Some years back, Pat Moynihan wrote a little article entitled "When the Irish Ran New York." Moynihan argued that the regime did not reflect "rapacious individualism," with personal nests feathered from one end of town to the other, as many have charged. If anything, argued Moynihan, this characterization more accurately described the Protestant operations that preceded the Irish. The Irish machine -- Irish and we should say Irish-Catholic -- was about Irish village culture: familism, loyalty and convention.
The conservative, labor-based Irish-Catholic constituency in Spokane kept Tom Foley in the Congress for 30 years, and now finds another soul mate in John Powers.
Some describe our new mayor as a man of the downtown establishment. Well, yes, he worked downtown and no doubt won the "suit" vote; but I'd guess he is more comfortable at Jack and Dan's than at the Spokane Club. Anyone who thinks that John Powers represents only the "suits" might want to scratch the surface a tad more deeply.
To our list of traditional values that Powers represents, we should add something else. Like his political forebears, he is good at politics. All who watched him come from nowhere to win the election going away, who attended any of his hundreds of meetings, could not help but be amazed. I know that I, for one, would have preferred to have been spared the "count," but, hey, he did it. Every damn one of those meetings. Pressed the flesh. Upbeat all the way.
But here's the rub.
The Irish pols have, for a century and a half, demonstrated great skill at getting themselves and their friends elected. Unfortunately, as Moynihan pointed out, the skills that were so effective at winning them power often proved less than useful when they actually had to govern.
Enter the proverbial political hack, the loyal friend, who gets the job because -- well, because he is loyal and a friend.
So long as city problems could be reduced to the lowest possible geographic and functional common denominators, governing through friends and neighbors -- familism -- and loyalty was not obviously dysfunctional. Okay, so we had multiple franchises all over town -- so what?
But urban problems emerged that would yield only to a more professional, more systematic, even redistributive approach, and the fault line that had always existed between politics, Irish style, and the demands of efficient, effective governance, widened into a chasm.
The late Charles Kuralt best underscored the limitations of machine politics with reference to poverty in Chicago. He put it this way: "The Daley machine was very responsive to the needs of the poor, but failed even to understand poverty, let alone find a way to do anything about it." You want a job? You got it. But leaders need to address the problem of the growing number of single-parent families that live at a poverty level.
Some machines adapted, Daley's most notably. Loyalty continued to matter (and, yes, hacks continued to be hired); but, the Cook County Democratic organization moved beyond, and sought for many key positions, the "best and the brightest." It also reached out to the Republican business community with the message: We can make a deal that we will all like. The business community responded favorably, not because they liked the Daleys, but because they came to understand that the Daleys could do what the reformers couldn't -- the Daleys could deliver. What the organization continued to rely upon, however, was a disciplined party base. The mayor had the votes, and because he had the votes, he had the power. Also, while civil service came to Chicago, Daley the elder simply kept all city employees on career-conditional status, meaning they could be fired at any time.
The challenge for Mayor Powers will be to demonstrate the same effectiveness in governing that he demonstrated campaigning. He must do this with a largely entrenched civil service, without the help of a party organization and in a city that has declining reserves and pools of discretionary revenue.
Forty years ago, political scientist Richard Neustadt wrote that presidential power is the power to persuade. Ditto for mayors. But the power to persuade is highly contingent on political capital, and political capital is dependent on a number of important variables that need great care, including:
4 Powers will live and die by his appointments. Bad ones, at best, will sully his reputation -- at worst they will lead to governing breakdowns. In all cases, they will drain political capital that Powers desperately needs. At least two of his early appointments have already resulted in raised eyebrows. Only time will tell. Certainly he has every right to form his own administration.
4 Powers must have a working majority on the City Council. The seventh member of the council looms important, and an effective mayor would already have a preference, and be out and about trying to secure (i.e. persuade) the support for the appointment.
4 Presidents, says Neustadt, will squander political capital if they evidence even the slightest hint that they "don't know their way around the building." Again, ditto for mayors. Andre Previn wrote years ago for The New Yorker about guest conductors. They can always count on having to deal with "the conductor killer," the wise guy in maybe the horn section who asks for guidance as to how to play an obscure note. Ah, the moment of truth. What does the temporary baton know? Powers will face his own versions of the conductor killer, who will want to see if he can tell them how the governing note is to be played and why. Will he have a sense of the building? Rest assured, blarney won't work. Conductor killers respond to insight, self-possession and clarity. Powers needs, immediately, to get what I'd call "an analytical handle" on the Comprehensive Plan, the budget, finances and all pending personnel issues.
4 He must negotiate an end to the garage dispute (and here our mayor gets high marks for hiring Laurel Siddoway as his special counselor; she is an example of the best and the brightest).
4 Finally, he must quickly move beyond his campaign rhetoric. During the campaign he got mileage out of promising to "bring us together." More talk of togetherness, at this time at least, doesn't appear to offer any real solutions to the schism on the council. Perhaps it's a case of deeds (appointments, knowing his way around the building and settling River Park Square, for example) being more persuasive than words on that sticky subject.
The city needs John Powers to succeed. As the first strong mayor, he will set the tone, the standard, the expectations for the office. He faces many very difficult, highly charged and potentially divisive issues. He begins with the city's best wishes.