CLARICE STETTER: Editor of the Illinois Voter, a publication of the League of Women Voters, she has worked part-time for the Chicago Suburban Tribune and holds a master's degree in journalism from Northwestern University.
A popular Democratic mayor in a Republican stronghold builds public works projects, gets intergovernmental cooperation but faces problems of unemployment and urban decay
WHEN DOES a hobby in politics become a career? For Robert W. McGaw it happened when he left the field of education after 20 years to run for mayor of Rockford. McGaw won the election and became the first Democratic mayor of Illinois' second-largest city, long a Republican stronghold.
For many years McGaw successfully juggled a career in education with his love of politics. As a youngster McGaw developed an interest in politics watching his father, a Democrat, and his uncle, a Republican, serve as precinct committee men. As an adult, McGaw dealt with students, classrooms, and school administration during the day;
but in the evenings he attended the political meetings that eventually built the Democratic party in solidly Republican Rockford in Winnebago County. For eight years McGaw served as city alderman in addition to his career in education.
Although there had long been a national Democratic party in the city of Rockford and Winnebago County, in which McGaw took an active role, it wasn't until 1965 that the local political parties switched to national party labels. Rockford's mayor at that time, Benjamin T. Schleicher, continued in office under a Republican party label. In 1973, Schleicher was still in office and running again after 16 years as mayor. Rockford voters seemed ready for a change. Local Democrats looked for someone to run against Schleicher, and they decided Bob McGaw was their best candidate.
Explaining that his politics were not revolutionary, McGaw campaigned on the theme, "You don't have to be afraid to elect a Democrat." Rockford voters knew Bob McGaw; he knew the city. He had lived in Rockford all his life except during his college years and military service during World War II. He and his wife, Peggy, had raised three children in
Rockford; he had taught Rockford school children and put in good service on the city council. Comfortable with McGaw, Rockford voters elected him their first Democratic mayor by a margin of three to two in April 1973.
Local newspapers endorsed McGaw's candidacy, and following the election the Rockford Morning Star reported his voting support as "reaching into all areas of the city including normally Republican strongholds." After the election, the defeated Republican incumbent, Mayor Schleicher, described McGaw as "an outstanding man of integrity."
Rockford (pop. 147,370) straddles the banks of the Rock River 15 miles from the Wisconsin border and is well known as one of the leading machine tool centers in the United States. Many of its older residents still think of it as a small town, but Rockford has grown and now must deal with big-city problems of school integration, urban decay and the health and welfare of its citizens.
After three years
Looking back on his three years in office. Mayor McGaw sees a new public works program, departmental reorganization, a commitment to minority hiring and the stimulation of intergovernmental cooperation as the most tangible accomplishments of his administration. In restructuring city departments, McGaw has established a new Department of Human Resources, which coordinates the efforts of community action, equal employment opportunities and the Human Relations Commission. The separate but overlapping departments that had performed these duties were eliminated. McGaw also has plans underway to regroup the functions of planning, zoning and building under a new Department of Community development.
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McGaw wants to cushion Rockford's economy with white collar jobs, rebuild the downtown and end the city's political isolation
McGaw points to minorities and women in policy jobs in several departments as evidence of his commitment to "create economic opportunities on a people basis" and to remove "artificial obstacles to full employment opportunity." About 10.6 per cent of Rockford's population is black.
Under McGaw's administration, revenue sharing funds were used for public works improvements, for purchase of heavy duty equipment and for development of neighborhood projects. The old and unsightly public works yards, downtown along the river, have been moved to an outlying area. McGaw still sees the need for improvements of the city's bridges and 100-year- old water system. The latter is so old that some of the recently uncovered wooden water mains are destined to become museum pieces.
Evidence of cooperation
Three new Rockford facilities stand as evidence to the philosophy of inter-governmental cooperation fostered by McGaw's administration. The new public safety building, a joint city- county effort, will soon house programs and facilities of the Rockford Police Department and the Winnebago County sheriffs office. The city donated land on which the Rockford Park District built the Riverview Ice House, a popular recreation center on the banks of the Rock River. A third facility, the Crusader Health Clinic, was originally planned as a city project. Instead, the clinic went into operation with federal revenue sharing funds contributed by Rockford Township, and the city funds planned to be used became available for other purposes.
Turning to unsolved problems that confront his administration. Mayor McGaw admits with a candor unusual in a politician that he has been unable to keep his campaign promise to hold down the tax rate. During his three years as mayor, he has been faced with economic crisis in Rockford. Repeating an accepted local cliche on Rockford's economy, McGaw says, "When Detroit has the flu, Rockford has pneumonia."
With its heavy reliance on manufacturing, Rockford experiences dramatic economic fluctuations during periods of national economic upheaval. Currently, Rockford's unemployment rate is the highest in Illinois; 14,000 are out of work. In addition to unemployment in the private sector, the city has had a two- year hiring freeze which has affected personnel in the fire, police and public works departments. Continued belt- tightening resulted in additional cuts during budget adoption this past spring.
Looking to the future, McGaw would like to cushion Rockford's economic base with white collar jobs, perhaps in federal or state government, and move away from the city's overwhelming emphasis on manufacturing.
Million dollar gamble
Even if the city's general economic health improves, Rockford and its mayor continue to wrestle with the problem of serious downtown decay in the city's older business sector. At the top of 10 points for progress in his 1973 Democratic platform, the unsolved problem of urban renewal still stares at McGaw in the form of shabby and / or empty storefronts along the once busy main street of the 125-year-old city. Downtown decline began long before McGaw came to office. During the last decade, in Rockford as elsewhere, shoppers turned to bright new shopping centers in outlying areas of the city. Today, only two major retailers remain in the downtown center.
In August 1974, the city broke ground for what the mayor describes as "a million dollar gamble," a new mall built north of State Street on the downtown's west side. A new commercial bank has been built here, and an attractive public library stands north of the mail. But in between these two buildings and down- town along the river's edge, there is an emptiness and dreariness that demands attention.
It has been suggested that this area would benefit from a financial or cultural center. With this in mind, the mayor has been looking into the possibilities of a civic center. McGaw had hoped that finances, a chief obstacle to such a center, had been overcome when the Illinois General Assembly passed the Metro-East Act (P.A. 78-1289) in 1975
This legislation enabled Rockford and four other areas, Madison and St Clair counties, Aurora, Peoria and Springfield, to establish exposition authorities, expand local bonding power, and receive additional money from the state exposition fund in order for each area to build a regional civic center. But in November 1975 the Illinois Supreme Court declared the act unconstitutional due to a technical flaw (People ex. re I. Peoria Civic Center Authority v. Vonachen), and the chances for a civic center seemed slim.
McGaw hopes that the General Assemby, in its spring session, will remedy the flaw and thereby speed legislative and financial help on its way to Rockford and its downtown area, The Senate passed S.B. 1590 and 1591 to accomplish this by a 50 to 2 vote in mid-May. The measures were pending House action at the end of May (see Bill Summaries, p. 27),
Two other projects that may pump life into the downtown area area proposed new federal building and an extension of the Chicago Art Institute, both of which the mayor hopes to locate in the downtown sector. The latter project, the first of its kind, has been officially announced by the Art Institute. Donation and approval of a downtown site to house a permanent Institute exhibition in Rockford has yet to take place. Although new buildings and new projects may, in the future, help solve Rockford's problems of down- town decay, for the present, it is a serious and visible problem which faces McGaw each day on his way to and from his office in City Hall.
For a long time, Rockford has been a leader in innovative housing programs. Years ago the city demonstrated that the philosophy of small, scattered-site public housing can work effectively. Last year in a new housing program, the city was one of the first to become active in the homestead program under the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
During the summer of 1975, Rockford was allocated 50 units of housing on which Federal Housing Authority mortgage foreclosures had been made.
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people interested in owning and renovating a home were screened for their ability to undertake the project and were given a house on a lottery basis. The property is kept on the tax roils, and the new home owners have 18 months to bring the building up to building code standards. Within nine months after the program began, 28 of the original 50 homes were brought up to code requirements.
In another demonstration effort, Rockford has a Michigan State University grant under the National Science Foundation. With this grant, the city is developing a two-way fire safety program using its local cable TV network, McGaw sees Rockford as increasing its role as a demonstration city for projects that then can be expanded or modified for use in other communities.
Walker and Rockford
Any discussion of Rockford's future automatically includes the city's location in the state and its politics. In the March primary election, McGaw supported Gov. Dan Walker although the majority of local Democratic leaders endorsed Michael Hewlett in the race for Democratic candidate for governor. Following Hewlett's win in the primary, McGaw endorsed him for the November election.
But, why did McGaw initially support Walker and why did Walker carry Rockford 4 to 1 over Hewlett in the primary? McGaw says that Gov. Walker "discovered" Rockford. In the governor's many campaign trips and political accountability sessions across the state, he regularly included Rockford as an important place to stop. McGaw says that prior to Walker's term as governor, the city felt politically isolated from Springfield and had few lines of communications to the state capital regardless of the political party controlling the governor's chair.
Downstate but upstate
Located 85 miles northwest of Chicago,via the Northwest Tollway, Rockford is not part of the metropolitan Chicago area. Rockford's residents have easy access on interstate highways to Wisconsin's recreational facilities and Madison's cultural events. Rockford residents don't think of themselves as downstaters. Yet many nonresidents, ignorant of Illinois geography, look downerstate when trying to locate the state's second largest city on a map. Looking at the patterns of expressways in the state, Rockford is not linked to downstate, Regardless of the outcome of this November's election, McGaw believes it will be vital that Rockford establish strong lines of communication with the new administration in Springfield, and thus end Rockford's political isolation.
In December, after the general election, comes the deadline for McGaw's decision on whether he will run for a second term in the April 1977 city election. In that election a mayor, city clerk, city treasurer, and 10 aldermen will be elected for four-year terms. Currently the political balance on the city council is 11 Democrats and 9 Republicans with McGaw casting votes in the role of tie-breaker, and on issues demanding a two-thirds majority.
McGaw told the voters in 1973 that re-election would not influence his decision making while he was mayor. Will he run again? McGaw isn't sure about his future. He says firmly he is not interested in running for higher office. He was an unsuccessful Democratic candidate for the lieutenant governor nomination in 1960 and has no desire to try that route again. In this year's March primary election, he ran unsuccessfully as an uncommitted delegate to the Democratic National Convention.
Everyone's second choice
McGaw calls himself a realist in politics. It was this realism that prompted him to endorse Republican Congressman John B. Anderson in the 1974 general election over Andersen's two less experienced opponents — one a Democrat and the other a conservative independent. While local Democratic leaders were not happy with that endorsement, McGaw felt it was important for Rockford to have a congressman in Washington the caliber of Anderson. Anderson was first elected from the 16th Congressional District, which includes Rockford and Winnebago County, in 1960.
McGaw describes his local Democratic party as fractionalized into union supporters, independents, traditionalists close to Chicago Democrats, idealists and others. While McGaw sees no real challengers on the horizon, he says he would not be any faction's first choice as the Democratic candidate for mayor. He does believe he would be everyone's second choice. An administrative aide and former campaign manager says McGaw may not be a favorite of the politicians, but the people on the street like him.
A slight, casually dressed man, Bob McGaw's conversation and manner suggest the openness and informality of today's classroom, not the overwhelming attitude of a stumping politician. McGaw still visits children in their classrooms and enjoys it. But his former duties as a school administrator do not match the excitement and challenge of running a city government. McGaw is quite busy handling ongoing problems of city government. The decision on his political future — or a new hobby or career — will have to wait till December.ž
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