'Take Back Chicago'

Community organizations and unions hold a "Take Back Chicago" town hall meeting at UIC Forum in Chicago. (Scott Strazzante, Chicago Tribune / October 15, 2013)

Thousands of union workers, community activists and a smattering of politicians rallied Tuesday evening on the Near West Side to "take back Chicago" and send a message to Mayor Rahm Emanuel and what they dubbed his "corporate, greedy, elitist friends."

At a fancy theater in the Loop, Emanuel joined a national TV news host to discuss politics and the state of the union in front of about 600 people who paid to hear him at a Chicago Ideas Week event sponsored by a private equity firm that boasts of having invested billions of dollars.

The two events offered a clear study in contrasts in Chicago politics: like-minded folks meeting in a controlled setting to see a self-styled reform mayor engage in political repartee versus a raucous gathering of activists promoting a populist, anti-administration agenda. It also offered a potential early blueprint of the opposition platform to the mayor in 2015, assuming a contender emerges to take on a highly skilled politician who had $5.1 million in his campaign fund to start October.

Brandon Johnson, an organizer with the Chicago Teachers Union, fired up the rally crowd at the University of Illinois at Chicago Forum, saying the 35 union and neighborhood groups were there to send a message to "the mayor of this city and his corporate, greedy elitist friends that this city belongs to the people in this room. Black people, brown people, poor people, working-class people."

A parade of speakers, including Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn, lined up to deliver their populist themes. They promoted a $15-an-hour minimum wage and a graduated state income tax with higher rates for wealthy people.

The populist themes are familiar to the re-election-seeking Quinn, who repeated his vow to raise the state's minimum wage and recounted his days as an organizer, when he founded the Citizens Utility Board, a consumer watchdog group.

"You don't get changes from the big shots on top of the power heap," Quinn said. "It bubbles up from grass-roots community leaders, everyday people banding together for a cause they believe in."

Nursing home worker Francine Rico decried having to support her son and elderly mother on just $14 an hour while having to pay the same state income-tax rate as a wealthy person.

"Why should a banker or corporate executive making over a million each year pay the same flat income taxes as a single mom making just $15,000 a year?" Rico said. "That's not right."

Downtown, the crowd at the Cadillac Palace Theatre was treated to thumping pop tunes and political demographic multiple-choice trivia questions on a screen as they waited for the mayor to emerge. Emanuel was joined by David Gregory, who hosts NBC's "Meet the Press", to discuss politics one-on-one.

The mayor found a receptive crowd during the 30-minute interview. He received applause when he mentioned his push for tougher gun laws and the city's program to give young people summer jobs. Attendees laughed along when Emanuel talked about O'Hare as a world-class airport, "weather permitting."

It was one of the numerous $15-a-pop events that make up Ideas Week, started in 2011 by venture capitalist Brad Keywell, who helped launch Groupon. Ideas Week started Monday, when the mayor hosted a Divvy bike ride and lunch.

Speakers at the rally had their own ideas, like having the Chicago Public Schools board elected, rather than appointed by the mayor. The crowd cheered video footage of last year's Chicago Teachers Union strike. Also singled out for criticism was the mayor's closing of six mental health clinics as part of a broader privatization effort.

Tribune reporter Hal Dardick contributed.

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