Dick Simpson is the coauthor of Corrupt Illinois (2015), Twenty-First Century Chicago (2nd revised edition, 2016), and Winning Elections in the 21st Century (2016). He is a political science professor at UIC and served two terms as an alderman in Chicago from 1971 – 1979. Chicago News spoke with him about the ongoing saga of Chicago corruption and what if anything can be done to curb it.
Chicago News: Can you tell us a little about your background?
Dick Simpson: I grew up in Houston, Texas, moved to Chicago in 1967, have taught at UIC for the last 50 years, and was a Chicago Alderman from 1971-1979.
CN: How did you win your election for alderman?
DS: I was backed by people who had been part of the Eugene McCarthy for President campaign in 1968 and later formed the Independent Precinct Organization in 1969. We worked the precincts door-to-door and convinced people to vote for me to get better city services, independent representation in the city council, and neighborhood government in which they would have control in the 44th ward.
CN: What was that like fighting old man Daley? What deals did you have to make?
DS: Sometimes I had to stand alone. Sometimes I had to endure death threats. But mostly I worked with a small band of independent aldermen in the city council like Leon Despres, Bill Singer, and Marty Oberman. I refused to make any deals because we were fighting over the future of Chicago, and even though I lost many votes the first time around, a great many of my proposals and ordinances were adopted later, especially when Harold Washington became mayor. But even under Daley, Bilandic, and Byrne I was supported by organizations from throughout the city.
CN: Why did you only serve two terms?
DS: Two reasons. I was still teaching at UIC and serving as alderman so I was working 100 hours a week or so. But more than that, I believed in what is now called term limits – that public officials should still be citizens and not political bosses. Moreover, I wanted the institutions of participatory politics and neighborhood government to last without a “cult of personality” propping them up. They did for several years, but then the machine got control. When as alderman I tried to enact them into law, I lost the vote 44-4.
CN: What was it like campaigning against convicted Congressman Rostenkowski? What can you say about him?
DS: Dan Rostenkowski was a very powerful, but also very corrupt Congressman. When I ran against him, nearly the entire cabinet of the President came into town to support him and Mayor Richard M. Daley (and his new machine) backed Rostenkowski. I would have won if I had had another $100,000 for TV ads, 100 more precinct volunteers, or the government had indicted him earlier.
CN: How much corruption is there in Chicago? Is this how all big cities operate? Isn’t politics corrupted naturally by all the money influence?
DS: Our studies at UIC and in my book Corrupt Illinois demonstrate that Chicago is the most corrupt metropolitan area in the country. Many big cities have much less corruption and many fewer convictions for corruption than we do. We should adopt public funding of campaigns to prevent money from buying public officials along with 10 other reforms outlined in my book.
CN: What are some glaring examples?
DS: 33 aldermen have gone to jail since the 1970s for corruption, 4 of the last 9 governors, and an ever growing number of Illinois congressmen like Rostenkowski.
CN: What do you think of today’s city council? What do you think of the mayor?
DS: Today’s city council is beginning to break its rubber stamp mold but it still has a long way to go to be a genuine legislative branch of government.
CN: What reforms are needed?
DS: We do need to take money out of politics, but we also need to implement neighborhood and more participatory democracy in Chicago.
CN: Do the democrats not pose similar problems with supporting wars, neoliberal agenda, anti-worker legislation, etc?
DS: Both political machine Democrats and narrow Republicans pose the same problems.
CN: What books did you write that you are most proud of?
DS: I have written 20 books. Beyond the three listed in the question above, I am proud of Teaching Civic Engagement published as a free ebook by the American Political Science Association.
CN: What do you tell your students when it comes to politics?
DS: To get involved and change the world.
By Jim Vail