The Municipal Voters' League of Chicago

MUNICIPAL reform has been so long a topic of languid discussion and so little an object of practical work among us, efforts to accomplish it have been so spasmodic and their results so transient, that it is too early to predict whether the present general movement to this end will prove persistent. There are, however, indications of popular interest that give promise of ultimate success.

The need of the hour is to make municipal government representative. It is now dominated by special interests. It must be made representative of the people. To the extent that we have abandoned the legislature to private interests, and fallen back on the executive and the courts, we have armed special privilege with affirmative authority, and left public interests to be defended by officials exercising powers which are mainly negative. Thus, in lieu of simple and responsible municipal government exercising adequate affirmative powers, we have a hotchpotch of warring officials and boards.

Honesty and capacity are the essential qualifications for public service. A city government manned by officials having these qualifications will be both representative and efficient. How certainly to secure such public officials is the problem of municipal reform. It is prerequisite to the discussion of policies and measures. The aim must be to make municipal government sound to the core. All else will follow.

Some account of the work led by the Municipal Voters’ League, and now going on in Chicago, may serve as a contribution to the movement to recover representative government. While the methods of the League may not prove to be generally or permanently applicable, their success thus far is full of promise.

The city government of Chicago touched bottom in 1895, when fiftyeight of its sixty-eight aldermen were organized into a “ gang ” for the service and blackmail of public service corporations. Within that year six great franchises of enormous value were shamelessly granted away, in utter disregard of general protest and the vetoes of the mayor. Most of the members of the council were without personal standing or character. The others were practically without voice or influence. The people scarcely realized that the council contained an element representative of public interests. The agitation led by the Civic Federation, the Civil Service Reform Association, and other reform organizations had, however, borne fruit. A wide interest in local administration had been aroused, and a desire for better things was already general. The task seemed all but impossible. Those looked to for leadership despaired of success. The city was in the grasp of strongly intrenched special interests. Certain public service corporations owned the council, and profited by undue influence with other agencies of the city government. Enormous private interests were at stake, and the city seemed to be at their mercy. The political organizations were of the usual character. Their relations with the corporations were not unfriendly. The city carried on its registration lists over three hundred and fifty thousand voters. About three fourths of these were of foreign birth or parentage, and many understood the English language but imperfectly, if at all. Nearly all who composed this vast aggregation of seemingly diverse elements were bent upon their private pursuits. Could they be united to rescue the city from the spoilsmen ? Few so believed.

Such was the situation when, in January, 1896, at the call of the Civic Federation, about two hundred men, representing various clubs and reform organizations, met to consider what might be done. The year 1895 had brought the new civil service law, the most thorough yet enacted. This had cleared the way for a wide coöperation of good citizens, regardless of national politics. In the conference it was assumed that something must be done. No one was prepared to say what should be attempted. A sharp discussion arose on an individual proposition to form a “ municipal party.” The matter was finally referred to a committee of fifteen representative men. They subsequently reported in favor of the organization of a “ Municipal Voters’ League,” to be composed of a hundred men, and have power to act. The principal objects announced were to secure the election of “ aggressively honest men ” to the council, and to sustain the civil service law. As the conference could not agree upon a “ municipal party,” it chose the indefinite term “ League.” Thus the movement was left free to show by its works whether it was to be a party or something less.

The committee of one hundred met but twice: once to appoint a small executive committee, and again, after the first campaign, to hear its report. It then disbanded, giving the executive committee power to perpetuate itself. After the first campaign the League assumed its present simple form of organization. The executive committee is composed of nine members. The terms of one third of these expire each year. Their successors are elected by those holding over. The committee selects the officers from its own membership. Their duties as officers are administrative, no final action being taken without the vote of the committee. Advisory committees of from one to five members are appointed in the wards. Their duties are to furnish information and advice ; especially when called for, and on occasion as directed to start movements for the nomination of independent candidates. Finance and other special committees are also appointed, some of whose members are usually drawn from outside the executive committee. No person, committee, or organization in the wards has authority to use the name of the League or in any way to commit it for or against any candidate. This makes its action definite and authoritative.

The general membership of the League is composed of voters, who sign cards expressing approval of its purposes and methods. No general meetings of the members are held; but circular letters advising those in a given ward of the local situation are frequently mailed during aldermanic campaigns to secure a wide coöperation. At the opening of its second campaign the League mailed a pamphlet to every registered voter in the city, giving the history for some years of franchise legislation by the council, with a full report on the records of retiring members. Since its work has become thoroughly known, the general publication by the newspapers of the reports and recommendations of the League is very effective. Its facts and conclusions are usually accepted by the press, and no substantial newspaper support can be had for candidates whom it opposes.

The League makes no attempt to keep up the usual pretense of direct representation of its general membership. No claim is made that the action of the executive committee represents any save those who approve it. The facts upon which such action is based are always given. The appeal is directly to the individual voter, by means of specific recommendations supported by the salient facts. In due time before nominations are made a full report of the official records of retiring members of the council is published, with specific judgments as to their respective fitness for defeat or reëlection. On the eve of the election a like report on all candidates is published for the information of the voters. It is assumed that the main issue is upon character and capacity. The voters are advised, however, whether a given candidate stands on the “ League platform,” which is a pledge to exact full compensation for franchises, support the civil service law, and unite with others to secure a non-partisan organization of the council.

The League is entirely non-partisan. The members of its executive committee want nothing for themselves. It strives only for the council. This one thing it does. It makes no fight, as yet, on “ the machine ” as such. Its fundamental purpose is to inform the voters of the facts about all candidates. There is nothing that the city statesman of the ordinary spoils variety so dislikes as a campaign in which the issue is upon the facts of his own record. He abhors such an issue as nature abhors a vacuum. He prefers a campaign conducted on broad national issues. He regards discussions of the tariff and the currency as of much greater educational value than the facts of his own modest career. In this he is much mistaken. The League has demonstrated that there is nothing of such interest to the voters, on the eve of a municipal election, as an authoritative statement of these suggestive facts.

The headquarters of the League is the clearing house of the aldermanic campaign. It is thronged with candidates, party representatives, and citizens. They come with facts for the executive committee, or to advise and consult it. The president and secretary and their assistants patiently hear all. More and more they are consulted in advance about nominations. Party managers in many wards in which the League’s support has become vital to success submit names of candidates in advance. It often happens that several are rejected before one is suggested who bears the close scrutiny of the League. The confidences of these conferences with party managers are faithfully kept. No claim is ever publicly made that a given nomination has been forced by the committee. The party managers are given full credit for all worthy nominations. The League rarely suggests a candidate in the first instance. It is thus able to deal fairly with all. It often participates directly in the campaign in close wards after the candidates are named.

Such in brief are the methods of the Municipal Voters’ League. What are the results ? It has now conducted five campaigns, in each of which the election of one half the membership of the council of the city of Chicago was involved. In its first campaign, twenty out of thirty-four wards returned candidates having its indorsement, two of these being independents. Five others, to whom it gave its qualified indorsement as the choice of evils, were chosen. Each of these last proved unfaithful to public interests. Five others betrayed their pledges. At the expiration of their term, two years later, the League recommended nineteen retiring members for defeat, and fifteen for reëlection. Of the first group, but five secured renominations, and but two reëlections. Of the second group, three declined renominations in advance; the twelve others were all renominated, and eleven of them reëlected. In the same campaign, twenty-five former members of bad record sought to return to the council. The League objected to their nomination, giving their records. Only six were nominated, and three elected. In the campaign of the spring of 1899, the Democratic candidate for mayor carried seventeen wards from which Republican candidates for the council having the support of the League were returned. All but two of the retiring members condemned by the League were defeated for reëlection.

The net result of the five campaigns must suffice, in lieu of further details of the several contests. Of the fifty-eight “ gang ” members of 1895 but four are now in the council. The “ honest minority ” of ten of 1895 became a two-thirds majority in 1899. The quality of the membership has steadily improved. Each year it is found easier to secure good candidates. To-day the council contains many men of character and force. A considerable number of prominent citizens have become members. The council is organized on a non-partisan basis, the good men of both parties being in charge of all the committees. It is steadily becoming more efficient. No general “ boodle ordinance ” has passed over the mayor’s veto since the first election in which the League participated. Public despair has given place to general confidence in the early redemption of the council. It is no longer a good investment for public service corporations to expend large sums to secure the reëlection of notorious boodlers. It is no longer profitable to pay large amounts to secure membership in a body in which “ aldermanic business ” has ceased to be good. It is now an honor to be a member of the Chicago council. Any capable member may easily acquire an honorable city reputation in a single term of service.

This change has been wrought in the face of the most powerful opposing influences. The licenses or franchises of the principal street railways of Chicago are soon to expire. For three years, from 1896, the companies sought renewals on terms without regard to the rights of the city. By grossly improper means the so-called Allen bill was secured from the legislature in 1897, permitting extensions of street railway franchises for fifty instead of twenty years, as before. From the passage of this bill certain of the street railway companies brought every possible influence to bear on the members of the Chicago council to secure fifty-year extensions without compensation to the city. It is believed that members of the rank and file could have taken fifty thousand dollars each for their votes. But the council stood firm. A clear majority refused all improper advances. The attempt ended in utter failure. It was finally, late in 1898, abandoned.

The enactment of the Allen bill in 1897 led to a demonstration of the irresistible power of a persistent public opinion. Within two years the succeeding legislature, with but one dissenting vote, repealed the act, and restored the law which it supplanted. The time had come when even vast private interests might not with impunity purchase legislation in Illinois. The deep disgrace to the state in the passage of the Allen bill was not forgotten by the people. The Municipal Voters’ League, on the eve of the legislative campaign of 1898, caused to be published throughout the state, for their information, the detailed records of all members of the legislature on the passage of the Allen bill. The plain facts rendered unavailable for renomination most of those who had betrayed the people by its support. Fully eighty-two per cent of its supporters failed of reëlection. A vicious minority scheme of representation alone saved most of the others from political death.

The defeat of street railway legislation in Chicago under the Allen bill, the failure throughout the state of its supporters for reëlection, and the restoration by practically unanimous vote of the legislature of the law which it had supplanted, constitute the most notable triumph of public opinion of recent years. The end is not yet; but not soon again will public service corporations openly purchase legislation in Illinois.

The few busy men whose privilege it has been to direct the work of the Municipal Voters’ League know full well that only a beginning has been made, that merely the edge of a great problem has been touched. They make no claims for themselves. It has only been their fortune to lead for a little while, in a single city, a growing movement of the people to recover representative government. To the united support of the reputable press, and the splendid coöperation of good citizens of all parties and elements of a mixed population, are due the results attained. Disinterested leadership was alone wanting. This the League has furnished. It has wasted no energy in merely making wheels go round. Its appeal has been directly to the people. It has entered no ex cathedra judgments. It has simply relied upon making the facts known. Aside from pledges of support of the civil service law, for a non-partisan organization of the council, and to exact adequate compensation for all municipal grants, it has exacted no pledges from candidates supported. The League has placed the emphasis on character and capacity. It maintains that a council composed of men having these qualities will faithfully represent the people, treat justly all private interests, and dispose of every question on its merits.

A vision of representative government regained in the city, as the basis for its recovery in the state and nation, already appears. To realize it, we must renew our faith. Self - government is fundamental; good government is incidental.

Edwin Burritt Smith.