You gotta pick your battles, man…

Posted on January 26, 2011


One of my favorite stand-up comedians is a guy named Mike Birbiglia, and one of my favorite Birbiglia jokes comes in one installment of a bit he does entitled “My Secret Public Journal.”

In this particular entry to the journal, Birbiglia talks about why he cannot listen to rap music. He gives an example:

“Its, 2007, [martian farmer],” barks a preening and aggressive rapper voiced by Birbiglia himself. Birbiglia steps out of character to give his rebuttal.

“I’m like, ‘Whoa, dude, you’re upset about the date? You gotta pick your battles, man.'”

That punchline has a certain validity all over the world, but this week in Chicago, it may be as true as ever. Rahm Emanuel‘s fight to regain (or perhaps retain–it’s rather difficult to tell exactly where the whole controversy stands right now) eligibility to be voted in as mayor of the City of Chicago drags on, and every possible interested party is picking the wrong battles.

Candidates Carol Moseley Braun, Miguel del Valle and William ‘Dock’ Walls (whose nickname is clearly in play merely to help him keep up with his trinomial rivals) picked a tiresome and nigh irresponsible battle by leading the challenge to Emanuel in the first place. That choice may ultimately cost the taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars in reprinting and other expenses as Emanuel’s name bounces on and off the ballot.

Emanuel and his campaign staff took the wrong tack by relying too heavily on legal arguments. Emanuel asserted that a clause in election code providing residency exemptions for service to the country shielded him from a requirement that he live in the city one year before running for office–even though the latter requirement is in a wholly different municipal code.

That argument is legally and logically tenuous, and anyway, he had a much easier alternative. Emanuel ought to have alluded more to the principle facets of this issue that run in his favor: the tenet, seemingly central to democracy, that any sufficiently qualified citizen of a given municipality ought to have the right run for election therein; and the belief, seemingly integral to the underlying theory of democracy itself, that the citizenry can be trusted to oust frauds and carpet-baggers simply by voting for someone else.

Finally, after weeks of passing along only the juiciest quotes from mayoral candidates about Emanuel’s case, the media in Chicago have taken on this story. In so doing, though, they have leapt straight into the judicial fray. Talking heads debated at length Tuesday over the syntax of the laws in question, the value of imperfect precedent and the problems with the current system by which judges are elected in Illinois.

Where was this level of even-handed analysis during the health-care debate? Why are the logistics of cutting government spending while investing more in the economy and education not getting this sort of careful reportage? What about Emanuel’s place in the lineage of Chicago politics is unique? Why is a city that rather boldly eviscerated Jay Cutler in absence of compelling fact now so willing to bog itself down in such execrable legalese over a relatively minor issue?

You gotta pick your battles, man.