EDITORIAL: The Chicago City Council desperately needs another Leon Despres

SHARE EDITORIAL: The Chicago City Council desperately needs another Leon Despres

Former Ald. Leon Despres in his law office in 1996. He served in the City Council from 1955 to 1975. Despres died in 2009. He was 101. | Sun-Times file

Chicago needs another Leon Despres, a man who was called the conscience of the city.

You can look high and low in the City Council today and you won’t find anybody like Despres, alderman of the 5th Ward from 1955 to 1975. You won’t find that singular voice of moral authority that can’t be denied.


That’s how we see it. We have been studying the Council more than usual for the last couple of months as a result of the latest corruption scandals — and to decide whom to endorse for re-election.

And we have marveled at the mediocrity, at best, of the average Chicago alderman.

There’s hardly a Despres in the bunch. Not so we can tell. The one alderman who, in our opinion, most likely could have grown into the role, Ameya Pawar (47th), is retiring from the Council and running for city treasurer. A second alderman who has that Despres-like spirit is Scott Waguespack (32nd).

We’re not alone in wishing another Despres would come along.

In a Sun-Times Editorial Board questionnaire, we asked every candidate for alderman this year to name a past or present alderman who is a role model. Many declined to name anyone. Others named people we wouldn’t trust to hold our wallet.

But the alderman mentioned most — at least nine times — was Leon Despres.

Ald. Leon Despres (center) got together with a community group to protest the city’s decision to cut down trees near 50th and the lakefront in 1965. | File photo

Ald. Leon Despres (center) got together with a community group to protest the city’s decision to cut down trees near 50th and the lakefront in 1965. | File photo

There was a wistful tone to their explanations for picking Despres. It was a tone that said nobody today measures up to an alderman who retired 44 years ago and died 10 years ago.

In naming Despres, we should add, the candidates also no doubt saw the strategic value. Chicago editorial boards think the world of Despres. It’s like an unwritten rule. And the candidates who filled out our questionnaire were seeking our endorsement.

All the same, Leon Despres really was a cut above — always informed, always standing up for the powerless against the powerful, always civil even when enraged, and never intimidated by the bleating sheep all around him. For much of his tenure in the Council, a body otherwise wholly owned by Mayor Richard J. Daley, Despres was the sole voice of dissent.

“Everyone respected Ald. Despres,” 43rd Ward aldermanic candidate Rebecca Janowitz, who grew up in Despres’ Hyde Park, wrote in her questionnaire. “He moved easily among scholars, artists and working people. When I asked what he did, my parents explained that he fought for our community and our city.”

Let’s pause right there. When children ask you what your alderman does, which of the following do you say?

A] “He (or she) fights for our community and our city.”

B] “He sometimes gets us a new garbage can.”

C] “He keeps the ‘wrong’ people out.”

D] “He gets rich.”

See why we miss Leon?

Leslie Hairston, the current 5th Ward alderman, says Despres was a “tremendously helpful” mentor.

“He warned me not to get caught up in the trappings of politics,” she wrote. “For example, before there were limits imposed on how much someone could spend on an alderman. Back then he wouldn’t let anyone pay more than $10 for a lunch.”

Hairston’s main opponent in the Feb. 26 election, Gabriel Piemonte, wrote that he, too, knew and was inspired by Despres.

“I will simply say that he was an honest man who believed in doing the nitty gritty of the job as well as he could,” Piemonte wrote, “as well as inspiring the highest ideals of the ward and the city.”

Three weeks ago, we wrote about an alderman, Ed Burke, who had been charged with shaking down a local business. This week, we wrote about another alderman, Danny Solis, who appears to have used his power to approve or kill a requested zoning change to steer legal business to a powerful crony, Illinois House Speaker Mike Madigan.

City Council members Ed Burke and Danny Solis in 2016.

Aldermen Ed Burke and Danny Solis at a City Council meeting in 2016. | Sun-Times file photo

Sun-Times file photo

It’s been quite a month, corruption-wise.

But we were heartened, thankfully, by a deafening cry of indignation from the dozens of honest aldermen who refuse to tolerate such scurrilous behavior.

Actually, no, we were not. Because that didn’t happen.

By and large, the aldermen were more offended that Solis snitched on Burke.

So here’s the thing. We’ll begin rolling out our endorsements in aldermanic races on Monday, offering our best advice, and we’d love to say we won’t be endorsing any second-rate incumbents. But that would not be true. Because far too often, for all kinds of reasons we’ll address in a future editorial, the challengers are third-rate or even fourth.

Sad to say, but true.

In the meantime, every Chicago voter should be on the lookout for another Leon Despres.

Chicago really needs one again.

Send letters to: letters@suntimes.com.

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