To be a successful politician, you need certain qualities. The ability to raise money, for one. The ability to shake a lot of hands for another. Maybe a notable skill in advocating for certain positions you don't really believe in for a third.
But there’s one skill today’s modern politician must absolutely, positively have in his political arsenal if he or she hopes to have any kind of long career: the ability to never, ever admit a mistake.
Think about it: When was the last time you heard a politician come right out and say “I screwed up”? Of course, if a political figure is found sleeping with someone other than a spouse, abusing the power of their office to punish a political enemy or engaging in plain old, garden-variety corruption, there’s going to be a moment of reckoning that could include accepting some responsibility.
But come right out and say you’re sorry without some reason other than your conscience? Well, that’s another story.
That’s why Tuesday’s admission by two members of the Chicago City Council’s Progressive Reform Caucus that they were sorry for their vote authorizing the city’s 2012 budget that shut down six of the city’s public mental health clinics was such a refreshing moment in Chicago politics.
During a press conference before a City Council committee hearing on mental health clinic closures, Alderman Bob Fioretti (2) and Roderick Sawyer (6) came right out and said it plain:
“It was probably the worst vote I ever made. We were told certain information. And if we would have had other information, that vote would never have happened — by many of us, if not everyone in the City Council,” Fioretti said.
Ald. Roderick Sawyer (6th) added, “We were told when we voted on this that no one would be left behind. That obviously was not the case. For that, I am truly sorry. We let you down. But an old friend once told me, `When you make mistakes, that’s why they put erasers on pencils.' You can change mistakes. You can make it right.”
The move by Fioretti and Sawyer follows remarks earlier this year by Ald. Scott Waguespack (32) and other PRC members expressing regret for their role in authorizing the clinic closures.
For any politician, coming out and admitting a mistake—especially without prompting from a scandal or crime—can be seen by voters as a sign of weakness. And something to be avoided at all costs.
In Chicago, the stakes may be even higher. This is a city that prides itself on getting things done, and expects it's politicians to get up every day, go out to battle and fight the good fight.
That means to succeed in city politics, whether as mayor, alderman or simply a retired Chicago Park District head, you have to have a tough skin to stay in the game.
But something’s happening under the radar in Chicago politics these days. The political divide that exists elsewhere in the country between Democrats and Republicans hasn’t been a reality in Chicago for decades.
That’s meant that any organized political opposition to the city’s existing power structure has for years been largely ineffectual, or non-existent.
In it’s place, a new coalition of progressive types—those further to the left of Mayor Rahm Emanuel—are coming together to oppose the kind of policies that close public mental health clinics for budgetary reasons.
To oppose Rahm means severing yourself from anything that looks like you support his agenda, and staying steadfast and true to your political beliefs. Looked at cynically, it could even be seen as a savvy move for anyone looking to run for office or just be reelected in this town, especially now that the mayor seems to be struggling a bit.
But that doesn't mean it’s easy, or politically wise. Saying you made a mistake and that you’re sorry never is.
Given a choice, I’m going to assume the decision to apologize by Fioretti, Sawyer and others came from the heart, and not a political calculation.
I could be wrong. But if I’m right, it’s something worth noting—and even celebrating—in the rough and tumble world of Chicago politics.