American Equality Versus Equity

Part of the American ethos is to promote the survival of the fittest. As a capitalist nation, we extend Darwinian values into our social fabric by celebrating the biggest and brightest, while marginalizing everyone else. We imagine our country as a level playing field where anyone can make it, and if you don’t make it on your first try, you’ll get another chance later.

A less heralded, but just as important component of the American ethos is that of neighbors pulling together in times of need. It comes in the form of volunteer organizations like the Cajun Navy, which responds with volunteer water-borne rescue teams in flooded areas. But it also comes in the form of the Philando Castile Relief Foundation, which uses the money from his posthumous legal settlement with the city of Minneapolis to pay the school lunch debts of local children.

Inspiring as these individual efforts are, they are piecemeal solutions to larger problems like a housing scarcity that forces the poorest Americans to live on floodplains and a benefits “donut hole” for families not poor enough to qualify for school lunch, but still unable to afford three square meals a day on their own incomes.

During my family’s spring break travel to the Northeast, we were struck by the economic growth of Boston and New York City versus the struggle for improvement in Buffalo and New Haven. Boston has a long list of gentrifying and growing neighborhoods that were once hardscrabble, including Roxbury, South Boston and the Seaport District. Similarly, New York City is experiencing a boom in almost every corner. Even The Bronx seemed vibrant in a way it wasn’t when I last visited twenty years ago.

Meanwhile, Buffalo and New Haven still struggle with large undeveloped blocks in their city core, hollowed out shopping centers, and other large parts of downtown that have almost no pedestrian activity after work hours – a sign that people would rather spend their time and money somewhere else.

When we compare Boston and New York to every other Northeastern city, the differences are obvious: Boston is the national’s capital of higher education and New York is the capital of the nation’s financial and media industries. There’s no doubt that resources and the best and brightest will flow to these places. Every town should aspire to be like Boston and New York City, we think, so they can get the best of everything.

The reality of America is that survival of the fittest always ends up leaving someone behind, and once you begin to fall behind a little bit – for instance you can only afford to live on a floodplain or can’t pay for three meals a day – you become part of a vicious cycle of disadvantage that never gets better.

The traditional American ethos, survival of the fittest, is founded on a concept of equality: Anyone can make it in America. But instead, we’re finding our nation’s biggest challenges are about access to the things we need to have good lives, such as economic opportunity, good education, regular health care, and increasingly access to a healthy environment in the form of not only clean air and clean water, but also stopping climate change before it immeasurably alters the world we live in.

This crack in our system, providing access, is about equity, which differs from equality in that a measure of fairness is employed in the distribution of resources. Equality gives everyone the same resources, while equity distributes resources based on need.

While there are certainly parts of Boston and New York that need more assistance than others, the resources available to their citizens are considerably more than in Buffalo and New Haven. For instance, both Boston and New York offer free school lunch (and breakfast) to any child who wants it. New York even offers free meals to kids throughout the summer.

The result should be no surprise: Boston and New York City’s graduation rates in 2018 were 75.1% and 75.9% respectively, while Buffalo’s was 64.5% (but up from 2012’s abysmal 48%). If you start life with a lack of resources, getting a leg up matters.

It turns out that concepts of equality and equity are split along conservative and liberal lines, writes Dan Meegan in The Atlantic. Conservatives favor equality, when asked to contribute more than they should expect to receive in return, while liberals favor equity, which benefits those whose needs are most urgent.

Meegan wants liberals (a.k.a. “Democrats”) to craft policies that will address conservative concerns, to win elections:

“One way or another, liberals must recognize that many Americans define “fairness” in terms other than aid to the neediest—and should craft their messages for 2020 accordingly. Donald Trump’s recent budget proposal includes cuts to Social Security and Medicare. Will Democrats be smart enough to point out that he’s threatening benefits that Americans have paid for and that they deserve?”

But I believe this is a route to oblivion. America’s failing communities have so many problems, that some need extra help just to catch up. For instance, some rural hospitals need supplemental funding because they will never get enough patients to afford expensive specialist doctors like surgeons. Without nearby specialists, rural patients are forced to travel hundreds of miles for care that’s easily accessible in cities. What’s fair? Equal funding to hospitals, which effectively gets rural patients nothing, or equity, which provides surgeons?

This equality versus equity problem is playing itself out in a thousand different ways across America in school lunches, daycare provision, police profiling, higher education funding and public transit availability. Until we shed social Darwinism from our political decision-making, America’s economic growth will be limited and our moral leadership will be eclipsed by Canada, Europe and every other Westernized nation.

American problem solvers should stop worrying about how to ensure equality, but should instead figure out how to explain why equity benefits us all.

The Emotion Of Election Night Parties

Melissa Conyears-Ervin, Chicago’s Treasurer-Elect comes to the stage cheered by her supporters on Election Night, April 2, 2019. She might have done a funky line dance with her sorority sisters later on, but I’m not telling. (Credit: Mike Fourcher)

American election night parties are a unique thing. If you’ve been a committed campaign volunteer or, worse yet, a member of the staff, the amount of tension and mental and physical exhaustion building up to the party can be overwhelming. Unlike any other effort, democratic elections are a totally zero-sum game, either you won it all, or lost it all. Maybe you can try again in a few years, but even with the benefit of past experience, you’re pretty much starting a brand new campaign all over again.

So, when you get to that election night party where you find out if all your efforts were worthwhile – the polls are closed and there’s nothing to do but wait for the results – things start to happen.

For one, just about everyone you met during the course of the campaign suddenly seems like your best buddy. Everyone is hugging. They could be smiling or crying depending on the expected outcome, but that’s irrelevant compared to the fact that everyone at this party IS NOW YOUR TRIBE. Tonight, you would fight a thousand samurai warriors with your bare hands for these people.

Even the old guy volunteer that brought donuts every day. Especially that old guy.

Except for the big parties in Washington, D.C., Most election night parties are decidedly low budget affairs. Union halls, Veterans of Foreign Wars halls, a cheap bar at the edge of town, or maybe a meeting room at the Holiday Inn. Big U.S. Senate or governor campaign often rent a fancy hotel ballroom, but it’s a cash bar with a DJ and certainly no appetizers.

Probably the two most extravagant election night parties I’ve been to occured on the same night in 2004.

For the Illinois Democratic Primary, a high school friend was the daughter of one candidate, Blair Hull. A wealthy man, his good government campaign fell apart after local media forced open his divorce files, revealing that he and his ex-wife had physical altercations. But determined to see things through, Hull campaigned hard until the last day.

So, a friend and I decided to check out his election night party, even though he was guaranteed to lose.

It was in a beautiful, high-end hotel ballroom in Chicago. Free drinks, shrimp cocktail and tasteful decorations. But the room was largely empty as a few volunteers and staff drank themselves into oblivion, waiting for the inevitable bad results to come in later that night.

So we left. Down the street, at the Hyatt Regency, was the party for another guy running: Barack Obama.

We knew the party was somewhere in the hotel, but where? It was late and hotel staff were mostly gone. There were no visible signs. Someone we bumped into said, “Down the escalators.”

The Hyatt Regency, a convention hotel, has what seems like four or five basement levels. We went down all of them. Following escalators and a steady trail of people heading the same direction. Then, we reached a bottom floor, turned a corner and heard a raging crowd and thumping music down a dark hallway. We walked a bit, then pulled open some doors, and there we saw a thousand people crammed into a room for five hundred. No bar, no chairs. Just lots of people and a sound system blaring Motown. A stage was at the front, and we stood on tiptoe, craning our necks to see over the crowd.

Then, only minutes after we arrived – Barack appeared! But this wasn’t the international rock star we know today. This was a guy who had just won an unbelievable, come-from-behind win in his first statewide election. He wasn’t even elected yet! This was just the primary election!

He was skinnier, younger than today. Maybe more awkward. But he strode across the stage with a huge smile, pulling a woman that must have been his wife–Michelle did not campaign with him at first–and swung his arm up in a broad wave to us all. The room erupted. Total bedlam! These were people who had worked, really worked to get him elected. Illinois was still learning how to say “Barack”, but these people knew. They were the originals. The core believers.

He took the microphone and said that thing we’ve heard so many times, but it was the first time I’d ever heard it: “Who would believe, that a skinny boy, from the South Side, with a funny name, could ever get so far?”

If it was belam before, now people were crying. Screaming. Laughing. The panoply of human emotion was entirely on display. Even though I was an interloper, new to the whole Obama thing, I couldn’t help but laugh and gush with excitement myself. Maybe-This-Was-A-Big-Deal!

Mercifully, his speech was short. But when it was over, it seemed like everyone in the room – all one thousand of them – knew one another except for me and my friend. We stepped out, as the true believers began to really party for the night.

Five Reasons Chicago’s Coming Election Will Indicate America’s Future

Chicago mayoral candidates Lori Lightfoot and Toni Preckwinkle. Credit: Mike Fourcher and WBEZ

Unless you’re a local, American mayoral elections can seem provincial and quaint. “How could a contest for chief garbage collector and town booster be important to the rest of America?” we ask.

But Chicago, preparing for a groundbreaking city election on Tuesday, is a true bellwether city for urban America, and much more conservative than decades of Democratic Party control lets on. Tuesday’s runoff election for mayor and city treasurer, and final contest for many City Council seats, will reveal a great deal of insight on what urban residents, now 80% of America, will be prioritizing in the coming years. While city dwellers set the pace for American politics, Chicago’s Midwestern values hew more to the middle than coastal Los Angeles and New York City, providing a better prediction of what’s to come on the national stage.

Since the start of Chicago’s runoff campaign five weeks ago, polling has pointed to a mayoral victory by rookie politician Lori Lightfoot. Yet, the mayoral runoff has been mostly about style, rather than policy substance, since Lightfoot and her opponent, Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle, have very similar liberal outlooks on policing, housing, taxation–and just about everything.

Meanwhile, polling for many for City Council runoffs has been favoring lefty, progressive candidates seeking to sweep out old guard pols, making it unlikely that the last few “machine” aldermen will be able to keep the reins of power away from a new, progressive mayor. On top of that, Chicago is about to elect for the first time a city treasurer who was not pulled into office by mayoral coattails, resulting in a new city-wide office held by someone with their own, independent electorate.

Once the ballots are counted, Chicago will see a whole lot of change Wednesday morning. There are five major reasons why all of America should pay attention.

1. Race and minority status have been election issues in brand new ways. Both Toni Preckwinkle and Lori Lightfoot are African-American women, a first for Chicago in the mayor’s office, no matter which is elected. And Lightfoot is married and openly gay with a daughter, another big first for Chicago, if she is elected. Yet, because both candidates are black women, minority status has not been a divisive campaign issue, but instead repeatedly affirmed as a gain for Chicago.

This is a remarkable development for a city that has lost 181,000 African-Americans in the last eight years, and one that has struggled with “a tale of two cities” with crime and economic underdevelopment raging in minority communities, while white Chicago has been booming in every way imaginable. A black, woman mayor with working-class roots (Preckwinkle’s father was a letter carrier in Minneapolis and Lightfoot’s was a steelworker in Ohio) will be a radical change from the white, professional class mayors Chicago has had since 1989.

Under Lightfoot or Preckwinkle, perhaps the project of racial reconciliation and equitable neighborhood development begun by Chicago’s first African American mayor, Harold Washington, and halted by his untimely death in office in 1987, can be restarted. All signs seem to suggest that Chicago voters are ready for it.

Unlike Chicago’s other recently famous black politician, Barack Obama, both Preckwinkle and Lightfoot have a history of speaking plainly about race and the role it plays in policymaking. Also, both candidates have demonstrated an awareness of how white, Latino, black and Asian perspectives differ, and how personal racial transgressions can feel. With its new leadership, Chicago will be positioned to be a model for post-Donald Trump racial reconciliation.

2. Chicago’s coming crime and policing policies will worth watching. As I mentioned before, Chicago is much more conservative than its Democratic voting record suggests. One leading “moderate” candidate for mayor eliminated in the general election, Illinois Comptroller Susana Mendoza, was nicknamed “Electric Suzy” when she was a state legislator, because of her strong support for the death penalty. As a 2019 mayoral candidate, Mendoza attracted campaign staff from outgoing Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s team, and made “get tough on crime” policies a major plank of her campaign.

In contrast, both Lightfoot and Preckwinkle are strong proponents of police reform, and each of them played a role in pushing Chicago towards the consent decree it is now under that will make major changes in how the police department operates. This is a big departure from Mayor Emanuel (and his predecessor Richard M. Daley) and from many other leading mayor candidates eliminated in the first round of voting. Long before Laquan McDonald was killed by a Chicago police officer in 2014, views on policing had been a dividing line between white and minority communities, with Emanuel and Daley resisting major policy changes.

Despite President Donald Trump’s promotion of 1980’s-era police tactics, urban America is calling for change. Preckwinkle’ leadership on eliminating cash bail, and Lightfoot’s recognition as principal author of the 2016 Chicago Police Accountability Report stating that the Chicago police department struggles with racism, suggests that Chicago is preparing to address crime and race in ways America’s federal government has been avoiding.

3. Chicago policymaking is about to get much more progressive. There was an incredible moment in one of the many televised debates between Lightfoot and Preckwinkle, where they argued over which one would be a more aggressive proponent of affordable housing and moving resources to underdeveloped communities. After eight years of Emanuel’s New Democrat, pro-business policies, where the Chicago Housing Authority sat on hundreds of millions of dollars while the city endured a low-income housing crisis, it was revolutionary to hear an argument about who would build houses faster. Both mayor candidates have promised liberal-friendly changes to city school governance, policing, neighborhood development and cannabis law, all areas where Emanuel has exhibited feet of clay.

While nationally, urban America is having a left-wing moment, Chicago’s incoming leadership will be liberal enough to make big changes but yet challenged to move a big city bureaucracy that naturally resists lefty impulses. Like much of America, Chicago will resist quick fixes and illustrate how hard it will be to implement a progressive agenda.

4. Downtown big business won’t be the first priority. Elected in 1989, Mayor Richard M. Daley put a top priority on building up Chicago’s downtown and pushing it to diversify into more finance and national corporate headquarters, as many other Rust Belt cities’ downtowns withered throughout the 1990’s. Emanuel, Daley’s successor in 2007, put the downtown-first policy on steroids, pouring resources on while doing everything he could to draw corporate headquarters to the Loop. Emanuel’s downtown focus has been hugely successful, as Crain’s Chicago Business recently reported that since 2010, the Loop added 130,000 new jobs.

But this boom has been mostly to the benefit of professionals, who are mostly white, as high wage industrial jobs working class blacks and Latinos relied on dried up. During the same time black neighborhoods have emptied out, and large parts of the South and West Sides have been locked into a cycle of disinvestment and high-unemployment since the 1960’s. Preckwinkle and Lightfoot have both made neighborhood investment top planks of their campaigns. While it’s possible for neighborhood investment to not be anti-business, many of Chicago’s business leaders are concerned about what they hear from the mayor candidates, expecting rent control, higher commercial property taxes, and less support for big downtown projects.

Like the rest of America, Chicago’s neighborhoods need infrastructure and private investment to spur growth. The 21st Century manufacturing and knowledge economies still need to take hold in Chicago and the city’s next mayor will have to write a playbook most of America has yet to discover.

5. The end of mayoral autocracy and a more activist City Council is coming. Chicago’s fifty alderman have long quailed under the gaze of their mayor, but come Wednesday, more independent-minded aldermen will hold office than ever before, with the vast majority of alderman elected to office without significant help from the mayoral candidates – a big change from past elections. Past mayors have held power by allying with aldermen who ignored city-wide issues in return for dominance over their home wards and help from the mayor around election time. But this year’s Council will bring a majority of aldermen with a history of asking unpleasant questions, and too few of “old machine” pols to keep the levers of power away from activist Council members.

We should expect a bumpy ride for the new Chicago mayor, as City Council pushes back in ways it hasn’t done since the early 1980’s. But unlike those days’ Council Wars between a progressive African-American mayor and reactionary white aldermen, Chicago’s next Council session is likely to be pulled between independent-minded aldermen that are more left than the mayor, and reactionary whites and minorities who are more conservative on policing and/or taxation than the mayor. As it stands today, it is unclear what kind of legislative coalition a new mayor will be able to assemble, and that suggests conflict is on the horizon.

America’s Democratic Party wrestling match between lefty populists and centrist establishment-types is about to be played out in Chicago. What happens here could be a good indicator of how hard it will be to establish a coalition if a Democratic president ascends to the White House in 2020.

For Chicago: Preckwinkle For Mayor, Conyears-Ervin For Treasurer

Embed from Getty Images

There’s truism about politics: campaigning and governing are totally different skills, and just because you’re good at one, doesn’t mean you’re good at the other. Campaigning is packed with artificially black and white comparisons, inflated statements, and poorly declared ideas. Messaging and advertising is the messy and imprecise business of elections. But in a democratic system, we citizens have agreed that campaigning is what politicians need do to get elected, and when the votes are counted we hope the winners are just as good, or better at governing.

This is the root of my lament about Toni Preckwinkle, my preferred candidate for Chicago mayor. She’s run an abysmal campaign, wasting opportunities, allowing herself to be defined by opponents, and generally seeming leadfooted. While I have no real complaints about her runoff opponent, Lori Lightfoot, Toni’s thirty-year record of progressive accomplishment in government is tremendous, and something I’d like to see continued in the mayor’s office.

Her work as Cook County Board President, the job she currently occupies, has been a study in the hard work of governing. After decades of mismanagement before her tenure, Preckwinkle steered county government into solvency, moved the massive county hospitals and health system into the black, enrolled 320,000 people onto a new CountyCare managed health insurance program, rebuilt the state’s second-largest public housing agency and helped to push back the judicial travesty of cash bail.

These are boring, unsexy accomplishments that none-the-less affect hundreds of thousands of people in very real ways. And while Preckwinkle has earned a reputation of grinding through staff, and her demeanor is gruff and unforgiving, few statues have been erected in honor of a leader’s sense of humor. We demand concrete results from our leaders, and Preckwinkle has delivered it time and again.

Yet, Preckwinkle has run a terrible campaign. She was largely invisible during the first round of elections, nursing her resources for the second round and expecting that her base of support would give her a first place finish in the first round. But because she didn’t spend time and money defining herself to voters for the February election, other candidates did, setting the tone and defining what they had to offer.

Then, nine days before the February election, a hubris-filled Preckwinkle supporter crashed a Lightfoot press conference, attempting to belittle her. Instead, in an unprompted, televised argument that will go down in Chicago political history, Lightfoot directly engaged the man and earned her bonafides as the change candidate.

It was a terrible “own goal” by Team Preckwinkle, and Team Lightfoot has been matching “change” and “machine” with “Preckwinkle” at every opportunity since then. We’ve heard very little from Lightfoot about how her turn at the mayor’s office would be substantially different from Preckwinkle’s (in fact, it seems both candidates would make many of the same policy choices), but Chicagoans seem to be hungering for a break from the past. And since Preckwinkle has a 40 year history as a Chicago and Cook County elected official – no matter that almost that entire past was opposing the old machine and reforming the dreck they left behind – the zeitgeist has shifted to Lightfoot’s candidacy of new, rather than Preckwinkle’s history of reform.

I’ll be voting for Toni Preckwinkle for mayor, but I don’t have anything bad to say about Lori Lightfoot. I spent a great deal of time talking to her about police reform when I was running and reporting for The Daily Line. She is a deep, thoughtful person, genuinely interested in service – and she has a sense of humor. She can be a bit imperious at times, but so has every other person I’ve met that has achieved her level of success. While it doesn’t serve her well, I suspect it’s a habit born of being in command – I’ve never sensed her to foster self-doubt.

Me and State Rep. Melissa Conyears-Ervin, candidate for Chicago Treasurer.

And while so much attention has gone to the mayoral campaign, I’ve been spending most of my energy on the city treasurer race, volunteering for Melissa Conyears-Ervin. I’ve worked and volunteered for dozens of candidates over the years, and Melissa is one of the few I’ve known to be the “whole package”. She’s got a Horatio Alger story, having risen from a West Side family, raised by a single mother working a union job to become the first in her family to go to college, and then get a job working for Allstate, a Fortune 500 company. While there, she earned an MBA in finance and managed a office of hundreds. Then, sensing there was more to life than the corporate ladder, she left her corporate job to work at a West Side non-profit focusing on housing. Only after all this life experience, did she run for State Representative. And, except for when she went to college, she lived the whole time on Chicago’s West Side, never leaving her roots.

Volunteering for and working with Melissa, I’ve found her interest in people to be genuine, her grasp of financial issues to be real (I have an M.B.A. myself) and that she reads and studies in depth to get up to speed on issues. She understands and is committed to protecting Chicago’s $8 billion of cash and short-term investments. She has some genuine ideas on how to help our pensions perform better, and she is energized by the idea of forcing Chicago banks, who benefit from holding our massive cash deposits, to create programs to serve significant Chicago’s unbanked population.

Melissa is deeply committed to the boring, uninteresting parts of government that create real long-term results. And for this guy with twenty-five years in and around government, her commitment to the boring, is the most exciting thing ever. If you live in Chicago, please give Melissa Conyears-Ervin your vote.

Can America Be A Welcoming Country Again?

The Statue of Liberty and downtown Manhattan. (Credit: EAS ART/Flickr)

A successful man in his early 40’s, working in an industry he loves, Faisal Siddiqui is the first to tell you that he’s a lucky man. He has a perennially sunny outlook on the world – it takes a serious effort to put him in a bad mood. Blessed with a wife he loves and two daughters who dote on him when he comes home from twelve-hour days, Faisal is none-the-less passionate about his work, moving from hospital to hospital as a CEO who specializes in difficult turnaround cases.

He’s a voracious reader, consuming as much material as he can make time for, often stacking up books focused on whatever esoteric business problem he’s currently puzzling out. A believer in fitness to focus the mind, Faisal is an avid racquet sports player and hits the soccer pitch too, striving to out-run his opponents – both sports with intense cardio demands.

Although he’s a practicing Muslim who’s noticed attitude changes since 9/11, Faisal still thinks America as the best of countries. “I think of it as the most welcoming and open country,” he told me last week. But the rise of President Donald Trump worries him. “The greatness of the United States has been denigrated because of the extreme thought processes out there. He has been fanning a lot of extremism that’s not just in the U.S.”

One of my closest friends, I haven’t seen Faisal in person in over ten years, but I called him up at his home in Hyderabad, India last week as part of a check in with a few non-American friends on how the U.S. has changed in their perspective. I’ll write about more of my conversations next week, but Faisal told a story that made me think hard about what America offers to the world today.

An Indian patriot, Faisal’s father was a decorated brigadier general in the Indian Army who fought in the 1971 war between India and Pakistan. As a son of an Indian national hero, life has been privileged for Faisal, and he knows it, so he’s committed himself to lifting up his country, one of the reasons he’s so passionate about health care.

Faisal’s sense of morality and devotion to merit is emblematic of the best of liberal democracy, a core value of both the United States and India, and what Americans hope for when we take in new immigrants.

I asked him to tell me his thoughts on the United States as an Indian, and he sounded like a man torn between two countries, unsure if either one could be a good home for him and his family.

“I spent five years in the U.S. in the shadow of 9/11. And then continued to live there and work there, and not once did I have to realize the color of my skin or religion,” said Faisal with pain in his voice. “But in my own country I have come to realize that I can’t live in certain areas because I’m a Muslim.”

The rise of Indian Prime Minister Narenda Modi, the leader of the Hindu nationalist party Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), has brought a chill to India, Faisal says, as right-wing Hindus have suppressed and sometimes terrorized the country’s Muslim minority, which makes up about 15%, or 200 million people of the country’s 1.3 billion people. Before becoming the Indian PM in 2014, Modi was the Chief Minister of Gujarat State, where RSS actively suppressed the state’s Muslim minority.

Faisal started a new job in Ahmedabad, the capital of Gujarat in 2013, to run a failing hospital. And already, you might know where this story is heading.

After a few weeks of living in a hotel, Faisal decided to look for an apartment, so his wife and kids could move to Hyderabad to live with him. He hired a broker and began to look at apartments.

“I’d go with a broker, find an apartment I like. [Then] they’d talk in Gujarati saying that they’d get back, and the call never came. This happened multiple times,” Faisal told me.

“Eventually someone on my team said, ‘You will not find an apartment in this area, the community lines run very deep. Because of your religion you are not supposed to live here, you live 10 kilometers from here.’ So I said, OK, I’ll take a look.”

“We go to the area. It’s a ghetto. It’s over a bridge, very nice on the Hindi side, but on this side, it’s a royal muck. I’m told by the broker there, who is a Muslim, ‘All the wealthy Muslims stay over here, because we are supposed to say here.’ So, show me an option, I tell him. He shows me something then asks if I’m a Sunni or Shia. Are you screwing around with me? I say. If you’re Sunni, you get this block, a Shia, that area.”

Faisal was shocked. Maybe he shouldn’t be, but raised by a veteran of India’s highly meritocratic Army, and educated in the United States, he expected more from his country.

“Eventually I found a man who said God dammit, I’m a Gujarati Hindu and I’ll do what I want. We got a ground level apartment in a good neighborhood. Very nice place.” So and his family moved in. “But then I’ll tell you what happened: Every day people put garbage in front of my door; one day a dead pigeon.”

Eventually, the harassment got bad enough that his wife told him a ghetto would be better than their “good neighborhood”. She begged him to move.

At one point, a man claiming to be a top member of the RSS, the far-right Hindu party run by Modi, visited Faisal at his hospital office. “He told me, ‘Hospitals are very difficult to run. I’ve seen CEOs like you get burnt up. I hope bad things don’t happen to you.’”

To his credit, Faisal ran the man out of his office, but he was upset. “Discriminated to the core, in my own country,” he said.

Soon after, the owner of a apartment building next to Faisal’s hospital visited him, wondering if any doctors might like to rent an apartment. “Can I see it? I said to him immediately. So we went to look at it, and it was wonderful. I offered him a lease on the spot. We moved into the apartment.” But now an experienced Gujarat resident, Faisal was smarter. “When I got the apartment, my company made the lease in the company name, which gave the owner cover.” Nobody could claim the Hindu apartment owner knew he was renting to a Muslim – even if he was a hospital CEO.

Fast forward seven years to today: Faisal’s older brother lives in Charlotte, North Carolina and after almost 20 years of living and working in the U.S., he’s decided to apply for permanent American residency, and is attempting to bring his parents along too. This has set off new thoughts for Faisal, of maybe moving to the U.S. himself.

When I met Faisal seventeen years ago, he was so gung-ho on India, that he tried to convince me to move there after graduate school. His persuasion skills are so strong, I almost did. But now, he’s thinks he might want to move to the U.S. Yet, he hesitates because he hears things have changed in the U.S. since he lived here.

“What we hear about America is that is not what it used to be, as a free country, as a place accepting of people of different backgrounds,” he said. “Nobody is going to make me a hospital CEO that’s for sure.”

“If I make this move it’ll not be for myself. I want to bring a better upbringing for my children. What’s going on now, it’s something my wife and I have not seen growing up,” Faisal said.

All around the developing world, there are talented men and women like Faisal who would like to be part of the American dream. Even though racism has come out of the darkness under President Trump, the Faisals of the world still want to come.

We need to change America back to a place where everyone who dreams of a better life can have a chance to build one.

Note: In my original version I mixed up some cities Faisal lived in, originally saying his old job was in Hyderabad. He now lives in Hyderabad, a very accepting city. His struggles with discrimination was in Ahmedabad. He also only has two daughters, not three. This version has been changed to reflect those fixes.

I Have No Idea What Happens Next

Thirteen candidates showed up for the January 10, 2019 Chicago mayoral candidate forum! (Credit: ABC7Chicago).

There is one thing I can say for certain about Chicago’s election coming on Tuesday: That there will be runoff elections on April 2 for mayor. That’s unfamiliar territory for people like me, who invest a great deal of energy into trying to figure out what’s will happen next in Chicago politics. With fourteen mayoral candidates, six realistically in the hunt to make it to the runoff, and a likely low turnout, it’s almost impossible to tell who’s going make it to round two.

For decades Chicago has been a political incongruity, touting a weak mayor system on paper but living with a strong mayor system in reality. Yet, looking back on history, that strong mayor system has been unraveling for the last fifteen years. Local Democratic party organizations have disappeared, mayoral endorsements have mattered less, aldermen have bucked mayoral authority in Council votes more often. The drip-drip-drip has led us to this moment, where the outgoing mayor, Rahm Emanuel, is hugely unpopular, unable to endorse a successor and a fractured Cook County Democratic Party won’t rally behind their own party Chair, Toni Preckwinkle.

The 14 candidates offer a spectrum of ideologies and personalities. Bill Daley, brother of the former mayor and President Barack Obama’s former chief of staff, is the big business candidate, more fiscally conservative than most. Willie Wilson, an African-American business leader famous for creating a popular gospel song television show, is socially conservative, but is totally unclear on any other policies. And then there’s the former police commissioner, Gerry McCarthy; the scion of a South Side political broker, Jerry Joyce, Jr.; the Latino backroom politico, Gery Chico; the Illinois Comptroller, Susana Mendoza; the police reformer, Lori Lightfoot; and the aforementioned Preckwinkle, backed by liberal service unions and the current Cook County Board President.

There is no lack of talent in the race, and every single one is likely to take Chicago in a totally different direction. While I may find certain aspects of each candidate attractive or objectionable, the electorate at large seems lost without a clear signal of who to support.

How do we choose?

Clearly Chicagoans are overwhelmed. Early voting numbers have dropped, possibly an important indicator since early voting as a percentage of turnout has increased with almost every election, as voters discover its convenience. Does that mean voters are holding off to vote until the last minute? Or are they waiting for the runoff election when their choices are narrowed down? Or are they sick of politics and just opting out of the whole process?

I have no idea.

If Chicago does actually have a low turnout, and people don’t show up in droves to vote Tuesday, whom does low turnout benefit? And will it be just low African-American and Latino turnout, while progressive whites turnout in droves like they did in November 2018?

I could hazard some guesses. For instance, maybe it helps Bill Daley and Susana Mendoza, who enjoy higher white voter support but low overall turnout hurts Toni Preckwinkle, who relies on an African-American base. I have no idea how this would help or hurt Lori Lightfoot, who has been surging lately. Polling I’ve seen shows her support higher among liberal whites who might have problems with Toni Preckwinkle. Maybe higher white turnout helps her? But would it be more or less than Daley or Mendoza?

Hard to say.

Meanwhile there’s about sixteen competitive aldermanic races, out of the 50 wards. That’s fewer than in 2015, which had over twenty. And in this year’s 16 competitive races, maybe eight will go to a runoff. Progressive service unions like SEIU and the Chicago Teachers Union are pouring in cash to help their candidates. But so are conservative trade unions like the Plumbers and Carpenters. And of course developers are too. Given all that money, which candidates will spend their money well versus just spray it all over indiscriminate TV ads and direct mail campaigns?

I don’t know.

I’ve listened to consultants in all kinds of campaigns tell me with absolute certainty they know how things will turn out. That makes sense, since they’re selling certainty, and people quickly forget failures when they’re drowned by the noise of success. But I’m counseling caution, and for candidates and voters alike to act on their conscience.

Candidates: Go as hard as you can as long as you can. You’ll never regret taking action, only the ones you didn’t take.

Voters: Forget who you’re supposed to vote for, and vote for who moves you, if even a little. Chicago will change tremendously with the next mayor, and you’ll likely never have another Chicago election where your conscience will matter so much.

Go vote Chicago. Your voice needs to be heard.

Gov.-Elect Pritzker, Let’s Heal Illinois’ Cultural Rift

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Dear Governor-Elect J.B. Pritzker,

I write to you with serious concern about our divided state. While Democrats have won a tremendous victory in Illinois, winning not only the Governor’s office but every constitutional office as well as veto-proof majorities in both the State House and Senate, this election revealed a widening gap between city and rural, metropolitan and country.

While suburban Chicago voted more Democratic than ever before, Southern and Central Illinois voters – a demographically dwindling constituency – redoubled their Republicanism. The urban-rural Illinois divide is not only about support for President Donald Trump, but also on gun laws, abortion and immigration.

Not since the late 1800’s has there been such a yawning social gap between these communities. But unlike 120 years ago, the farm economy has collapsed, providing our rural counties and small towns with many fewer economic opportunities than our biggest cities. While some rural residents are able to take advantage of what cities have to offer, many more are alienated from our biggest cities. Simultaneously, most metropolitan Chicagoans have no connection to our rural areas and couldn’t even begin to understand the culture country life has to offer.

It is a mistake to consider the problem as solely economic: The most troubling divide is cultural. Southern and Central Illinois communities lack thriving immigrant and minority communities, as in Chicago, and as a result have come to view them as a threat to the American way of life. Meanwhile, metropolitan Chicago residents rarely hunt and as a result tend to consider gun culture as violent and disruptive.

As an inner city resident, I know from my conversations with rural Illinois residents, that my way of life not only seems unfathomable to many Illinoisans outside metropolitan Chicago, but potentially threatening. Chicagoans feel much the same way about rural Illinoisans. Many rural Illinoisans have no desire to set foot in Chicago, while most Chicagoans can’t imagine what rural and small town Illinois could have to offer them.

These differences have become rooted into the most elemental aspects of our daily lives. There are certain things rural Illinois does and places it goes to, while metropolitan Chicago does not. These differences, like Walmart vs. Target or NASCAR vs. basketball, have become more than just lifestyle choices, but totems of identity that keep us apart. This is not a problem unique to our state, but this is our state, and thus our problem.

If Illinois is going to achieve economic greatness, we must find a way to heal our cultural rift, so that rural Illinoisans are comfortable with coming to Chicago, while metropolitan Chicagoans see value in visiting and investing in rural Illinois.

As the governor-elect of Illinois with a sweeping political mandate, you, Mr. Pritzker, have a unique opportunity to bring our two communities back together. Now that you’re elected, we need a new kind of campaign: one that demonstrates the welcoming and vital cultures of metropolitan Chicago and rural, small town Illinois.

Of course this kind of campaign should include an advertising component, to educate Illinoisans on how their state’s cultural diversity enhances their lives, but it should also include extensive outreach programs that personally introduces inner city Chicagoans to rural life, and small town Illinoisans to urban diversity. Building on Jahmal Cole’s My Block, My Hood, My City program would be an excellent start, although his program has been limited to connecting Chicagoans to one another.

College students from rural Illinois could spend a semester in urban Chicago colleges, much as my father, a white Bowdoin College student from New England, spent a semester of 1961 as a Morehouse College exchange student in Atlanta. Rural extension programs could host Chicagoans, while Chicago City Colleges could host Christian County residents. We could conduct cooking class exchanges, class trips, connect car clubs, knitting circles, and a dozen other hobbyist groups.

The goal would be to foster dialogue, friendships and communication. Ride the L, eat a taco, debate who makes the best rib tips. Cruise in a pick up, make venison, hike in a state park. We need to experience each other’s realities and communities so that Illinois can lift itself up, rather than debate who should be called a “True American”.

As we venture beyond our home communities in Illinois, we need to believe that our neighbors understand us and want to assist us. Only then, will Illinois truly achieve the greatness it deserves.

Let’s defy the rest of America, and do what Midwesterns do best: pull together as one.

A Letter To My Conservative Friends

Dear Conservative Friend,

I have admired many conservatives. George Will, Jack Kemp, Bill Kristol, William Safire, and Peggy Noonan among them. Their thinking was strong and robust enough that it caused me to consider whether or not my own thinking was sound. On occasion, they even changed my mind.

The basic concept of American conservative thinking is clear: Government should avoid impeding individual progress while ensuring American safety and security. Liberals like me have fought with conservatives over how far government should go, and at what level government should be allowed to participate in our lives. Over the years we have gone back and forth over the same issues as the body politic has waxed and waned from liberal to conservative.

But this election is not about liberal versus conservative. Today, we’re actively applying government in ways new to the American project. We’re sending the military to protect our southern border from the lowest number of illegal migrants we’ve seen in over thirty years. The Justice Department is actively opposing state-level judicial reform efforts. The Department of Interior is allowing offshore drilling, despite local state government opposition. The President is insisting he can institute constitutional changes by executive order.

When liberalism goes wrong, it becomes a command economy suppressing all growth, as Western Europe experienced in the 1970’s and 80’s. When conservatism goes wrong, it becomes a kleptocracy widening the gap between rich and poor, as South America experienced from the 1960’s through the mid-1990’s.

Under Donald Trump, America’s conservative thinkers have been sidelined in favor of the mega-rich and nationalist paranoiacs. Our government is being used to enrich the wealthiest while turbocharging the fears of disenfranchised whites. It’s an old formula, used by Putin, Pinochet, Peron, and especially that German guy with a short mustache.

Continuing down this course will only get more perilous, and unfortunately, since Trump’s election, nobody in the Republican Party has stood up to check Trump’s power in a meaningful way (retiring officials don’t count!). While our nation needs conservatives to keep liberals in check – and yes, this liberal agrees a check is needed now and then – the American GOP abdicated its claim to power since it has refused to oppose Trump’s basest policies.

Wherever you are in America, a Republican vote is a vote for Trump’s nationalist, kleptocratic government. As much as it may pain you to vote against your home party, if you want rebuke Trumpism, you need to pull a lever for Democrats this year.

Will Democrats go overboard after the election? Probably. But they’ll also fight Trump like mad. And then in 2020, maybe we’ll get some real conservate choices across the country.

Cast your vote: because if you don’t, you don’t matter.

Thanks for reading. I hope to hear from you.


Prepare To Be Dissatisfied This November

Here in the city of Chicago, there are few visual signs that a critical national election is less than two weeks away. Our six Congressmen and two Senators mirror the city’s voting history – staunchly Democratic – and it seems that the sitting Republican governor, Bruce Rauner, is headed to a big loss, so get out the vote efforts are less noticeable than in places with more competitive races.

My reading of the electoral tea leaves tells me that we should expect some kind of “blue wave” on November 6, with Democrats taking control of the House of Representatives and winning more governor’s races than the GOP. There’s evidence that we’re headed to one of the biggest turnouts in mid-term history, which generally portends good things for Democrats – when more people vote, they tend to vote Democratic.

But because of where the contests for Senate seats are – overwhelmingly rural, Trump-friendly states – I don’t think Democrats will take control of the Senate. Even if the GOP maintains a razor-thin, one or two seat margin, it doesn’t matter. Control is control, and only one party can run the chamber.

But even so, Democrats have no chance to win enough seats to achieve a super-majority in the Senate, needed to avoid cloture, pass veto-proof legislation, or provide the two-thirds majority to convict a president of impeachment.

This election will provide satisfaction to nobody. Democrats will be cheered on by their new control of the House, but Republicans will continue to control the Senate and the Presidency. We will continue to clash, Trump will enact more horrific policies, and the GOP Senate will keep supporting him.

There will be no compromise between the two sides, and yet neither side will have enough power to overcome the other.

So this would be a good time to remember that democratic politics can be a slow process with many fits and starts. While there has been a number of tremendous progressive victories in recent years, notably legalization of gay marriage, the passage of Obamacare, and a growing, state-by-state decriminalization of marijuana possession, these changes resulted from decades of organizing.

We need to get everyone we can to the polls on November 6, and then remember that if we want lasting, meaningful change, we’ll have to do it again in 2020 in an even bigger way.

The End of Sympathy And Compromise

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I was raised in a decidedly left-wing family. My mother and father both marched on Washington in 1963 with Martin Luther King, Jr., and when I was a kid, my father practiced an annual ritual of yelling at the TV during President Ronald Reagan’s State of the Union address.

But my parents, both psychologists, were empathic souls, constantly trying to understand why someone felt a certain way. At the dinner table we spent a great deal of time talking about why people might feel they way they do. Since conversations about politics when I was a kid were less about tactics and more about motivation, I learned my parents’ empathy, so as an adult I often feel as much for political opponents as with those I agree.

This week has been toxic for everyone in America. None of us have been left untouched by the Brett Kavanaugh Supreme Court nomination fight, and the race to declare our own side more aggrieved – regardless of what side we may claim – has left us all wounded and raw. Kavanaugh’s confirmation is our era’s Bleeding Kansas, with no winners, only losers and survivors more committed to scarring the opposition more than ever before.

Incredibly, we all recognize that the partisanship will only get worse. Like Kansas in the 1850’s, and the European military build up in the 1930’s, a perverse gravity pulls us towards more conflict fueled by the appropriate righteousness of our leaders, colleagues and loved ones injured by wounds both material and spiritual.

The ideologies of our political combat inhabit totally different frames of reference: the army of collective well-being versus the church of personal responsibility. Everything can be viewed through our nation’s First Conflict, where Hamiltonians governed to level the playing field while Jeffersonians pushed government aside to celebrate the triumph of the individual.

Each American era has been caught up in this conflict, from the Whiskey Rebellion, to the Civil War to the Progressive Era battles between unions and Pinkerton agents and the fights between Nixon’s “moral majority” and anti-war protestors.

Our First Conflict will never be resolved. Not because of pettiness or ignorance, but because each viewpoint is propelled by a deep moral philosophy. Gender complementarianism is inherently incompatible with gender workplace equity. Socialized health care and calls for a basic income conflicts with a conservative government of non-interference. Everyone can agree that racism and misogyny is abhorrent, but who is responsible for stopping it? The individual, or the collective?

“It will only get worse,” we all say, with no clear idea of what “worse” really means. We are all aggrieved now, with the most strident among us demanding we “stomp”, “destroy” or “obliterate” our political opposition. Sampling political Twitter, talk radio or cable news is like sampling heroin: The first jolt is exhilarating, but subsequent tastes leave us craving more righteousness, gradually obliterating equanimity, viewing America as nothing more than “us” and “them”. We are all addicts now.

My political beliefs have never been clearer to me, but today I weep for all Americans. Justice Kavanaugh’s confirmation is emblematic of our new political reality: Although his ascension is a victory for conservatives, the manner of his confirmation has de-legitimized the new Supreme Court for a wide swath of America, making justice seem unattainable for those who opposed his confirmation.

American political conflict no longer allows for compromise. The Kavanaugh fight has instead told us that we must choose sides and fight to the end, no matter how terrible the result.