An Interview with Dick Simpson: Putting Political Trends into Perspective

Credit to UIC News Center

Welcome to the fifth interview of our Uncontested Races series! We have been exploring the question of why so many state and local offices go uncontested, even in major election years like 2016. Thus far, we’ve interviewed a 24-year-old Minnesotan state legislator, a University of Chicago political scientist, and the data-focused founder of

We spoke with Professor Dick Simpson, the Director of Undergraduate Studies in the Political Science department at the University of Illinois at Chicago for his perspective, especially in the local Chicago context. In addition to his academic career, Professor Simpson has been active in many areas of Chicago politics over the years, including serving as an alderman from the 44th Ward. Over the phone, we asked him about his personal views on the last couple decades of Chicago politics and his experience working with reform and progressive candidates, including State Representative Will Guzzardi.

When you ran for alderman in the 1970s against an opponent with more money and more support, how did you pull that off?
We had built a strong grassroots organization called the Independent Precinct Organization. We had run previous campaigns that started with the McCarthy campaign for president in ’68, then in ’69 we ran [a candidate] for the Constitutional Convention and Bill Singer for alderman. By the time my campaign came around, we had already built an organization at the precinct level of dedicated workers willing to work for reform candidates.

A lot of races in the Chicago area, especially at the local level, are uncontested. Is that a worrying trend? Has that changed over the years?
There are two different kinds [of uncontested races]. At the aldermanic level most of them are contested. At the state legislature level, more of them are not contested. And that’s because the districts have been so badly gerrymandered that it’s hard to mount a successful campaign against the incumbent. If it’s a Democratic incumbent, Michael Madigan can put in hundreds of thousands of dollars to shore up the Democratic candidate; within the suburbs and downstate, Rauner does the reverse from the Republican side.

What are the most hopeful and pessimistic trends that you see in politics right now, either here in Chicago or nationally?
The most hopeful is how close Chuy Garcia came to winning the election, forcing [Mayor] Rahm Emanuel into the run-off, and the number of reform alderman who got elected in the 2015 election. In terms of most troubling things, they’re at the national level with the election of Trump, but I expect reformers to come back in 2018 and 2020 and to capture first the US Senate and then the White House.

What’s your biggest worry about new technologies like social media? How can those dangers be combatted?
The biggest danger of [data] analytics is undermining the privacy of the citizens. And we need better privacy laws. The biggest danger of social media is, as you’ve seen with fake news and the Trump election, it has as much potential to mislead as to provide factual and useful political information. Both can be curbed, but they’re not easy. These techniques are both good and bad for democracy and what we have to do is turn them towards good and take away the negative aspects as much as we can.

What it is like to be an academic involved in a political campaign or in public office?
I bring the information from the real world of politics into the classroom, on the one side, and on the other, I take a broader view of trends than a lot of people who are just looking at the short term election.

In our last interview of the Uncontested Races series, we’ll be talking to Amanda Litman about her experience co-founding Run for Something and as email director for the Hillary for America campaign. Make sure to check it out!

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By Eileen Li, BallotReady Intern