Smith and Jones Forever

August 8th, 2019 by Phil 2 comments »

In 2006, I was somehow on the board of an organization called COFOE, Coalition for Free and Open Elections. COFOE was going to have its annual meeting in Manhattan, some time in March or April. I successfully lobbied to have the meeting held the weekend of March 18-19. This way, I could see the Silver Jews at Webster Hall, on their first-ever tour.

The whole excursion was a whirlwind. It was the first trip Michelle and I had taken. I scheduled a trip around a COFOE meeting and a Silver Jews show, and this was somehow perfectly acceptable to her. When we got back, it was walking back to her apartment that I thought to myself, yeah, I guess I could handle living in Chicago after all.

Twenty-four years ago, more or less, and I recall it surprisingly vividly, for something so mundane: I was sitting in my dorm room and I was listening to Starlite Walker. I associate the memory with… consequence. It feels foolish to write something like that. I’ve sat down and listened to an album countless thousands of times in my life and what the hell does it mean to associate any such occurrence with… consequence?

Well, I was 18 at the time and didn’t know shit. I mean, I shouldn’t say that. I had recently taken a class on the Russian Revolution, so I knew something.

What I mean is that I was still at the beginning of the process of figuring out who I was, and for whatever it’s worth, I associate a lot of that with music. I started buying CDs in meaningful numbers only when I got to be about 17, and even then I was mostly just starting with classic rock.

I had a friend a couple of years older, already in college, and he’d come back talking about stuff nobody had heard of in Winnebago. The details of all that aren’t especially interesting. Suffice to say that it so happened when I went off to college I had a copy of Slanted + Enchanted in hand. Pavement was a gateway.

For whatever reason I dove in deeper. I get into something, and I suppose I really get into it, or at least that’s how I used to be. I bought Wowee Zowee the day it came out. I was one of those college kids listening to college rock or whatever. But I took it a little bit farther. I got on all these listservs, old-school listservs dedicated to bands, and the Pavement list was one of those, and I’m sure it was through that I in turn went out and found a copy of Starlite Walker.

Holding it in my hands now, I can’t tell you exactly what I must have thought about any of it. The back cover is a picture of Stephen, David, and Bob in the woods. David’s the tallest of the three. He’s wearing a long-sleeved red shirt and red pants. The shirt and pants are different shades of red. I’ve never in my life seen anyone in person dressed in such a manner.

The album is named Starlite Walker but on the disc itself it says STARLIGHT WALKER and the band is identified as THE SILVER JOOS. Was this all ridiculous at the time? Were all of these things somehow important too? What?

This thing was somehow a way of staking a claim, to no one in particular, that I was going off looking for meaning somewhere else.

The Webster Hall show was one of the two most important shows of my life, by which I mean, it was somehow very important to have been there. It is worth contrasting this show against the other on this short list. I will do that. Right here:

In 2009, we saw Leonard Cohen at the Chicago Theater. Leonard had been in a monastery or some such thing for who knew how many years; would the possibility to see him ever come up again?

Heading into 2006, David Berman had never toured. Who could have believed he ever would?

Why did these two men embark on these two tours? Because they both needed the money.

Leonard, of course, was… transcendent. His band was impeccable. I’ve never seen a performer so gracious, so charming, so sophisticated, so charismatic, so wonderful to be in the presence of.

David? At one point he took a cigarette out of his mouth, threw it on the floor, stared at it, and then jabbed at it with his foot, as though he expected it to crawl away.

Leonard commanded a broad and deep retrospective of work spanning decades.

David needed a music stand in front of him just to keep track of what he was doing with arguably his best-known songs.

Both nights were magical.

Pavement was an indie-rock band. The Silver Jews, though? They were indie-rock itself, a pseudo-band fronted by a guy who wouldn’t actually play live.

Or, at least, not in the way you might think. One day in 1997 I was interviewing Eric Allen, then bassist for the Apples in Stereo. He told how one night they were playing a show in Austin, and Berman showed up on stage with a trumpet.

So I guess the whole not playing live thing was… relative. Was everything relative?

It’s awfully tempting to quote David. There’s so much available to choose from. The thing is that I keep coming back to lines I don’t want to write out.

I think across all of the songs I ultimately have two favorites. The first one is from The Natural Bridge. It’s called “Black and Brown Blues”. I can’t sit here and attempt to describe this song, except to say, it’s achingly beautiful.

The second one is from Tanglewood Numbers. It’s called “Punks in the Beerlight”. It’s an honest-to-god rock song. Every so often I post the video for the song, which I won’t describe here, except to say it’s also my favorite video of all time, and when you see it, you’ll think I’m fucking insane.

But, see, I’m not.

Maybe, tonight, that’s the problem.

I’ve been here before. Chances are, you’ve been here before too. Maybe even at some of the same times as me.

Vic Chesnutt. Mark Linkous. Jason Molina.

The processing is different each time. I don’t know how to explain that, I just trust you know what I’m talking about.

It had come out in recent interviews that Berman was actually living in a little apartment adjoining the Drag City office space. For whatever reason it’d never occurred to me before reading those to see where that office space was. Turns out, I’ve driven past that very location a few times in the last couple of months.

That location isn’t too terribly far from where, in a little over two weeks, he was scheduled to play two nights. I would have been there night two.

The other instances all seemed very far away. This feels different. I know I’m not speaking for just myself when I say that this day does not come as a huge surprise. It was actually the new album that was a huge surprise. It was the new tour that was a huge surprise. It was like we were able to say ourselves: In his way, he’s okay, and we’ll be able to see as much for ourselves.


For the love of God, please send somebody over the ocean to keep an eye on Darren Hayman.

I had a couple people respond to a post of mine tonight… it’s like the electronic equivalent of seeing each other at a funeral after a long time apart. And fuck, maybe we shouldn’t have been apart for so long.

This story here has nothing to do with David Berman, but I share it anyway, because I think about it quite a bit, and yes, I’m going somewhere with it.

My dad saw John Stewart in concert dozens of times. John Stewart, way back in the day, was a member of the Kingston Trio. His greatest success as a solo artist was in the late ’70s when he somehow got hooked up with people from Fleetwood Mac. I was with my dad to see him at least twice – he played an acoustic guitar and his entourage consisted of one other musician, accompanying on guitar.

One night my dad was having a conversation with an old friend of his, explaining how as time had gone on, he’d see the same people at these John Stewart shows, to the point of knowing several of them by name. The ensuing debate was over whether these fellow concertgoers qualified as friends. These were people who clearly shared common interests, right? But when a show was done, wasn’t the connection done too?

For those of us who saw fit to spend actual time on listservs in 1995, well, we were clearly people sharing common interests, right? And while a concert might end, a listserv doesn’t exactly end, right? I mean, yes, eventually, that’s exactly what happens with such things.

But my point is that we do have more in common, and we do have more shared experiences, even if temporally separated. Maybe it sounds bizarre to some but I’m not ashamed to say that the shared experiences of silly listserv exchanges, those are things I look back especially fondly on. The Natural Bridge came out, and there were actually people out there to discuss it with.

I thought when I graduated college I’d go off to grad school and find a whole lot of people who shared a whole lot of interests with me. You know what? I never went to a single show with anyone I met in grad school. But I did go to shows, while in grad school and later, with people I’d met off of the Pavement listserv. At some point we lost most track of all that – Pavement had broken up, after all – and so maybe we eventually found a handful of each other on Facebook or whatever. But I drifted away from music being a true driving force in my life, and of course a great many other things changed too.

Well, it may be a virtual funeral, so on the one hand it’s a funeral and not exactly the right thing to say, and on the other hand it’s not a fucking funeral, I’m writing a fucking blog post for which I’ll share a link on fucking Facebook and fucking Twitter, so it’s all even more ridiculous to say, but here goes anyway: It’s nice to see you all. I wish we saw each other more, whatever the hell that means. I’m so sorry for our shared heartbreak tonight.

I don’t know who all would have read this far down. I’ve been trying to think my way, write my way through a tough night, and I suspect that most of this made precious little sense to most people.

I’m tired now, and I’m sad, and truth be told, I’ve been depressed lately as is. Tonight doesn’t help. Writing my way through it… I suppose that it helps a little. I miss writing so badly. But it just feels so pointless to write when there’s not really anybody to read it. And then striving to create… it really burns the idea of creating when the most important creative people in your realm take the ultimate act of destruction.

There are all these ways that Dave Berman proved to be formative to me, some of them ways which I could never have imagined. The different Silver Jews albums function like soundtracks to different times of my life, up until the point about 10 years ago when he wasn’t making them anymore. No other single musician performed that function for me so strongly and for so long and across so many transitions.

That weekend in New York was like a culmination, from that time sitting in my dorm room with a sense of consequence, to over a decade later when it was like I was showing this poor girl that this is what you actually have to put up with and she just rolled along with it.

I’d been afraid to listen to the Purple Mountains album. I can’t really explain it. I was actually kind of afraid of getting a ticket for the tour.

The thing is, I’m at my best when music is formative to my daily existence. And it’s been missing lately. Whatever exactly I mean by saying I was “afraid” of an album, it’s tied up in that. How I long to push past whatever this particular funk is. And maybe I thought Berman would be part of that. And maybe I was afraid he wouldn’t be after all. But, well, I guess I wasn’t afraid of this, where we sit tonight.

Dave Berman has enhanced my life in incalculable ways. I’m so gutted tonight that he’s gone, and that he’s gone like this. But I am thankful that I can wake up in the morning to a beautiful family, one which, though I’m not sure exactly how it all worked, he was somehow a part of making come to be.

Elected School Board: The Jerks Win Again

May 26th, 2017 by Phil No comments »

Chicago is the only place in Illinois where the school board is not elected. Instead, the board is appointed by the Mayor, so when it comes time to make any decisions, they just do what the Mayor wants. Unlike rubber stamp aldermen, though, these people literally don’t have constituents. They don’t hold ward nights. If there’s a problem in your school and you want to go to an elected official, you wind up going to your alderman, even though he/she has no formal power. You can go to a monthly school board meeting, held downtown Wednesday mornings, and speak for two minutes, but unless it’s a very exceptional situation, nobody there cares what you have to say.

For years, numerous groups have been advocating for an elected school board. It’s overwhelmingly popular, all across the city. But for this to happen would require a change to state law. The Illinois House actually passed a bill in 2016, but it died in the Senate, because Senate President John Cullerton wouldn’t even let it be called for a vote. Cullerton is a close ally of Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who completely opposes an elected board, because it directly takes away his power.

This year, the bill was reintroduced, as House Bill 1774. And today, May 25, it passed the House again, by a huge vote of 105-9. The even bigger news is that it will actually be allowed to get a vote in the Senate. It is looking very promising that the bill will actually pass.

You would think that all of the people who have been clamoring for this for years would be thrilled, right? And that Rahm Emanuel would be pissed? Well, you’d think wrong.

In reality, what we’re seeing unfold is a brilliant political maneuver. A deal was struck, without any of the advocacy groups being previously aware. Yes, the bill is going to the Senate. And it’ll probably get voted on there. And it’ll probably even get signed by Governor Bruce Rauner, who you’d also think would be opposed. And it’s all because of a simple amendment made to the bill at the last minute, before it passed the House:

The first school board election won’t be until February 2023.

Make no mistake. This is not simply a compromise, where the people get what they want, just a little delayed. This is a setup. When the first elected board comes online in 2023, they will be inheriting a district that is a shell of its former self, still overwhelmed by difficulties handling basic operating expenses, still beset with a crumbling infrastructure, still buckling under the strain of excessive numbers of charter schools. And they will be inheriting a district with tens of thousands fewer students than CPS has today. In short, this is what the people of Chicago are being told:

Fine. We’re sick of your complaining. You can have your damn elected school board. We’ll just take everything we can first, and there’s nothing you can do about it.


Chicago holds municipal elections every four years. The Mayor, City Clerk, City Treasurer, and all 50 aldermen will be up for reelection in 2019, and then again in 2023. The elected school board, per the language of HB1774, would consist of 20 members elected from districts, and a board president elected at-large across the entire city. The elections would coincide with the current municipal election schedule. And there is absolutely no mechanical reason why the first board election couldn’t occur in 2019. (Just don’t be surprised if some officials start claiming otherwise. There are people on the government payrolls whose jobs titles may as well be We Who Claim Otherwise.)

The actual amendment was introduced by the bill’s chief sponsor, Rob Martwick, who happens to be my State Representative. It’s very clear from the reports out of Springfield that Martwick was told that if he wanted the bill to get a vote in the Senate, he’d have to accede to changing the date. Martwick has been the most ardent champion of the elected board down in Springfield. Don’t blame him for the amendment.

The 2023 date represents a deal brokered by House Speaker Michael Madigan. We don’t know who all was party to the negotiations. And I don’t have some kind of deep inside information about what’s going down. But I pay attention. And I can see what’s happened here. It’s a brilliant political coup, pulled off by a couple of people who really are political geniuses… just not in ways that actually result in good things for the people they represent.

There are a lot of takeaways from how this has gone down. And a lot of potential winners. Here’s what’s really happening:

First, if there was any lingering doubt, it’s gone now: Rahm Emanuel is definitely running for reelection in 2019. But it’s not just that. He’s the one who “gave” the most in cutting this deal, so he expects a lot back. One thing he absolutely expects is much stronger institutional support from the Democratic Party apparatus in Chicago. That means support from Madigan, but also a synergistic relationship with the man that Madigan and Emanuel are trying to force down our throats to be the next Governor, J.B. Pritzker, whose billions of dollars could be instrumental in helping keep some wavering aldermen in line. The other thing Emanuel gets out of this is a full six more years to do what he wants with CPS. This means more union busting, more charter schools, more nonsense mandates, more rigged graduation rates, more squeezing of special education funds, more privatization… the list goes on and on. But, you might ask, doesn’t he already have that?

That’s where the next piece comes in. Don’t think for a second that Barbara Byrd-Bennett and the SUPES scandal represent some kind of extreme outlier situation. What made the SUPES scandal different is that Byrd-Bennett was both sloppy and greedy. See, the next batch of fat contracts won’t involve bribes – at least, not the kind you can actually get prosecuted for. Instead, you can expect to see more fat campaign contributions, going a lot of different directions. You can expect to see more sweetheart deals. The drive to privatize will get even more intense. And with the tap potentially set to run dry in 2023, you can also expect to see new, more exotic things start to happen.

How exotic? We have use our imaginations here. Think about the city’s recent parking meter deal. It was a terrible long-term deal for the city, all done in the name of a short-term cash injection. Think about how the state is looking to sell the Thompson Center. When government really wants cash for something – especially if it’s an intentional one-off use sort of thing – it will find assets to sell. It will find deals to cut. So what assets might CPS have – assets that someone else might be interested in? Look to see moves to start selling anything off that isn’t a school proper, to be then turned around and leased back to CPS. For that matter, don’t even rule out the possibility that CPS will start to try and sell more school buildings. No, they haven’t done well selling off the buildings they’ve closed in the past few years. But what if there are buildings in more attractive locations, places where developers might be more interested? You can’t rule this stuff out given the people who are running the show. Now, if you’re thinking that one thing CPS really can’t do is get away with closing any more buildings… think again.


For the 2016-17 school year, CPS experienced an overall enrollment drop of about 13,000 students. That’s a 3.5% drop. In one year.

The mass exodus of families is only going to continue. The percentage drop might level off. But the year over year losses will continue for the foreseeable future. Parochial or private schools might pick up some of the numbers, but a lot of those people are just going to leave the city. And don’t think for a second that this is seen as some kind of dire crisis on the part of the existing CPS leadership. The ripple effect of the enrollment free-fall is massive, and it’s well-worth stopping to consider who will actually benefit from this.

If a school has fewer students, then with student-based budgeting in place, it’ll get less money, which means less staff, which means fewer unionized teachers. In some cases, it’ll mean that a school has so few students left that it’ll have to get closed… or, if it’s still not politically feasible to “close” a school, then we can expect instead to see some “mergers” and other creative ways to make it so that there are fewer buildings open. Part of the calculus here too is that the stronger charter networks will ride the storm out. If the neighborhood schools continue to deteriorate, that’s all the more reason for parents to clamor for charters, right? CPS buildings will wind up being sold to privately bankrolled charter networks, accomplishing two huge goals in one – expanding charters while also bringing in an influx of cash. Some smaller charter operators might fold, but really, the Powers That Be don’t care about most of those people anyway.

There are also a lot of collateral benefits to driving families out of the city. The engine of gentrification isn’t going to slow down, after all. Sure, some of those young professionals will themselves want good schools to send their kids to. But the overall system will make sure that there’s still ways for at least some of those desirable populations to get access to better resources. After all, if things go according to plan, Pritzker will become Governor, Illinois will institute a progressive income tax, property taxes won’t actually shift much, and the result will be that even if CPS as a whole continues to struggle financially, the better-off schools will continue to get just enough that not everyone will leave. Remember: the overwhelming majority of the students who left before this school year were black or Latino.

And then, on top of all of this, the entrenched political elite will actually be able to claim that they gave the people what the people wanted. In so doing, they will blunt some of their loudest critics, because the elected school board has been the single most galvanizing issue for parents across the city. Unlike CPS funding woes, which are very complicated and which require layered solutions, the appointed school board is a discrete problem, and the elected school board is a discrete solution. It’s been a gateway issue to get parents and others more involved in fighting for other issues. Take away the elected school board issue, though, and you’re actually weakening the progressive opposition in the city.

But, you might ask, if all of this is true, and it does so many positive things for Emanuel and Madigan, wouldn’t Rauner simply veto this? It’s a logical question. And the logical answer is: No, he won’t, because many of the benefits are actually things he wants to see too. The Chicago Teachers Union is the strongest union local in Illinois. Rauner desperately wants to destroy them. If there’s a way to hurt the CTU by signing an elected school board into law, he’ll do it. He’ll also be fully on board with the privatization and related initiatives. He won’t like the idea of the synergy between Madigan, Emanuel, and Pritzker, but that was going to happen anyway. Rauner is a lot of things, but he’s not an idiot. In all likelihood, if he wasn’t literally at the table when the 2023 deal was cut, he was at least in the loop. In practice, this can be a net win for him too.

There is one possible saving grace in all of this: Rahm Emanuel still his to win reelection in 2019, and he is still very much vulnerable. But he’s already taken multiple steps to shore up his support. Just this week, a handful of black aldermen nevertheless already held a press conference endorsing him for reelection, even though he hasn’t even said he’s running! Nobody close to Madigan, Cullerton, or Pritzker is going to openly side against him. Too many people fell out of line in 2015, so a lot is being done now to ensure more of them stay in line: new school construction, a multi-front effort against Rauner, the hush-hush coalition backing Pritzker, etc. And by weakening some of his biggest critics – notably including the CTU – Emanuel is doing a masterful job of reestablishing himself.


I have a three year old. He’d be in third grade in February 2023. That would mean four years in an intentionally resource-deprived system, one which seems like it will only keep getting worse. It’s one thing for adults to stand up and fight an unfair system. It’s something else entirely to put your children on the front lines of those fights, especially if there aren’t other kinds of ties holding you to the city.

I also serve on a Local School Council. I have voted to approve school budgets which were, in my opinion, illegally constructed, foisted upon us by a CPS Central Office that really doesn’t care what the law says, and really doesn’t care about its students except insomuch that they want to be able to tell a good story about them. That’s why you see these amazing increases in graduation rates, for example. It’s a good story. But as I read in an article just this week, these diplomas are so flimsy in some cases, they’re actually doing more for CPS than they are for the kids themselves.

It kills me. I see the quality of the staff in our neighborhood school. I see the tremendous, beautiful diversity the school offers. We have a nice neighborhood. We’re a block from the school. It should be an ideal situation for my son to walk into two years from now. And instead, we’re hearing the message loud and clear from downtown: You people should just go away. We don’t care about your kid, and we never will. Oh, we’ll pretend sometimes. But you know better. So just go away already, okay? And so it doesn’t matter how wonderful the people immediately around us are. It just seems like the effective result of staying and fighting is to deprive our child of a better education. It’d be one thing if it was about us. But when it’s about him? Well, it’s not hard for me to understand why there’s 13,000 fewer students in CPS this year.

The one thing I’d pinned some real hope on was that we might be able to put enough pressure on the political establishment that the elected school board could become a reality – just in time for him to start school. But now, today, we are confronted with the stupefying reality: The news that we may actually be getting the elected school board is actually not good news at all. As the late, great Karl Hendricks put it: The jerks win again.

Remembering Mrs. Erikson

April 26th, 2017 by Phil No comments »

I learned today that Mrs. Erikson, my teacher in 1st and 2nd grades, passed away last month. I learned this while writing a post, about an article about math education. It made me think of looking her up. I wasn’t expecting to find an obituary. So let this be my belated eulogy.

I started 1st grade in 1982. This was at Beyer Elementary School in Rockford. We were in the gifted program, and there were two gifted classrooms for each grade level, for the entire city of Rockford. It so happened that Beyer was practically my neighborhood school, and it was indeed the neighborhood school for where my grandparents lived. It was a short walk from the school to their house, or to their laundromat, Kishwaukee Coin Laundry. So Beyer was in my neighborhood. Besides me, there were two others in my class who lived about as close. But almost everybody else lived a lot farther away, and none of my classmates actually lived within walking distance of my house.

I was also the second-youngest kid in the class. My birthday is in November, and back then, the cutoff date was December 1. I hadn’t gone to preschool. And back then, kindergarten was only half day. So 1st grade was the very first time I spent the entire day with my peers.

So even though I was in a gifted classroom, the reality was that relative to my peers, I was younger, smaller, and less socialized. I was also poorer, didn’t have friends in my own neighborhood, and didn’t live near my school friends, even though I lived near my school. Plus, my parents were divorced, which was really uncommon among my classmates. And then on top of all that… I was smarter than everyone. Specifically, I was a math genius. I knew this to be true, because people told me so. Plus, math was (and presumably still is) that one subject which most objectively demonstrated one’s relative intelligence. This was years before Rain Man. Nobody talked about savants. If you were a math genius, you were a genius. You were smarter than everyone else. You were better than everyone else. And so I was. In my mind. Kind of.

I was also 5. 35 years later, I can reflect back and understand that there was a superiority complex at work, which was counteracting a very real inferiority complex. I was very socially awkward. I was the last kid in class to learn how to tie my shoes. I was the only kid in my class who went to see the speech therapist (my SSHH came out as SSSS, I’d say SEEP instead of SHEEP). I remember a day when we had a book read to us about a boy who didn’t lose his first tooth until 1st grade. We were in 2nd grade. I still hadn’t lost a tooth.

Simply put, I was a complicated kid. In the midst of a classroom where we were all told we were special – we were all gifted, after all! – I was a kid who was really special, in a very expansive sense of the word. And there was one person there to manage that: Mrs. Erikson.

I’m not going to claim to have photographic memory from being 6 years old. My memories of that time crash together confusedly. But I remember a lot of weird stuff. I remember September 1982, when the Brewers beat the Orioles the final day of the season to win their first AL East title. I remember being in the hospital for yet another surgery to get yet another set of tubes put in my ears. I remember Korry Keeker writing a program that would tell you how many teeth you should have. I remember selling the most raffle tickets of any kid in second grade and getting to be part of a pizza party for it. I remember being in Beyer Stadium – the same place where some 40 years earlier the Rockford Peaches played – and running around essentially pretending to be Inspector Gadget. I remember not being allowed to play in the snow because I was the only kid who didn’t have appropriate boots. I remember at lunch one day eating 8 pieces of chicken.

I also vividly remember the day in 2nd grade when the lice inspector came. She went around and looked through everyone’s hair to make sure we didn’t have lice. She got to me, looked through my hair, and turned to Mrs. Erickson.

Lice Inspector: “Well, he doesn’t have lice, but he does have glue in his hair.”
Mrs. Erickson: “That’s Phil!”

In 1st grade, we would be given one homework assignment each week. It would be a single sheet we were supposed to fill out, about a subject. I don’t remember the subjects very well. I guess they might have been things like Paul Revere, or snakes, or Sitting Bull. We’d turn them in on Fridays. They wouldn’t be graded, but we’d get a sour ball when we turned them in. And I never turned them in. Was I forgetful? Stubborn? I’m not sure. Then in 2nd grade she gave us the same kind of homework, and the first week, I turned it in. And I still to this day remember how when I turned it in, she was so happy, and gave me a big hug in front of everyone.

There are the moments like those that really stand out. Beyond that, there are just sentiments, things I’ve pulled together from old pictures, old partial memories. I know I was stubborn, but did that explain not doing the homework? I know I was awkward – it would really come back to bite me a couple of years down the line – but I don’t specifically remember what that awkwardness was like.

I also know I loved being there. I was a sponge, just like a 1st or 2nd grader should be. And I know I was persistently being challenged. I remember a little green math problem book Mrs. Erikson had me working out of, doing long division. I remember a textbook which introduced me to alternate number systems – not decimal or even binary or hexadecimal, but the concept of different bases, and different ways of thinking about how numbers work. I got pushed in ways that I’ve never been pushed since. If I was indeed exceptional in some ways, then that meant I should be held to higher expectations. And if I needed help in other ways, then I got that help.

I can look back today and better understand. In some ways, I really needed to be pushed. In other ways, I really needed a lot of patience. My combination of needs might have been unique. But there were 26 unique combinations of needs in that classroom. And Mrs. Erikson filled those needs. I’m not claiming that I didn’t have other good teachers along the way. But I look back and think that I had teachers who really liked working with kids, maybe even loved working with kids… and yet in Mrs. Erikson, I had a teacher who I feel really loved me. I’m sure I’m in part remembering how 1st and 2nd graders had to be treated different than older kids, and I’m also sure I’m remembering two years instead of one so that makes the feelings stronger.

It’s not like I magically stopped being awkward by the time I got to 3rd grade. Ask my wife, and she’ll tell you that she’s still waiting for it to stop! And I’m also sure an argument could be made that a child who was vacillating between feelings of superiority and inferiority could have used a stronger kind of correction. But working out those vacillations has taken me a very long time. I’ve had people try to deal with the superiority issue by beating me down, and I will tell you, that shit doesn’t work. And, well, when you’re 7, the finer points of understanding that being exceptionally good at something doesn’t make you better than other people… that’s not a very easy thing to get to stick. Plus, the superiority and inferiority were intertwined. The one was in large part a coping mechanism for the other. And the best that anyone could do with that was to help me move forward in all respects. To self-actualize. To push where I needed to be pushed. To gently guide where I needed gentle guidance. Mrs. Erikson provided all of that.

The words elude me, because I’m a 40 year old trying to give voice to a 6 year old. I had no frame of reference then… and I have little frame of reference even today. My son is still only 3. I don’t understand what happens in a 2nd grade classroom. Frankly, it seems like it must be one of the craziest places on Earth.

I know though that Jane Erikson entering my life in 1982 was one of the best things that could have happened to me. I may be at a loss for how exactly to explain it, but I know I’m a better person today for having been in her classroom those two years.

A couple of weeks ago, my dad brought a couple of boxes full of grade school era curios: old report cards, art projects. There are hundreds of things in this menagerie of paper. Among those things is a class picture: Beyer School, Grade 2, 1983-1984. I’m in the middle of the picture… not smiling, making a preposterous face, one eye squinting, the other eye apparently looking off to the left, my mouth more closely approximating a slash than anything else. Rest assured, classmates, none of the rest of you look as ridiculous in this photo as I do. Mrs. Erikson is at the top right, and she looks just as I remember her. It’s funny to me that she looks fairly old in the picture – again, just as I remember her – but now I know that when this picture was taken, she was only 45 or 46.

She was 79 when she died on March 19. I don’t know how long she taught for, or how many hundreds of students went through her classrooms. After 2nd grade, they moved us away from Beyer to King. I have a vague recollection of seeing her again at the 3R’s store off of Alpine, but even that must have been 30 years ago.

Mrs. Erikson never left Rockford. I had thought about looking her up three years ago, when we were in town for my 20 year reunion. I never followed through on it… honestly, it’s that awkwardness, I was just never able to fully think through what to do. And today I deeply regret not having just done it. If someone was very important in your life, even if it was a long time ago, even if you’re not really sure how to articulate it… Make sure they know. Try not to save it for the eulogy.

So long, and thanks for all the miles

January 1st, 2017 by Phil No comments »

This week, we traded in our 2004 Nissan Sentra. It has a little over 132,000 miles. I bought it new in early 2004 – although, curiously for a brand new car, it had about 500 miles on it. Over the course of almost 13 years, it wound up surviving three significant accidents, multiple trips almost halfway across the country, two campaigns for state legislature, and a whole lot more. I had always intended to keep the car until it hit 200,000 miles. In the end, though, with something wrong with the transmission, it just didn’t make sense to pour a lot of money into it. Our other car – a 2004 Hyundai Sonata – is in better shape, no accidents, and in general, it just made a lot more sense to keep it.

As many of you know, our son was very premature. He spent 74 days in the Infant Special Care Unit at Evanston. And every day, the Sentra went back and forth from our home in Chicago to Evanston. He came home in the Sentra. To him, the car’s name was “Mommy’s Car”.

The Sentra’s long history was also very much caught up with the history of the two small berserk mammals which preceded the current small berserk mammal. My old beagles spent a lot of time in that car, often going to and from some veterinarian or another. The most traumatic incidents with the Sentra always involved the beagles – even when they technically weren’t in the car.

The first accident – and the worst of the three – occurred in 2007 (or maybe 2008 – so long ago I’m not even sure anymore!) I was driving along Clybourn Avenue, looking for a place to park. I went to make a three-point turn to go back down the street the other way, and a car came out of nowhere and smashed my front left corner. I banged my head hard against the headrest, and having never seen the other car before it hit me, I was suddenly dazed and confused, staggering out of the car, seeing it crunched in front of me, feeling strangely contemptuous toward it, but mostly baffled. Bizarrely, the accident occurred immediately in front of a body shop, and a half-block from a police station, so there were immediately cops and people from the body shop there. They pushed the car into the body shop and wound up being the ones who fixed it. The damages were something like $5,700, and years later, that’s the wheel of the car which had started to rust.

While sitting in the body shop, waiting for the process to finish playing out, I figured I may as well complete the errand which had brought me out that day. I went into the car, got what I needed, walked the four storefronts down from the body shop to the veterinarian, and dropped off a small green bag of Murray Beagle’s shit.

When I got the Sentra, I began a process which I still maintain, which drives Michelle a little batty, but also demonstrates how fantastic she is: I (and now we) log every gas purchase in a spreadsheet. Technically, I do all the logging. But this requires getting a receipt each time and writing the mileage on it.

On February 17, 2004, I went to the Qik ‘n’ Ez on Morrissey Avenue in Bloomington, and filled up the tank. The Sentra had 565 miles at that time. It was the first of 464 times that Michelle or I would put gas in the tank. That includes the one time we ran out of gas on July 9, 2007 (which she will never let me forget about) and had to get gas in a container. The final time was this Tuesday, December 27, 2016. I actually had to stop and get one gallon of gas on the way to the Toyota dealership because I was in imminent danger of running out of gas for the second time!

Over the course of almost 12 years, according to my records, the Sentra averaged an estimated 27.73 mpg. I put 4,736 gallons of gas into the tank, at a total cost of $13,585.71. The longest I ever went between filling up was 74 days, from January 7 until March 22 of 2014, although at the time it went to the dealership, it had been 79 days since its last fillup.

The best ever tank in terms of mpgs came in at an impressive 39.71 mpg, across February 29 and March 1, 2008. Apparently I filled up in Buffalo and then again in some place called Tannersville, Pennsylvania, then went on to Washington DC. I look at the map now and can’t figure out what the hell I was doing. And I can’t help but think something is screwy with that number anyway.

The best ever tank in terms of raw mileage came in at an astounding 443.6 miles. On April 2, 2005 I filled up in Washington Court House, Ohio, and then on April 3, 2005 I filled up in some place called Rheems, Pennsylvania. This trip, at least, I can explain, and more vividly remember overall. I was on my way to Lancaster for the annual meeting of COFOE (Coalition for Free and Open Elections). I loaded up the Sentra with a crapload of unreviewed CDs from the pile at WESN, took a silly route, and remember driving across Ohio on U.S. 22 listening to all kinds of silly stuff which I’ve forgotten, but also a Stereo Total CD which for some reason I remember. I stopped that night and ate at a Buffalo Wild Wings just west of the West Virginia line in Ohio, because I knew it was a place where I could watch the Illinois-Louisville Final Four game. I drove on from there into the teeth of a blizzard, which should have killed my performance, except that it forced me to drive at a consistent 40 mph down Interstate 76. I got 36.96 mpg that trip. In retrospect, seeing how many times I drove across all or most of the length of Pennsylvania is pretty ridiculous.

The Sentra and I went as far due east as Brooklyn and Queens. Technically, it looks like the farthest north we got was Rochester, though Madison was pretty close. And the farthest west AND the farthest south wound up being Tulsa, where it was 104 degrees upon arrival. By my count, we went through 19 states and DC. Somehow, we never made it to Canada though!

On December 30, 2006, it had 54,891 miles – which means I was averaging over 18,000 miles a year over the first three years. But December 2006 is also when I moved to Chicago. Across the last 10 years, the annual average was only about 7,700. Imagine that: driving 10,000 fewer miles a year when no longer driving to see a girl.

Aside from the three accidents, the car was very reliable overall. It looks like I spent about $6,000 on maintenance over time – but almost half of that was in the last 3 years, after reaching 110,000 miles. I can look back now and see that it probably would have made more sense to trade it in back then. But at the time, not only was I still thinking of reaching 200,000 miles, I thought it would be the Sonata which would be traded in. It took the balky transmission to convince me that it was just time to let it go.

The Sentra was, at $11,500, the largest purchase I’d ever made up to that time. I’ve told people before that I bought it brand new, and they were like, woah, why’d you do that? But it was absolutely the right decision. I had gone through years of highly unreliable old cars, and I wanted a full warranty, and good mileage, and I got a really good deal because of the 500 miles it inexplicably had on it.

As the statistics above show, I had it in me to be really anal about some things. The Sentra really solidified that. We took good care of it over time. I kept all kinds of records on it – records which ultimately were totally useless when it came time to trade it in. It had 132,000 miles, a history of 3 accidents, a balky transmission, a big dent, a couple small dents, some rust… nobody gave a shit that I had paperwork from an oil change from 2006. But keeping that paperwork arguably was less about what any individual piece of paper might show. It was about the process. The mileage logs we keep are similarly about the process. A car is not just an expensive piece of equipment which needs to be taken care of. It’s also the most critical piece of safety equipment for your child. You damn well better know what’s going on with it! And even if I might take that to a seeming point of overkill, I’m okay with that. You should all keep mileage logs too!

The funny thing is, for as much as I went through with that car, I somehow never actually named it. I toyed with a couple of names but they never stuck. My previous car was Darwin – because Darwin sailed on the HMS Beagle, and that car was used to haul beagles around – and the car before that was Daisy, because in every single possible respect it was the antithesis of a daisy. But the Sentra was always just The Sentra, or maybe The Black Car, or, eventually, Mommy’s Car.

It rode great. It fit great. It got really good mileage for a long time. It needed very little work until the last three years, and that’s even though it had been through those accidents. It served us really well. I feel just a little bad that at the end it was hardly even worth trading it in, but I guess that’s how these things go.

When I bought the Sentra, I was 27. It was over a year before I met Michelle. I was still living in my depressing rental home in Normal with my knuckleheaded dogs. I had a decent but weird job. I had ideas, but I wasn’t really going anywhere.

It’s now four jobs later, my beagles are gone, we’ve owned a house for 5+ years… So much has changed over time. I put so many miles on that car driving to Green Party functions, and yet somehow, the Sentra even outlasted my time in the party.

We had a damn good run.

Oh, lordy: a small imposition on my friends and family

November 11th, 2016 by Phil No comments »

I’d like to beg a favor. Beings how it’s my birthday, I hope y’all can put up with this tiny imposition.

Yes, the election is over, and yes, a great many people are hurting, still shocked, and many very much afraid for their futures and especially the futures of their children. I’m not going to tell anyone to get over it. I’m not going to diminish what people are feeling. So please don’t think I’m trying to do that.

That said: Where I’m going with this is to a place of OPTIMISM. It’s not an easy path to get there, I admit. But that’s where I’m headed, and I hope you can come along.

I had intended to write something like this for a little while, before knowing how Election Day would turn out. In the aftermath of Election Day, what I think and how I feel has changed – but not all that much. See, the prospect of turning 40 has led me down a deep path of contemplation – deeper than usual, and many of you know how deep that can get. Now that prospect has become a reality, and it’s far from the scariest reality to be confronted this week. But that scarier reality doesn’t much change my thought process. If anything, it bolsters it.

(A quick work about privilege. It is a lot easier for me, a 40-year-old straight white man, to speak about optimism, to speak about looking forward. I’m not ducking that. I’m owning up to that privilege, as best as I can.)

There are three key places where I’m coming from:

First, we’ve got a three year old who’s going to grow up in a turbulent world. My thinking is largely focused on his future.

Second, reasonably or not, I see 40 as an effective midpoint in my life. Anything I’m serious about doing with the rest of my life, I have to *really* be serious about doing, and have to not jack around with shrugs and what-ifs. And anything I’m serious about in terms of making a difference for our son but also for the world as a whole around us, I have to *really* get serious about, and not jack around with shrugs and what-ifs.

Third, no matter how bleak things might look on any number of fronts, optimism simply isn’t optional. If I’m going to focus on our son’s future, and I’m going to dedicate myself to the betterment of his life but also human life generally, then it can’t be done from a place of pessimism or fear. That doesn’t mean that at times people can’t be pessimistic, fearful, depressed, etc. But it does mean that on the whole, we’ve got to be optimistic about the future of humanity. We have to be the change we want to see, and we have to start by saying, yes, we are going to change the world for the better, no matter what forces seem to be stacked against us.

Now, change the world for the better – what does that mean? In short, it means a world where, increasingly, people can lead meaningful, fulfilling lives, free from mistreatment based on identity, and free from mistreatment by the wealthy. Even shorter: I’m talking about Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.

The word “increasingly” is important there. Our aim is not global perfection. Our aim is constant global improvement. There is no magic way to strip away poverty and prejudice all at once. But we must also never accept that _on the whole_ whatever is happening around us is “good enough”. Put another way: there is no such thing as the perfect me. But there can be the constantly improving me. Aiming for perfection is nonsensical. Aiming to constantly improve is not.

Neither the perfect nor the good can be allowed to be the enemy of the better.

To that end, I am resolving to do some things, and making some decisions to facilitate those resolutions:

* I will recommit to achieving fluency in Spanish.

* I will do more to be around people, because you can’t hear and understand people when you’re not around them.

* I will find new ways to enhance my overall education.

* I will maintain an even stronger focus on my personal health and that of those around me.

* I will continue to speak out about injustice around me. I will give my voice to the people who are most the targets of hatred right now.

* I will find and work with groups and people who will elect better progressive officials.

And I am asking all of you to join me in the above. We all need to go out and be around people. We all need to keep learning, to focus on our health. We all need to speak out on injustice. We all need to commit to changing our political system.

To these ends and more, I am, effective today, declaring myself to be an Independent. I won’t dwell on this decision much here, except to say that it is made in light of my resolutions above. It’s not a decision I make lightly, though of course it’s been a long time in coming. But it’s time to move on.

I could write a lot more. But I’ve already imposed enough. And it’s my birthday, so I do need to get on with some other things.

I just ask again that you all join me in the above. This is an easy throwaway sentence, but let’s not make it so:

Let’s be the change we want to see. For us, for our kids, for the planet, for all humankind.

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.