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How Will the Chicago City Council Change with the Daley-era Ending

Don Rose 20 September 2010 No Comment

Now that we won’t have a Daley to kick around much longer, let us ponder a Chicago City Council in the years AD. Will it continue to be a puppet show with a mayor pulling all the strings? Or might it turn into an actual legislative body?

Both Daleys, father and son, exerted dictatorial control over their 50-member councils—the father with an iron fist, the son with an admixture of carrots and sticks.

The father in his early terms was bothered by a single independent voice of reform—the late Leon M. Despres of Hyde Park, with an occasional Republican joining the dissent. In later years a small bloc of six or eight black and white progressives banded together against the mayor on matters of social and political reform, but they could do little more than raise an issue. The mayor’s 40-plus majority would bury them at the snap of his fingers.

His rule was so absolute that few people realized Chicago officially has a strong-council/weak-mayor system of governance. His control actually stemmed from the fact that he was also chairman of the Cook County Democratic Central Committee and in that capacity doled out all the patronage. Meaning he could effectively control the aldermanic election in most wards. He also could slow down street cleaning and garbage collection to punish a dissenting alderman. So it was clearly in the interest of most aldermen to do his bidding, even as he reduced their aldermanic perks.

When Harold Washington upset the Machine by winning in 1983, the world learned a Chicago civics lesson: the mayor does not automatically control the council. Washington had only 21 votes for his first three years, with the notorious all-white Vrdolyak 29 blocking virtually every reform he proposed. It was “Council Wars.”

It took a group of court-ordered special elections in black and Latino wards to give Washington a one-vote majority late in his first term. When he won reelection in 1987, a dozen former aldermanic enemies became friends and he barely started to get a few things done before he died later that year.

The council was chaotic during the Washington years and didn’t really simmer down when Eugene Sawyer was appointed by the divided body to serve as interim mayor. Enter the son via a special election in 1989.

Richard M. found himself with that racially and politically divided council but rapidly went about building on the majority that had backed him. He vigorously courted the opposition, black and white, and within two terms won most of them over.

He did not, however, use the traditional patronage system through the central committee. That system was systematically being weakened by the federal Shakman decree, supported by Washington, which basically outlawed patronage.

Instead he assembled his own network of political armies in different parts of town, notably in the burgeoning Latino communities. Those organizations were sustained by a combination of personal loyalty and sub-rosa patronage schemes that circumvented the law.

Meanwhile he perfected the carrots: pots of money for each ward to use for its own projects, overseen by the alderman. He offered trophies such as libraries, schools and housing or business developments, some quite sizeable, that made supporters out of all but a few remaining independent cusses who managed to get elected without him.

Only when he bucked organized labor did he find himself faced with a new batch of a dozen or so independents elected in 2007, who never formed a cohesive bloc, but once got an anti-Wal-Mart bill through the council against his wishes—the first and only time such a thing happened to a Daley, except for a short-lived ban on foie gras. He vetoed the “big box” bill, twisted a few arms, offered a few carrots and found enough votes to avoid having his veto over-ridden.

That was as close to actual independent governing the council ever came. Now, however, with up to 10 aldermen retiring, several more talking about running for mayor and the potential field of mayoral candidates expanding, we may be on the verge of racial, ethnic, political and geographic splits manifesting themselves in both the mayoral and aldermanic races. All 50 aldermanic seats are up for election along with the mayor.

It will take a coalition-builder to win the mayoral runoff. But what will await him or her when facing the new council? A large majority of allies or council warriors?

That open question makes the coming aldermanic contests almost as interesting as the run for the top office itself.


Don Rose is a regular columnist for the Chicago Daily Observer

image a pre-Chicago Alderman

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