Citizens can make a difference in politics
By MARILYN SOLTIS
dead-last with California as one of the most bankrupt states in the
country, Illinois ranks at the top of the list for corruption. “If it’s
not the most corrupt, it’s one hell of a competitor,” announced FBI
Special Agent Robert Grant on Fox News. It’s no surprise to anyone who
lives here. In fact, it’s often viewed as business as usual. But there
are still voices demanding the system be cleaned up and veteran Chicago
journalist Andy Shaw has positioned himself to build an organization of
watchdog citizens that can, in fact, fight city hall.
became the new executive director of the Better Government Association
in June of 2009. His 37 years as a journalist covering local, state and
national politics, business and education make him a familiar figure on
the political scene. His high profile and honest belief that people in
Illinois deserve to have their faith in government restored has already
radically transformed the watchdog group that had dwindled to a staff
The BGA was founded in another era when corruption
ruled. In 1923 more than 5,000 taverns and speakeasies, gambling houses
and brothels, thrived with the help of the local aldermen. The Mayor
and Al Capone were tight. That year, a small group of clergy, lawyers,
editors and people in the business community formed the BGA. The
organization had a respectable run through the years with the 1977
Mirage Tavern Investigation that recorded city inspectors and employees
eliciting bribes, uncovering fraud in the public school system and
exposing insider concession contracts at O’Hare along with lax
security, to name a few of the higher profile investigations.
Making state and local government accountable
Under Shaw’s short tenure as head of the BGA, he has raised money from
foundations, individual donors, some corporations, the BGA Board of
Directors—enough that BGA can now support a staff of 13 including
veteran reporters seasoned in investigative reporting. The association
now partners with Fox Chicago, ABC 7, CBS 2, Chicago Sun-Times,
Crain’s, Chicago magazine, the Daily Herald and the Chicago News
Cooperative to follow investigations into government waste and fraud.
But it’s not enough to investigate and report on the story, according
to Shaw’s new BGA. Solutions need to be proposed and citizens must be
involved. Just this fall, the new redesigned website came out with a
comprehensive plan that combines professional investigative reporting,
policy solutions, citizen involvement and some journalism awards to
highlight the importance of vanishing media inquiry.
Citizen Watchdog Training Unit conducts actual classes that teach how
to monitor and report on local government and work with the BGA
investigators and editors. There are classes in how to file Freedom of
Information requests and other tips as well as how to report to your
local government. Special attention will be given to those in
An education and communication
unit keeps citizens informed of the latest updates, generates debate
and announces calls-to-action through the well-designed and constantly
updated website. The 24/7 non-profit watchdog comments on the behavior
of government on Facebook and Twitter as well as the website. They
watch and comment on stories produced by other media outlets.
What does Shaw hope to achieve? “The goal is to keep the heat on —hold
government officials accountable, demand transparency, fight
inefficiency, fight against waste, fraud, corruption and nepotism. We
pay a huge corruption tax that’s estimated in the billions of dollars a
year and we can’t afford it. People work too hard for their tax
dollars, so our watchdogging is based on one thing—that our tax dollars
be spent on the goods and services people need and want—not what
politicians want to spend them on for their own ends like enriching
family, friends, neighbors and cronies. We just have to do this every
day and hope they will improve,” says Shaw.
We asked Andy Shaw to give us some insight on post-election politics in Chicago and Illinois.
What does the recent election mean to local politics?
It reaffirms the fact that Illinois is a schizophrenic state. The
voters thoroughly repudiated the Obama agenda in many of the national
contests in the Congress and the Senate but local democrats did better
here than in many surrounding states. Democrats held the governor’s
mansion, the Illinois house and senate, won the Assessor’s office. It
bucked the trend of many states around us so Illinois is once again
hard to figure out. The lesson is that the Democratic organization is
still strong at certain levels when things are important such as
getting out the troupes, raising money, getting help from their union
friends and recruiting. It’s still a force to be reckoned with.
What will Chicago politics look like after Mayor Daley is no longer in office?
Daley, interesting enough, has not been one of the big players in the
Democratic organization. Daley is about Daley, building his power base,
getting elected and running Chicago. In terms of the fate of the other
candidates he hasn’t been instrumental in that many other candidacies.
I don’t see the strength of the local Democratic organization changing
that much even after Daley is gone.
Rahm Emanuel has to
mount a successful campaign against challengers. If he wins he is like
Daley in a number of ways. He’s tough, he’s aggressive and he is
capable of playing hardball politics with which he should be able to
exert control over the city council and other governmental entities.
He’s from a different generation with a different background and he’s
capable of taking on some of the institutional corruption that Daley’s
hasn’t been capable of because of his background, so I think Emanuel
has the potential to be a successful mayor and move the city forward
economically and ethically, but there are a number of other candidates
in the race with the same capacity.
Gery Chico has a
similar background. He knows the city well and knows the Democratic
operation well. He has good instincts about government and could
accomplish some of the same things. He hasn’t been the force or the
powerhouse Emanuel has been but he’s certainly competent and qualified.
Carol Mosely Braun was a good senator and ran a governmental office,
Recorder of Deeds. Miguel del Valle has administered the City Clerk’s
office effectively. Reverend Meeks was a storefront preacher who built
a mega church and had a successful career in the Illinois senate and
proved his ability in building bridges with conservatives and business
people over the use of school vouchers, so he’s a formidable candidate.
There’s a field of people out there, many of whom could run the city
What are the biggest challenges Chicago and Illinois face right now?
The city and the state face a similar challenge, which is the fiscal
crisis. The city is $650 million in the red and balancing next year’s
budget with a series of one-time revenues which is essentially bleeding
reserve funds that were supposed to be around for decades. But they are
depleting them quickly, such as the skyway and the parking
privatization fund, so the next mayor will face a daunting fiscal
crisis and no revenue options other than higher taxes and increasing
demands for services such as police, fire, health and sanitation.
The state is about the same. The numbers are bigger and so the
headaches are larger but it’s essentially the same thing—it’s massive
budget deficits and unfounded pension liability and unpaid bills and
it’s a difficult climate for raising taxes or other revenues so this is
a watershed moment for Chicago’s next mayor and an enormous challenge
for Governor Quinn. This is a difficult situation of city and state and
there is no easy way out.
How are the pensions going to be paid?
That’s the sixty-four thousand dollar question. The only way you can
put the pension system back on solid ground is to raise revenues and
sink that into the pension or reduce the benefits that are being
accrued by existing government employees. It’s not enough to reduce the
benefits of employees you’re going to hire in the future. You have to
reevaluate health and pension benefits for current employees and that’s
a very painful process. The unions fight that tooth and nail and
Democrats don’t like to alienate their union friends so it’s a tough
climate. But something has to be done because the pension system is not
sustainable without a lot of changes.
How is the BGA different from other news organizations?
News organizations report and advocate on editorial pages. News
organizations expose. People need to put the heat on themselves. Some
of what we do is what the news used to do but doesn’t do as much
because they are shrinking. A big part of what we do is telling people
what government is supposed to look like.
Published: December 14, 2010
Issue: 2010 Philanthropy Issue