Friday, November 28, 2008

Shaws used local government to build allies, amass their political influence

One-time House Speaker Thomas “Tip” O’Neill is remembered among political geeks for the saying, “All politics is local.” And if ever there was anyone who took that saying to heart, it was the brothers Shaw of the far South Side and, later, its surrounding suburbs.

There was once a time when Bob and Bill Shaw threatened to be some of the most politically powerful twins anywhere in this country. Bob was an alderman from the Roseland neighborhood, while Bill represented the neighborhood in Springfield – both in the Illinois House and later the state Senate (until 2002).

THAT ERA IS definitely over, now that Bill has succumbed to colon cancer earlier this week. He was 71, and is survived by, among others, brother Bob.

But in my mind, what made the Shaws unique was that they sensed the changing demographics of the Chicago area, particularly in the early 1990s when many south suburban towns that once were lower-middle class white changed to majority African-American populations.

Rather than feeling hemmed in by their existing neighborhoods and the need to continue to live within their respective wards or legislative districts, they moved. They left city life in a decaying Roseland neighborhood for the suburbs.

Bob Shaw accommodated no longer being a city resident by giving up a City Council seat for a post on the Cook County Board.

HIS TWIN BROTHER merely shifted over from a city-based Illinois House seat to a state Senate seat covering both city and suburban territory. He paired that post with his election in 1997 as mayor of Dolton – a position he continued to hold to the present day.

When the Shaws went suburban, they had hopes of bringing their Chicago political skills to the suburbs to organize local officials into a series of allies who would make them the two big political powerbrokers of south suburban Cook County.

They definitely saw themselves as a political pair. I remember Bob once telling me during a visit to the Statehouse Springfield to help his brother gain support for education-related legislation, “I’m watching his back, the way he’d watch mine.”

They never became the county-wide powerbrokers that they dreamed of being, in large part because around the same time that the Shaws went suburban, the Rev. Jesse Jackson had his son, Jesse Jr., get elected to a seat in Congress that represented the far South Side and surrounding suburbs.

BASICALLY, POLITICAL POWER in southern Cook County during the 1990s became a squabble between the Shaws and the Jacksons. There were many local elections that had their significance in that they were between candidates who were allies with Shaw and allies of Jackson.

One of Jackson’s perennial opponents for his seat in Congress in recent elections has been the Rev. Anthony Williams – a Shaw brothers protégé from Robbins who usually campaigns on the theme that Jesse Jr. has “lost touch” with the reality of inner-city and suburban black life. If one had asked the Shaws, they would have given the same answer.

Insofar as a lasting legacy, many will argue the Jacksons won.

With Bill Shaw now gone and Bob’s political glory in the past, it falls short of Jesse Jr., who has a semi-legitimate chance of moving up to the U.S. Senate (even though Gov. Rod Blagojevich on Thursday verbally touted the chances of another member of Congress – Danny Davis – for the post).

WHEN IT CAME to the public perception among local voters, the Jacksons always came out ahead based on the national glamour/notoriety of the reverend’s lengthy record as a civil rights leader. Jesse Jr. was the guy who would get the glory in the national press, with the Shaws usually coming off as petty, small-minded people who couldn’t see beyond their own immediate neighborhood concerns.

But that would be an inaccurate way of looking at the Shaws, who if anything were guilty of taking Tip O’Neill’s advice literally.

They built up influence by using their skills to get local trustees elected to village boards throughout the area surrounding Dolton. And within Dolton, Bill Shaw was a political boss with the same control that some people like to remember Dick Daley as having in the old days in Chicago proper.

I still remember when Dolton politics got its moment in the Chicago-area mindset, when critics claimed that Dolton police department credentials (including those stinkin’ badges) were given out to Shaw allies with criminal records and to family members and other friends.

BUT DESPITE THE people who want to believe that Bill Shaw was running some sort of criminal operation in Dolton, nothing illegal was ever proven. In fact, much of the criticism tended to come from people who remembered the old days of Dolton as a white-majority town (rather than its current population of 82.4 percent African-American people).

And in the Legislature (where Bill Shaw did double duty for six years), he is remembered for measures to require increased attention to the contributions of African-American people in the teaching of history in public schools.

So in figuring the legacy of the Shaw brothers (and one has to consider them as a team, watching each others’ backs), it will live on because there are still officials on village boards and park districts and school boards who control local concerns of interest to many people who owe their initial election to Bill and Bob.

Jackson may have gotten the national glory, but the Shaws for a time had the actual Chicago-style political power.


EDITOR’S NOTES: Here’s hoping the Shaw family and friends have a happier Christmas holiday than (,shaw-dies112608.article) they did for Thanksgiving.

Both Bob and Bill Shaw were ultimately replaced on the Cook County Board and in the ( Illinois Senate respectively by challengers allied with the Jackson family.

Clues as to just what the Shaws and Jacksons thought of each other can be found in this newspaper account ( that Jesse Jackson Jr. made a point of distributing on the Internet.


Anonymous said...

Surely, this was an informative essay at best. Dolton is riddled with gangs, drugs, crocked cops, and farely frequent shootings. The "Shaw Camp" was at the helm during the decrease of lifestyle in Dolton. Dolton didn't need a Water Fountain or weekly parties. Dolton needed big box business, jobs, and safe housing. None of which came during the Shaw Administration.

Anonymous said...

I'm sorry that mayor Shaw passed, but the town of Dolton has been down hill since the Shaw bothers came. The dolton police department is made up of corrupt police officers. Don't get me wrong not all the police officers of Dolotn is bad, you still have a few good ones, but not many. There would be less crime if the police officers do there jobs and stop trying to be friends with the gangmembers and drug dealers. Why are they not out patroling the streets. How do you expect the young men in the neighbrhood to be able to get off the street and stay out of trouble, if all there is in Dolton is liquor stores and night clubs, not jobs for young men. Thanks to the Shaw brothers. Robert shaw is always intimidating the young men that's not participation in crime but still the crime rate is so high. Are you really working or pretending. Get on the job and stop trying to use your authority and use your brain.