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Andy Shaw

Citizens can make a difference in politics

By MARILYN SOLTIS
    Tied 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.
   Shaw 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 of two.
   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.
   The 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 underserved communities.
   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 well.

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. 

    For more information about the Better Government Association go to www.bettergov.org

Published: December 14, 2010
Issue: 2010 Philanthropy Issue