By Ken Trainor
Oak Parkers are a conflicted bunch. On the one hand, we take pride in being anti-establishment — progressive, innovative, cutting edge. But we also have mortgages, kids, careers, so we've developed a strong establishment streak as well. Our recently devised village motto is "Step Out of Line," but it was designed by a corporate consultant. That pretty well sums up our paradox. We like knowing we could step out of line at any moment, even if we never do.
The two competing impulses in our village character are engaged in a perpetual tug of … well, war is such an ugly word. But we're definitely conflicted as we approach one of the more interesting elections in recent memory.
We have an establishment candidate and an anti-establishment candidate running for village president. John Hedges is the solid, good-governance guy — the "let's stay on course" candidate. And there's a strong case to be made for doing just that. There is more that's right about Oak Park than wrong. We can thank the Village Manager Association (VMA) for much of it. They've brought good governance to Oak Park for 60 years. But good governance isn't sexy. It's bad governance that keeps you awake at night and makes your hair stand on end.
Still, every once in a while Oak Parkers get restless and crave excitement. They want to shake things up. Anan Abu-Taleb is the "let's shake things up" guy. Granted, this usually doesn't work out so well. We just came off one of those shake-'em-up stretches about four years ago. Shake-things-up candidates, unfortunately, tend to be "not ready for prime time" candidates, which is why voters eventually revert back to reliable and stable.
But something about Abu-Taleb has brought the boat-rockers out in force this election, forming a hodge-podge coalition. Some are ABVMA (Anybody But VMA). They don't care who runs as long as he or she is anti-establishment, which, as I said, results in wildly divergent candidate quality. Others have a bone to pick with village hall. One recent letter writer said he can't wait to cast his ballot for the challenger because the village is planting trees too far apart on the parkway. Yikes!
The picked-over bones usually involve parking (not enough, costs too much), bureaucratic lumbering (the permit process is too slow) and business-unfriendliness. The latter is held as an article of faith among many Oak Parkers, whether they have any direct experience of it or evidence to support it. If Oak Park weren't so business unfriendly, they insist, we'd have a Crate & Barrel in the old Marshall Field's building by now, and all those businesses on Madison Street in Forest Park would be clamoring to move back.
The disenchanteds, however, remain divided on this front. Some want to stop further development (NIMBYs mostly, though they hate, hate, hate being called that), and the rest are frustrated by the glacial pace of development. Village hall, it seems, simultaneously over-regulates and underachieves, depending on who you talk to.
Then there are those who only join the opposition if it produces an attractive candidate, and Abu-Taleb is an attractive candidate. Anan (he already has first-name recognition, partly because Abu-Taleb doesn't fall trippingly from the tongue) has captured the imagination of all those who feel, after five years of economic hard times, that the village is making things worse by nickel-and-diming them to death.
The question is, does John Hedges understand this sentiment? Ironically, Hedges is not a status-quo candidate. He freely admits things need to improve at village hall and, arguably, he'll have a much better chance of improving them than Anan, but judging by the quantity of Anan's lawn signs (if you can judge such things by lawn signs), the electorate may be in the mood to shake things up.
But if elected, would Anan really shake things up? Successful businessmen, and women, have a long history of overestimating their own abilities and underestimating the challenge of "running government more like a business." Anyone who thinks the latter is just a matter of common sense and will power is likely in for a rude awakening. That doesn't mean change is impossible. It just means you should go in with a healthy respect and a healthier humility.
Anan most likely would not change the culture at village hall by the sheer force of his personality. After all, he'd be only one vote out of seven. But if he's genuinely charismatic and knows how to work with people, he might shake things up a little and in a good way.
Some, knowing full well he won't change much, may vote for him anyway, just to send a message to the establishment: Don't take us for granted.
Hard to say which side will win. It depends on which side of our divided character is stronger at the moment — establishment or anti-establishment.
We'll find out come April 9.