An Unrepentant New Dealer Runs for Congress

Thanks to the media circus swirling around the governor of Illinois and his schemes to fill President-elect Barack Obama's Senate seat, little attention is being paid to the race to succeed Rahm Emanuel as he moves from the House of Representatives to White House chief of staff.

That's a shame, because voters in Mr. Emanuel's district, largely composed of Chicago's North Side, will have the chance to redeem their state's reputation. They will likely have the chance to elect, out of a crowded race, a true reformer in Thomas Geoghegan.

Mr. Geoghegan is something of an oddity in Chicago. He is a respected lawyer, but he has spent his career in the unlucrative fields of labor law and advocacy for the poor. His connections are probably better with the Jesuits than with City Hall.

He is also a writer, and a brilliant one at that, possessed of an elegant, conversational prose style and an eye for the haunting detail. I should also mention that he is a good friend of mine, and that he has contributed to and worked on a magazine I edit.

I first encountered Mr. Geoghegan in the early 1990s, when he was a frequent guest on a Chicago TV show. And I still remember how shocking it was to hear someone defend organized labor in those days when everyone else was coming to accept the post-industrial order.

The basic point that he would make was that the decline of unions wasn't a reflection of consumer choice, in the way that hot movies and popular toys are said to be. Labor unions were hemorrhaging members because the game was rigged against them; because it was nearly impossible for workers to organize when the penalties incurred by management for firing pro-union employees were so slight.

Maybe that's just what you're supposed to hear when you turn on the TV in a place like Chicago. To me, though, it was new and astonishing, a sort of revelation. Mr. Geoghegan's 1991 book, "Which Side Are You On?" -- the best book on labor to appear in the past 50 years -- continued my education about the blue-collar world. An "anti-world," Mr. Geoghegan called it, a "secret world." And so it was: the silent, suffering antithesis to the great choir then starting its hymn to omniscient markets and the ever-ascending Dow.

Now that conservative orthodoxy has collapsed in a heap of complex derivatives, I can't help but think what a refreshing dose of plain-spoken Midwestern reality Mr. Geoghegan could bring to the nation as a whole.

To begin with, Mr. Geoghegan thinks big while Democrats in Washington tend to think small, proposing a stimulus package here and better oversight there. The government's goal, as he explained it to me a few days ago, should not merely be "to pump up demand again." It should be to enact sweeping, structural change, "to get in a position where we're not bleeding jobs out of the country."

For the view that working people have no business with retirement and health care in the lean, mean, inevitable future, Mr. Geoghegan has a certain contempt. He wants to increase Social Security payments to make up for the destruction of private pension plans and expand Medicare with the goal of arriving, eventually, at single-payer health care. The $700 billion bank bailout, he says, proves that such expenses can be borne. What's more, they're necessary.

"Economic security is not only compatible with being competitive globally," he tells me; "it's crucial to it." Until we shift the burden of pensions and health care from companies to government we will continue to endure "debacles like General Motors" and so many others.

It is also time, he says, to change the relationship between the financial sector and the rest of the economy. After all, as he tells me, "We bought into these banks, we ought to have directors on the boards. We the people, as stockholders, have different interests than some other stockholders because we have some other ideas about how we prosper in the long term."

For example, "rather than go for high-roller returns on financial speculations," a publicly appointed director "might be willing to accept lower returns in manufacturing where we can be globally competitive and create good jobs."

This is supposed to be a time for bold ideas on the left, with the failures of the free-market consensus becoming more glaring and more painful by the day. And Mr. Geoghegan's ideas should be part of the debate.

Indeed, this scholarly labor lawyer may be exactly the man for the moment. He is an unrepentant New Dealer with an old-fashioned sense of civic duty and an admitted fondness for Washington. Unlike so many who have been called to service in this economic crisis, he has no period of embarrassing new economy enthusiasm to apologize for. And despite the stories we tell ourselves about corrupt Chicago, change is possible. Voters need merely to seize the opportunity.

Thomas Frank's column, The Tilting Yard, appears every Wednesday at

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