Helen Shiller banks on legend of independence

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It’s one of the most enduring myths in local political lore: The legend of Helen Shiller’s unrelenting independence.

Yes, there was a time — very long ago — when Shiller often was the only voice of dissent at City Hall. She was duly lionized as the sole alderman who even dared to question then-Mayor Richard M. Daley’s judgment publicly.

Those days ended abruptly, about halfway into Daley’s 22-year reign. For many years, Shiller was as reliable a vote for the mayor’s agenda as any of the aldermen minted by Daley’s machine.

From 2007 until 2011 — Daley’s last term and also Shiller’s final four years as 46th Ward alderman — Shiller took the mayor’s side in 96 percent of the divided City Council votes, according to Dick Simpson, the University of Illinois at Chicago political science professor and former alderman.

Shiller now wants to give up her post-retirement career as her son’s City Hall lobbying partner to come back to the council — not as an alderman but in the higher-paying role of the legislative branch’s first financial analyst.

As my colleague Fran Spielman first reported earlier this month, Shiller has contacted council members to express interest in the newly created post, which will be counted on to provide aldermen with information generated independently of the mayor’s office. It will pay $130,000 a year, far more than Shiller’s salary when she represented the mostly downscale precincts of Uptown.

Shiller told me this week that she sees the opening as a “dream opportunity” for which she certainly will put in her application once the job is posted.

“I think I’m very independent,” she says. “But I don’t think that’s the point. I was always the budget person.”

She shrugged off her record of voting almost in lockstep with Daley.

“This notion of independence doesn’t have a lot of breadth or depth if you define it as voting for or against something,” Shiller said. “The issue for me is if you have the ability to have real discussions about policy issues that have an impact on people’s lives.”

The times when Shiller did not stand up to Daley included the 2008 deal to privatize the city’s parking meters. In an interview in 2011 with examiner.com, Shiller said she was out of town at the time of the meter vote and had some concerns about the measure, but added, “If I had been here, I probably would have voted for the parking meter deal because of our budget constraints.”

She voted for the budget plans that quickly burned through almost all of the $1.15 billion windfall from the parking privatization, leaving her council successors and Mayor Rahm Emanuel to grapple with severe fiscal problems.

This week, Shiller couldn’t recall the last time she voted against a mayoral budget. That’s of no consequence, she says, because she “helped craft a better product” even in every case in which she cast votes in favor of Daley’s spending plans.

The last four years of the Daley II era were far from Council Wars II. The council never defeated any of the mayor’s proposals during what Simpson described as a time of “general subservience and limited dissent.”

Still, Shiller says one of the main reasons she decided to step down after 24 years on the council was the growing divisiveness at City Hall in her final years. She apparently did not relish seeing others do what she had been famous for once.

“It was very hard to function in the polarized situations that occurred so often,” she said. “I’m more interested in solving the problem.”

Ameya Pawar, the rookie 47th Ward alderman who pushed to create the new financial analyst’s office, says the selection committee could consist of him, Ald. Pat Dowell (3rd), Ald. Michele Smith (43rd) and perhaps a representative of the council’s Latino caucus.

“Everyone’s getting ahead of themselves,” Pawar said when asked about Shiller’s chances of being picked. “Any speculation that the job will go to one particular person is premature.”

Pawar said he has received inquiries about the job from around the country, including from someone with a doctorate in transportation policy and from a person who played a similar role in another state.

Shiller says she’s sure she can do better than any potential rival.

“I’m uniquely situated to hit the ground running,” she said. “I really do think we don’t need to wait a couple years for someone to find out what’s what and who’s who in the city.”

If she gets the job, the Shiller of legend would have to become reality again or the new financial analyst’s office may not be very independent.

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