April 30, 2008


In the trendy, upscale and "progressive" North Shore enclave of Evanston, filled to bursting with political "progressives" (formerly known as "liberals") and Barack Obama devotees, "progress," like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder.

When politically correct Evanstonians behold "progress," it's a change not exemplified by capitalists, developers and President Bush, or by U.S. troops in Iraq, or the closing of borders to illegal immigrants. On those matters, they become positively reactionary. No way, they say. No change. Stop the hands of time. Go no further.

For Evanston's "progressives," true change is a paradise on earth, purged of racism, sexism, ageism, rampant capitalism, militarism, Republicanism and, as Obama put it, those who cling to guns and God.

And they've succeeded. Evanston has become nauseatingly more liberal, even though the black population is dwindling. In the 2008 Democratic presidential primary, Obama obliterated Hillary Clinton by 16,651-4,144, with 78.9 percent of the vote. That even exceeded the Obama vote in "progressive" Oak Park, which was 78.2 percent. "In working class areas, Democratic women are enthusiastic about Hillary, hoping for a woman president," said one Evanston politician. "Here, women prefer a black male president instead of a white female president. It's incredible and incomprehensible."

Democrat John Kerry trounced Bush in Evanston in the 2004 presidential election by 29,142-6,245, with 82.3 percent of the vote, while in 2000 Democrat Al Gore thrashed Bush by 24,444-6,612, getting 78.7 percent of the vote. This leftward trend would be understandable in the south or west suburbs, which have a burgeoning black population, but in Evanston incoming affluent whites are as liberal as the minorities they replace.

Evanstonians take credit for Obama's meteoric political rise. In the crucial 2004 U.S. Senate Democratic primary, Obama became cause celebre and, in a field of seven candidates, won an astonishing 89.4 percent of the vote. In the ensuing election, Obama carried Evanston by 29,142-6,245, with 82.4 percent of the vote. Much of Obama's early presidential campaign funding came from wealthy Evanston donors.

Evanston's population at the time of the 2000 census was 74,239, with 46 percent of the city's residents being non-white. Its population was 73,233 in 1990, with 31 percent being non-white, and 80,113 in 1970. Recent minority growth has been Hispanic, not black. Back in the 1990s, many predicted "white flight" and a black majority by 2010.

"The black population is declining," said former township Democratic committeeman and Metropolitan Water Reclamation District commissioner Tom Fuller. Evanston's black population reportedly has decreased by more than 5,000, which would be a 22 percent decline. 

In the area north of Dempster Street and west of Ridge Avenue, where Evanston's African-American population is concentrated, Hispanics are moving in. So, too, are whites, particularly gays. And in downtown Evanston, along Chicago Avenue and Central Street, the site of 1,400 of the roughly 6,000 condominium units have been built or converted in the suburb in the past decade, affluent whites are moving in, coming from Rogers Park and Lincoln Park. Evanston's trendiness is making housing more expensive and pushing out minorities.

Evanston extends from the Chicago border at Howard Street to just north of Central Street, and from McCormick Boulevard and the North Shore Channel to the lake, with a northern section extending west to Crawford Avenue. Once a Republican bastion, the town had Republican mayors from the Civil War until 1993, when black Democrat Lorraine Morton beat white Democrat Ann Rainey by 7,207-6,667 (with 51.9 percent of the vote), and succeeded Republican Joan Barr. Republican presence in the city and township has evaporated, and now black influence is evaporating.

Morton, who refuses to disclose her age but who is thought to be 86, was re-elected without opposition in 1997 and 2001 and with 72 percent of the vote in 2005. She is expected to retire in 2009. Rainey, an alderman, may run again, as might Aldermen Liz Tisdahl, Anjana Hansen and Steve Bernstein and former aldermen Art Newman, Beth Davis and Steve Engleman. Attorney and longtime Democratic activist Jeff Smith is a possibility. All are white. If Morton quits, "there is no obvious black" to replace her, said Fuller, although black Alderman Lionel Jean-Baptiste could run.

And there's a boatload of anti-development community activists, such as Jeanne Lindwall, Judy Fiske, John Kennedy and Barb Rakley, who could run for mayor, as well as pro-development Chamber of Commerce president Dick Peach. There is a runoff provision, so the top two finishers in a multi-candidate field must face off if no one gets a majority of the votes.

Tisdahl and Hansen are allied with the organization of popular -- and "progressive" -- U.S. Representative Jan Schakowsky (D-9), a powerhouse in Evanston politics. Schakowsky, along with other major Evanston players including Cook County Commissioner Larry Suffredin, state Senator Jeff Schoenberg (D-9), who is the Evanston Township Democratic committeeman, state Representative Julie Hamos (D-18) and Metropolitan Water Reclamation District Commissioner Debra Shore, studiously avoid municipal controversies, focusing instead on county, state and national issues.

Schakowsky was an early booster of Obama, backing him in the 2004 primary. If he goes to the White House, Schakowsky, age 63, would go after his Senate seat, and Hamos, Shore and Schoenberg would try for Schakowsky's House seat.

The predominant municipal issue is development, particularly a proposed 49-story commercial and residential skyscraper at 708 Church St. At over 500 feet, it would be the tallest building in suburban Cook County. After months of howling and groaning by residents opposed to "commercializing" Evanston, the plan was scaled back to 38 stories, which is still almost 400 feet tall. The city's tallest building, at 276 feet, is the 20-story Chase Bank, and downtown blocks are zoned for not more than 10 stories.

 Those opposed to the project, and who envision downtown as a mix of trendy restaurants, shops and boutiques, are the white residents who own $1 million homes and who don't want to change the leafy, artsy ambience of Evanston. They want to stop accelerating condo conversions. They want stop an invasion of chain and upscale retail outlets. They want to limit office space. They fear traffic congestion as throngs of out-of-towners come in to work, eat, drink, shop or seek services.

They are particularly incensed at Morton and the nine-member Evanston City Council, who they consider to be in the developers' pocket. The proposed development is in a tax increment financing district, and developers want the city to contribute $3 million in infrastructure improvements and freeze property taxes.

The furor reached a crescendo when state Attorney General Lisa Madigan ruled twice that the council violated the state Open Meetings Act by discussing the Church project with developers in secret. A group called the Evanston Coalition for Responsible Development has gathered more than 2,100 petition signatures against the project, and the aldermen (and Morton) are quaking. It will take the vote of six of nine aldermen to approve a zoning variance to build the tower. Three aldermen have announced against it. Sources indicate that as many as five of the nine aldermen will not run for re-election in 2009.

"The issue is toxic," observed one Democratic activist. "That's why all top Democrats are avoiding it. Whatever position they take, they alienate half of Evanston."

In all likelihood, the Church Street project will be delayed until after the April 2009 municipal elections. Turnout in past aldermanic contests has ranged from 900 to 2,000. Given the fervor of opposition, "any alderman who votes for it in 2008 will lose in 2009," said the activist. Hence, change will come later rather than sooner. Evanston will not replicate Oak Brook, but fiscal reality will dictate some development. Police and fire pensions are underfunded, and the city needs new revenue sources.

Evanston has a city manager system, and the manager is paid $250,000 annually. Top city staffers earn more than $100,000. The mayor earns $20,000, and the aldermen $10,000. The aldermen have no paid staff, meet frequently, often until midnight, get a deluge of calls for constituent services, and also serve on the Planning and Development Committee, which handles zoning. Ethics laws prohibit any official or employee from doing any business with the city. "It's a financial sacrifice," said one Evanston source. And it's also a dead end. No Evanston mayor or alderman has gone on to higher office in the past half-century.

Another recent controversy involved a council resolution instructing police officers and other bureaucrats to refrain from asking about a person's immigration status. The City Council wanted to go on record as making Evanston a "sanctuary city," and the language implied that those opposing illegal immigration were racist. After, as Jean-Baptiste put it, "fanning the flames of hatred," the council just called for the "humane treatment" of illegals.

The bottom line: Evanstonians are waxing ecstatic about Obama, but after November the main event begins: Anti-development "regressive progressives" will do battle with pro-development "progressive progressives." Give a big edge to the anti-change regressives. Hell hath no fury like a self-centered liberal scorned.