Yes or no.
Do you know how hard it is to get a politician to answer a question with a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no?’
Well, have you ever heard one give a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no,’ especially when confronted with a complex question of public policy?
Not very often, I’ll wager.
Yet, four candidates for mayor of Chicago — sorry, make that three candidates plus one stand-in — provided the requisite one-word response Monday without making any attempt to amplify or qualify their positions.
“Yes,” said Cook County Commissioner Jesus “Chuy” Garcia, Ald. Robert Fioretti, William “Dock” Walls and former Ald. Robert Shaw, a surrogate for Willie Wilson — three times each in all — in reply to whether they would support specific policy positions advocated by the Community Renewal Society.
The only candidate missing was Mayor Rahm Emanuel, whose absence was duly noted.
In truth, answering “no” was not an option for those in attendance, at least not a wise political choice for anyone hoping to woo the crowd of 1,200 at Liberty Baptist Church, 4849 S. Martin Luther King Drive.
The Community Renewal Society, one of Chicago’s most venerable and venerated civil rights organizations, wasn’t really looking for a conversation about its demands.
Those demands included community hiring requirements for the Illinois Medical District Commission’s new Gateway Development Project; a $1 million city funding pledge for restorative justice programs; and support for a new independent civilian police oversight authority as part of a “police misconduct platform.”
The purpose behind such public roll calls, of course, is to be able to better hold the candidates accountable at a later date, instead of just letting them make speeches that sounds like they’re on your side without actually giving a commitment. Still, it’s a rather crude approach.
The tactic is old enough that it’s probably right out of the Saul Alinsky community organizing playbook, although it seems to be gaining more favor in recent years.
It’s a humbling process for the politicians, who come hat-in-hand knowing the expectation. But it’s also an important part of asking people to vote for you — and learning what’s important to them.
And that brings us back to the only candidate who wasn’t there: Emanuel.
Let’s stipulate that a mayor has many demands on his time, especially on Martin Luther King Day, and Emanuel, who had a full schedule Monday and has committed to five debates with his opponents, is under no obligation to attend every public forum.
But I wonder how many times in his own political career the mayor has ever had to attend such an event where he’s been forced to humble himself before the public.
I personally believe that’s one of Emanuel’s political weaknesses as he runs for a second term. He’s never really had to go out there and build support from the ground up, instead relying on the power of advertising and clout relationships, quite effective in their own right.
Emanuel, as we know, prefers to operate from a position of strength and has always been able to do so — running for Congress with the support of Mayor Richard M. Daley and inititally for mayor with the blessing of President Barack Obama.
He’s always had the upper hand, and even now in the face of low approval ratings to start his re-election campaign, Emanuel appears to be in command, mostly because of his huge fundraising advantage.
Several months ago on the Sun-Times’ “Off Message” show, we were talking about the looming mayoral campaign and Emanuel’s popularity problems with Chicago residents. A couple of us expressed the thought that at some point the mayor was going to need to do some sort of mea culpa with the public — an apology of sorts — to say he understood the level of anger he was facing and that he’d learned from it, maybe even promise to improve.
That hasn’t happened, and as we get closer to the election, it seems increasingly obvious that’s not in the plan.
Emanuel doesn’t like to show any weakness, and he doesn’t want to start now.
At the Community Renewal Society event, organizers made a big show of Emanuel’s empty chair — and said they could only assume any absent candidate did not support their effort.
Then, in the spirit of Dr. King, they prayed for the mayor:
“We pray that God will transform your heart and bend your mind toward justice. Now.”
Emanuel might say it’s his four opponents who don’t have a prayer.