Shaw: Can You Have Good Politics Without Good Government?

Recent decisions reflect Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley's old adage: “Good government is good politics and good politics is good government.”

BGA President & CEO Andy Shaw talks about Rahm, Rauner and Lisa Madigan's pivots toward good government in his bi-weekly column for Crain's Chicago Business.


Chatted briefly with Mayor Rahm Emanuel at a mutual friend’s house a couple months ago about his vehement opposition to federal court oversight of police reform in Chicago, and his explanation was simple: Judges and monitors, unlike elected officials, are unaccountable to local taxpayers and tend to endorse years of expensive initiatives.

Chicago can reform itself, Emanuel declared, and when I questioned the optics of his intransigence, and its potential for affecting a 2019 re-election campaign, he said, without a moment’s hesitation, “I don’t give a (choose your expletive)” and then hustled off.

Last month, Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan ignored Emanuel and did what Better Government Association attorney Matt Topic and many others had been urging her to do: Petition a federal court to oversee the reform effort, even if Emanuel and President Trump’s Justice Department disagree with that approach.

Madigan’s announcement included a harsh assessment of a police department “plagued by unconstitutional conduct” and a failure “to investigate and discipline officers” that led to “broken trust” between cops and the communities they police.

Standing behind her and listening intently was—yes—Rahm Emanuel, who sucked it up and claimed to welcome the “partnership” with the Illinois AG:

“I am proud that (she) is standing up for our city, its residents and our police officers where the Trump Administration fell flat.”

So what prompted this “kumbaya” moment—Madigan stepping up and Emanuel standing down? I give you the first Mayor Daley—Richard J.—whose malapropisms often overshadowed an electoral savvy epitomized by this iconic line half a century ago: “Good government is good politics and good politics is good government.”

In other words, step outside your comfort zone to make smart policy decisions a majority of voters agree with and they’ll probably reward you at re-election time.

That may be one reason Madigan, who generally avoids confrontations with Democratic allies of her powerful father, House Speaker Michael Madigan, decided to ignore Emanuel with a bold move that should impress voters who don’t like her father, have doubts about her and don’t trust the mayor on police reform.

As for Emanuel, his gut instinct to control the environment gave way to political reality: Lose the expletives and accept court oversight or jeopardize his re-election chances.

Gov. Bruce Rauner made a similar calculation when he signed a new education funding bill that was even more generous to Chicago’s public schools than a spending plan he vetoed a few weeks earlier, claiming it was a ”bailout” for CPS.

Rauner apparently realized, like Emanuel and Lisa Madigan, that his re-election chances required a more practical and less ideological approach that most seasoned observers consider “good government” and “good politics.”

Time will tell if those decisions benefit Emanuel, Rauner and Lisa Madigan as well as they served Richard J. and Richard M. Daley, who won 12 elections between them and ran Chicago for more than four decades.

It’ll also be interesting to see if the first Mayor Daley’s adage influences Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle and the commissioners who shoved the county’s extraordinarily sour sweetened beverage tax down people’s throats.

Polls indicate Preckwinkle and at least four commissioners, including Rich Daley’s brother John, could be canned at election time next year because their votes are hard to swallow as good government or good politics, and movements are bubbling up to repeal the tax and punish its proponents.

Will the tax advocates read the warning labels, do 180’s and repeal or reduce it? Most voters would probably find that refreshing.

About the Author

Andy Shaw

Andy Shaw is an award-winning Chicago journalist who spent 37 years covering local, state and national politics, business, education, and day-to-day news at the City News Bureau of Chicago, Chicago Sun-Times, NBC 5 and ABC 7, before joining BGA.