Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Digging into the political past

Admittedly, not many people pay attention to the assessor’s office of Cook County government.

That is one office whose highlight in the public eye may very well have come 29 years ago when it got mentioned in the film “The Blues Brothers” (remember when Jake and Elwood were in their mad dash to pay the taxes on the orphanage where they grew up? Their destination, with law enforcement and military personnel of every type in pursuit, was the assessor’s office).

BUT THAT POSITION could wind up getting more attention than usual if Bob Shaw proceeds with his declared intentions to seek the office as his way of gaining a return to electoral politics.

Shaw released a statement saying he’d like to run for the post, on account of the fact that incumbent Assessor Jim Houlihan has said he plans to retire, following 12 years running the office that sets the property values for every single plot across the county – which has a hand in determining how high the property taxes will be.

Whether Shaw could win the post is something I’m unsure of.

For the simple fact is that Shaw and his twin brother, Bill, were always one of those breed of political people whose base was a small portion of the Chicago area, rather than the entire area.

THEY HAD THEIR followers on the far South Side of Chicago and in the inner southern suburbs. But whether anyone else will find Bob Shaw appealing enough to cast a ballot for him is questionable.

It is like the commonly accepted political logic surrounding Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan, D-Chicago, whose legislative district encompasses a couple of wards on the Southwest Side.

He may be all-powerful, but he likely could never win a statewide (or even citywide) office. His power is too concentrated in those select neighborhoods.

The same goes for Shaw, who is an acquired taste who appeals to certain people who feel like they are otherwise ignored by political people.

THE FACT IS that at their peak, Shaw was the all-powerful Alderman from the 9th Ward (the Roseland and Pullman neighborhoods, primarily), while brother bill was a state Senator from the same area.

Bob at City Hall with Bill at the Statehouse. They made an impressive pair who were willing to give a voice to a neighborhood that when many people think of it at all, it is to comment on how much it has declined in recent decades.

Of course, time progressed and the two made the move to the suburbs, with Bob becoming a member of the Cook County Board of Review. His brother for a time doubled his state Senate service with a stint as mayor of suburban Dolton – although he eventually focused his attention on that post full-time until his death last year.

Now it will just be Bob Shaw, who some always considered the stronger voiced of the two (as in Bill did Bob’s bidding), although it likely was more accurate to say they were a pair with similar goals – focused on trying to get more public attention and awareness of the impoverished communities they represented.

LISTENING TO BOB Shaw these days, he still speaks like he’s representing merely the underdogs of our society – rather than going for a post that would give him a say in the lives of the more than 5 million people who live in Cook County.

He says he’d like to use the post to try to help people who are in danger of losing their homes to foreclosure because they can’t afford to pay the property taxes that his desired office would have a hand in setting.

(I say a hand because the reality is that it is the city councils and village boards across the county that actually set the tax levels in their communities based on how they use the property values and levies set by the assessor’s office).

That could be a powerful issue – vote for Bob and you might get to keep your house.

BUT I ALSO have to wonder how Shaw’s political past will scare off many prospective voters. Like I wrote earlier, he may have been around the local political scene for more than two full decades, but hardly anyone outside of Roseland or Dolton has ever had a chance to vote for him before.

And somehow, I doubt the feelings of the Jackson family have changed toward Bob Shaw.

I’m talking about Jackson as in Rep. Jesse Jr., D-Ill., who is the son of the Rev. Jesse Jackson Sr.

There was always the sense that the Shaws wanted to be the political powerbrokers of the far South Side and surrounding suburbs, and were envious of the fact that it is the Jacksons who actually have that kind of influence.

THERE HAVE BEEN many local campaigns in recent years between allies of Shaw running against allies of Jackson, and it was usually the latter who won. Even in the few cases where Shaw allies were victorious, they usually had trouble governing effectively because there were so many Jackson-types willing to oppose them at every step.

Would a Bob Shaw for county Assessor bring out a hard-hitting opposition from the Jacksons? Or will it be a lot of under-the-table kicks to the shins?

Either way, a Shaw attempt at returning to politics could wind up being an intriguing sideshow come the 2010 election cycle.


EDITOR’S NOTES: Will Cook County get its first African-American ( assessor?

The lobby of the Cook County Building got immortalized in cinema, but the actual ( assessor’s office was on a soundstage in Hollywood.

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