Political Columnist Roger Simon

Back in town as a fellow at the University of Chicago Institute of Politics, South Side native and Politico’s chief political columnist Roger Simon drops by to talk shop and discuss his past life as a Chicago reporter. 

View a video of Roger Simon’s Oct. 10, 1984, appearance on Chicago Tonight.

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Read more of our interview with Roger Simon, chief political columnist for Politico.com and Spring Fellow at the University of Chicago’s Institute of Politics

Roger SimonQ: How is it coming home for the spring?

It’s been an amazing experience. I’m still waiting for the spring part but it’s been incredible. Though I grew up here and always had family here, I haven’t been back to Hyde Park in decades. Just driving around and seeing the change is incredible.

There are people walking around the streets at night. I’m sure there are still pockets of poverty and poor housing but there is block upon block upon block of hip homes and it seems to extend for an incredible amount of space. I still have yet to go back to my high school neighborhood on the south shore. Being a fellow here, the University of Chicago has a private security force. The people who live in the neighborhoods are better and you see the police force out on the street. The neighborhood is great and I’m happy to be back.

Q: You are staying 10 blocks from where you were born?

Yes 10 blocks from where I was born and two blocks from my grandfather’s apartment. I would visit my grandfather taking the bus every week. Even though he lived close to the University of Chicago, I never set foot on the campus. It was a real gulf in those days. If you didn’t go there, you didn’t walk on the campus. It’s amazing now to see this lovely urban campus that is not like other urban campuses in other cities that is like a citadel where you can’t get in. It is very open and accessible to the public and they made a conscious decision for it to be that way. All the sessions at the institute are open not just to students and faculty but open to the rest of the community. While everything g is not sunshine and roses, from first impressions, the university has been trying to do the right thing and has achieved some amount of success at it. And the buildings and – the hotels and restaurants are incredible on streets that used to be desolate at night – now people are walking out of shops. It is different than the way I remember it.

Q: What does the Fellowship entail or offer to students?

Its purpose is to put students, some faculty and some community members in touch with practitioners of politics in journalism in order to instill in them – especially students and younger people- a devotion to a life of public service. They certainly get an incredible amount of knowledge in the lecture halls. But the purpose of the IOP is to say, 90 minutes a day, five days a week, you can meet with practitioners. One fellow, Bob Inglis, is a 6-time congressman from South Carolina, another is David Muir, political strategist to former UK prime minister Gordon Brown.

Michael Steele was head of the Republican Party. Basically, fellows can come in to a non-lecture type setting and you can bring in guests. My guest last week spoke for 90 minutes and he just blew them away, he was amazing. Kids are still talking about it. Today my guest is the chief comedy writer for the Daily Show. There is a lot to learn from that. Howard Dean is also coming. The point is that you can sit down with practitioners and listen to the guests they bring in who are practicing politics and journalism and policy and just talk about what they do and how they do it. By talking to them and seeing what they do in this informal setting, kids will be inspired to go into public service or journalism which maybe you can call public service. That is the point of the institute.

Q: Any specific topics you are focusing on for your column while you are here?

I have only done three columns from Chicago. I wrote my first one about coming back to Chicago, one on Doris Kearn-Goodwin on politics and imagery. And one on the 36 shootings in 36 hours and how people reacted here. Going back on some statistical evidence, Chicago has the largest number of police officers per capita and the highest homicide rate of the four largest cities. It has been reduced over the years but is still the highest. Turns out the theory of putting more cops out there and you will be safer does not turn out to be true. People I have spoken to are trying to answer why we are seeing these spurts of violence.

One professor I quote In my column- his theory is that the police successfully arrested top gang leaders to interrupt the drug trafficking but this create d a power vacuum and now gang members are fighting at street-level over who is in charge. You also have an explosion of the number of gangs – some only control a block. With the shutdown of 50 or 60 schools, kids are now being force to walk to or take buses to areas that are no longer within their gang territory. Being outside their territory makes them highly vulnerable. There is this micro-level gang warfare that has been introduced by a well-meaning but disruptive force which was the arrest of gang leaders and school closings in these communities. We are seeing this spasmodic violence but that doesn’t mean it will continue. These things go up and down. The violence today is lower than it was ten years ago.

Q: Drop in urban population – did you look at that?

I haven’t looked at that with the move of city residents to the suburbs. That is a trend nationally. I was talking to the mayor of St. Paul, Minnesota and they actively recruited populations from Vietnam and some Somalis. The future of American cities may not be people who have lived here for 30 years but refugees or people who have been invited to live here and get jobs. I would also think that with the shift in population from the cities to the suburbs, crime would not increase. 

Q: I enjoyed your article on Doris Kearns Goodwin’s visit. How have politicians’ priorities shifted in regards to more money?

It’s completely out of control. It is a hugely destructive force to democracy. We have a Supreme Court that has unfortunately made ruling after ruling that money is free speech and the more money you have, the more free speech you have access to. I think this is a blow to the heart of the democratic process. Each vote should count the same as every vote. Just because two brothers have millions and the ability to effect an election somewhere, it is not okay. It hasn’t been okay for corporations to give unlimited amounts of money to elections since Roosevelt. But now we are turning that over on its head. It seems like another protection is struck down every other month. It just corrupts the marketplace and very small individuals – multi-millionaires and billionaires. If you are personally a billionaire, you are exactly what a party is looking for. If you are worth – what is Rauner worth? $6 Billion? He is obviously going for the image of an average guy in a simple shirt in his ads. What about somebody who is not that well-financed? Don’t they have a right to run for public office. You say sure, they can go out a raise some money. But the amount of time candidates dedicate to fundraising is astounding. You can’t make these calls from your office. They spend four hours a day, seven days a week making fundraising calls. That’s crazy. It has taken over campaigns. It just grows bigger and bigger and I don’t see any end in sight. I don’t see any good result coming from it either.

Q: Is patronage still the Chicago way?

Well it always was. I guess it can’t be anymore. Yes, patronage was the Chicago way. What everyone else called “the Machine.” When reformers started running for office like Dukakis who was elected governor of Massachusetts. He issued a rule that no one who contributed to his campaign could get a state job or a state contract. They told him he was crazy. They said – now only your enemies can get state jobs and contracts. What kind of sense does that make? He later changed his mind I think. Patronage at its heart is unfair and illegal. But it provided what people needed – a job, food, place to live, in exchange for party work.

Obviously government can run and does, with or without patronage. Whether it runs better or worse would be a good topic for a political class at University of Chicago to study.

Q: You have written a number of books on presidential campaigns and political leaders. What is the proper role of government?

The proper role of government is to protect the condition of its citizens. I see government as a force for good. In my experience, some problems are so large – global warming, natural disasters, etc. that only the government can deal with the problems. Its role is to also protect the nation in time of war. Those basically are its functions, and to create a level playing field that gives every man, woman and child the ability to develop to their fullest.

I was just reading about Abraham Lincoln – it may have been Kearns actually – but Lincoln in the beginning was at first not an anti-abolitionist with the expansion of slavery. The trouble with him was not that he never believed black people and white people could be social equals. He grew up in the middle of the 19th c. but what troubled him about slavery was that it denied people the ability to develop to the fullest of their talents and abilities. He didn’t like being called Old Abe or a rail scooter. He liked being called the honorable Abe Lincoln – he was very proud of his law degree because he came from a very poor family. And he thought as he was developing his stance on slavery, if he had been born black, he never would been able to become a lawyer or enter politics or become president. And that’s what finally shaped his views on slavery and that still remains the premise of America. No matter who you are, where you come from or where your parents came from, everyone can succeed. Not everyone will but you ought to have the access to success. The government with its vast resources should be able to help you as a citizen.

Q: Any plans for another book?

Yes, noting that I can talk about just yet but I am planning another book, another historical look at campaigning in America.

Q: What has been your most rewarding experience in the field of journalism?

It’s being able to tell stories of other people. My first seminar here I started by reading a column I had written at Sun-Times in 1978 when I went to South Africa for the first time and a family smuggled me into Soweto which has a big no-no in those days. Just the risk they were taking by even talking to me. I asked them had they ever heard of the Chicago Sun-Times? They said no. Well, have you ever heard of Chicago? “No.” I said, “Then why would you put yourself through all this risk?” The answer was, “because you will tell my story. That’s what you do, isn’t it?” I said yes, I will tell your story. That really struck me and from that moment on, my life is basically telling other people’s stories. That is what I enjoy and what I get out of it. 

Interview has been condensed and edited.

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