Would have been 1965 that I first learned about the VMA — the, as of last week, dissolved Village Manager Association.

I was 10 years old and was recruited as a foot soldier passing literature in my south Oak Park neighborhood. The recruitment was accomplished by my folks, Frank and Mary. As I recall it — maybe correctly — they’d been tapped on the shoulder to be block captains, precinct captains, some sort of captains, for our immediate 700 S. Taylor neighbors.

My parents, I’m certain, were making their first excursion into local politics, too. They were tapped on the shoulders by Mr. and Mrs. Kruley, our alley neighbors who held some higher rank within the Village Manager Association.

I was all in. Passing literature was fun and important, though I’m sure I had only a passing notion of why it was important. Turns out that Oak Park was at a crossroads in 1965. Like most of Oak Park’s most interesting moments, it had to do with race. The VMA-backed village president and board that was elected that spring would carry Oak Park deep into the Civil Rights era and the village’s visionary leadership in Fair Housing. It would be the village government that absorbed and stemmed a white flight that was limited only by comparison to the wholesale abandonment of the West Side by generations of whites.

To the extent any attention has been paid the past 15 years to the unwinding of the VMA it has mostly and deservedly been over internal splinters and petty snark among inside players on all fronts. 

The VMA, which had its heroes and its heroics over 65 years as it formed to fend off political corruption in the 1950s, faced up to race in the 1960s and into the 1970s, and, with mixed results, made the village more modern in areas of economic development, gradually ran out of fuel. Largely ran out of outstanding candidates. Focused on its history and not our future. Near totally ran out of acolytes young enough to bring energy and innovation.

And the group was genetically incapable of adapting to the wide open and yet too often one-issue focused political processes of this social media and suspect-of-government age we endure. Choosing candidates in a secret process they always claimed was integral to good government was a concept that rightly could not be sold anymore. And as the number of volunteers vetting those candidates dwindled, as the number of potential candidates putting their names forward for vetting declined, the jig was more or less up. 

The good news is that, 10 months out from the next municipal election, the VMA had the grace to dissolve itself. It brings clarity to what will be an important election, potentially a contentious election. Three trustee seats are up for election. Two of the three — Bob Tucker and Andrea Button — will be the last VMA-endorsed candidates to ever serve and they were reluctant VMAers at best. The third incumbent, Jim Taglia, was appointed to the office by Mayor Anan Abu-Taleb. Will any of them stand for re-election? They haven’t said yet.

If they decline, will Abu-Taleb work to create his own slate of candidates? If he doesn’t, his final two years in office could be miserable.

Where would new candidates come from? For a Facebook group that just formed a couple of months back, VOICE is getting prematurely anointed as a political force. They’ll have to prove it over time and, not surprisingly, they’re still getting their sea legs as they sort out whether they are vetting candidates, slating candidates, staying fully independent, or building alliances with other grassroots efforts.

Is there still an “establishment” left in Oak Park that could muster the energy and forward thought to assemble candidates who can defend and celebrate what got Oak Park here while going hard at legitimate concerns over the tax bite?

The VMA’s gradual decline toward irrelevance raises doubts that their final bow creates anything like an actual power vacuum. But psychologically at least it leaves a void.

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Dan Haley

Dan was one of the three founders of Wednesday Journal in 1980. He’s still here as its four flags – Wednesday Journal, Austin Weekly News, Forest Park Review and Riverside-Brookfield Landmark – make...