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By CHUCK SWEENY

Mayor Box at mid-term:
keeping taxes low and understanding
Rockford's 'Mr. Larsons'

Charles E. Box rolled to victory in Rockford's April 1989 mayoral election with such astounding strength that people were dumbstruck.

"On the morning of election day I drove by his headquarters at four in the morning," remembers David F. Johnson, the senior Republican alderman in the city of 140,000. "I saw about 100 people in there, getting ready to hit the streets to get out the vote. I knew we were in big trouble." In his first venture into electoral politics, Democrat Box, a former athlete and scholar at Rockford's Auburn High School, then at Dartmouth College, slam-dunked his opposition. He beat two men in the primary with 60 percent of the vote, then carried all 14 wards with 63 percent in the general election against Republican businessman Leonard J. LaPasso.

Illinois' second-largest city, 85 percent white, was about to be governed by an African American, something the city's top Democrat said was impossible just six months before. Rep. E.J. "Zeke" Giorgi (D-68, Rockford), a veteran of 25 years in the state legislature, warned publicly that a Box candidacy would ruin the Democratic party. Giorgi, the city's chief labor union champion, said the inevitable Box loss would usher the dreaded GOP puppets of big business into the 6th floor of City Hall, a suite of offices they hadn't seen since 1973, when Democrats elected their first mayor, Robert W. McGaw. Giorgi reasoned that the city's white ethnics, descended from immigrating Swedes, Italians and Germans, with a great dollop of migrating Arkansans thrown in, would blanch at electing a black man. Giorgi now admits: "Rockford had come farther in its thinking than I imagined."

Mayor Charels E. Box

Photo by Brad Burt courtesy Rockford Register Star
Rockford Mayor Charles E. Box

The fact that Box is even in Rockford let alone its mayor is remarkable itself. It is not a place that has dealt kindly with its African-American citizens. Rockford is a factory town, with 650 companies that make things out of metal. Blacks were not welcomed in the job market. Large firms turned down government contracts because of the affirmative action policies that came attached. The Chrysler Corporation's attempt to place an assembly plant in the city was rebuffed by leaders who feared an influx of union and, worse, minority workers. The factory went to nearby Belvidere in Boone County.

The school system has been involved in desegregation suits off and on for 20 years, charged with shirking its responsibility to provide equal educational opportunities to minority students. Court-imposed remedies may cost taxpayers $15 million. The city's white, far east side is booming, while about half of the black, white and Hispanic west side is dying a slow death.

Most blacks who went off to college never came back. Box was the exception, returning home after graduating from the University of Michigan law school to assist his family in its restaurant business and begin a law practice. His dad, Horace Box,

10/May 1991/Illinois Issues


had opened a small barbeque shop on the southwest side in 1965. Today, Box still puts in a shift at the restaurant on Sunday nights. "I do the taxes, books, payroll. I may wash dishes, wrap the sandwiches. But they won't let me cook."

Given the stacked deck blacks have faced in Rockford, Box's election seems incongruous. A closer look is necessary to understand why it's not. "Rockford is a town chock full of surprises," says Mark Culhane, professor of communications and journalism at Rock Valley College. "Ask Rockford people if their town is conservative, and they say it definitely, certainly is." But Rockford has elected four progressive women to the state Senate since 1970. Its former congressman, John B. Anderson, left the GOP to run for president in 1980 as an independent. The city went big for Republican Jim Edgar for governor in November, at the same time electing Democrats John Cox to Congress (filling Lynn Martin's seat) and Michael Rotello to the Illinois House in a landslide.

Given all that. Box's election seems logical, says Culhane, because the fortunes of political candidates in Rockford turn on a fiercely independent majority of voters who consider themselves nominally Republican. Culhane calls them "Mr. Larson conservatives," after a ficticious, sober-sided character he created to help explain Rockford to the uninitiated. They tend to be practical people who value initiative, hard work and common sense. Party labels, sex and now color don't seem to make a difference.

"The 'Mr. Larsons' hold sets of views that come in conflict with one another. They may harbor residual racist feelings about blacks as a group. At the same time, they believe strongly in the worth of the individual. So, when an individual achieves success as they understand it, through channels they understand, like graduating with honors from Dartmouth, having a successful law career, they can overcome their stereotyping of blacks. And they feel good, like they've done something profoundly moral when they can vote for someone like that," says Culhane, a high school classmate of Box's.

Box is uncomfortable talking about race, grumping that property taxes would be a more pertinent topic. "I'd like to think that in the election my race was irrelevant. I think people first and foremost want someone to keep their taxes down. It's when taxes get out of hand that people get upset," Box says. But if the mayor is pressed further about how racism affects his ability to do his job, he can become aggravated. "I can go all over the city preaching the importance of our east side annexations, and the improvements we're doing out there to help it along. People think that's great. But all it takes is one article about what we're trying to do to build up the west side, and I hear on the talk shows, 'There he goes again, he's only concerned about the west side.' " Then he recovers his composure, perhaps remembering the Mr. Larson majority, and offers this:

"On the other hand, blacks are saying to me, 'Mayor, for the first 18 months the only thing we've heard you talk about is the east side.' "

Alderman Victory Bell, the senior Democratic alderman and the first black elected to public office in Rockford, in 1971, has been pushing for more jobs for blacks in City Hall, and he has been frustrated by Box's lack of action. "It's in the area of managerial staff where we need more concentration," Bell says. There is only one black department head, a token position held by blacks since the early 1970s.

Box knows he is a role model to the city's black youths, and he speaks frequently to groups of young people. "I tell young blacks that they have a better chance at being mayor than of playing in the NBA. There are 300 black mayors, and that is more than the number of blacks in the NBA."

Two years into his first term, the man who won a greater percentage of votes than any Rockford mayor since the 1920s is not ruling out a run for higher office. First, Box says, he'll run for reelection. According to Steven Vecchio,

Box is uncomfortable talking about race, grumping that property taxes would be a more pertinent topic. 'I'd like to think that in the election, my race was irrelevant'

chairman of the Winnebago County Republican Party, Box will be a formidable foe for any GOP candidate. That is not to say that Box is invulnerable. He must overcome a nagging commentary that is heard among some in the city's business and social elite: that he is merely a caretaker with no personal vision of the future.

His administration contains the same cast of characters as that of his predecessor, the liberal John F. McNamara. Box served the fiery Mac for eight years, first as legal director, then as city administrator. McNamara loved to pontificate on topics sometimes far removed from city government, but Box is quiet and shy, a loner. He is also considerably more conservative than McNamara. Box talks a lot about "living within our means," which means keeping property taxes down. The 1991 budget features a slight increase in taxes, about $10 for an average homeowner. Box calls that "reasonable if we are to maintain our present level of city services."

The city's leading leftist spokesman, Unitarian minister David Weissbard, strains to effect enthusiasm for Box, a man decidedly to his right politically: "He works hard at being mayor, and this is the kind of town where people respect hard work. He has a refreshing sense of realism and doesn't see himself as a savior."

From the right, Michael Warder, executive vice president of the conservative Rockford Institute, sees Box as the latest in a new generation of black politicians who are playing to a mainstream crowd and winning elections while doing it: "Box is a nuts-and-bolts fiscal conservative in the style of Virginia Gov. Douglas Wilder. Box is unusual. Here you have a black man who was legal adviser to the city, whose father was a small business man. Box understood business taxes and property taxes.

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He comes from an inherently conservative position."

But some who backed Box in the election feel let down not because of where he locates himself on the political spectrum, but because they say they are ignored. "He only deals with a small circle of people. I am disappointed as are many others who supported him. It was a grass-roots campaign, and we thought we'd have a grass-roots government," says Patricia Ritz, a community activist who formed Republicans for Box during the election.

When Ritz tried to help Box achieve his goal of locating a Rockford branch campus of Northern Illinois University in downtown, she was given the cold shoulder by City Hall. "The

'I'm quiet. I'm not flamboyant. I told people I understood city government. That's the person they voted for'

mayor was really confrontational. He said the university would not negotiate with him because he was black. I think he has a little maturing to do," Ritz says. Box, ignoring the downtown plan that Ritz and her Build On Rockford committee had put together, decided not to fight NlU's decision to put its branch campus at the city's far east edge. "I'm just glad it's in the city," says Box.

Reporter John Strandin of WROK radio has covered Rockford government since 1978. He sees a Box who "seeks a lot of input before going into something. He's a consensus builder. Sometimes the person on the street gets the idea that nothing is going on at City Hall, when in fact there's a lot going on."

Box does tend to work alone, beginning his day at City Hall before anyone else arrives and usually departing after the other lights have been shut off. At 40, he remains single. On weekends. Box attends from six to 10 civic or neighborhood functions, usually traveling alone. "I'm quiet. I'm not flamboyant. I told people I understood city government. That's the person the people voted for," says Box. Ask Box if he lacks his own vision for Rockford, and he bristles: "I don't say things just to get on page one. I don't have a lot of press conferences on things that might not pan out."

Box is a good listener, says Carl Dargene, president and chief executive officer of Amcore Financial Inc., the city's largest banking corporation, but Dargene says business leaders would like to hear from the mayor more often. "There's no doubt he's got the best interests of the city and region at heart. I hope that during these next two years he'll come to rely on business leaders and seek their counsel more often."

Republicans, of course, are trying to take advantage of the quiet at City Hall. "I don't see Box as a mover and shaker like McNamara was," says the GOP's Vecchio. The Democratic counterpoint comes from Thomas O. Meyer, co-chair of the county's Democrats. He argues that Box's style suits the needs of the city in the 1990s: "The city has come back from those disastrous years of the '82 recession, when our unemployment rate was 25 percent. We've rebuilt our infrastructure. Charles was one of the key people who put all that together while he worked for McNamara. Now it's time to stay the course."

Box learned from his predecessor's mistakes, too, McNamara did not understand the "Mr. Larson" faction. He ignored them, raising taxes to begin those massive infrastructure improvements. The increase, made in 1982 at the height of the recession, caused a tax revolt. In 1983 Rockford voters threw out home rule, limiting the city's power to raise taxes without referendum. As city legal director Box was forced to write a series of special state laws for Rockford, which Rep. Giorgi shepherded through the state legislature. In 1985 McNamara was reelected by just 179 votes. He got the message and didn't seek a third term. His last important act was to encourage Box to run for mayor.

Box has changed the city's direction in several ways. He abandoned the old policy of "economic development stops at the city limits." Instead, Box developed a regional organization to assist businesses in expansion and job retention and to help new firms locate in both Winnebago and Boone counties. "Regionalism just makes sense," Box says. "Rockford people work in neighboring communities; people who live in those communities may work and shop in Rockford. Our strategy needs to concentrate on developing the region's economy while helping to retain and strengthen our manufacturing base."

But Box has also been an annexing fiend, gobbling up territory like PacMan. Subdivisions containing about 3,000 people have been annexed, along with the city's premiere hotel, the Clock Tower Inn, and the Greater Rockford Airport, two plums that eluded past mayors. Annexations helped Rockford maintain its 1990 population at the 1980 level of 140,000, while other large Illinois cities were losing people. The additions on the city's east side made up for losses of people in older neighborhoods of the west end and southwest side. The west side decline particularly worries Box: "We've got to realize that adding $350 million in assessed valuation on the east side, as we've done, won't mean a thing if we lose that value on the west side, or if we have to provide more expensive services that come with neighborhood decline."

Rebuilding the housing stock is a top goal. About 5,000 homes, 10 percent of the total, do not meet city code. There are about 300 boarded up homes. "You take one down, and another one springs up. It's frustrating," Box says. Rockford has long been known for its innovative housing programs, pioneering scattered-site public housing in the 1960s and developing homesteading programs in the 1970s that have put 300 homes back on the tax rolls. The city has a variety of loan programs for first-time home buyers to get a discount on interest rates.

In 1990, Box got the City Council to take a further step. This year the city will go into the housing business, building 20 homes in neighborhoods that are on the verge of deteriorating. Rockford is also working with churches to develop a public-private

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housing partnership. Box says, "These groups have done such a good job that we've convinced the Ford and MacArthur foundations to give us $500,000, which will go to the not-for-profit housing groups, not only to help finance rehab projects, but to teach other groups how to do it." Box's next goal is to convince each of the city's 200 churches to renovate one home.

Box's knowledge of housing issues propelled him into a leadership position never before held by a first-term mayor. He chairs the U.S. Conference of Mayors' housing committee. "I interviewed 63 people to find a chairman for the committee," says Mayor Robert Isaac of Colorado Springs, Colo., chairman of the conference of Mayors. "Box appeared to be the right person for the chairman's slot, and I've been proven right."

On other issues garbage disposal and sewers Mayor Box has changed the city's direction. On education, however, he remains behind the scenes . . .

On other issues garbage disposal and sewers Mayor Box has changed the city's direction. On education, however, he remains behind the scenes, claiming the issue belongs to the school board.

As mayor, Box reversed plans to build a $100 million incinerator to burn all the city's garbage. Instead he developed a plan with the owner of the city's landfill, William Charles Ltd., to extend the life of the dump while the city began an ambitious recycling program. "I had problems with the direction the city was going. Here we were going to incur the biggest capital expense in the city's history. I was fortunate to know the landfill owner and was able to work with him."

That's a giant understatement: The landfill owner is closely connected to Box. Former Mayor McNamara is employed by William Charles, and Box's campaign chairman is the firm's lawyer. A company vice president who runs the landfill was Box's campaign finance chairman. William Charles owns Rockford Blacktop Construction Company, which receives millions in street resurfacing contracts in the city. William Charles' myriad connections in City Hall make many people wonder if the firm has undue influence. Not Box, who says his landfill and recycling plans will save everybody money while providing private businesses a chance to make money.

On sewers, Mayor Box turned the city's antiquated lines over to the Rock River Reclamation District, something McNamara had been unable to do because he was constantly warring with the district's director. "I kept asking myself, why do we have two governments in the sewer business?" Box says. Critics say that Box wanted to unload the sewers so the high cost of fixing them would appear on reclamation district user fees not city property taxes.

In the next two years, Box will have to contend with a school system gone awry. Voters in April turned down a tax referendum, and the Rockford School Board is considering cuts that could include the end of sports and other after-school activities. The discrimination suit has split people along racial lines. Amcore's Dargene fears that the referendum's defeat will make it difficult to attract businesses to the city or to entice existing firms to expand in Rockford.

Box has taken a low-key role in the school crisis. During the referendum campaign, he sent his campaign director to coordinate phone calling for a yes vote, without announcing it publicly. The Rockford Institute's Warder says that Box may not be able to stay out of the education spotlight: "He may not be allowed to. What happens with the schools inevitably affects his options and possibilities for other initiatives." Box says the school district should make the necessary changes and get on with life. The kids will still get a good education, he insists.

Dr. Maurice Sullivan, the city's school superintendent, says he meets regularly with Box, but he says that people who want Box to be a grand visionary leader are attempting to avoid the responsiblity for solving the community's problems. "I think there lives here a desire to have a messiah. Well, there are no messiahs," says Sullivan. "This community has got to have the soul, the capability, the attitudes to want to change things."

Box enters the second half of his term with his teflon intact. Even publicity surrounding the attempted murder charge and guilty plea of his nephew did not dent his popularity. The nephew had turned himself in to Box, who took the 21-year-old to the police station. Some police officers complained that Box should have notified them to come and get the man, saying Box did not trust his own officers. Box said he only did what was logical. The nephew pleaded guilty to aggravated battery.

About six months after the incident. Democrats conducted a poll in which they asked people to rate Box's performance. The mayor's positive rating was 70 percent. The GOP's Vecchio says the party will have to come up with a very formidable candidate to be taken seriously against Box in 1993. Currently, that person hasn't been found. And Box hopes to enter his reelection drive with more than $100,000 in the bank.

The Rockford Institute's Warder says the GOP's best bet would be to find a candidate somewhat like Box, then run a Box-like campaign, heavy on volunteers (Box had 1,100 in 1989). Warder says, "The only way to defeat Box would be to position him as an establishment candidate who's timid, and position the opponent as a grass-roots populist. But I don't think the Republicans are capable of doing that right now."

Box admits that there are some days when he wonders why he ever wanted to be mayor, but he insists it's a job he intends to keep. "If voters don't like what I've done, I'll go back and practice law or run the barbecue business. My life is not based on winning in '93; it's based on doing the best I can for the time I'm here."

Somewhere out there, "Mr. Larson" is nodding his head.

Chuck Sweeny is political editor for the Rockford Register Star.

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