Remember when Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley was quoted, exclaiming at a closed session of the Cook County Democratic Central Committee, “If a man can’t put his arms around his son, then what kind of world are we living in? I make no apologies. If I can’t help my son, (my critics) can kiss my ass.”
Do you remember what he was talking about? Well, it’s all in Dick Simpson’s new book The Good Fight.
“I introduced a Council resolution,” Simpson writes, ”ordering Daley to account as to ‘whether he has unlawfully used his influence as Mayor [for his sons] to receive undue preference.’ It was defeated 35-7″. It all had to do with Daley sending a no-bid contact for city insurance to the very company where one of his sons worked.
A year or so earlier, when he had just arrived on the Council, but had already been teaching at UIC for about 5 years, Simpson drew the battle lines quite starkly.
Complaining about 31st Ward Alderman Tom Keane attempting to put his son into a fairly obscure post as head of the Zoning Board of Appeals, he pointed out that Keane Jr was Vice President at Arthur Rubloff, at that time the most powerful real estate venture in the city. Keane was so connected he was often said to be second only to Daley in political influence. Daley didn’t like what this new kid was trying to do, and he exploded at the rostrum.
“The idea that I made this appointment because a man’s name was Keane and he was the son of a famous member of this council!” he exclaimed. “I made this appointment because I have known Tommy Keane, the boy I appointed since he’s been a baby… Should that boy be told… that he shouldn’t hold office because his name is Keane?”
Then turning to Simpson’s academic background, he went on. “Where are we going with these kind of educators? You are doing this to the young people of our country! And (Simpson) is not the only one. He’s typical of the large number (of professors) in universities polluting the minds of the young people… Frankly if you’re a teacher, God help the students that are in your class, if this is what is being taught.”
“Well,” Simpson tells us, “The biggest fun thing people don’t know is the Sears Tower is built over what used to be an alley that Tom Keane Sr managed to get as his law fee for condemning the street and allowing the Sears Tower to be built. That’s one of the reasons he went to jail for as long as he did. The Sears Tower wouldn’t exist if… I mean the Sears Tower is a good thing on the whole, but they could have done it legally. They wouldn’t have to bribe the head of the City Council.”
That’s how we began our conversation about Simpson’s sixty-plus years in public service, 51 of them at UIC as professor of political science. “Yes,” he says, “I’m still a teacher and I still do these weird things like try and engage students in more than just dull lectures.”
Key among them is instilling an interest in activism. And that starts with voting.
“We also have added by different registration techniques,” he explains, “an effort that has now yielded thousands of new student voters, more than ever before. We increased the voting at UIC – in 2012 42% of our students voted, in 2016 55% of our students vote. We had the largest increase of any university in the country of registrations and additional voting in 2016.”
Simpson’s political and personal life began in Texas, where he was active in the struggle for racial equality in the 1950s. He also spent time in Africa working on his doctoral dissertation. He arrived in Chicago in 1967 during the red-hot political events that would lead to the riots at the Democratic convention.
Then in 1971 he decided that he wanted to run for office, and he successfully won the 44th Ward aldermanic seat. “We were fighting over what should Chicago become,” he declares. “And so that’s why what would be a normal clash about somebody’s appointment was really a clash about patronage and nepotism and the rotten aspects of the Chicago machine.”
He told his supporters that, if elected, he’d institute a new way of thinking about aldermanic service. “We really thought citizens should be able to have a voice in the decisions that most affect lives,” he tells us. “If you think about Trump or you think Emanuel today or you think about Rauner as Governor, I mean none of them pay any attention to what the hell citizens want.”
Once in office, he announced that he’d vote the way Lakeview needed him to vote, not the way the mayor needed him to vote. That neighborhood-based government would direct his voting. “It sounded a lot like the SDS Port Huron Statement,” he laughs.
As alderman, and in the many years after he left office in 1979, Simpson was engaged in some of he most significant battles of our time. One of them was the legal fight to dismantle the Chicago Police Red Squad, which he says was founded in the 1930’s, “just to keep track of all the commies, that is labor union organizers and the like.”
The Red Squad, Simpson claims, was monitoring at least “20 different civic organizations and 20 or so major public officials.”
He had first-hand experience with the agency.
“The Red Squad would spy on us, and they would do more than just spy in the sense of sit and take notes, they did that, but they actually were agent provocateurs,” he claims. “They broke up an attempt we did to try and elect officials to county government as independents. We were meeting on the west side in a basement and one of the red squad agents got so provocative that the whole coalition fell apart, we couldn’t put together the ticket.”
“And so we sued them and we won the case,” he explains. “There were reparations paid to the organizations and the individuals.” In fact, more than $300,000 – a huge amount of money for the time. “The individuals, a group of us got together and set up a fund at the Crossroads Fund and then funded other civil liberties efforts for a decade to come.”
Simpson was also a significant player in the effort to defeat patronage. Michael Shakman, he explains, attempted to win a seat as a delegate to the Constitutional Convention in 1970 that would re-write the Illinois Constitution. But he lost.
“He sued in federal court saying that the reason he didn’t get it was the patronage workers were working against him and that this took away both rights of candidates and citizens” he tells us. “But critical to this case it also took away the rights of the patronage worker. If you were a patronage worker you had to work for your sponsor or the party. And it took a long time for this to go. I mean we’re talking 1971 it all started. By the middle 70s it had worked its way through the first stage and the first Shakman Decree said you couldn’t, I have to get it right, you couldn’t fire workers for not working in a campaign. The second Shakman Decree said you couldn’t hire people because they had worked on a campaign”
And he was instrumental in another major political battle with huge consequences. “I was an expert witness in all of the gerrymandering cases which we’ve gotten very familiar with gerrymandering now, but all the wards were gerrymandered and they were gerrymandered to disadvantage the minority groups, to keep the number of black aldermen down. To keep the number of Latino aldermen almost nothing.”
A major consequence of this battle was that Simpson and his allies successfully won an order to re-district the City Council in the mid-80s, requiring a re-map that gave minorities a greater opportunity to hold Council seats. The effort was so successful that the new Council roster gave Harold Washington control of the Council for the first time, ending “Council Wars”.
The Good Fight is unusual for a political memoir in that it deals openly and frankly with Dick Simpson’s personal life. He describes his three marriages, his contemplation of suicide and his failure to balance his public life and his private life. He also takes us inside his time as an ordained minister.
“I don’t think a memoir can be written unless you write the truth,” he proclaims. “Sometimes you can shield some other people and maybe not tell the whole story that affects their life, but for your own life you have to, I think, be truthful. If it isn’t, people will instantly recognize it’s just all fluff. The second thing is I think the struggle between personal and outer life, interior and external, is a struggle that’s not just a politician’s struggle. I think a lot of people have it that whatever their job, whatever work they do.”
As we conclude, we ask Simpson, the lifelong activist, how he feels when he watches the student leaders of the gun resistance after the Florida massacre.
“It’s a great new movement,” he enthuses. “It’s allowing students to speak out. If they speak out now they will do that the rest of their lives. If they don’t win an early victory that may or may not be as important as the fact that they learn how to fight.”
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Also, read a full transcript of the show here: CNtranscript March 15 2018