“Do you believe in miracles? Yes!!”
That was sportscaster Al Michaels’ rhapsodic riff when the U.S. hockey team beat the heavily favored Soviets at the 1980 Winter Olympics.
And it came to mind the morning after the suburban Cook County elections on April 9 when I discovered, with proverbial “shock and awe,” that voters in west suburban Maywood had actually ousted their incumbent mayor, Henderson Yarbrough.
It’s what should have happened, based on Yarbrough’s sorry record, but “should have” rarely “does” in these suburban contests, for reasons we’ve discussed before:
Partisan election boards manufacture cockamamie reasons for knocking challengers off ballots; motivated political organizations work hard to protect their incumbent patrons; and widespread apathy results in abysmally low voter turnout.
But that wasn’t enough to save Yarbrough in Maywood, where independent candidate Edwenna Perkins beat him by 134 votes.
A squeaker, literally, but a landslide, figuratively — just enough to restore my faith in the potential of educated and energized voters to make long-overdue changes.
Apathy was a sad reality for too many years in Maywood, which had been a relatively vibrant and diverse working-class community of factories, stores, decent schools and strong civic pride — but fell on hard times as jobs left, property values sank and taxes soared, while gangs and drugs blossomed.
Something else also blossomed: A sense of political opportunism and arrogance. Just when residents of Maywood needed government at its best, they got government at its worst.
Much of this has been detailed in a series of Better Government Association investigations:
- Henderson Yarbrough’s wife, Karen, who is now Cook County’s recorder of deeds, and his sister-in-law ended up with insurance business from development projects he regulated.
- The mismanaged police department botched the investigation of the murder of one of its own officers, which still hasn’t been solved.
- The Maywood housing authority fumbled tax money and allegedly used favoritism to hand out subsidized housing vouchers.
- Village vendors and employees contributed campaign cash to the politicians who controlled their livelihoods.
- And the former village manager, Chicago Ald. Jason Ervin, owned a reputed Maywood drug house that he bought from Henderson Yarbrough.
No wonder residents felt beat up and rarely bothered to vote.
But this time they said enough is enough. Turnout was still low — only 19 percent — but two out of three voters in a crowded field rejected Yarbrough, so Perkins, his main opponent, got just enough support to win.
Let’s hope the moral of the story is that Maywood residents are finally becoming more engaged and paying attention to who controls their tax dollars, their police department and their community development.
Maybe our investigations and our civic engagement in Maywood contributed — we helped residents obtain public documents and learn how to watch their government — but perhaps the voters simply got tired of the Yarbroughs’ act.
Whatever sparked the outcome, the takeaway is clear: Residents have to care about their communities and pay attention to how they’re being run, or they won’t realize what’s happening when the Yarbroughs of the world do their self-serving thing.
Maywood residents have taken a big step toward reclaiming their town.
And we’re rooting for more miracles in more mismanaged municipalities on the next election day.
Andy Shaw is President & CEO of the Better Government Association. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 312-386-9097.