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Joe Berrios Ain't Ready for Reform

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Joe Berrios Ain't Ready for Reform

Joe Berrios and Forrest Claypool are making the Cook County Assessor’s contest look like a race war. This morning, Berrios held a press conference where he was endorsed by 20 African-American politicians, including Secretary of State Jesse White, Rep. Danny Davis and Ald. Toni Preckwinkle.

After the Better Government Association issued a report on his conflicts of interest at the Board of Review, Berrios charged that the group was saying “minorities should not apply for this office.” Asked about the same issue by the SouthtownStar editorial board, Berrios responded that white candidates never got those tough questions.

Meanwhile, Claypool has the backing of North Side and North Shore liberals, such as Rep. Jan Schakowsky, Ald. Eugene Schulter and State Sen. Jeffrey Schoenberg. He also has the entire journalistic establishment on his side. Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. is the token black guy on Claypool's lily-white team.

But Berrios is making himself look like a fool by playing the race card, because deep down, this election isn’t about race: it’s about class, and about two irreconcilable views of machine politics.

Lower-class voters see government as a source of jobs, resources and social advancement. Lacking money, they band together in political organizations to win elections. Afterwards, they think it’s only fair to reap the spoils. As Harold Washington gloated after his first mayoral election, “It’s our turn now." It worked for Joe Berrios, an immigrant's son who went from Cabrini Green to the state legislature to a six-figure lobbying gig by climbing the ladder of his local political machine. 

Good government is an indulgence affordable to middle-class voters, who don’t need a job with the CTA or the Water Department. The machine always had trouble controlling Hyde Park and the Lakefront because patronage meant nothing to the well-off professionals who lived there.

“The downtown newspapers like [Claypool] because he stands up to machine hacks,” Ald. Ricardo Munoz told WBEZ. “But then some of us in the neighborhoods say then, ‘Well, where were you when you were chief of staff to Mayor Daley? When you were running the Park District, how did you affect neighborhoods?’ Because, what some folks call patronage, other folks call [recreation] leaders and softball and pool administrators that he privatized and got rid of.”

When Ald. Paddy Bauler scoffed that “Chicago ain’t ready for reform,” he didn’t necessarily mean that it was inherently corrupt. He meant that it was a blue-collar city. It still is, in many neighborhoods. But those neighborhoods are mostly African-American or Latino, which is why this conflict between a hack and a reformer has such racial overtones. The Irish, the Italians and the Poles who once dominated the Machine successfully used the system to lift their communities up and out of the lower class -- up and out of the city, in many cases. Now, the African-Americans and the Latinos want their turn.

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