Progressive Politics in Chicago and Cook County, Part 3

March 16th, 2016 by Phil No comments »

[This is also separately posted to Facebook.]

Part 3. The last sentence from Part 2 was:

This is where a Progressive Party can make a huge difference.

I’m not going to rewrite Part 2. I’ll only note right now that when I talk about a Progressive Party from this point forward, I am specifically talking about Chicago and Cook County, and not necessarily talking about something national in scope. And it doesn’t _need_ to be named “Progressive”. That is simply the best name I could come up with for what I’m describing here, and this is explained in Part 2.

So what could a Progressive Party in Cook County do?

I left off in Part 2 talking about the possible school board races in 2018. I am not suggesting that a Progressive Party would “field” a slate of candidates. But I think it could _faciliate_ such a slate. By that I mean that it could muster resources, define an extensive platform for school board candidates, and strengthen individual candidates by giving them a visible identity as part of a larger movement in support of teachers and students. If the candidates themselves find merit in associating as a citywide slate under the progressive banner, or some other banner, that’s great, but it’s not necessarily essential to what I’m saying.

This Progressive Party could also bolster its credentials by fielding candidates _on its own party line_ *this fall* against well-known pro-charter legislators. If it moved quickly, it could help be a unifying force in pushing John Cullerton to call the elected school board bill in the Senate, something which hasn’t happened yet and which is still up in the air. I am specifically suggesting here that this new formation take the lead in organizing a large-scale rally to be held outside Cullerton’s Chicago office if the bill is not called relatively soon.

Importantly, all of these things can be done without having to be done within Democratic power structures. Also importantly, all of these things could be done _without necessarily having to go after those same structures head on_. Here is where I’m going to make a somewhat controversial argument about how to function outside of Democratic power structures, but without in the process shunning those people within the structures who we simply have to be working with.

Many people who I have seen call for a new party which would be “independent” and/or “working class” and/or “socialist” have expressed views which I would characterize as “oppositionalist”. This is actually one of the things which over time has torn the Green Party apart. The emphasis on “independence” has largely precluded being able to work with good people who happen to be existing officeholders. Would-be supporters who see an organization shun other people who those same supporters are fond of tend to go elsewhere. Sadly, I have too often found that Greens, Socialists, and others on the Left are content with this state of affairs. They’re more interested in “purity” than in actually accomplishing anything.

If a Progressive Party came into existence within Chicago and surrounding areas in 2016, I don’t see it fielding candidates for statewide office in 2018. That will be an all hands on deck year to get rid of Bruce Rauner. But I do anticipate there will be a sharply contested Democratic primary for Governor. And it may well come to pass that one or more candidates who might emerge will come from the progressive-leaning wing of the party, and will wind up running against one or more candidates from the Machine wing of the party. Given that two very plausible candidates for Governor in 2018 are Pat Quinn and Lisa Madigan, I think it behooves progressives to go out in search of someone else. And fast.

I don’t think it necessarily sacrifices “independence” for a Progressive Party to endorse a candidate in the Democratic primary. If you are willing to accept up front that the organization is neither prepared to run, nor especially interested in fielding, a candidate of its own for Governor, then to completely sit out the primary process means accepting irrelevance on a crucial matter. If the legal structures we were dealing with were different – if we had Instant Runoff Voting, if we don’t have hideous ballot access hurdles, etc. – then I would be writing something different. But I have a child whose kindergarten year will coincide with the first year of the next governor’s term. I want a progressive in place, and most everybody reading this should want the same.

I insist that it *is* possible for a Progressive Party (or whatever else it might be called) to simultaneously field occasional candidates for state legislature; to build up a legally recognized (though likely spotty) party structure along the way; to take the lead in organizing a strong slate of public education advocates for the potential 2018 school board elections; and to participate on its own terms in the primary processes for vital offices like Governor.

I think such a nuanced place is where a heaping pile of Bernie Sanders supporters would want to be. They don’t want to give up participation in the high-level elections that matter. But they also don’t want to accept any kind of Machine status quo. They want to have it both ways, and why on earth would intelligent progressives be so antagonistic as to tell such a large number of simpatico people that they’re not allowed to have it both ways?

My immediate concern would not be with developing a formal city-level Progressive structure in Chicago, by which I mean bylaws and formal membership processes and so forth. I think that could start out more informally. I think focused organizing around supporting the elected school board should be of primary concern, and possibly also targeting a couple of pro-charter legislators. I also think one of the things which will need to get figured out early on is how the people who like any such idea and are interested in pursuing it will be able to interact with incumbent officeholders, especially some of the members of the Progressive Caucus. Frankly, I think the discussion at hand needs to have some of them at the table. (I know that’s a point on which some smart and reasonable people might disagree. I only insist that we can’t let a disagreement on a matter like that be the kind of thing which shuts everything down.)

I also think, along the way, other parallel support entities need to come into existence. One thing I am specifically thinking about is what I see as the glaring need for a strong progressive political web and social media presence which focuses on Chicago issues and brings together prominent voices from across the city (and maybe across a broader region). I am not talking about some sort of unwieldly collective, but rather a core group of 4 or 5 writers who want to get a small blog site together. I would really like to see some of the news aggregation entities citing pieces from such a group. I know Aldertrack would do so if it was done well enough, and I’m pretty sure Politico would do so as well. Progressives right now do not have a significant media voice. The best we have as far as the daily and weekly news cycles go would probably be the Reader, and the Reader is fine and all, but it can’t be what I’m talking about here.

Another thing I would explicitly like to see is a formal network of progressive LSC members from across the city. There are a couple of things out there sort of like this, but I’d like to see this go to the next level, with more formal networks of communication. I really dislike the idea that everything that LSCs hear ultimately comes from CPS or is otherwise mediated through other entities. I’d especially like to see strong LSC connections within continguous areas of the city.

Now, I’m writing this in plain text, and I’m not going to go draw a picture of a Venn diagram. But I’ll try to describe how I see this Progressive Party, whatever it means structurally, insomuch as it overlaps or doesn’t overlap with other groups.

Consider the following groups of people: Democrats, Machine Democrats, Progressive Democrats, Independent Democrats, Progressives, Independents, Greens, Socialists. I’m here trying to identify self-selected groups, by which I mean, I’m trying to describe people the way that they describe themselves. The only group which might not be like that is Machine Democrats, because people don’t usually come right out and cop to that. But we all know hardcore Machine Democrats when we see them.

The “Progressive Party” bubble, as I see it, overlaps with those Democrats who identify as Progressives; overlaps with some Independent Democrats, but not all of them; overlaps with a lot of Independents but certainly not all of them; and overlaps with most people who self-identify as Green or Socialist. This means that, yes, existing Democratic officeholders might realistically and fairly be seen as Progressives who interact with the Progressive Party. I’m not, at this time, going to suggest what any kinds of formal walls might be. I don’t want to get caught up in defining a positive movement in the negative.

I very much understand how problematic it is to put this out there without being explicit, but one person shouldn’t be trying to set all the rules of discourse here. I’m trying to advance a really broad and interesting idea without getting caught up in all of the details. That’s something people should talk about, and by “people”, I mean more than the people who I personally know. It’s got to go a lot broader than that.

To use one example of how this interaction might work: Instead of a Regular Democratic Organization, the org which exists there now is the 45th Ward Independent Democrats. In that name the word “Independent” is meant to signify that it’s not a Machine organization. It’s led by the Alderman, John Arena, who’s one of the more prominent members of the Progressive Caucus.

I would expect that some of the people who associated with that organization would be very happy to see a Progressive Party organization. Others would not see the need, since they’ve already got the kind of organization which they think they should have. Others might even be hostile. There’s a range there, and I see no inherent problem with the idea that some of them will want to be involved in a Progressive Party and be plugged in to that, while other might not. That means that there would be an overlap, but not a complete overlap, between the two groups, as involves people who live in that ward.

If there were a 45th Ward Progressives group, my guess is that they would be on the same page as the 45th Ward Independent Democrats the vast majority of the time, but might favor different candidates from time to time. There’s nothing wrong with that, and organizations like that shouldn’t have to see each other in an adversarial light. If you look at the recent 40th State Rep primary, some aldermen supported Jaime Andrade and some supported Harish Patel. It’s not like those who were on opposite sides of that aren’t going to talk to each other now.

One of the problems that the Green Party always had is that it largely refused to be on decent terms with any self-identifying Democratic entity, unless it was one which was itself mostly fringe, like a Progressive Democrats of America chapter. Greens wound up so isolated as a result that over the long haul, it caused a lot of damage and helped contribute to the party operating more like a club or, in some places, even like a cult.

I reject the dichotomy that you either have to sell out to the dominant political paradigm to participate, or you have to go off into isolation and just hope for the best. I think there’s a principled place inbetween.

Within that principled place, there are two issues which I see as especially critical, otherwise the whole thing is a non-starter. First, any kind of Progressive Party which comes into existence simply cannot be a party overwhelmingly composed of white men. It must, at the outset, be broadly representative of the city, to the best extent possible. I am acutely aware how hard it might be for this idea to take off equally well everywhere in Chicago. But one of the things which has become so thoroughly unacceptable in the Green Party is how unwelcome new people are – especially youth, and certainly also minorities. It just can’t be that way.

The second thing which I think is critical is that there must be a principle in opposition to corporate financing. This is an entity which has to talk the talk and walk the walk on campaign finance. I know this might itself be a big problem when it comes to interacting with some officeholders, because even people who have really done a good job can be weak on this issue. But this, to me, has to be a bedrock principle.

Beyond that… I’ve written enough. I think there’s tremendous potential out there, and the results of the primary election convince me that progressives simply have got to come together in a separate way, and establish a political space that will do more than push the Democrats from within the limitations of their structure. Some of my ideas may not be that interesting to people, but the general discussion has got to start somewhere, so hopefully this can all be part of that.

Progressive Politics in Chicago and Cook County, Part 2

March 16th, 2016 by Phil No comments »

[This was separately posted to Facebook.]

This is Part 2 of what is now a 3-part (!) series on progressive politics in Chicago and Cook County. Part 1 dealt with establishing the lay of the land. Part 2 focuses on what progressives can, probably can’t, should, and probably shouldn’t do. I’ll be referencing points from Part 1. Note that Part 1 was an attempt to be very objective in evaluating what’s going on. This part is different. It’s harder to write, as I’m speculating on a lot of things.

Part 2 went on so long that I’ve decided to split it into Parts 2 and 3. Part 2 is heavier on analysis, explanation of legal issues, etc. Because I’m writing so much, and I don’t want people to gloss over everything, Part 3 is much more focused on specific ideas for what to do next, as opposed to explanations of possibilities. Therein I talk about focusing on school board races, how to interact with prominent Democrats, etc.

I held off on finishing this until we could see the primary results. Nationally, it’s now extraordinarily difficult to see how Bernie Sanders can win the nomination, so it stands to reason that people will be looking for something to plug into. (I realize that there are mathematical possibilities open for Bernie. But with the Illinois primary behind us, and the odds very much against him, my assessment here is based on the very strong likelihood that he can not make up his delegate deficit.)

In Chicago, the Republicans are irrelevant in local politics, so only the emergence of third party or independent candidates will make for interesting local elections in November. The primary results, overall, were exceedingly good for the Democratic Machine, and really hammer home the need for progressives to find a way to come together. The most favorable results, though, were a couple of surprises from Ward Committeeman races, which demonstrates that progressive, anti-Machine efforts are most likely to pay off at the ward level.

The essential question I’ve been trying to grapple with is: How can progressives take the enthusiasm for Bernie Sanders and apply it toward building something more permanent? I’ve been trying to think of this in both national and local terms. I’m focusing mostly here on what could happen locally, but I’m also viewing Chicago as one of the most important epicenters of progressive political development in the country. What happens in Chicago matters elsewhere, so we have to think in terms of engaging in efforts that, while locally focused, are not parochial in their applications.

So let’s consider all of the Bernie love that’s been going on. If you’re a Bernie supporter, where do you “go” from there? How do you move beyond the presidential, especially in Chicago?

For some people, the question may seem curious, because they already feel pretty good about their local elected officials. Let’s say you live in the 35th Ward – Logan Square, Avondale, thereabouts. Carlos Ramirez-Rosa is now your Alderman and also the Democratic Ward Committeeman. There’s no other local electoral effort to be directed into for a while (unless Rosa runs for higher office!) We might expect to see people in such an area mobilized for higher-level races in the future (a hotly contested primary for Governor, perhaps?) Overall, though, if we follow the maxim that all politics are local, we’ve got to think in terms that here are residents who have already won at the local level.

In multiple wards of the city, Independent Political Organizations (IPOs) have been created, and United Neighbors of the 35th Ward is one such example. The thing is that for all practical purposes, that organization has simply displaced the Regular Democratic Organization in the ward. What we have here is perhaps the very best example of how difficult it is to parse where Democratic politics end and self-stated “independent” politics begin.

By becoming Committeeman, Rosa – and for that matter Sue Garza and before her John Arena and Scott Waguespack – has slightly compromised his ability to do certain things, in exchange for gaining an ability to do certain other things. “Compromise” here is intended as a neutral word; I’m not using it as shorthand for “compromised their values”. The reality is that it would have been politically foolish for Rosa not to have run for Committeeman and both consolidate his base and expand his influence. Voters didn’t elect him so that he would sit on the sidelines.

A lot of progressives might feel that such a compromise isn’t worth it, because it betrays “independence” in favor of bolstering the formal Democratic Party organization. I’m not going to argue against that position. Instead, I want to emphasize that even for people who might feel that way, it cannot be used as some sort of a hard litmus test. Any would-be serious progressive movement in Chicago which would outright, as a matter of some randomly elevated principle, shun the likes of Rosa or Garza, is wildly deluding itself, and consigning itself to total isolation. This doesn’t mean that progressives must themselves embrace internal Democratic Party affairs. It does mean that a movement with absolutely no friends is not really a movement.

As many people know, I’ve been heavily involved with the Green Party for 15 years. The Green Party, for what it’s worth, has basically refused to engage in any of the kind of bargaining or alignment I’ve written about. We’ve very strongly supported CTU, and we did endorse some aldermanic candidates for the first time in 2015. But the party generated no enthusiasm for those candidates, and now in 2016, the party is not even attempting to field candidates for state legislature. At one point in time, the Green Party was relevant in Chicago. It’s not today, largely by its own choosing.

My extensive experience in the party, though, understanding both the legal issues confronting an entity which strives to field candidates outside of Democratic Party processes, and the internal issues which at least for the Greens have tended to hold the party back from becoming what I feel it could have become, are very instructive to my overall thinking about what progressives could or should do now. Given the number of people I’ve heard in recent months talk about forming a “new working-class party” or who are so disgusted with Hillary Clinton that they’re looking for an alternative, any discussion about what might constitute such an alternative simply has to take into consideration the extensive experiences of the people who have been on the inside of the Green Party and who understand so well why it has mostly failed over time. I mean no offense to friends or colleagues across the progressive spectrum when I say that while many of you are brilliant and wonderful people, most of you simply do not know the details you need to know when seriously contemplating any kind of broad third party approach.

At this point, I want to explain some technical stuff, which I admit is dry and not too exciting to a lot of activists, but which I think is very important to put on the table so we can have the kind of conversation we need to have.

When I talk about a “formal” political party, I am in general talking about an entity that is either legally recognized under the laws of a given state, or which is seeking to be so recognized. The Libertarian Party, for example, is a formal political party. The Tea Party is not. Organizations like Democratic Socialists of America may constitute a distinguishable political current, and may even in some way aspire to forming formal party organizations, but they are not political parties.

In Illinois, speaking in strict legal terms, there are two kinds of formal political parties: Established and New. These can exist statewide, or isolated within one or more electoral jurisdictions. The Green Party, for example, is Established right now for 5th Congress (north side), 12th Congress (deep downstate), and MWRD. Because the Green Party is established for MWRD, the party is entitled to Ward and Township Committeepersons throughout Cook County. The Democrats and Republicans are of course Established statewide. Any political party which is striving for legal status, whether statewide or within a given district, is considered “New” in the eyes of the state. For ease in understanding what I’m explaining, I will always capitalize the word New when referring to the _legal_ status of a party within Illinois. In general, I will use lower-case “new” to refer to the idea of a political entity which has not before even conceptually existed.

Here I will briefly emphasize: the way all of this works in Illinois is unique. There are similarities to other states, but every single state has developed its own system. While I’m focusing on Illinois here, it should be understood that some of this simply won’t apply in other places, and examples from other places might not hold any relevance here.

I’ve had a number of discussions over time with people who have expressed interest in creating some kind of new political party. This sentiment usually seems to come from people who self-identify as independent and/or socialist. Keep in mind here that a very large number of Sanders supporters self-identify as independent, and a very large number self-identify as socialist. While I’ve seen no numbers, I think we can all agree that those two self-identifying groups substantially overlap. That does not of course mean that there is necessarily a strong sentiment within those groups in favor of the creation of a new party – but for the moment we’re going to assume that there’s sufficient sentiment to justify this line of discussion!

Let’s pursue the idea that a group of people wish to form a formal party within Cook County, under a party name which doesn’t currently exist. For our exercise here I’m going to call this the Orange Party. Let’s say a bunch of people across the county – but, realistically, mostly from Chicago proper – convene in the very near future with a goal of achieving a legally-recognized (i.e. Established) political party.

Up front, there are a lot of immediate issues. First, there’s actually no way to form such an entity directly at the Ward level. Where I live, if I want to become the Orange Party Ward Committeeman, this would require that the Orange Party field one or more candidates at one of these levels: State Representative, State Senator, County Board, Congress, Countywide, Statewide. If you’ve got a good IPO at the Ward level but you’re not also in power there – think the 12th and 33rd Wards for a couple of examples – then the only way for you to have a Ward Committeeperson is if you’re involved with fielding candidates for at least State Representative in your area. (Remember, Alderman is a nonpartisan office.) It might be enticing to try and just field candidates at the countywide level, but it’s brutally difficult to collect the signatures, and precisely who is going to get excited about a candidate for Cook County Recorder of Deeds? Kim Foxx’s win in the State’s Attorney primary pretty much rules out any third party run at the Cook County level in 2016, as I see it.

So for the moment, let’s set aside the idea of fielding New party candidates at the county or state level, and suggest that only state legislative races may be immediately compelling. After all, we know that some pro-charter Democrats won their primaries (notably including some who were unopposed!) Maybe there would be a desire to whip support for a slate of anti-charter candidates to go after certain primary winners.

One problem with this line of thinking is that if there had been much excitement along those lines in the first place, then the pro-charter candidates probably would have just been challenged in the primary. The signature requirement for State Senator in the primary is 1,000. For a New party, it depends on the district, but it might be over 3,000, which is very difficult work.

Another problem is that, regardless of what people might say, most activists are not going to travel any appreciable distance to support candidates running in other districts. We repeatedly found this to be true within the Green Party. We would try to have “anchor” campaigns which would be epicenters of activity for a wide radius around, but people simply didn’t feel ownership or excitement about races which weren’t in their own districts or at least immediately adjacent. Now, I’ve seen some evidence in recent years of organizations recruiting outside volunteers to go in and target specific areas – I know IIRON was doing this with some aldermanic races in 2015 – but I feel like that’s still more the exception than the rule. At best, you might find one or two dynamic candidates with very broad citywide appeal and be able to muster support for them.

It should also be stressed here that when you field candidates in isolated races, you’ve still got all of the other surrounding races to deal with. There might be an Orange Party candidate running for State Representative somewhere, but almost all would-be voters in such a race will also vote for the Democrat for U.S. Senate and U.S. House and the countywide offices. This presents a lot of practical issues, because it means there’s not other campaigns that you can link up with to do combined precinct walking.

And one more thing. If you try to field a candidate in the general election against an incumbent Democrat, and you’re at all regarded as a credible threat, Michael Madigan or John Cullerton will divert six figures worth of their largesse to support the incumbent.

With all that said, I have nevertheless been trying to think through what it might mean for there to be a formal, legal party organization, if not entirely throughout Cook County, at least with remnants scattered across Cook County. I have been trying to think in terms of what the organization might look like, and how it would come to terms with the way in which the Democratic Party is structured around it. All of the practical issues with trying to field such candidates hadn’t deterred the work I was doing in the Green Party for so long, and I found that fielding such candidates could often prove very important for the long-term success of local progressive politics. The Green Party’s work in Logan Square through 2010 is the most notable example, as we established the blueprint which wound up being followed first by Will Guzzardi and then by Carlos Ramirez-Rosa.

The two questions which would have to be asked up front are who any immediate candidates might be, and under what party label they would run. Often identifying who to run has to begin by identifying who to run against, but for my immediate purposes here, I want to set all of that discussion aside. I’ll just speculate here that perhaps 3 state legislative candidates might emerge in Chicago running under the same party label this November, and focus on the party label question.

I see five possibilities for the party label: None / Independent; Green; Working Families; Progressive (or something similar); “Chicago” (or something similar).

I think any such effort which comes together only to field candidates as formal Independents is a waste of time. No formal party structure would wind up being created, and when each race is over, it’s really over. Only if a particular given candidate wanted to use such an approach as a means of preparing for an aldermanic run in the future could I see much merit in it.

I wish it were otherwise, but I don’t see Green as a serious option at this point. The party is now saddled with a horrible congressional candidate in the 5th District, and the party infrastructure itself is largely hostile to “outsiders”. While it might at first seem like an understandable route to go, especially for Sanders supporters who will now need a presidential candidate to support in November and see Jill Stein as the most likely option, unless there was a serious intention on the part of progressives nationally to step in and take over the Green Party as a whole, Green isn’t really a sensible option for the kind of work I’m talking about now. I feel terrible having to admit this, but it is what it is.

I also do not see Working Families as the answer here, for a number of reasons. United Working Families in Chicago wasn’t formed as a bottom-up entity but as a top-down entity pushed by two highly compromised labor unions (CTU and SEIU Healthcare). And the main model of what the existing Working Families Party is comes out of a fusion system in New York which simply doesn’t translate well to other states. I expect that UWF will wind up focusing on the 2019 elections, maybe also getting involved in the school board elections if the elected school board bill eventually passes. But this is not the kind of entity which these large numbers of Bernie supporters can meaningfully plug into.

The primary election results superficially look like CTU had a good night. In reality, though, CTU wasn’t very involved in most places. Its presence mattered in perhaps two races, but in both cases, the winning candidate was more closely linked to the Democratic Machine than to CTU. They are in such an incredibly precarious situation, having essentially been forced to buddy up with Michael Madigan, that it is simply unfair and unrealistic to expect that they are in any position to be the out-in-front leaders of a strong progressive electoral force in Chicago. They badly need a new entity to arise and lead the way, which will protect their flank and give them better room in which to operate. United Working Families is too close to CTU for that, and the other entities involved are actually less radical than CTU itself. For all intents and purposes, the primary results constituted the informal absorption of the Chuy Garcia chunk into the formal Cook County Democratic Party apparatus. In some ways that might prove good and useful down the road, but that’s not the model which is going to sustain extensive progressive change in Chicago or beyond.

This leaves two options: a party label like Progressive, which would be broad and non-localized; or a party label like “Chicago” or anything else where the very name connotes localization. There are advantages and disadvantages to both approaches. To me, though, if you’re going to begin the work of trying to create any kind of formal party apparatus, and you expect to have any reach, giving yourself a localized name is just not a good idea. Suburban voters won’t be interested in a Chicago Party, and what local name will resonate with anyone if it doesn’t have Chicago or a stand-in for Chicago (like “Windy City”) in it?

By process of elimination, I think any attempt to start building a formal legal party structure, with an attendant backbone of a structure rooted either in a membership organization or in an umbrella approach involving various ward-level IPOs, needs a broader, general, uniting name with which people can readily identify. The most logical word I can think of here is Progressive. It’s not a perfect word, and maybe someone can find a better word or couple of words. But it is the word which most sensibly reflects what cross-section of the voting public I think we’re talking about; it is already a known name which people positively identify with; and outside of Vermont, it’s not really in use anywhere.

Now, maybe candidates can emerge under such a party banner in 2016. Maybe progressives simply aren’t prepared for such a thing right now. Because I don’t want to wildly speculate on individual races, I want to just resuggest the idea that perhaps a couple such candidates could emerge this year, in isolated legislative districts. With that as a hypothetical goal, I want to pivot to what I think this party/movement needs to look like, especially within Chicago, but also into Cook County, and, conceptually, across the entire country.

One thing I really dread is the prospect of hauling people into a room to have a discussion about all of this, and getting people generally on board with the idea of creating some kind of new structure, only to have it all degrade into a debate about organizational structure. There’s an inherent danger in completely ignoring structure, but there’s an equal danger in having form demolish function. I’ve been spending a lot of time discussing legal and practical considerations for what an emerging legal political party structure might look like, but I’ve intentionally avoided a lot of discussion about things like bylaws and high-level organizational matters. I’ve been in the trenches for a lot of that stuff, and it’s important, but it sucks the air out of the room, and it turns off activists quicker than anything else.

So having said all that: I’m not going to argue for calling a “convention” of people to come together to form a new party or anything like that. I think we should strive for some general understandings about where we might all be going. It may prove smart to have, say, a Cook County Progressive Party and/or a Chicago Progressives organization within the next year. But I absolutely do not think focus should be on a county-level organization in and of itself. The focus should be on bringing people together to talk about how to best empower local activist communities. If a strong progressive challenger emerges this year to take on a pro-charter incumbent Democratic legislator, how do we marshall resources to support that challenger? That’s the kind of question which should be foremost.

When I look at the existing obstacles to coming together as progressives, whether under a party banner or otherwise, one of the things which I most clearly see is that everybody is very spread out in terms of how they’re organizationally plugged in. Certainly teachers are directly involved with CTU. Some people are very heavily involved in an IPO, or in something else very localized, like Pilsen Alliance or Logan Square Neighborhood Association. Some who aren’t directly involved with CTU have doubled down on education issues, either through groups like Raise Your Hand, or through investment in Local School Councils. There are a lot of great things going on, but it’s often hard for them to talk to one another, and expecting leaders of neighborhood organizations to also step up and be leaders of some new city or county level organization would be stretching these people too thin.

To demonstrate the problems and opportunities, let’s consider the possibility that we’ll have an elected school board in 2018. I’ve already heard rumblings from a lot of corners that pro-charter groups are already gearing up to support candidates, by establishing structures, and identifying money to pump in to races. I’ve seen no comparable effort – yet – on the part of progressives. It’s admittedly hard because we don’t know what the district lines might look like. But let’s pretend we can guess what the district lines would look like.

Here’s the big problem that I see: Most of the very good organizations that progressives and anti-charter people are involved with simply can’t participate in the school board elections. Neighborhood associations are 501c3s. Raise Your Hand is a 501c3. The Cook County Democratic Party structure isn’t going to get involved in these races. The City Council Progressive Caucus and some of their ward-level groups might well get engaged, but that election is also going to coincide with the next set of primary races, with big ticket offices like Governor on the ballot, and that’s where a lot of that attention will be. Even CTU is going to be in a tough position here, because although Chicagoans generally support CTU, it’s going to play poorly in the eyes of voters if CTU spends gobs of cash to try and elect the very board members who would be ratifying their contract.

The school board races, perhaps more than anything else, demonstrate the critical need for there to be citywide communication by progressives, taking place outside of the structure of the Democratic Party, and outside of the confines of most of the good organizations with which people are already involved. There should be a citywide slate of strong progressive public education champions for school board, and right now, there’s no entity in place to take the lead in bringing such a slate together.

This is where a Progressive Party can make a huge difference.

End Part 2.

Progressive Politics in Chicago and Cook County, Part 1

March 16th, 2016 by Phil No comments »

[This was originally posted directly to Facebook and has been copied here. The spacing may be a little off.]

This is Part 1 of a 2-part series on progressive politics in Chicago and Cook County. My focus in this part is on the broad lay of the land, which means I’m going to talk about Bernie, Chuy, Toni Preckwinkle, Kim Foxx, the CTU, Omar Aquino, Jaime Andrade, and a whole lot more:

As noted in the Reader article I posted earlier today, the guy running Bernie’s Illinois operation is Clem Balanoff. He was Chuy’s campaign manager. He comes out of SEIU Healthcare.
SEIU Healthcare and the CTU are the main entities which came together to form United Working Families, an organization which has been curiously invisible this election cycle. CTU itself has also been mostly quiet this election cycle, except that I’ve seen it get very involved in two local races. One is the ridiculous Ken Dunkin – Juliana Stratton race and I’m not going to dwell on that here. That race is so out of control that no less than President Obama intervened.
The race where I have seen CTU and education advocates really strongly converging is the 2nd Senate race, where people have been pushing hard for Omar Aquino. Aquino’s opponent is Angelica Alfaro and she’s outspokenly pro-charter. I will say, in very mild defense of Alfaro, that _she went to a charter school_ so at least she’s coming by her position more honestly than a lot of people would.

Of course, CTU and public education supporters and so on want nothing to do with a pro-charter candidate, so they’ve lined up to support Aquino. But the problem is that Aquino is also well-known to be a Joe Berrios surrogate. Berrios put up Aquino to run for 36th Ward Alderman last year. That race was won by Gilbert Villegas, who was backed by Luis Arroyo. A lot of wacky things went down in that part of the city, with another Arroyo backed candidate, Milly Santiago, knocking off Ray Suarez in the 31st Ward. That’s Berrios’s own ward, and he couldn’t protect his own guy.

More recently, the circumstances have changed. The two strongest people in the Cook County Democratic Party right now are Toni Preckwinkle and Michael Madigan – both even stronger than Rahm Emanuel _in the context of the functioning of the party_. Preckwinkle, as it so happens, has been propping up Berrios for a while. Berrios has been Madigan’s stooge for even longer.
So what we are seeing play out right now is a very complicated bargain.

As I noted, the CTU and its allies have fully lined up in support of Aquino. In so doing, they’ve essentially acceded to keeping Berrios around.

Madigan, meanwhile, surprisingly got on board with the Elected School Board bill, one of CTU’s most important pieces of legislation. Madigan and CTU of course have a common enemy in Bruce Rauner. But CTU also has an enemy in Rahm, who fiercely opposes the Elected School Board. The thing here is that Rahm is actually in a fairly weak position, relatively speaking. Rahm needs Madigan to be on the same page regarding everything going on with Springfield. Madigan has decided it’s in his interest to give CTU what they want on this. For all intents and purposes, Rahm is on the sidelines of the bargain at hand. (Of course, Tammy Duckworth is a Rahm surrogate, and the entire Democratic power structure did fall in line to support her Senate run. So maybe that’s what he’s getting out of the bargain.)

In the midst of all this is the appearance of Kim Foxx, who was of course already running for State’s Attorney before the Laquan McDonald video surfaced. She was Preckwinkle’s chief of staff. Preckwinkle has worked hard to back her. Getting Foxx elected is the utmost priority to Preckwinkle, as it will solidify her position as the main county-level power broker for the Democrats. Thing is, back in early November, this was looking like a tall order. Alvarez is a two-term incumbent who even now has a lot of important supporters, such as Ed Burke.
For Preckwinkle to get what she wanted out of this, a lot of bargaining had to be done. She needed Berrios and his people to fall in line – which meant that she needed to be involved in brokering a compromise between Berrios and Arroyo. After the Laquan McDonald video came out, it was also easy for her to get all of the anti-Rahm progressives and most of the black committeemen in line as well. CTU finally climbed on board too. Madigan didn’t, but nobody needed him to. Senate President John Cullerton is in the mix here as well, since the Aquino deal involves a State Senate seat. Madigan and Cullerton simply helped facilitate here.

Now, Alvarez, of course, simply has to go. It doesn’t much matter if Foxx is the greatest thing since sliced bread – this is one of those situations where you have a real cancer in an extremely dangerous office, and the cancer needs to be removed. That Foxx has decent progressive credentials _for a State’s Attorney candidate_ – remember, this is someone running to be the county’s chief prosecutor – is really just a bonus.

One other thing to keep in mind here is that it really helps Rahm out if Alvarez is the chief public official who takes the fall for the Laquan McDonald case. Make no mistake: Rahm wants to see Alvarez go down. He might actually like her personally, but it’s to his political benefit for Foxx to win. He can then continue to separate himself from the “mistakes” made in the State’s Attorney’s office. His goal is to never meaningfully be held personally accountable for anything associated with the Laquan McDonald case.

In the midst of all this bargaining, there are other situations at play as well. Jaime Andrade, trying to hold on as 40th State Representative, wound up getting the endorsements of numerous progressive aldermen, perhaps most importantly the endorsement from Carlos Ramirez-Rosa. His opponent Harish Patel also got some aldermanic endorsements (from Scott Waguespack and Ameya Pawar) but Andrade is clearly in good shape in that election.

Andrade emerged out of thin air as a big CTU champion, and even picked up their endorsement. He started hanging around other progressives. All of this, even though he was given the seat by Dick Mell, and completely owes allegiance to Mell. Mell’s daughter Deb is of course now the 33rd Ward Alderman. (Mell’s son-in-law is in federal prison, but that’s a story for another day, isn’t it?)

Even armed with the support of his benefactor Mell, and with the endorsements of multiple important aldermen, Andrade’s campaign nevertheless has also taken big cash from Michael Madigan, and has used that money to absurdly attack Patel as being a surrogate of Rauner, which is just total crap, but precisely what one would expect from Madigan’s playbook.

Oh also: Chuy and Mell go back. The Garcia-Preckwinkle is perfectly fine letting Mell have what he wants here. After all, Mell is one of the committeemen who helped Preckwinkle with the Foxx endorsement, isn’t he? Because that’s how these things work.

And then there is yet another race where we see a lot of complicated posturing happen. On the near southwest side, there’s a quasi-open seat for 2nd State Representative. Theresa Mah has now been endorsed by Chuy, and by Congressman Luis Gutierrez, and by Alderman George Cardenas and his own surrogate, Alderman Raymond Lopez. See? All of the important Latinos are playing nice. They’re all jockeying for position.

The Andrade-Patel and Aquino-Alfaro races, and to a lesser extent the Mah-Acevedo race, are where we can most clearly see what’s happening in terms of aligning forces. The CTU, the bulk of the Progressive Caucus, Chuy Garcia, Toni Preckwinkle, Joe Berrios, and Michael Madigan are all lining up on the same side. Attaching themselves to that grouping are hangers on like Luis Gutierrez and George Cardenas. The whole thing is increasingly absurd, because there isn’t really a coherent other side to this. Preckwinkle and Madigan aren’t fighting Rahm. CTU isn’t fighting Arroyo. You just wind up with “outsider” unaligned candidates like Patel getting beaten up for daring to get involved at all.

Bernie Sanders, of course, has many other things to concern himself with. But even Bernie has now gone on record supporting the teachers in Chicago. And Chuy is his main campaign surrogate. And Balanoff is running his state operation. And Bernie himself came to Chicago early last year to help get Sue Garza elected as 10th Ward Alderman. Even Bernie has a little skin in the game here.

Now. I’m not trying to disparage Bernie at all when I say that. I’m really just trying to describe the lay of the land. It’s not like Joe Berrios and Michael Madigan are out stumping for Bernie Sanders!

But what people should see in all of this is an attempt being made to say: Hey, look, the Democrats in Cook County are really the good guys. Isn’t Chuy a good guy? Look who all Chuy is hanging out with. Isn’t Toni Preckwinkle very smart and very competent? She wouldn’t line herself up with fools.

The quasi-movement that has sprung up around Bernie, though, has not done so because of any particular affinity for the likes of Joe Berrios or Michael Madigan! If the liberal wing of the county organization thinks that all of these people are just going to roll in line, they’ve got another thing coming. The reality is that Bernie is running a campaign _decidedly to the left_ of anything any of these people here in Cook County are doing. Chuy campaigned for putting 1,000 more police on the streets! Supporting an Elected School Board is not some kind of fringe left-wing idea – it’s called _basic democracy_. Absurdly, we now have a situation where moderate/centrist Democratic officials are indirectly trying to associate themselves _with Bernie Sanders_, even though not a single Congressman from Illinois has endorsed him! Again, none of this I’m holding against Bernie. Chicago is one place among many where crazy shit is happening for him, and he has no chance to control it. He knows how nonsensical Cook County politics are. They take on a life of their own.

So set aside Bernie for the moment, and let’s get back to some cold reality. Michael Madigan is the person most responsible for running the state into the ground. Joe Berrios is widely known to be incredibly corrupt. While it is understandable that an entity like CTU needs friends, for CTU to have gotten so close to the establishment here means that they’re in no position to effectively challenge that same establishment. This is not to knock the CTU, or at least, not to knock them too much. The point here is simply that CTU can’t be expected to provide coherent political leadership on anything else. They’re boxed in, and doing what they can with what play they think they have.

Consider that while the House overwhelmingly voted in favor of the Elected School Board bill, there are almost no co-sponsors of the bill to allow for the recall of the Mayor. (Although: One very interesting exception to this is Jaime Andrade!) The Democrats in Springfield have for years and years had numerous opportunities to fix the state’s structural deficit and to ensure that the state is pumping in its fair share of dollars to schools. It was always Madigan who refused. Aside from Daley and Emanuel, no single politician has done more to HARM the public school system in Chicago than Michael Madigan. But CTU and Madigan perceive that they need each other right now.

Very few of the Chicago-based legislative races are even being contested. One of the reasons why the Andrade-Patel race has gotten as much attention as it has is because almost none of the neighboring districts are at all contested. Now, one which is – for 15th House – is pitting an even more entrenched family dynasty Machine Democrat in John d’Amico against Jac Charlier. But this has not gotten nearly the same level of outside attention. Perhaps it’s because the district is almost half suburban. Or perhaps it’s because d’Amico isn’t directly involved in anything I’ve noted above… except, of course, that Madigan is giving him gobs of money, even more money than Andrade is getting.

One of the essential problems here, and it is a particularly thorny one to overcome, is that as soon as The Right Person wins an aldermanic seat, the political alignment changes around that person, and they simply become part of the overall Democratic Party process. Look at all of the most progressive aldermen in Chicago. Every single one of them is either also the Democratic Ward Committeemen, or soon will be. Even though we’re not talking about Machine politicians per se, what we _are_ talking about is the continuation of the Machine processes.

There’s no obvious “back door” to get into all of this. Ironically, the way in is through the “front door” – by running an insurgent campaign for Alderman and winning. Even though the aldermanic seats are the most coveted, ironically, the Machine is the most susceptible in those races, because the ward is the smallest electoral unit, and there’s the potential for the runoff (which has treated some incumbents very poorly in recent elections), and because the race is nonpartisan, with the bizarre but accepted protocol that the Cook County Democratic Party doesn’t get involved in the aldermanic races.

Your other alternative to getting in is of course to be a loyalist to a boss and just bide your time. That’s how Andrade got to where he’s at, and that’s how Aquino is going to wind up a State Senator. But these aren’t rational or acceptable ways for progressives to get involved. And so, inexplicably, it seems like the best way for progressives to pry their way in is by running for alderman.

It is possible that the Elected School Board will change this some, because those will be nonpartisan seats covering fairly large areas (2.5 times as large as a ward), and the nominal demand will be necessarily lower since it won’t be a “job”. CTU will of course eagerly pursue getting their own allies in to school board seats. Charter proponents will as well. But what direct stake does someone like Toni Preckwinkle or Michael Madigan have in who’s on the school board? The nature of the stakes are different. The power structure will largely sit it out. And yet those school board members may very well wind up aligned with some faction or another along the way.

That’s the lay of the land, and I didn’t hardly go into details on a lot of it. There are so many nuances, so many weird temporary alliances, it would make a professional wrestling booker’s head spin.

Part 2 will come in the next couple of days, and will talk about what Bernie supporters, progressives, Greens, socialists, anyone who sees all of the above and cringes, might actually try to do under the circumstances.

I am an optimist.

February 21st, 2016 by Phil No comments »

I am an optimist.

In the midst of neverending racism, the unbelievable attacks on our public schools, a largely incoherent economy, and worst of all, the spectre of advanced climate change, I am nevertheless an optimist.

Even in the midst of so many bad things, I see legitimate progress on the social justice front. I think as a whole people younger than me are much more justice-conscious than people older than me. Gay couples can get married almost anywhere in the U.S. And even on race, I think the overall trajectory is a positive one.

Even seeing somewhat from the inside the way in which our schools are under attack, I see reasons to look ahead. The fact is that our education system has been failing a huge chunk of American children for decades. The greediest of the profiteers have demonstrated how much more is at stake, and I think that the general public is slowly but surely coming around to understand what’s going on.

Even though the rich keep getting richer and more and more families are struggling, I think that for many people, especially the young, there is a greater understanding of how the fix is in, and they are responding. There is a greater resilience in the face of some of what the Powers That Be are throwing at people, and the kind of reforms which need to happen – in government and elsewhere – we will see more of in future years. We will see a growing adoption of local-centric economies in many places, and perhaps even a restoration of the kind of neighborly spirit which I think corporate America has sought to undermine for so long.

And even on climate change, where the science offers no good news, I can remain somewhat optimistic. Yes, Americans in general are lost on this issue. But here too I see a growing sense of broad camaraderie among the young; I have confidence that wind and solar and other renewable energy forms will become cheaper and proliferate more; and I think the economy as a whole will come around to realize that wastefulness is economically hazardous, and much more intelligent action will increasingly be taken. While I understand that the direst warnings of some scientists suggest it may already be too late, I think at the species level and at the social level, we will necessarily adapt, and while it may take a great struggle, I think that struggle could be unifying, as the people who best understand that the struggle is coming also understand that we’re all in this together.

I am not in denial about everything which is going wrong. The person who sees only the light and not also the darkness is not an optimist. They are something else entirely.

Humanity is not some sort of team sport, where we all spectators. The optimist is not someone in the stands who believes their side is going to come back. We’re all on the same side here. We’re even on the same side with the people who are led by hatred and fear. We all buckle down, and we all get to work. Together. As close to together as we can.

I will admit that I buy into that age old American thing: My child’s life should be better than my own. I know that a lot of people have lost track of this. I even know there are a great many people who resent the idea that their children might become more successful than they were. There really is an illness in our modern society which I can’t claim to fully understand. But I will neither deny its presence, nor allow its presence to hold us back as well.

Instead, when I declare that my child’s life should be better than my own, I think of “better” in terms distinct from “more successful”. Yes, a better life may mean one which is freer from want. But it especially means a life where every child he will go to school with is regarded as an equal, based solely on their common humanity. That’s not something I experienced. It means a life full of music and art, full of games and frivolity, full of broad mutual respect for people. It means a life with a greater balance of work and leisure. It means a life of uplifting the people around you. The reality is that my own life has been better than most in a lot of these respects, whether I have always acknowledged as much or not. But I too have known poverty, and crime, and grave personal disappointment. I am not so delusional as to think my child can be protected from everything; such shielding would only deny him the full richness of life. But even much of what I have seen and experienced, I hope he will be able to avoid.

And so I commit myself, best as I can, every day, to this optimistic path. I admit that I don’t always know what that means, and often great frustration can set in. I feel like I can and should be doing more, but lack perspective and/or knowledge to find that more productive and fulfilling path. But I will keep plugging away, for myself, my family… for all people. Because my optimism and the work attendant to it must be a small piece of a much greater fabric of optimism and work. I would rather run the risk of overstating my role than run the risk of understating it, because the second a person falls into the funk of believing that they don’t matter in the grander scheme of things, the whole network takes a hit.

So I encourage everyone around me, and for that matter everyone around the world, to join me in saying:

I am an optimist. And I will prove it by working for a better world for all.

Help With Your Property Assessment Appeal

January 29th, 2016 by Phil 2 comments »

Property owners in Jefferson Township can appeal their assessments to the Cook County Board of Review, but only until February 2. Local aldermen have sent out information about how to appeal and a lot of my neighbors have likely received something in the mail. But even with a lot of publicity, the whole thing is still very daunting, and my observation is that most people don’t even consider doing it.

We appealed in 2015. And we won. I would estimate that as a direct result we saved $400-$500 in property taxes for Tax Year 2014. I spent time preparing the appeal, and I did request a hearing, but I did it myself. And for most people, their best available argument is something which requires no hearing. The entire appeal can be done online, and can be done in less than 15 minutes.

But I am taking it a step farther, and making it more realistic for more people to be able to file the simplest kind of appeal. I’m going to explain exactly what this “simple” appeal is, and for many of my most immediate neighbors, I will also provide the information that can help them make such an appeal.

Jefferson Township, for those unaware, includes these community areas: Jefferson Park, Avondale, Logan Square, Hermosa, Forest Glen, Dunning, Albany Park, Portage Park, Irving Park, Montclare, and Belmont-Cragin. That’s a whole lot of you!

Before I go any further, I want to be clear on a couple of points. First, I am not an attorney, and I have no background in real estate, assessment, or anything related. Any and all advice provided here is lay advice only and should not be interpreted as formal legal advice. Second, I am not going to try and explain all of the various reasons why an appeal might be made. I am going to specifically talk about only two, because they are the two which worked for me last year.

The reason I am doing this is because I think a lot of property around me is significantly over-assessed, and I believe that systemic over-assessment of property is a mechanism by which taxing authorities squeeze property owners. If more of my neighbors start filing appeals, I believe that the result will be a slight overall lessening of assessments in the area, which will be good for the collective neighborhood. Assessment and appraisal are not the same thing. In my opinion, it can hurt more than it can help if your property is over-assessed, because that over-assessment may make it less attractive than a comparable property, as it means prospective buyers would have to expect to more in taxes. This is a point on which I think reasonable people can disagree, and for people who disagree with me, I respect where you are coming from. But given that every elected official under the sun encourages people to file appeals, it clearly is not seen as a bad thing by government generally that people will appeal. And the bottom line is, it’s simply being a good neighbor to help people who may not understand how easy it can really be to file.

And one final thing: FILING AN APPEAL IS FREE so long as you file it yourself. There is no filing fee! So it is a no-risk situation.


Appeal Rationale #1: Recent Purchase

This rationale can only be used if you purchased your house since the beginning of 2012, though, so it won’t work for most people. But it is very simple.

If you bought your house for $200,000, and it is now assessed for $230,000, then you are most likely over-assessed, and the Board of Review will agree, and lower your assessment.

When I appealed last year, I requested a hearing, and prepared a lot of documentation. Notably, I had to make a copy of the Bill of Sale on the house, which showed the purchase price and the date. I am not going to go into a lot of detail on that here as I have not gone back and re-researched what documentation needs to be pulled together. What I will say is, the documentation requirements are such that this is not the “simplest” way to appeal. But it is the simplest of arguments, which is why it is such an important one to pursue.

As I go on further below and talk about actually using the Board of Review website, keep in mind there may be additional things you will need to do involving submission of supplementary documentation. As I said above, I’m not a lawyer. I’m not telling you absolutely everything about how to do this. I am just trying to provide more concrete information so that you can be more successful if you choose to do it yourself.


Appeal Rationale #2: Comparable Properties aka Lack of Uniformity

We live on a street that is all Single Family Homes (SFHs) and almost all of a very comparable size (slightly over 1,000 square feet). They’re almost all technically bungalows, but not the classic brick ones; what we have here are a lot of basic A-frame houses dating from the 1920s.

Our house does not have a finished attic or a finished basement. We have central air, but I suspect everyone on the block does, or nearly everyone. Long story short, our house is eminently comparable with the rest of the block, and boasts nothing exceptional that might cause it to sell for substantially more than another house. Therefore, it should be assessed pretty much in line with the rest of the block, or even on the low end, as I know several of the houses do have their attics and/or basements finished, or a deck in the backyard, or other things.

In 2015, I was able to find 6 comparably-sized houses on my block alone which had lower assessments than ours. These included both adjoining houses. So in my appeal, I identified these houses by their PINs (PIN is short for Property Identification Number).

The appeal based on comparable properties, as it so happens, is the easiest type of appeal to file. It requires no additional paperwork and no additional narrative. The argument is based solely on data which the Board of Review has at their fingertips anyway – the assessed values of the other properties. All you have to do is identify relevant properties and submit their PINs.

Here is where I can provide the most help, especially for those of you who live closest to us.

Again, I am not an expert on these matters. I am strictly a layman and my advice should be regarded not as expert advice but rather as common sense advice.

Very generally, there are five things that can make properties especially comparable. First, they are in the same neighborhood, maybe even the same block. Second, they are about the same size, as measured in primary square footage. Third, they are in about the same shape maintenance wise. Fourth, they are about the same age. Fifth, they have about the same amenities, especially things like a garage, a deck, a finished basement, a finished attic, a similar number of bedrooms and bathrooms, etc. None of these things should come as a surprise. If your property is sufficiently comparable to another, and the other property is assessed lower, the determination can be made that a “Lack of Uniformity” has been found, and upon that basis, your assessment can be lowered.

I was able to gather all of the information I needed from the Cook County Assessor’s Website. Choose “Property Address Search”. For House Number, enter your hundred block, say 1000. For House Range, enter the last possible number of your hundred block, say 1099. The rest is pretty straight-forward. You don’t need to select a Property Class and you may be better off not selecting one and instead seeing absolutely everything, for reasons I’ll get into below.

Now, you can also enter a range that spans multiple blocks, say from 1000 to 1499. Or you can choose some other street. In any case, if you use valid search criteria, you will get a list of properties with their PINs, Addresses, Property Classes, and Assessed Values. Remember, Assessed Value needs to be multiplied by 10 to get Fair Market Value. So if you see an Assessed Value of $24,000, it really means that the Assessor’s Office guesses your property is worth $240,000.

Each PIN is also a hyperlink. Click through and you’ll see a picture of the property with a lot more details about it. Now, you know your immediate neighborhood better than I do (hopefully!) You may not even need this deeper information. If you live on a row of little brick bungalows and you know the houses are all reasonably comparable, then, well, you already know it.

What you would be looking for here is to find multiple nearby properties which are superficially comparable to yours, and which have lower assessments. By “superficially comparable” what I mean is that even without deep digging, you know that they’re close, of a similar size, most likely of a similar age (since most houses on most streets tend to be of a similar age anyway), and even most likely in similar shape with similar amenities. If there was a house on your block which had been gutted by a fire in the last couple of years, you’d know it (again, hopefully!) and would understand to exclude that one.

It may be that you need to look beyond your immediate block. This is where the whole process can get very tedious, and this is where I can be of particular help.

This link sends you to an Excel file. That Excel file includes a listing of 4,171 distinct properties in Jefferson Park and Portage Park, all of which are within or nearly within the street from the primary attendance footprint of Prussing Elementary School, which looks like this:

Instead of having to conduct a bunch of different searches on the Assessor’s website, you can just take the spreadsheet and slap some filters and sorts on it. It may be easiest to sort by Street Name, then Street Number; and to simultaneously filter for the two most similar property types. Or filter by Street Name (select a couple of relevant ones) and also Property Class, and then sort by Assessed Value.

I want to stress here that I have not “captured” any bad or illegal or improper information. All of this was readily available on the Assessor’s website. It took me a total of maybe 90-120 minutes of work to compile all of the data in this manner. Anyone who has read on this far must be serious enough about wanting to appeal their assessments that they would have been likely to find the exact same information themselves. But here it is easier to sort, easier to make sense of. This is the piece which I think can take it over the top and make it so that a person on the fence about whether it would be too difficult to do all of this can actually just do it for themselves.

It was much too difficult to try and grab more than I grabbed. The Prussing footprint made a lot of sense to me, though, because a) all of the properties feed into the same school, which makes them very comparable in that respect; and b) this is where I live and the people I hope will be best able to take advantage of this information will be my closest neighbors!

It is not a bad idea, if you have identified 10 or so properties which you feel may satisfy the comparability parameters, to go back to the Assessor’s website and enter the PIN numbers directly and make sure there’s not something weird about them. For example, I have noticed in looking through the list several situations where a single house actually lies on two lots, and although it has only one address, it somehow has two PINs. That’s not going to be comparable for most people. You also need to make sure the Property Class is the same or at least very similar.

One other word on Property Class. Our house is a 2-03 meaning a SFH between 1,001 and 1,800 square feet. But it’s way at the low end of that. A 2-02 house with 950 square feet is more comparable than a 2-03 house with 1,100 square feet. That said, it’s super unlikely that a house much larger than ours could possibly be assessed for less than ours. It’s people with houses in the 950 sq ft range who might find nearby houses in the 1050 sq ft range which have lower assessments.

And also another word about the spreadsheet. I included ALL properties, not just SFHs, so a lot of condos, and some retail, and some other weird stuff wound up in there. Don’t make the mistake of comparing your SFH against a condo, or a parking lot, or anything weird like that!


Filing Your Appeal Online

There may be very good reasons to NOT completely file your appeal online so just because I am going to explain how easy such filing is doesn’t mean it’s necessarily the best way to do it. With that said, if the extent of what you’re trying is the Comparable Properties rationale, filing online could very well be all you need, and the whole filing process might be super fast.

The body that takes appeals right now is called the Cook County Board of Review. This is all they do: review assessments.

The Board of Review offers Filing Procedures online. If you want to be really thorough, read what’s on these pages. I did last year, and so I wound up taking pictures of the other comparable properties. That’s a more impressive approach, one that they’ll pay more attention to. You don’t absolutely have to do all of that, but especially if you’re going to prepare a more thorough argument, do it by their book.

Note that February 2 is the deadline for filing a complaint. It is not the final deadline for submitting all evidence. If however you are only going to submit a list of comparable properties and just want to do the whole thing online up front, then it is my understanding that you should do that at the time of filing the complaint.

In terms of the very basics, start with the Appeals Page. You can create an account or you can file as a guest. Then click on Submit Appeal. Enter your PIN and mark your appeal type as “Property Over-Assessed” – an easy choice since it’s the only one available.

As you go through the steps, you will wind up at a Notes Page. On this page you can enter the PINs of Comparable Properties. The language there says simply “List comparable property index numbers (PIN’s) below, or provide additional comments regarding your submission.” So you are not expected at this stage to provide any more detailed information about those properties, as the Filing Procedures information might appear to suggest.

I went ahead and filed my complaint online on Thursday night. I provided a list of 6 comparable properties – though because I already won an appeal from the Assessor’s Office, it turns out that we’re already on the low end of assessments of comparable properties in the area.

But I also checked the box to say I would be filing additional documents. One nice thing about the online process is that you can submit documents online without having to mail them in or go in for a hearing. What I’ll be submitting – and this is admittedly unusual and not what most people would be able to do right now – is a scan of an appraisal done on house in mid-2015. You can also file other documents online if you have them – this could include paperwork related to your house purchase if it’s within the last 4 years.

In 2015 I requested a hearing. My hearing lasted about 2 minutes. After waiting in line for a while, when I got up to the counter, my hearing was with an employee of the Board of Review, and basically consisted of me handing over paperwork, providing a synopsis of what was in the paperwork, and answering a couple of perfunctory questions about the appeal (i.e. was my house bought in the last four years, such that an appeal based on the price of sale would make sense.) The employee did no evaluation at that time, except to say that if all I was telling him was true, I would likely be getting my assessment lowered. And he was right. But having gone through one in-person hearing, I am disinclined to go through another, not because it was difficult or tedious, but because the hearing itself was so insubstantial that I personally feel comfortable just filing my documentation online. Now, it might well be that you’re better off for having an in-person hearing. I can’t tell you for sure. I can only say that I feel comfortable this year without one.


More on My Thinking

It may seem like this was a lot of writing and a lot of effort to just explain something esoteric to people. I want to here expand on a couple of my thoughts above and explain more about my motivation to try and help people with all of this.

Based on my past bills and the knowledge that property tax rates are going up, I conservatively estimate that for every additional $10,000 of assessed value, a homeowner carrying the homestead exemption will pay an additional $200 in annual property taxes. (As an aside – if you own the home you live in and you do NOT have the homestead exemption – MAKE SURE YOU ADDRESS THIS! Look it up! It will save you a lot of money because there is a significant tax break for people who own the home they live in. A lot of people overlook this.)

I mention above that my own appeal this year is based largely on a recent appraisal. Even though I was successful in getting the Assessor’s Office to lower our assessment already, I still feel our assessment is too high, and I feel the appraisal bears this out. Our house was appraised for $210,000. Our current (reduced) assessment is just about $220,000. That’s a difference of $10,000, which I think will translate into about $200 a year in taxes.

Here’s the thing. The assessment is conceptually supposed to be pegged to the Fair Market Value (FMV) of the house. It is super unrealistic for the Assessor’s Office to go around and evaluate every house individually for its FMV. So what they do is they take the old assessment, and if it’s a year in which your township is being reassessed, they come up with some formula by which to raise the assessments of a lot of comparable properties.

I did some investigating and found that on my block, the Assessor’s Office simply raised everybody’s assessment by 8%. Now, it might very well be the case that the FMV of houses on my block has legitimately increased 8% in the last three years. But what if the block had been overassessed in the first place?

See, we bought our house in 2011 for $195,000. That was near the bottom of the market, so it makes sense that it has appreciated since. Indeed, our appraisal was for $210,000. That’s an increase of 7.7% – pretty much in line with the multiplier the Assessor’s Office used.

But our house was clearly overassessed as of the time we bought it, because we paid less for it than the assessed value. This makes sense, of course, since it was near the bottom of the market at the time. Assessments are very inexact are only done every 3 years. A neighborhood can get very hot very quickly. It can also get very cold, if the local school collapses, or there’s a rash of crime, or something like that.

My feeling, though, is that my entire block is overassessed. Now, real estate isn’t my gig. I don’t closely follow local purchase prices. But I did notice that the very next block over wasn’t subject to the same 8% increase as my block. And the homes on that block are worth more – they tend to be brick, slightly newer, etc. And the Assessor’s Office frankly agrees with me; after all, they did lower our assessment from what they had originally come up with, which strongly suggests that some of my neighbors on my block could at least get a similar reduction.

If I thought every house on this block could definitely fetch in sale what it’s assessed at, I would just say okay, it’s all good. And believe me, I’d be very happy to be proven wrong. The real estate site Trulia, using whatever bizarre metrics it uses, estimates the value of our house at $250,000 – way more than any other number I’ve seen. If I could legitimately get $250,000 for the house by selling it tomorrow, then I would accept paying taxes appropriate to such a valuation today. (I won’t say happily pay, because all of our property taxes should be slashed in favor of a state income tax increase – but that’s an argument for another time and day!)

I have heard the argument that if all of the assessments were lowered that it would also in the process sink the price people could get for their homes. I don’t know enough about the real estate market to completely refute this, so my argument should be regarded in that light. But I can say that we did not consider the assessment when we bought our house. We considered the purchase price (because we were operating within a budget) and we considered the appraisal. My feeling is that the market itself will correct for most incorrect assessments, and only if given assessments are very wildly off would there be an issue.

Consider this: What if we spent $20,000 this year and got our basement completely refinished and did some other work besides? For the sake of argument, let’s say that such improvements would make the house worth $20,000 more on the open market. But would it actually impact our assessment? In the short term, certainly not, because the house won’t be reassessed again for another three years. Even then, it’s not like anyone from the Assessor’s Office is going to come take a look at our basement. It’s very clear to me that many properties do not have up to date amenities on file with the Assessor and it’s unrealistic to expect that they would. Is the Assessor’s Office’s failure to take account of our substantial interior improvements likely to hurt our Fair Market Value when it comes time to sell the house? I can’t remotely imagine a real estate agent trying to sell our property telling us we can’t sell it for more because we haven’t been adequately reassessed lately.

The point is that the assessment process is necessarily just a bunch of guessing. Maybe that 8% increase in property valuation isn’t totally unrealistic, but maybe the starting point simply wasn’t right, and they can’t account for things like the higher demand for certain amenities that we don’t have (like a finished basement or finished attic?)

It’s not that I think we and our neighbors should be able to shirk on taxes relative to the next block or neighborhood or whatever. Rather, I feel that the taxation system we operate under is so arbitrary – and maybe so necessarily arbitrary – that it is not only appropriate but indeed desirable to have a neighborhood or especially a block fighting together for fairer taxation. It’s not going to hurt our neighborhood school, the money for which comes from a much larger pool. And it’s not going to hurt our ultimate selling prices, for those of us who do eventually sell.

Again, I freely admit, I might be wrong about some of this. But I would submit that many elected officials strongly encourage homeowners to appeal their assessments. That’s a tacit acknowledgment of the arbitrary nature of the whole model, isn’t it?

Wouldn’t it be nice if everyone on my block could save just a little bit – maybe as little as $50 a year – and then turn around and apply those savings to something like having a really awesome block party every year? That kind of thing would enhance the value of our neighborhood, and not just in a monetary way. As the neighborhood gets stronger, it will have a carryover effect in making our elementary school stronger as well. Yes, the eventual outcome of all this would be that our properties would actually be worth more, and we’d wind up more highly assessed as a result. But that would all be because this had become an even better place to live. Surely that’s a goal worth striving for.

I hope this long-winded explanation of the appeals process can be of use to people, especially people close to me. Maybe even in a small way, it can be a catalyst for a stronger neighborhood. At the very least, if it helps to empower just one family to pursue an appeal, and they ultimately win, this has all been worth it. Chicago is a great place to live in a lot of respects, but it is often a terribly disempowering place. Democracy, schools, neighborhoods, blocks – all of these things are better served when people are more empowered.

 

Borgen and Government and Being Green

January 22nd, 2016 by Phil No comments »

Over the past weekend I finished watching the final season of Borgen. For those of you unfamiliar, Borgen is the Danish word for Government, and the show is three seasons long focusing on how Danish government – and media – function. It might sound like a snoozer from the description, but it’s among the best shows I’ve ever seen. I highly recommend it. (Yes, you have to deal with subtitles. The show is in Danish!)

Denmark has repeatedly been at or near the top of the list of places where people are happiest. It’s also a destination country for migrants who don’t look particularly Danish. The show dealt with that, with Denmark’s role in a broader global climate, and so forth. But it mostly dealt with how a fairly healthy multi-party democracy can function.

It’s hard to get into it in too much detail without spoiling big chunks of it, but it’s a non-spoiler to say that the central character is a Prime Minister from the Moderate Party, which in the context of imagined Danish politics is a “centrist” party, centrist in Denmark meaning something profoundly to the left of the Democrats in the U.S.

The parties represented in the government are, sort of from right to left: Freedom, New Right, Liberal, Moderate, Labor, Greens, Solidarity. It’s not really a precise right-to-left lineup, but it’s presented in a highly coherent way to a U.S. audience, and if you just understand that the main party of the right are the Liberals, whose policies are very similar to the Democrats in the U.S., then the alignments should fairly readily make sense.

If you get beyond the mutli-party dimensions and so forth, though, and compare it to our system – and of course recognizing this is all a fictionalized account – the main thing that stands out in terms of what’s presented is that government is supposed to be a place where people pursue policies, then build support around those policies, and then go get them passed if they can. There’s a process involved that is suspiciously like how one might expect representative democracy to have been conceptually intended to function.

Our own governments at most levels function nothing like that. Legislation is typically generated by fiat, money dictates the particulars of the language that gets pushed, and there is little to no working across party lines.

Even the “extreme” parties presented – the Freedom Party (which is sort of analogous to the Tea Party) and Solidarity (which I suppose is sort of analogous to some sort of Socialist formation) – are still involved in working across party lines and from time to time forming unusual alliances.

The “opposition” – which as the show opens up are the right-wing parties, as the Moderates lead a center-left coalition – are not presented as mere oppositionalists. They are involved in dialogue, often via the media. Nobody is so far at the edge that they’re reduced to pure oppositionalist screaming from the sidelines. It’s a mostly proportional system, therefore if you have enough support, you’ll get at least one MP.

Having watched the whole thing has given me a lot of reason to pause and consider what I have been doing over time and what might be possible given the structural problems with the system in the U.S. If we had a proportional system, the Greens might very well have been placing people in government over the last decade. But because we don’t have a proportional system, the Green Party is both formally marginalized (since it is not in government at all) and indirectly marginalized (people won’t get involved because it’s not in government) and then internally marginalized (because of its outsider status, outsiderism and oppositionalism become badges of honor, things to be cherished, which effectively precludes working with anyone in government ever, only reinforcing how marginal everything is.)

It is that oppositionalism – by which I mean a de facto policy of simply being opposed to the system because it is the system – and the way that it has manifested itself which I think explains a great deal of the long decline of the Green Party in the U.S. At one point I think more people involved were genuinely serious about being in government and working within government. But now I see that many people who have been involved in the party over time never really wanted to do anything like this. It’s much like some of the socialist formations in the U.S., perhaps most notably the ISO, in just being opposed to everything that’s actually happening. This in turn explains why there’s a lot of internal purity tests and so forth. And it also sort of demonstrates that a Green elected to an especially high government position would have a very hard time functioning, because he or she would be under attack from other Greens for ever trying to get anything done with anyone else.

I don’t consider what the Green Party has become to be tenable. The concept of the Green Party is still mostly right to me, but so much has gone wrong, and the denial is so thick, that it is extremely unlikely to be a formation which will actually meaningfully challenge the status quo. It’s not enough to me to stand on principle outside of everything which is going on. The planet does not get saved by people who choose to be on the sidelines.

I grant that what I’m saying sounds suspiciously like what people have said to me before, about how if you want to see policy change, you need to actually get somewhere where you can impact it, etc. That’s not lost on me. When I talk about “choosing to be on the sidelines” though, the distinction I’m drawing is between the party I’ve spent so long trying to build up into an actual player, and what I feel it is now, an entity where people no longer make serious attempts to recruit candidates – and worse, where nobody seems to be very bothered by the fact that there are almost no candidates. We haven’t had a single candidate for state legislature on the ballot in Illinois since 2010, and I feel like this is an extreme embarrassment, but most people who I would consider to be Green leaders just don’t see it that way.

My preference would be to see the party wake up and evolve and find a new coherent path which involves trying to function within the context of a highly dysfunctional government. The government badly needs more people involved who are sincere about trying to get positive things done, and I don’t just mean as elected officials. I’m also talking about “community leaders” here, people who actually interface with their aldermen and legislators and so forth. Unfortunately, my preference doesn’t seem to be shared by a sufficient number of people. We’re at the point now where I think on the whole people are more concerned with the Green Party being some kind of personal political safe place where they can feel good about standing for the right things, implicitly suggesting that they know they have no access to power, and – most importantly – through such an implicit suggestion, essentially conceding that they are in a certain sense okay with it all. I’m not saying that, ultimately, they really are okay with it all. But once you reach a place of helplessness, I suppose it means something to at least be able to hold on to the idea of being right.

Well, I’m not okay with it all. And so I have been trying to think through a different path. I don’t really like the idea that there are Democrats and then there are “Progressive Democrats” or “Independent Democrats” because I’ve seen too many times how people in one of those self-defining categories just serve to reinforce the dominant status quo through much of what they do. I also don’t much care for the concept of being an Independent, because it literally means not self-identifying with anything in particular.

There is also the old idea that there needs to be a Democratic equivalent of the Tea Party – not in terms of policy, but in terms of role relative to the party. I understand the thinking and I don’t think it should be totally dismissed. But the success of the Tea Party (which of course isn’t a party at all) has too much to do with money and how Tea Party types have been exploited along the way. I don’t think that’s the right model, although something which superficially looks similar might work. (I know some people would say, well, how about the Working Families Party? To that I say, what we need here is not a quasi front group.)

Without dwelling on it too much, there is a concept called “fusion” in some states, most notably New York, where a candidate can run on multiple ballot lines. This isn’t going to happen in the rest of the country, though. And it’s worth pointing out that the Green Party in New York has long been adamantly opposed to fusion.

One state that offers a variant on fusion, though, is Vermont. Vermont has a coherent, functional, state-level third party – the Progressive Party – which actually boasts several elected state legislators, and with which a certain U.S. Senator is closely aligned. Now, I already said that fusion isn’t arriving anywhere else. And Vermont is maybe not the very best place to look for a political model which can be used across the country. And yet…

When I was at the Left Politics forum in Chicago several months ago, which for me was mostly dispiriting, one thing which stood out was when one of the people from the Vermont Progressive Party talked about how the mechanics of how Bernie Sanders has run for office. I don’t fully understand the relevant Vermont laws here, but the concept as I understand it is that Bernie essentially runs in the Democratic primary, wins the Democratic nomination, but then declines it, and uses a separate mechanism to get on the ballot as an Independent. In this manner, he appears on the ballot as an Independent; there is technically no Democratic candidate; and there is technically no Progressive candidate. It’s a method that is simply not available in most states, but as the VPP representative explained it, the peculiarities of Vermont law allowed for a situation where Bernie could actually function as a nominal Independent, even while de facto being the Democratic candidate as well.

In turn, the reality is that Bernie Sanders has at least some kind of legitimate chance of winning the Democratic nomination for President, even though he is still regarded as a nominal Independent in Vermont. He had to do something to become a technical Democrat (though I’m not sure precisely what that action was), but as I’ve previously written about, there was no other real mechanism for someone like him to run for President anyway. And even if he ultimately fails – and the odds are still strongly against him, just no longer staggeringly so – I think he’s gotten far enough to prove that this was the right thing to do and the right way to do it, at least generally speaking. It is the aftermath of his campaign which will really tell how “right” this all has really been – if absolutely nothing comes of the campaign then what? – but I think to pre-conclude that his losing will consign the legacy of the campaign to the kind of irrelevance with which we now regard the likes of Dennis Kucinich is at this point somewhere between spiteful and ignorant.

Some of my erstwhile Green colleagues may be loathe to admit it, but circumstances have changed. There are sitting aldermen in Chicago today who we should be happy to stand with. There are candidates running as Democrats against Machine types here in Chicago who are eminently worthy of support. And to suggest that we should not be voting for them because they’re Democrats, when Greens are literally not running anyone at all for any such offices… I don’t see how such a position can be defended anymore. I am mindful here of Peter Camejo’s strident imploration to NEVER VOTE FOR THESE PEOPLE EVER AGAIN. But “these people” were different in 2004. Today, while I think the vast majority of elected officials who call themselves Democrats are somewhere on the spectrum from lousy to horrific, the reality is that a decent and maybe even a growing number are not. The electorate is evolving, even though it’s happening at a time where there is not a strong third party for the evolving electorate to identify with. Some people may deny that, but, as I’ve painfully found in recent years, Greens are especially good at denial.

I’ve fought and fought and fought over time to put the Green Party on the course I thought it should be on. Anyone who would try to belittle what I’m saying now by claiming I’m not pitching in or not working for the change I want to see is choosing to ignore what I’m saying and choosing to ignore my body of work over time. The Green Party I tried to build is clearly not possible at this time, and continuing to fight for it in the same old ways is the kind of repetition-as-stupidity that we have long tried to pillory Democratic voters for. Instead of perpetuating the fight, instead of continuing to put myself through the agony of horrible meetings, I will attempt to blaze a new path and lead by example.

It is time to accept that Greens will not be running a lot of candidates – and in so doing, to also accept that there may be people running as Democrats who are worthy of support. And, beyond that, to actually support them.

It is time to accept that a person can put themselves out as a Green and still work with people from other parties. We have to deal with legislators and aldermen and others. We have to deal with them as reasonable people, not grit our teeth through the process. We have to actually do things community leaders should be doing, like rallying people to contact those elected officials about important legislation, instead of blowing off such political work on the grounds that no Democrat (or Republican) would listen anyway. These people aren’t automatons. They will be responsive to their constituents about things that you might not otherwise expect. Let’s embrace that instead of dismissing that.

And beyond all that, I think the party itself should embrace these positions as well. For a very long time I have adamantly maintained that the Green Party should not be endorsing candidates in other party’s primaries. Well, I’ve changed my mind. If the Green Party has no intention of fielding a candidate for a given office, and if there is a particularly vital primary for that office which everyone knows is the de facto real election, then the truly appropriate thing to do is take a position. The best example at hand is the Cook County State’s Attorney’s race. Kim Foxx may or may not be the greatest thing since sliced bread, but we all know what Anita Alvarez is, and if the party is willing to take the position that Alvarez should resign, then it should be willing to take the position that people who are going to vote in the Democratic primary anyway should be voting for Foxx. That doesn’t mean that this should necessarily happen. Maybe closer examination of Foxx’s questionnaires reveals someone who isn’t truly worthy of an endorsement. My point is, narrowly, that the party should be willing to consider such an endorsement. Maybe this doesn’t sound like so much of a stretch to some, but from me, it’s a huge break, and reflects a very different vantage point about the party.

In short, I no longer think it makes sense to talk about the Green Party in terms that it could or should be another major party. Maybe such a goal is realistic at some much later date. This may seem like a strange analogy, but I think one which kind of works is one involving the English Football Association. There are 20 Premier League teams, and then 20 teams in the Championship League, and then there is a League One, and then there is a League Two. It is very difficult to imagine most teams which are currently in League Two winding up in the Premier League at any point – they have nowhere near the financial resources, they play to much smaller crowds, the best players will always go sign somewhere else. But sometimes a squad can actually get promoted in a hurry. Bournemouth was almost relegated completely out of the Football League in 2009. Then in 2010 they were promoted from League Two to League One. Two years later, they were promoted from League One to the Championship League. Two years after that, they won the Championship League, and are now in the Premier League for the first time. A dynamic coach, a dynamic bunch of young players coming together, maybe some lucky breaks here and there… this sort of stuff can happen. But it can’t happen to an entity like the Green Party which is hardly doing anything at all. Resetting expectations does not mean resetting permanent expectations. But refusing to change anything means permanent irrelevance.

Still, it’s not an internal argument I’m likely to win. So as I said above, my choice is to lead by example instead. If there are candidates running as Democrats who are sincerely worthy of support, then they will have my support. I’m thinking here of people like Jac Charlier, running for 15th State Representative against an ultimate Machine Democrat in John D’Amico.

I’m sure all of this feels a long way afoot from my having started writing about a Danish television program. But inspiration can come in a lot of different ways. For me, the vital takeaway from Borgen is that things change when people get involved in processes which can lead to change. It may not always be clear which processes those are, but when it becomes obvious that what you’re doing is not affecting any change, then you need to evaluate what your principles actually are. If your desire is to a principled oppositionalist, then you and I simply don’t have that much in common. My desire is to be affect change in a principled way, and I refuse to accept that there is no way to do so.

I am a proud member of the Green Party, but I will no longer engage in internal actions which have no hope of accomplishing anything. One of the Ten Key Values is Personal and Global Responsibility, and I find nothing responsible about bashing one’s head endlessly into a wall. Those of us who are serious about affecting change, and who very well understand that societal change requires governmental change, and who further understand that the Green Party is not currently equipped to lead the way in affecting such governmental change, should join together to find a different path that exults the Ten Key Values. The Green Party can still play an important role, and may one day be again poised to play an even more important role. But we came together in the name of lofty ideals like Social Justice, Non-Violence, Ecological Wisdom, and Grassroots Democracy, not in the name of doing the same thing endlessly and hoping it would turn out different. To respect what the Green Party stands for requires that even if the party itself will not evolve, those of who self-identify Green will evolve nevertheless.

Yes, Rahm Can Still Be Recalled

January 5th, 2016 by Phil No comments »

Today’s big news was that Governor Rauner came out in favor of LaShawn Ford’s recall bill. But the way the press picked up on it… let’s just say that some of them whiffed.

Let’s take the Sun-Times article first. Rauner said he hasn’t studied HB4356, but based on what he knows about, he’d sign it. Then he is quoted as saying that he would be “broadly supportive of the recall concept in general for all elected officials in the state.”

Two and a half weeks ago, this is what I said:

Rauner might even find it politically expedient to champion broader recall provisions, including ones that could ultimately make even himself subject to recall.

Now, I forgot at that point that gubernatorial recall actually had been snuck in to the Illinois Constitution in the aftermath of the Blagojevich mess. Bad on me there. But I got it right that Rauner would support recall, and I wasn’t just stabbing in the dark with that.

Now, Greg Hinz has his own theories about Rauner’s motivations. I’d say he’s got it mostly right. Importantly, Hinz nails the nuance in Rauner’s remark about the applicability of the law, and it’s something people really ought to pay closer attention to.

Back to the Sun-Times article first. Mark Brown wrote there: “Rauner said he has been advised any such legislation could not apply to current elected officials. That might tamp down the implication that he was taking a swipe at Emanuel, but you know that Emanuel doesn’t want the Legislature to pass such a bill.”

Then there’s the AP article which Crain’s picked up on. It just blandly states, off the top, that Rauner “says the law wouldn’t apply to Rahm Emanuel.”

But Hinz sees through it. He knows that it’s an open legal question as to whether the recall provision could apply to Emanuel. If the bill passes as is, and recall proceedings actually take off, then the whole mess will wind up in court. For a long time. And that will be terrible for Emanuel. Not as bad, you might argue, as being recalled. But it would involve an extremely expensive, extremely ugly, neverending public spectacle. It would cripple Emanuel’s ability to get much of anything of substance done. And that may very well be Rauner’s point… just like Hinz suggests.

Meanwhile, HB4356 has picked up three more sponsors… all of them suburban Republicans. Pat Quinn came out in favor of recall. More importantly, so did Lisa Madigan. And the General Assembly overplayed its hand when it put forward the constitutional amendment which allows for recalling the Governor without mentioning anyone else. Ford’s bill practically copies the language from the gubernatorial recall provision verbatim. This means that the General Assembly thinks recall is fine conceptually, right?

So this bill is not going to be killed off any time soon. It faces a more difficult road in the Senate, because John Cullerton is a much closer ally of Emanuel, but what’s being set up right now is a coalition of Republicans who want to please Rauner, Chicago Democrats who want to flaunt their independence, and… it won’t take a whole lot of other people. And while the reasons people might rally around recall might be to pursue their own agendas, in the end, recall should always be a fundamental democratic right.

In the wake of Rauner’s statement, look for more Republican co-sponsors, and look for more Chicago Democrats as well. Often bills like this would get assigned to Rules and buried there, but if that happens now, it will be blatant case of Michael Madigan protecting Emanuel. His best bet may be to let it squeak out of the House and then die in the Senate, if he and Cullerton are pretty sure that can happen. But can they really be sure?

This isn’t going away.

On Being Healthier, Losing Weight, Numbers, etc.

January 2nd, 2016 by Phil 1 comment »

In August 2014, I weighed about 184 pounds. Today, 16 months later, I weigh 159.

My one resolution for 2015 was to run a 5K. I did this, in late September, running it in 30:24. Then in mid-November I ran a second 5K, and my time went down to 24:54.

I’ve learned a lot over this time that I think could be helpful, inspirational, and/or cautionary to others. Now, I won’t claim to be an expert on being healthy. I’m not writing this from the “here’s what you need to know” perspective. Rather, I’m writing from the “here’s what I think you might be interested to know” perspective. Nominal experts might disagree with some of what I write. And you might too. And that’s okay by me.

Before I get into the specifics, I want to note three things. First, weight is not some sort of end-all be-all number, and I’m not going to claim it is. Rather, it is a very simple benchmark, a figure which allows for some sort of imperfect quantification of “how much healthier” a person has become. It’s been very useful to me, but as I’ll explain below, there are some very real potential problems with it.

Second, I didn’t do anything exotic. This is a story primarily about fairly ordinarily diet and exercise, or at least I think it is. It’s because of the “regularness” of the story that I think it’s worth sharing.

Third, I want to note a bit about my methodology. I will weigh myself in the morning before I eat or take a shower, as doing so gives me the best apples-to-apples comparison (i.e., no fluxuations in terms of how much my clothes weigh, or time of day, or how much I’ve eaten on a given day, etc.) I also think less in terms of how much I weigh on a given morning and more in terms of what my average weight has been for the last couple of mornings. My weight can potentially be +/- 5 pounds over the course of a given week. Eat a lot one day, eat little a different day, it makes a difference. Thinking in terms of a moving average levels that out, and keeps a person from freaking out too much about being +/- 3 pounds on a given day.

Officially, I’m 6′ tall, though I’d probably need my winter boots on to pull that off. Over perhaps the last 5 years, my average weight has probably been somewhere around 180. My peak weight of 209 came about 17 years ago when I was in grad school. I definitely weigh less today than at any time since high school.

I’ve been a vegetarian for 12 years. I’ve never been a smoker. I’ve never been a heavy alcohol drinker. Those are all kind of baseline things to know.

I know I was about 184 in August 2014 because that’s when I came up with a half-conceived plan for steady weight loss. I wasn’t huge and I wasn’t thinking “Oh crap, I have to get healthy.” But I was thinking, well, I’ve got an infant at home, and I’m in my later 30s, and I simply have to get in shape if I’m going to be chasing him around.

That initial plan kind of went nowhere. I tried to start running a little that August / September. There was one particular day in October where I ran outside and thought I’d done pretty well. Then the next day my body kind of fell apart. I had crazy joint pain, was very weak. Whatever exactly that was at that point, it degraded into a sinus infection. I wound up having numerous sinus infections over the course of the winter and into the spring of 2015. All of this could have demoralizing to the point of not getting anywhere, but two things kept me driven throughout this. First, that 5K resolution was intended to be a very tangible goal, not to be sloughed off. Second, I was adamant about being in shape for Dylan.

At some point in the spring, I finally got to where the sinus infections were less frequent, and the weather was more forgiving, and I slowly got into a running habit. We live about three-quarters of a mile from four different parks, three of which have loops through the inside of the park. What I settled into was putting earbuds in and listening to music while running to a park, running through/around the park, and then running home; or, I would just run around the blocks of our immediate residential neighborhood, which is very easy to do.

As the summer came on, and I got a little more focused, I also downloaded a couple of running apps to my phone. The one I’ve settled into using is MapMyRun, and for me, it’s legitimately made a big difference. It’s given me the ability to better understanding pacing myself; to think in terms of how often I’m running and how far those runs are; and even to kind of challenge myself by trying to run better times on a couple of “courses” which coincide with loops through or around local parks.

I also lucked my way into being able to play 16 inch softball this summer with the Gapers Block team. I’m not going to claim that playing 8-10 softball games over the course of 2-3 months made a huge difference in terms of fitness, but it did make a difference in terms of my measuring myself. By the end of the year, my stamina was higher, I was hitting the ball better, and I went from being kind of just an extra guy out there to holding my own (or at least so I’d like to think!)

In mid-September I changed jobs. I went from working in the Loop and taking the El downtown everyday to working from home. As of this point I had gotten myself down to about 170.

Working from home presented a couple of challenges. First, most days I had been doing a lot of walking just to get to and from train stops, perhaps 2 1/2 miles of walking on a typical weekday. Second, working from home means taking all meals at home, with a full refrigerator immediately available.

The first challenge was fairly easy to address. Although I was no longer walking as much, I had won back about 2 hours a day which had previously been spent in transit. It made it far easier to find time to run or use my exercise bike. But it’s the second challenge where I think the second part of the overall story kicks in.

When I was going into work downtown, it was very common that I would have coffee and something like soy yogurt or a smoothie before I left, and then I’d stop and get a latte and a pastry before I got into the office. I tried to have something like peanut butter and jelly on hand at the office, but I’d still often wind up having to get something like Subway for lunch. If I was hungry for anything else that I didn’t have immediately on hand, my first option was usually the weird convenience store on the ground level, run by someone we simply new as Snack Guy, which probably says a lot about what kind of fare was available.

I made a conscious decision to keep extra junk out of the house. As a result, what I essentially did was cut out the latte/pastry combination, in favor of more basic coffee, plus a lighter snack like an apple or a piece of cinnamon toast or some cheese. That whole change in and of itself pretty much slashed 300-500 calories from the day, most of those in sugars. Lunch has wound up being very redundant – it’s peanut butter and jelly the vast majority of the time – but one other thing I did was I simply stopped bringing sugary soda into the house. Almost all of the time now, the only soda in the house is one or another kind of Zevia, which is sweetened by stevia; and when I have coffee, my sweetener there is also stevia. In addition to excising a sugary soda from lunch, it also meant I haven’t been having one for dinner either; and what else has happened along the way is that I’ve simply stopped drinking beer at home. It’s not that I was ever drinking to excess, but if my drink with dinner is now Zevia or water instead of Dr Pepper or beer, that’s another 150 calories slashed.

My daily existence, then, involved getting up a little earlier (since I start work for the day at 8); exercising more often (because the recovered travel time has made it easier to find exercise time); and also cutting down significantly not just on calories but on really shitty calories (pastries, sodas, beers) – perhaps 700 calories a day. On top of all that, I’ve saved money. (Lattes are expensive!)

And so about 4-6 weeks in to working from home, I went down from about 170 pounds to the low 160s. And in December, it’s slipped slightly below 160. The goal I had set in 2014 had been solely to get down to 170. I didn’t expect to keep falling from there, and I never anticipated eventually getting down under 160.

I can be very obsessive about numbers. I keep logs of every time I get gas, so I can try and see if the car’s performance is badly slipping. So as I saw that weight very steadily slipping down over time, it was almost like a game at times. It was a strange kind of game, admittedly. It’s not like I ever went to any extremes out of some need to see the number keep dropping. But the thinking about it is always there, and I know that it’s led to a lot of decisions about what and when to eat and not eat.

At 6′-ish, with slightly broad shoulders and slightly long arms for my height, I arguably shouldn’t be below 160. As I’ve lost this weight, the fat from a lot of parts of my body has just kind of gone away. My arms are really skinny now, for a good example. My exercise regimen hasn’t been solely about running, but it also hasn’t been super-balanced. Even though I feel stronger, and I’m definitely in much better shape, I arguably ought to bulk back up a little. But I still look in the mirror and wish what’s left of my gut would tighten up too. It’s kind of a weird mental place to be in.

I think what makes it weirdest, though, is that really, I’ve moved beyond “needing to get in shape” and “hoping to lose weight”, and I’ve really moved into that place where I “simply” need to maintain. I have to put “simply” in quotes because while maintaining really just means doing more of the same, it’s hardly an easy thing, and I find it’s an especially difficult thing to mentally wrap my mind around, if for no other reason than because there are no obvious targets available. I guess I could lose more weight, but I’m kind of at the point where I think it might be counterproductive to do so. I could set new physical / athletic challenges – for example, this year I intend to run a 10K, maybe working myself up to a half-marathon after another year or so – but in terms of that being a target that helps push me to real fitness, that’s beginning to feel kind of esoteric.

Now, one thing I could do is make an even bigger point of improving my diet. We’ve talked about this at home – every few months we read or watch something which reconvinces us of the need to cut out even more processed foods. But here too it’s so hard for this to turn into anything measurable.

I think maintenance is going to prove more difficult than having gotten to this point. I think, somehow, I’m going to have to find some way to turn basic diet and exercise into something else measurable, just because that’s how it works for me. It’s kind of a way of harnessing my OCD tendencies. But it’s also kind of a way of giving in to them, when they might just drive the people around me a little batty. That’s a hard balance to strike.

With all that said: I think that the having been able to measure both “health” using the proxy of weight and “fitness” using running frequency and distance – and, importantly, measuring them in tandem as the weeks have gone on – has made a huge difference. Having sort of instituted “house rules” which I follow mostly strictly has been very important as well.

I know for a lot of people it’s very hard to break habits, or to set new habits, or anything like that. And I know most people aren’t as OCD or as number-obsessed as I am. But I hope there’s something in here that can help other people who are trying to figure out how to get on a healthier and fitter track. And I also hope by sharing some of this it can spur some conversation which will in turn benefit me as well.

Fitness has simply never been a top personal priority until recently. It might have gotten lip service as such, but honestly, it was always pretty far down the list. Even at times when I was going to the gym 3-4 times a week, I feel like it wasn’t because I’d made a huge priority of fitness, but more so that I’d kind of made a priority of putting a fitness show on, if that makes sense.

I’ll be 40 this year, though, and damn it, I’m going to be in good shape throughout my 40s and throughout my 50s. I’ll be in my mid-50s when Dylan graduates high school, and when that day comes, I’m going to be fit and I’m going to be regularly exercising. I’m going to be a good example for him, and I have to be, because this kid is going to run us ragged, and we better be in shape enough to keep up with him for a long time.

Statement to Chicago Board of Education

November 20th, 2015 by Phil 1 comment »

The following is my pre-prepared statement made in front of the Chicago Board of Education on November 18, 2015. As I read it, it was edited slightly given what others present had already said.


Members of the Board. My name is Phil Huckelberry and I am on the Local School Council for Prussing Elementary. As you know, on October 30 our school experienced a major carbon monoxide incident.

In front of you are Relevant City of Chicago Ordinances Pertaining to Boiler Operation. You may not have been previously aware of these specific ordinances. We believe, however, that your administrators have been very much aware, have knowingly been in violation for some time, and that because of high-level conversations, City of Chicago inspectors have been instructed not to enforce the ordinances.

We believe that this reality, in conjunction with the history of issues with the boiler system at Prussing as partially outlined on the reverse of the document, combine to demonstrate a pattern of negligence, for which this Board must hold senior CPS officials accountable.

The Prussing community demands the following actions be taken:

First, we demand a comprehensive systems upgrade, including replacement of the school boilers, heating controls, and any other elements previously identified as being so needy.

Second, we demand the permanent reinstatement of a full-time building engineer at Prussing, and at all relevant CPS schools, so as to ensure compliance with city ordinance, and to help ensure safety in all schools.

Third, we demand the issuance of thorough CPS protocols governing the installation and inspection of carbon monoxide detectors. Adding 5,000 detectors is great, but not if most of them stop working.

Fourth, we demand a thorough internal investigation into the history of the boiler situation at Prussing, the results of which will be made readily available to the school community.

Fifth, we demand the immediate reinstatement of our building engineer, Patrick Kelly, pending an actual fair process. He has clearly been made a scapegoat to cover for the systemic wrongdoings of CPS, and if he is terminated today as CPS administrators are seeking, it will only further infuriate our community.

See, ladies and gentlemen: Either you sincerely care about the health and safety of our students and staff, or you don’t. If you don’t care, well, then, you don’t care.

If, however, you do care, then it is about damn time you showed it. This experience has convinced parents that neither the Board nor your administration truly care about their kids, and they desperately want you to prove otherwise, and move to rebuild their trust.

Thank you for your time.

Remembering Michael Dahlquist

July 14th, 2015 by Phil 1 comment »

Ten years ago today, we lost Michael Dahlquist. He was, in my opinion, the greatest rock drummer on the planet. He was also just a goddamn nice guy.

Michael was the drummer for Silkworm. If you know me then you know how I feel: Silkworm was the single greatest American rock band of all time. I consider only the Beatles to be greater.

Upon his passing, I remember an article in which Tim was asked if Silkworm would continue. The answer was: “He’s irreplaceable.” It is a testament to what kind of guys they are that rather than continuing the band, Tim and Andy formed a different band together and retired all of the Silkworm songs. Michael didn’t write most of those songs. They didn’t have to do that.

I saw Silkworm 9 times. This is even though, as of the time I first saw them in 1997, they were no longer a persistently touring band. They’d all moved to Chicago by 2005, but I hadn’t. Every single time I saw them it took at least two hours to get there.

Michael seemed like a very tall man. I don’t think he was actually all that tall, but he was thin, lanky. He’d usually take his shirt off while playing since he’d get so sweaty. And he played with gardening gloves on. There was no blatantly intended comedy in any of this, and yet here was a power trio, co-fronted by two straight-laced, serious rock guitarists, and the guy behind the kit was wearing just shorts and sneakers and a beard and gardening gloves, and he was tearing the shit out of it all.

Look. I’m not an expert on drumming. Don’t take my word for it. Read the tribute written 10 years ago by Steve Albini. Here, I’ll provide the link. But don’t click it yet. Let me finish up first.

Silkworm never sold a ton of records. They were not rock stars. And it’s been 10 years now, so it’s that much less likely that people are familiar with their discography.

If you give a good goddamn about rock and roll, you owe it to yourself to get acquainted, not only with the extensive back catalog, but also what Tim and Andy are still doing today.

Start with these:

“Bourbon Beard” from Italian Platinum, one of the few songs Michael sings on:

“Nerves” from Firewater, the opening track from the band’s first album as a trio:

“Dremate” from In The West, back when they were a four piece: