyak's anti-Washington faction. His ward office was bombarded with phone calls and complaints from angry bigots. It was a new phase of his political life. He wasn't used to such uncertainty. He had always flowed with the prevailing tide, but Chicago politics had become a tumultuous sea.

For three years Natarus remained loyal to Washington. And then in 1986 he broke ranks over the issue of a property tax hike the mayor said he needed to offset a loss in federal revenue. It had been expected that the council would vote 25 to 25, with Washington casting the deciding vote. But Natarus said the hike was too high. Council observers were shocked: for the first time in his career Natarus was acting like an independent. In the days preceding the next meeting, he became the city's most-watched alderman, followed by a horde of reporters and camera crews. The mayor pleaded for his support. Natarus decided to switch his vote after Washington agreed to shave part of the property tax hike and replace it with money from a fuel tax.

The climactic moment came in the midst of a closely watched council meeting. Washington called Natarus to the podium and handed him the phone. Council legend says Dunne was on the line, ordering Natarus to vote with the mayor. Natarus says it wasn't Dunne but an official in the budget office, offering last-minute statistics. After taking the call Natarus walked back to his seat and cast the deciding vote to raise taxes. He was immediately engulfed by a swarm of TV cameras. Under the heat of the lights and the strain of days of negotiations, he broke down and cried. When he returned to his office, Natarus found piles of hostile messages from angry constituents. "We aren't going to forget this vote when you run again," they told him.

In the next election, in 1987, several ambitious, well-financed candidates ran at Natarus from the right, arguing that he had lost touch with the property owner and accusing him of having sold his soul to the mayor. Most of the pundits figured Natarus was finished. But Washington repaid his ally by taking him through Cabrini-Green, telling every resident that Burt Natarus was a man of honor who stood tall and courageous when the times got hot. The precincts of Cabrini, so rebellious four years before, gave Natarus 90 percent of their votes, enough to keep him in office.

"You hang around long enough and you'll see it all," Natarus says. "Everything that you never thought will happen will happen at least once."

Natarus pulls up to a parking spot outside the library and opens his door just as a lanky young man with a long braid of hair sizzles past on Rollerblades.

"Would you look at that guy?" says Natarus. "He could have killed me. But if I introduce an ordinance regulating roller-blading they're all over my back with the Mr. Spoilsport stuff."

A fund-raiser for John Stroger, newly elected president of the Cook County Board, is going strong when Natarus gets to the ninth floor reception room, a wide pavilion of shiny marble and tile. An orchestra playing jazz standards accompanies the banter of Democratic politicians Phil Rock, Art Berman, Paul Simon, George Dunne, Bill Daley, John Stroger, and Gene Sawyer. The mayor himself is supposed to arrive soon. Natarus plunges right in, gliding from one clump to the next, giving each group a handshake and a few seconds. He's already five minutes late for his next stop.

Morene Dunn and I try to keep up, but we get wedged between a clot of reporters at the front door. Natarus circles the room like the long hand rounding a clock, coming back to us as we stand by the door.

"Come on," he says. "Let's go."

Back in the car, we cut east to Michigan and north to the Outer Drive, slicing through the heart of downtown, Natarus's new ward. He unwinds as he drives, settling back, flowing from one topic to the next, from Clinton to the beleaguered post office to a summer seminar in local government he took at Harvard.

"Three weeks I stayed at a dorm," he says. "I put on my T-shirt and shorts. I loved it. If I had to do it again, I would have knocked my brains out to go to Harvard."

"Tell him what you won, Burt," says Dunn.

"Nah."

"Come on," she presses.

"No, it would look like I'm bragging."

"Please."

He halts at a stoplight and turns around with a sheepish look of resignation. "They voted me the most congenial student," he says. "I guess I got along with everyone."

We turn off the drive at Lake Point Tower, and Natarus pulls over to the side of the road.

"See that?" he says.

"What?"

"The lights."

"What about them?"

He looks at me like I'm stupid. "You'll never make an alderman," he says. "They're out. Now watch this."

He picks up the car phone and calls City Hall. "Hello," he says when an operator comes on the line. "This is Burt Natarus, the alderman." He pauses. "That's Alderman Natarus. I have to report that on Grand east of Lake Shore Drive all the streetlights are out. Will you ask Mr. Bill about it?"

He hangs up the phone. "The advantage of being the incumbent is that I know the middle manager. I know Mr. Bill, and he's the guy to put it on the work sheet."

He leaves his car in the turnaround, telling the doorman he'll be only a few minutes, then we race up the elevator to the top floor. As we walk through the door we're hit by a wicked combination of perfumes and cologne. The room is filled with men and women, young and old, gay and straight, married and single. It's less of a meeting and more of a party, the stereo blasting, drinks flowing from an open bar, laughter and conversation swirling off the ceiling as the city's lights dazzle below.

Everyone knows Natarus and he knows everyone. He walks from one room to another exchanging small talk, kisses, hugs, laughs, and business cards.

Just as he's heading off for the Historical Society and his final meeting of the night, Natarus is stopped at the door by a deep, sloppy voice. "The world's greatest alderman--how's it going, Burt?"

It's a fat man with flushed cheeks. His tie's undone, his hair's tousled. He wraps a beefy arm around Natarus's neck and leans into his face, hot boozy air steaming from his mouth.

"We gotta do somethin' about that sidewalk I was tellin' you about," he says.

Natarus nods and slips from his grasp. "I'll call your office tomorrow," he says, heading for the door. "I'll get to it first thing in the morning."

After Council Wars, Natarus was liberated. He was no longer an obscure name on the council seating chart; he had become a public character, recognized almost wherever he went. He had always deferred to authority, but now he realized there was no authority to defer to anymore. Keane, Vrdolyak, all the legends of the council were gone. Natarus was one of the veterans, as knowledgeable as anyone else.

As George Dunne receded from public life, Natarus became more independent of the organization. He set up his own City Hall service office. All questions or complaints that came into his office were logged into a computer by his assistants Tom Conklin, Lee Minnetz, and Becky Ramos. After several weeks, Natarus wrote follow-up letters to see whether the problem had been remedied.

He introduced even more eccentric ordinances. He went after bicycle messengers and late-night motorcycle riders and rollerbladers and wind surfers and a store that had a large sign advertising condoms for sale--anyone or anything that his constituents found dangerous, offensive, or a nuisance.

He became more assertive in council debate. When he rose to talk, people in the council hushed to listen, curious as to what he might say next. He spoke without notes. Neither he nor anyone else could predict what facts and figures might spontaneously come rambling out of his head. A speech on human rights might lead him from Martin Luther King Jr. to Gandhi to man's inalienable rights. A speech denouncing Louis Farrakhan got him going on the Muslim slave trade. At the funeral service for Dantrell Davis, the seven-year-old gunned down at Cabrini-Green, he found himself talking about Maccabean warriors staving off evil Syrian invaders.

When he got going, his honking, whining voice rose, his face flushed red, and he indignantly poked the air with his fingers. Afterward he was back to Mr. Congeniality, the helpful guy, shaking hands with his colleagues. He held no grudges. These debates were only part of the show. The council was his stage. An alderman must do more than serve, he told his staffers. He should also be a showman. Servility and showmanship, to serve and entertain--that's the essence of a Chicago alderman.

In 1992 the 42nd Ward was remapped, and Natarus was stripped of Old Town and Cabrini-Green. The new borders stretched south to include the Loop and the near west side, well into Alderman Ted Mazola's First Ward territory. An election day showdown was expected between Natarus and Mazola. Over the summer they warily circled each other like hungry wolves eyeing the same scrap of meat. They attended the same meetings, festivals, and ribbon-cutting ceremonies, elbowing to the front to be seen next to the mayor. In the end, the showdown was averted when Mazola decided not to run. Jane Byrne flirted with the notion of running but later backed down. So Natarus's only opponents are Kevin Flood, a property manager, and Dennis O'Neill, a marketing analyst. They both moved to the city from the suburbs about ten years ago.

Their major issue is a 1989 phone conversation between Natarus and the late Pat Marcy, a First Ward politician with ties to organized crime. Marcy and former alderman Fred Roti wanted Natarus to intervene on behalf of a man seeking a 4 AM liquor license on West Division Street. Ironically, Natarus had long sought curbs on late-night establishments in response to community protests, but he nevertheless pushed city inspectors for the new license without going through the normal procedure of consulting area residents. Natarus says the previous tenant already had a 4 AM liquor license and had been operating without complaints. He also maintains that good relations with the First Ward office were crucial in getting city services, such as prompt attention from the Department of Streets and Sanitation.

In the phone conversation taped by federal investigators, Natarus sounds solicitous, calling Marcy "sir." The tape was made public after Marcy was indicted on corruption charges in a case having nothing to do with Natarus or the 42nd Ward. Natarus later testified at Roti's corruption trial under a grant of immunity, which he says he accepted to protect himself from spurious charges.

"I know it looks bad, me talking to Marcy," says Natarus. "They aren't great Americans, Roti and Marcy, but that's what we were dealing with in City Council. We always had to call Roti to get things done in terms of streets. I was just rendering a courtesy to another alderman. In all my years of service I've never done anything wrong. As a committee chairman, I've turned expense money back. When I was chairman of the Finance Committee, I never took police protection or a limousine. None of my children are on the payroll. I can assure you that if I had done something wrong, being an alderman, I wouldn't be sitting here today. They aren't going to give any fancy cakewalks to an alderman."

But his opponents, especially O'Neill, are using the phone call to hammer at Natarus. O'Neill says, "I think Natarus's involvement with Pat Marcy shows me he is influenced by the old First Ward organization and I don't think people want that from their officials." Flood agrees, saying, "I think the incumbent is out of touch. He lacks accountability to the residents of the 42nd Ward."

At their last debate, O'Neill called Natarus a "crook." Natarus's supporters gasped in disbelief. They began to boo and hiss, and the moderator had to call for order.

In the battle of endorsements, Natarus may have an edge. Yes, the Sun-Times and Tribune back O'Neill, but Natarus says the downtown dailies haven't endorsed him in years. ("They're probably mad at me for an ordinance that would limit the number of newspaper vending machines on a corner," he says.) On the other hand, Mayor Daley has endorsed Natarus, and the two are making campaign appearances together.

No one can be certain how effective O'Neill's tactics have been. His youth and inexperience may actually benefit him as much as his name-calling. Many of the younger voters in the ward, like O'Neill and Flood, grew up in awe of Ronald Reagan and George Bush and have only a dim awareness of Natarus's heroes: FDR, the Kennedy brothers, and the first Mayor Daley. They might prefer an inexperienced alderman, so long as he's what O'Neill calls a "fiscal conservative" who will cut back on city services.

"O'Neill's tactics are mean and nasty," says Natarus. "I don't call them names. The only thing about them is they have no experience. When I was their age I was learning the ropes, working my way through the organization as a precinct captain. But these guys are in such a big hurry, they want to run right over to City Hall without taking the time to learn how to get things done. I can see them in City Hall--someone will call to ask about a streetlight and they'll panic: "Oh no, now what do I do?"'

Natarus has spent 30 minutes at the meeting at the Historical Society, and he's in no hurry to leave. But Morene Dunn points to the time. It's 9:30.

"I think it's time we all went home," she says.

"Nah," says Natarus. "Let's get something to eat."

We walk across the street to Lou Mitchell's. Dunn and I head for a window booth, but Natarus goes for a center table. "Let's sit where we can be seen," he says.

We sit down as the waitress walks up.

"Dora," Natarus says. "What do you recommend?"

She smiles. "Another restaurant."

Ha, ha, ha, he laughs. "Another restaurant, very good. Dora, you get funnier every day and prettier and younger every day. Anytime you leave your husband, don't forget me."

She snickers. "I'll go for whichever one of you has the bigger bankroll."

Ha, ha, ha, ha. Natarus orders the beef stroganoff, and says, "So where were we?"

"You were telling me about all the ordinances you've introduced."

"Oh yes, there was the pooper-scooper ordinance."

"I thought Oberman did pooper scooper."

He winces. "It's true, Oberman came out with the ordinance that said you have to carry a device. But I'm the one who wrote you have to pick up after your dog. See, what good is the scooper if you don't have to pick up? I'm also the one who wrote you have to have a leash for your dog. And I'm the one who downzoned the Gold Coast."

"I thought Oberman did that."

He looks annoyed. "No, not Oberman. What's this thing about Oberman? I did it. I'll send you an article written by Jay McMullen 18 years ago, when I first suggested it."

"And the diapers on horses?"

He shakes his head. "Everyone misunderstood me on that. I'm not against horses; I'm against the smell of what they leave behind. And it wasn't a diaper, like you put on a baby. It was a bag. What's wrong with that?

"Now I'll tell you how the horses happened. A guy comes running up to me, and says, "Alderman, Alderman, take a sniff.' And sure enough it smells like, you know, dirty horses. He says, "I pay such and such in real estate taxes, why don't they clean it up?' I have street cleaners going around five times with detergent, and they still couldn't get that smell out."

The food arrives. His is great gobs of beef on a steamy platter smothered in lumpy gray gravy. He digs in.

"I love this job," he says. "I never want to go to Washington or Springfield. I like what I do. This is my life."

He pauses as if he's about to reveal a great secret. "You know what I really love?"

"What?"

"You're gonna laugh."

"No I won't."

"Committee reports."

"Committee reports?"

"I really do. I love the details of government. I love the give and take. I love getting up and letting go. People say, "Oh, Burt, he's a windbag.' But I have something to say and I say it. When I go home I'll read some biographies or mysteries. I love Ludlum. And then I can't wait to get back at it the next day."

A few days later Natarus is giving a tour of City Hall to a group of adult night-school students from the Latin School. He leads the students into his cramped corner office, the walls lined with photographs of him shaking hands with various politicians, including both Daleys, Bilandic, Byrne, Washington, and Sawyer. He sits in the swivel chair behind his desk and talks for 40 minutes on how bills become laws and other wonders of democracy.

He's heading into a lecture on recycling when Dunn appears and announces that the council meeting's starting.

In the council chambers, the aldermen are debating a resolution honoring 13th Ward alderman John Madrzyk, who's stepping down after 22 years.

It isn't much of a debate. They praise Madrzyk and recall funny anecdotes. No one seems to be listening. Various aldermen rove the aisle. Mayor Daley sits at his podium and fiddles with his gavel. Finally, it's Natarus's turn to speak.

"John, I can remember when we started in this chamber, you and me and Vrdolyak and Evans and Sawyer," he begins. "Remember that? We're the last of our class. A couple of old dinosaurs."

Natarus leans back for a moment and strokes his chin, apparently deciding what to say next. The noise in the chambers stops; even Daley is listening. "Sure, it must be awful for an alderman to step down. You have to really want the job to run for it once. And you have to love it a lot to run for it again and again and again."

As he rambles the other aldermen begin to lose interest and take to wandering the aisles. Daley returns to fiddling with his gavel. Natarus finishes and sits down. Other resolutions are introduced, debate continues. Dunn signals to the students that lunch is being served in Natarus's office. Glassy-eyed and famished they file from the chambers. "Do you want to come?" Dunn asks Natarus. He shakes his head. They're coming to committee reports--his favorite part of the day.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photos/Jon Randolph.

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