Dick Simpson continues ‘The Good Fight’ in latest political book
March 1, 2019

The Good Fight is Dick Simpson’s latest book. The cover photo shows a police officer and another City official trying to restrain Simpson from speaking in the City Council.

By William S. Bike

Dick Simpson is a professor of political science at the University of Illinois at Chicago, but he’s also a “dean”—the dean of political commentary in Chicago. When the media wants a cogent comment about what is happening in current politics, Simpson is often the person to whom they turn.

He has the credentials. Simpson has been a political science faculty member at UIC since the 1960s. He has written many books on politics including Inside Urban Politics, Lessons from a Chicago Progressive, Winning Elections in the 21st Century, and others.

Unlike many of the talking heads on radio and TV who pontificate about politics but who have never been in the trenches, Simpson has not only achieved elective office as a Chicago Alderman, but was re-elected as well. In both of those races, he was strongly opposed by the powerful Mayor Richard J. Daley and his Cook County Democratic machine, but won anyway.

Simpson’s latest book, The Good Fight, is not only another entry in his collection of books that offer political advice, but it is unique in that it is a memoir as well, detailing how politics has affected his personal life, including the negative impact on his marriages.

“Writing a memoir is entirely different from any books I have written before, and the biggest challenge was finding an appropriate style,” Simpson explained. “I drew on my experiences writing op-eds for newspapers for over a decade. Those are 550 to 750 words, begin with a grabber sentence, and end with a conclusion or zinger.

“My memoir vignettes are about 1,500 words but preceded by 250 words of factual background for the reader so as not to interrupt the story and are summed up in slogans like ‘politics ain’t beanbag,’” he said.

Simpson is a Chicago icon, so it is surprising to learn that he was born and received his baptism of political fire in Texas. He and his fellow liberals (yes, there were Texas liberals back then) cut their political teeth there on the fight to integrate movie theatres, restaurants, universities, and plays, which still
were segregated as late as the early 1960s.

After graduating from the University of Texas, he moved on to Indiana University for graduate studies in politics and African studies and met Mary Scott, who would become his first wife.

African and Chicago politics

The two moved to Africa to study its local political structures for his doctoral dissertation, and the result was that he learned a political system that was surprisingly similar to Chicago’s—chieftains who controlled local politics by dispensing favors, much like Chicago aldermen and mayors.

Once he earned his doctorate, he searched for a university teaching job, and found one at the University of Illinois at Chicago—a city he had rarely even visited before. He would end up being a Chicago icon.

The book goes on to describe is work on the 1968 presidential campaign of Senator Eugene McCarthy (D-Minn.) McCarthy did not win, but his campaign sunk the chances of incumbent President Lyndon B. Johnson for re-election. Simpson learned an important lesson: you cannot change politics from the top down starting with the presidency; you have to do it from the bottom up—in precincts, neighborhoods, wards, and communities.

Simpson has been a community activist both in and out of office ever since.

He worked on creating independent political organizations that both fought the entrenched powers that be and gave people more of a voice in their communities. He was elected to the City Council twice, where he was one of the few “Lakefront liberal” Aldermen who was such a thorn in the first Mayor Daley’s side that Daley would sometimes cut off Simpson’s microphone in the council chambers.

The book shows how Simpson and his colleagues could effect change despite the opposition of the entrenched powers. Reforms such as equal pay for female and male City janitors, cutting unnecessary patronage employees, and providing freedom of information did not pass when Simpson and his colleagues first introduced them, but they introduced them into the public consciousness and fought for them until they became policy and law.

During his time in City Council, Simpson also was instrumental in ending the Chicago Police Red Squad, which spied on Chicagoans for their political activities.

Leaving office after two terms in city council, Simpson offered a plan for reform of City government to Jane Byrne after she was elected mayor in 1979, but she ignored it. Simpson’s involvement in the Harold Washington movement was more fruitful, as Washington enacted some Simpson reforms.

Personal costs

Time spent in politics cost Simpson his first marriage. He married again, to Beatrice Biggs, but time spent in politics cost him that marriage, too in the late 1980s. It was around this time that Simpson became a minister with the United Church of Christ—a vocation that opponents ridiculed in Simpson’s later unsuccessful campaigns for Congress, proving that politicians will try to twist anything good and to make it seem bad if it will help them get elected.

Simpson’s church was of course involved in politics, becoming a sanctuary church for foreign refugees—a precursor of today’s sanctuary cities movement.

His political activities have made him a special type of political science teacher. Simpson focuses less on the science and more on the politics, and his classes at UIC are known less for textbooks and more for innovative activities such as analyzing government as if students were on a political transition team, internships, experiential learning, and civic and political engagement.

The memoir aspect of the book comes into play again when Simpson writes about his third marriage, to Sarajane Avidon, who passed away from cancer.

A happier part of the book is Simpson’s explanation of his work with the successful Barack Obama for President campaign.

Through example and advice, the book shows how progressive ideals and politics can win—not immediately, not completely, and not easily, but that “the good fight” can ultimately change the way we all live, and for the better. Simpson’s career-long fights against the Daley administration, the Chicago Democratic machine, and Republican presidents are a blueprint for progressive political activists in an era of conservative Federal, State and City governments.

Concerning the recent race for governor between Republican incumbent Bruce Rauner and the Democrat who defeated him, JB Pritzker, Simpson commented that both would have “personally gained by reading my book, as neither seem very reflective.”

“Campaigns and governing are bruising and difficult and teach hard lessons to the candidates and their supporters,” Simpson said. “It is better to be prepared for the highs and lows in advance, and also know how to take advantage of the changes and opportunities which will open up in the campaign.”

Concerning the mayoral and aldermanic elections, Simpson said, “My book focuses not only on my aldermanic and congressional campaigns but on aspects of city government which most mayoral candidates don’t know firsthand. My chapter on Harold Washington and his rainbow coalition may be particularly instructive for many of the candidates.”

He also noted that “it takes money and a political army of volunteers to win a mayoral race” here in Chicago.

The Good Fight is published by Golden Alley Press and is available on Amazon and on other bookseller websites and bookstores. Simpson can be reached at UIC at simpson@uic.edu.