Dick Simpson

The transition report had been undertaken at Byrne’s request shortly after she defeated sitting Mayor Michael Bilandic in Democratic primary election in early 1979. A prominent member of her transition team was longtime independent City Council Alderman Dick Simpson. Simpson had graduated from the University of Texas in 1963 and then pursued a doctorate degree with research in Africa. He started a teaching career as a political science professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago in 1967, the same year I graduated from the University of Chicago’s Law School.

Off the teaching clock, Simpson became a cofounder of Chicago’s Independent Precinct Organization (IPO) and served as its executive director. The IPO was a body of lakefront liberals focused on good government. In its case, this almost always meant serving as a not very heavy counterweight to the dominant machine politics of Mayor Richard J. Daley, head of the Regular Democratic Organization in Chicago’s Cook County. I had gotten to know Simpson from my political work with a fellow lawyer, Bill Singer.

Health had been a minor issue in Daley’s 1975 mayoral campaign and, the year after his reelection as mayor, the 74-year-old suffered a heart attack in his doctor’s office and died on December 20, 1976. My work on the Singer mayoral campaign had permitted me get to know Dick Simpson better and, just before Daley died, Simpson told me he was interested in promoting the idea of greater citizen involvement in ward zoning decisions. He explained how he envisioned community zoning boards might work and asked me to draft an ordinance that would detail their creation, structure, and operation. While I had written plenty of speeches and press releases by that time, I had never taken my hand at the task of drafting a piece of legislation of this complexity. It struck me as an interesting technical challenge and I told Simpson I’d give it a shot.

This was notwithstanding my own serious doubts about the wisdom of such a radical decentralization of land use regulation in the city. Then and now, the existing primacy of aldermanic prerogatives in zoning gave aldermen what amounted to a practical veto over many zoning decisions and had engendered widespread aldermanic corruption.

Dick Simpson book

However, it wasn’t clear whether Simpson’s idea was likely to fix that problem or make it worse by encouraging more parochial NIMBY (Not In My Back Yard) decisions that shorted the best interests of the city as a whole.

Simpson was pleased with my handiwork and introduced my draft of his ordinance for consideration by the full City Council in early 1977.

As was usual with any initiative of one of the independent Democratic aldermen, it was never seriously considered.