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A Mayor Worth His Salt

Political wisdom in Windy City includes not angering citizens by blowing snow removal

By James L. Tyson / February 17, 1994



IN Chicago, as in cities throughout the ages, the vox populi has sounded a great cry and compelled city leaders to secure that necessity of daily life: salt.

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In the face of the iciest winter in recent memory, Chicago aldermen on Feb. 9 approved the purchase of an additional 20,000 tons of salt for city roads.

The acquisition was just the latest of several initiatives by a city leadership keenly aware of the political importance of a substance that since ancient times has symbolized loyalty to the social compact.

In the interest of political harmony, the city government last year stockpiled an extra 50,000 tons of road salt, totaling 303,000 tons for the winter. It was an uncanny prophesy of tough times.

Still, the city has depleted its salt supply and, recently, trucks have steadily hauled in some 60,000 tons purchased by the city late last month.

In addition, city officials have daily tracked a barge hauling 40,000 tons of salt through heavy ice floes toward Chicago's streets.

The officials keep several dump trucks standing by should the barge encounter impassible ice and have to dock far from the city. The precious cargo was due to land by yesterday at a dock officials have kept secret for fear of theft.

The reinforcements of salt moving toward Chicago by train, truck, and vessel answer a popular call for reliable snow removal that has rung in city streets and political minds since the winter of 1978-79.

That year, a blizzard dumped two feet of snow and then-Mayor Michael Bilandic, like mayors throughout the Midwest and East this winter, learned the hazards of a shortage of salt, plows, and manpower.

In the spring of '79 mayoral election, Jane Byrne capitalized on the bungled effort at snow removal and upset Mr. Bilandic.

``It became part of political wisdom and legend that a Chicago administration dares not blow a snow-removal program,'' says Terry Levin, spokesman for the Department of Streets and Sanitation.

Current Mayor Richard Daley apparently knows that no matter how skillful his ``spin doctors'' and off-camera groomers are, he cannot expect to win another term next year if snow clogs city streets as it did in 1979.

By hauling salt to Chicago, the mayor is fulfilling a duty of governance as old as the advance of civilization from nomadic life to a settled agricultural livelihood.

Mankind systematically has used salt ever since humans began to eat cereals, vegetables, and boiled meat. The substance was so highly valued it was used as money in Tibet and parts of Africa, according to the Encyclopedia Britannica.

More importantly, salt gradually became a symbol of fidelity and social covenant. And, in some languages, it is a metaphor for loyalty and high esteem. An Arab will tell a confidant, ``There is salt between us.'' Speakers of the modern Persian language call a betrayer ``untrue to salt.''

So it comes as no surprise that, with mayoral elections 14 months away, Mayor Daley has seized on his timeless responsibility to meet the people's need for salt.

``The people want their salt,'' the Chicago Tribune quoted the mayor as saying after the city's recent purchase.

``You can't get around it. They want salt,'' he reiterated.

The mayor has been criticized for allegedly squandering city's road salt to pacify his constituency. But with shipments on the way, concerns over a shortage have eased.

``Although we may have used salt too liberally, not using it would have disastrous political consequences for the mayor, so I surely understand why he did it,'' says Lawrence Bloom, a Chicago alderman.