Social class and public office in Springfield
October 1, 1987
A racial discrimination court settlement required the City of Springfield to change its city government to make it more representative. Anyone who knows Springfield knows that a more representative government—and no, that it not code for “African American aldermen”—will not be a better government. So it has proved.
There was no real sense of a millennium achieved after primary elections were held for Springfield's transition government—to paraphrase the governor, this isn't Oak Park, this is Springfield—but lots of people enjoyed the novelty of voting for people they didn't know. For them, and us, the fall campaign and the convening of the new ten-member city council after that, will be like Christmas morning.
The press as usual paid too close attention to what the candidates said and not enough to who they are. The State Journal-Register for instance dutifully published what the candidates said about themselves, which is a little like asking Robert Bork whether he is qualified to sit on the Supreme Court. Of all the things which will shape their performance in the new city council—gender, education, party affiliation—the most crucial one, class, was talked about the least.
In my version of The Best of All Possible Springfields, the candidates would be arrayed at a table, cameras and tape recorders rolling, while reporters peppered each with questions from the floor: Do you know what 'A&E' stands for? Which magazines do you subscribe to? What color are your bathroom walls? How long is the nap of your living room rug? Do you know where all the stores are in White Oaks Mall without looking them up? Can you parallel park? What did you feed your kids for breakfast this morning?
What were the candidates asked about instead? Sidewalks, mainly, or where they had their yard signs made. I did not see it mentioned anywhere that Mayor Houston used to drive a Cadillac and vacation in Las Vegas. No one wondered aloud whether voters might trust a man who married a woman named Bambi, as one aldermanic candidate did. And no one said a word publicly about toupees which just had to have been bought from a brother-in-law in the business; if a man can be swayed by relatives when it comes to hair, how will he resist them when it comes to hiring?
The diligent citizen must instead infer useful truths about her council-to-be from such scant information as has been published. Of the twenty finalists, thirteen graduated from local high schools (five from Griffin/Cathedral, six from Lanphier and Feitshans combined, and two from Springfield High). As that list suggests, the field has a solid middle and lower middle-class background. Of the twenty, three are black, which reflects black people's percentage of the population as a whole; only two are women, which emphatically does not. (Neither of the women was raised in Springfield, which explains their ambition.) The candidates are fairly well-credentialed. Only three could be described as working class (and each of the three is at least fifty-eight years old), while every one of the fifteen candidates under fifty attended some college. This may prove only that college is to baby boomers what the labor union was to their fathers; in any event they are not a well-educated bunch, most having attended colleges in or within an hour's drive of Springfield.
And the field confirms that the change of government will increase the representation in city hall of the professional politicians least. Of the twenty finalists, nine have state jobs, nine hold or have held formal office within local party organizations, and nine are present or past holders of local elective office.
Whatever happens in the November vote, in sum, the new council promises to show us democracy in full flower, a body representative of the capital city in all its ripeness. There will be much that is new, or at least new since the last Springfield council of aldermen sat in 1911. For example, the new council will probably include for the first time a member or two of one of the city's outcast social groups. I refer to graduates of the long-defunct east-side Feitshans High School. (Newcomers to the city should know that Feitshans was what Southeast High would be like if you took all the rich kids out of it.) Heretofore its loyal alums distinguished themselves locally either in the editorial rooms of the SJR or on the police force, where they serve approximately the same role in spite of their different means.
Now two Feitshans grads are running for alderman, in separate wards, and each is favored to win. One is black and one is white. One earned a Ph.D. from a Big Ten school, and lists his fraternity membership on his campaign vitae; the other drives a flashy Lincoln, and while he holds a master's degree from a lesser university he seems more comfortable with a coach's whistle in his mouth than a subordinate clause.
So described, this is the world as Springfield has long known it. But the owner of the Ph.D. is the black one—Allan Woodson, running in Ward 10—and the man in the Lincoln is Irv Smith, who is as white as his name, which at the moment is plastered all over Ward 8.
The new council, in short will make clear what all sides in the voting rights suit generally failed to make clear, which is that clichés are no longer sufficient to describe the complexities of race, class, and representation.
Consider Woodson's candidacy in Ward 10. One of the assumptions central to the court case which resulted in the present elections was that black people could only be represented in the city council by other black people. If we accept that, must we not also accept the corollary that white people can only be represented by other white people? But Ward 10 is full of white people, being far more perfectly segregated than the "black" Ward 2, where I live. Nevertheless, nearly 1,300 people voted for Woodson. Did they not recognize their own interests? Unlikely; a sense of their own interests is what enables them to live in Ward 10. Did they not know Woodson is African American? Impossible; he is well known.
What they did do was decide that blackness in this case didn't matter. Woodson is an extremely attractive candidate, a textbook middle-class family man, active in church and do-gooder groups. His concerns are those of his neighbors (traffic lights mainly; folks spend a lot of time in cars in Ward 10) and they know it. I—who believe that in a more perfect world there wouldn't be a Ward 10, it having been blown up and the rubble left standing as an admonitory lesson to planners everywhere—welcome his impending election because his experience as a black man and an eastsider leaves him more alert to certain citywide problems than any of his neighbors who think 9th Street is the city line.
I can presume to speak about the motives of Woodson's supporters because I made a similar choice. I voted for Leroy Jordan as Ward 2 alderman, mainly because I knew little of one other candidate and mistrust the political ties of a third. Jordan is black and I am not, but we are alike in being members of the same class. (He is an administrator at Sangamon State University; we belong to that group which writes and receives memos.) I believe that the problems of the east side are caused by failed economics, complicated by racism (and not, as the plaintiffs suggest, racism aggravated by economics). And because class reflects fundamental economic interests, class will be crucial to the politics of this city. The new aldermen after all represent constituencies which are described by geography but which are defined by class.
On the face of it—and it is on the surface of things that the arguments in the voting rights suit are attached—the primary results confounded the assumption that white voters will not vote for qualified blacks. But even a defective argument in this case led to a happy conclusion, because the voting for the new council finally gave us a chance to prove it. ■