Mark W. Anderson
From ages eight to 80, they came to talk to the only people in city government they think might be listening.
In a crowded meeting hall on the city’s Near West Side Wednesday night, seven members of the Progressive Reform Caucus in the Chicago City Council sat quietly and listened as citizen after citizen unleashed a tale of woe about a mayor and a city government they say is leaving them behind.
There was the third grader from the Burley school in the 32nd Ward whose gym teacher was fired because of budget cuts in Chicago public schools. She thought it was unfair, and wanted him returned.
There was the retired city worker from the 4th Ward who worked for the city for 30 years. For her, money was so tight she doesn’t go to the doctor or the dentist because she knows she can’t afford it.
A woman with mental health issues from the 21st Ward told of losing a son in 1996, a suicide attempt in 1998 and spending five months in a coma in 2005. She later found the help she needed with a therapist in a city mental health clinic, only to have it closed down as part of Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s budget cuts.
These and others came to what was billed as a Community Budget Town Hall meeting at the United Electrical Workers Hall, 37 S. Ashland Ave. Members of the caucus—aldermen Bob Fioretti (2), Roderick Sawyer (6), Toni Foulkes (15), Rick Munoz (22), Scott Waguespack (32), Nick Sposato (36), John Arena (45) and Leslie Hairston (5), who was absent—believe the city’s current process for creating the budget is all too often held behind closed doors, and wanted to have an open forum to hear ideas and suggestions from the public.
The nearly two hour meeting was moderated by WGN political analyst Paul Lisnek, who kept the steady stream of those wishing to be heard moving along at a brisk pace. For their part, the overflow crowd that spilled out into the hallway clapped and cheered whenever a speaker made an impassioned plea, called on budget cuts to be restored or praised the alderman for taking the time to listen to their concerns.
For anyone paying attention to how the city is being run in the age of Mayor Emanuel, the issues and complaints were familiar. The damage to children, parents and communities from school closings. The human costs of closing six of the city’s twelve mental health centers. The difficulty of paying for health care out of a diminishing pension after years of service as a city worker. The unfair practice of privatizing what many in the room saw as a once proud workforce of city employees.
In short, the reality of living in a city many feel is increasingly hostile to the poor and most vulnerable of its citizens.
“If I go to the hospital, the first thing they're going to ask me is for money. So I don't go to the doctor,” the retired city worker from the 4th Ward told the aldermen. “What can I cut out [to afford it]? I can't go on like this. I was promised that in the 30 years I was a city worker I would be taken care of. So please tell the mayor to keep the commitment that was made to us that allowed us to get at least basic health [care].”
In their approach to the Mayor’s proposed 2014 budget, caucus members have called for measures to address many of the concerns expressed at the meeting, such as restoring funding to reopen the shuttered mental health centers and releasing surplus TIF funds to help fund financially strapped schools.
But for one night in an old labor hall on the city’s Near West Side, it was less about specific policy prescriptions than it was about the toll the Mayor’s policies have taken on individuals and communities across Chicago.
“I think when you see the faces of the people who are experiencing the pain in this city, we have to try and bring that into our decision making and how we approach the budget,” said Fioretti. “Tonight, we heard from people all across the city about the issues facing the working class and he middle class and those that are retirees of the city of Chicago, and we should bring that into how we approach our vote [on the budget].”