In Chicago, the only way to avoid election campaigning is to lock yourself into your home with the blinds down and all electronic devices off, including phones. Even the snow piles created by snow plows after the recent blizzard have been transformed into a campaigning platform (see photo).
The office of alderman has always seemed thankless to me, but that’s because I’m not a native Chicagoan who has witnessed how lucrative it can be. Whether the job is thankless or rewarding, the candidates take the campaign seriously. In my ward, the incumbent sent a newsletter at about the same time a challenger dropped off fliers that tout her as a “wife, attorney, and community activist.” Am I supposed to be impressed? Most adults are or have been a wife, husband, or partner. So she is just like everyone else, which is probably meant to be reassuring. Attorney? I’m one of those who thinks politics is already too dominated by too many lawyers, whose mindset tends toward sometimes narrow interpretation rather than action, inspiration, or leadership. Community activist? Now she’s just trying to ride on President Obama’s coattails. If peered deeply enough at the correct angle into my own background, I too might claim a moment of community activism, maybe, especially if it would promote my career in politics.
She goes on to outline the ward’s woes and what she would do to fix them. There’s nothing insightful in her list — for one, anyone and everyone can see that Stony Island Boulevard should be bustling with traffic and commerce but isn’t. Many of the businesses found along what should be a thriving boulevard are small, with barred windows and gated doors presenting an uninviting front to anyone passing through. What’s she going to do to change that?
Indeed, if listing the litany of issues that plague the ward were enough, this challenger, and others like her, is off to a good start. But even I (not a wife, attorney, or community activist) can chart the issues. What I can’t do, because it’s not something I’ve looked into, is explain how I would address and try to solve them. She doesn’t, either. How can she attract new businesses? What can she do to eliminate the impression of poverty, crime, and blight the barred windows and gated doors create? What would she do that the incumbent hasn’t and how? Through the flyer, she had an opportunity to outline not only a vision for the ward, but a plan. She failed to do either, and also failed to give me a reason to vote for her above all others. At the least, the incumbent can point to accomplishments, but a challenger has to do more. He or she has to show not only what needs to be done, but how they would do it and why. Words aren’t enough.
The office of alderman is not lofty, but it is visible. We expect mainly that our streets will be protected, our children will receive a good (or at least adequate) education, our businesses will be encouraged, and our potholes will be fixed, and that we’ll enjoy basic services. If Candidate B wants to unseat Incumbent A, it’s not too much to ask how she is different and better. Is it too much to answer?