Q&A with the editors of CHICAGO’S MODERN MAYORS

Dick Simpson and Betty O’Shaughnessy, editors of Chicago’s Modern Mayors: From Harold Washington to Lori Lightfoot, answers questions on their new book.

Q: Why did you decide to write this book?   

At the Chicago Future’s lecture series several years ago, we had different authorities discuss the contributions of the mayors they have or were studying, especially Harold Washington, Richard M. Daley, Rahm Emanuel, and Lori Lightfoot (at the start of her administration). The talks and discussions were so interesting that we asked these folks and some others to join in doing a book together and Chicago’s Modern Mayors was the result. We then recruited additional authors with deep knowledge of different mayors and their regimes to draft chapters on each mayor. We were able to assemble the foremost political scientists, historians, sociologists, and journalists who have written on these mayors to join us in this exploration. We even were able to commission a new bibliography of modern Chicago politics to help readers and future researchers. 

Q: What is the most interesting discovery you made while researching and writing your book?  

The most interesting discovery that we made, which was not obvious when we began, was that there is an arc of history from Harold Washington to Lori Lightfoot of a good government and progressive reform agenda, while the administrations of Richard M. Daley and Rahm Emanuel focused on the growth of Chicago into a global city. We asked the authors to address four common themes which were how each mayor was elected (or otherwise became mayor), their relationship with the city council (and other groups and agencies), their challenges, and their accomplishments or legacy. In doing so, the authors revealed to us the profound similarities in the devotion all the mayors had for Chicago, regardless of their political goals or method of governance. 

Q: What myths do you hope your book will dispel or what do you hope your book will help readers unlearn? 

The threads weaving all of Chicago history together gets lost in the day-to-day reporting of individual events, clashes, and controversies. We do not see past mayors and their contemporaries in perspective. We believe that in our book, some notions such as Washington or Lightfoot were failures or that Daley and Emanuel undid racial progress get dispelled. 

Q: Which part of the publishing process did you find the most interesting?  

Getting to know each author through their writing was fascinating. Because this is an edited book, the most interesting aspect was working with the authors to make their articles as strong as possible, to see what new insights they produced on these mayors and their times, and to try to force them to provide the information and analysis to allow a fair comparison of these mayors, their challenges, and their successes and failures.  

Q: What is your advice to scholars/authors who want to take on a similar project? 

In a project like this, its success or failure depends upon the authors who are recruited, their different approaches (their different disciplines and perspectives). Then it is important to insist on a common set of questions or framework. The rest is down to writing, rewriting, editing, and revising again.  

Q: What do you like to read/watch/or listen to for fun? 

Dick likes to read science fiction books and watching streaming series such as the PBS mystery series. He also enjoys playing piano. 

Betty likes to read all sorts of history and books on current happenings, as well as watching TV series such as those found on Acorn, Britbox, and Netflix.  She listens to currents events and historical podcasts but also music, her favorites being jazz, blues, and sixties rock.

Dick Simpson is professor emeritus and former head of the Department of Political Science at the University of Illinois at Chicago, and a former Chicago alderman and congressional candidate. His books include Democracy’s Rebirth: The View from Chicago and Corrupt Illinois: Patronage, Cronyism, and Criminality

Betty O’Shaughnessy is retired visiting lecturer at the University of Illinois at Chicago and former adjunct professor at Oakton Community College. Simpson and O’Shaughnessy are coauthors of Winning Elections in the 21st Century.

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