Just before eight this past Saturday evening, a small crowd gathered at a storefront in Logan Square for the last in a series of seven weekly town hall meetings leading up to Tuesday's election: Don Washington's Mayoral Tutorial.
The Tutorial has met every Saturday since the beginning of the year at Center Portion, a salon space on West Fullerton Avenue that hosts art and activism events. A longtime Chicago resident and community activist, Washington conceived of the Tutorial as an answer to what he viewed to be the staggering inadequacy and generally biased nature of the media covering Chicago's upcoming mayoral election: news outlets more or less in the pockets of candidates, not enough people asking tough questions, and nobody putting pressure on the candidates to answer them. Something had to be done.
And so he created the mayoraltutorial.com as a guide to those perplexed by obfuscating politicians, campaign literature, and news media. In addition to Washington's general commentary on election coverage, the site includes sections called "Bad Public Policy" devoted to understanding how to read a candidate's public policy record, and "The Political Basement" featuring all the candidates' relevant misconduct throughout their years of public service. Notably absent from the basement are matters of sexual preference and prison records, deemed irrelevant unless the candidate's policy initiatives are hypocritical with respect to either. Attention is paid instead to mismanagement of public money and betrayal of the public trust.
During the meetings, no one is safe, least of all the audience. Washington starts with a "media toxicity test" designed to measure how much or little useful information the audience has learned from the mainstream media. Every audience member is put on the spot, challenged to name one thing the media has taught them about a given candidate; as often as not, the answer is "not much." Next is a getting-to-know-you bingo-style game, followed by the Black Bag of Political Reality, a quiz show game in which contestants must match candidates with their policy initiatives and/or dark past deeds. (An earlier variation on this game was called the Political Minefield game. Facts about the candidates were scattered on the floor, picked up, and read aloud. If the participant guessed wrong as to which skeleton belonged to which candidate, he or she had to die spectacularly. I was one such participant.)
Near the beginning of every show, Washington relates a story from his childhood. When he was five, as he tells it, his grandfather sat him down. Democracy, he told young Don, is a battle that never ends: "You're either fighting for something or losing everything." He told his grandson, at five, not to be a "prick rat bastard," a person who gives away their rights and those of future generations because they couldn't be bothered to get involved.
In my view, the goal of the Mayoral Tutorial was twofold. One was to separate what is important about a candidate from what is unimportant with respect to their ability to effectively govern a large American city. The other was to shake people awake from the stupor that has affected the city over the last twenty years, and remind them that democracy doesn't work without the active participation of its members.
The election is a day away. At the time that I'm writing this, Emanuel is polling at 58%. The Mayoral Tutorial may not have turned the tide of this election, but I think it did something powerful for those who attended it. Through humor and, to a certain degree, public embarrassment, it showed people a way to be politically engaged both with those we elect to public office and as part of a community. No matter who is elected on Tuesday, it's time for Chicagoans to stop thinking about city government as something obscure, hopelessly corrupt, and beyond their control.