Edit Module
Edit Module
Edit Module
Edit Module
Carol Felsenthal
On politics

Rahm Still Has His Rubber Stamp City Council

A recently released study confirms that, despite his low approval and upcoming election, Mayor Emanuel continues to get whatever he wants from the city’s aldermen.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel addresses the Chicago City Council in November.  Photo: Zbigniew Bzdak/Chicago Tribune

As his bid for reelection approaches on February 24, Mayor Rahm Emanuel remains the wolf to the aldermen sheep. Yes, voters seem to disdain his impatient, arrogant style. Yes, when he announced his reelection earlier this month, only 14 alderman showed up. Yes, he has big problems in African American precincts. Yes, his overall approval rating stagnates at around 35 percent. But members of our City Council still, to mix metaphors, dance to his tune. And while his opponents, outgoing Ald. Robert Fioretti and Cook County Commissioner Jesus “Chuy” Garcia, could possibly force an April runoff, Rahm will most likely win a second term and serve at least half of it before, my guess, he moves on to a bigger stage.

UIC prof and former  44th Ward alderman Dick Simpson continues to study the Council’s relationship to the mayor, even though he keeps getting pretty much the same sad results. In his latest, just-released study of 67 roll-call votes over the last 18 months—its title, “Rahm Emanuel’s Rubber Stamp City Council,” tells you pretty much all you need to know—Simpson found, as the Reader’s Ben Joravsky put it, that “most of the Aldermen are gutless hacks!”

Simpson and his two graduate student collaborators, Beyza Buyuker and Melissa Mouritsen, found that Rahm’s support has slipped just a bit over the last 18 months—relative to his first two years in office—but not enough to alter the picture of Rahm the ruler: He has not lost a single vote and still commands more support from his troops than Rich Daley did in his last term.

Simpson found that “the average level of aldermanic support for [Rahm] was 89 percent on all divided roll call votes” from April 2013 to November 2014. During Rahm’s first two years in office, the average was 93 percent. My colleague Whet Moser wrote about Simpson and Melissa Mourtisen Zmuda’s study of Rahm’s first two years in office in a post titled “Chicago’s City Council Barely Meets the Standards of Democracy.” Moser referenced some statistics from a Chicago magazine piece by Steve Rhodes: “By the time 2012 drew to a close, Emanuel had racked up 1,333 `yes’ votes to 112 `nos,’ and he has never lost a vote on the floor.”

According to Simpson, members of the Council’s Progressive Caucus were most likely to buck Rahm—the four members with the highest buck him numbers were the 45th Ward’s John Arena, 43 percent; the 2nd Ward’s Robert Fioretti, 45 percent; the 32nd Ward’s Scott Waguespack, 54 percent; and the 36th Ward’s Nicholas Sposato, 66 percent. (Other members of the caucus—Leslie Hairston, Ricardo Munoz, Roderick Sawyer, Toni Foulkes, and Ameya Pawar—voted with Rahm from 78 percent (Hairston) to 93 percent (Pawar). All told, the caucus’s level of support averaged 70 percent.

The issues that attracted the most aldermanic opposition, although Rahm still prevailed on both, were the failed proposition to put on the ballot a referendum seeking an elected CPS school board and the failed effort to up the amount of TIF funds distributed to the schools and parks.

Earlier this year, I contacted two academics who study this dynamic—or perhaps better to call it a lack of dynamic—to search for some insights beyond the numbers.

Chicago is a “one-party city,” according to DePaul political science professor Larry Bennett, author of The Third City: Chicago and American Urbanism. And even in the Council’s Progressive Caucus, there are factions divided along racial and ethnic lines, making it “difficult to muster a coherent response to the mayor.”

Bennett dates the one time there was a coherent opposition back to the administration of the city’s first African American mayor, Harold Washington (1983-1987). Bennett refers to that Council Wars opposition as the “Vrdolyak/Burke bloc” [of 28 white aldermen] and explains that it wasn’t so much about race as about the fear among aldermen of the impending end of an era. Instead of the typical cronies of previous machine administrations, Washington installed activists to head departments, and “all of the sudden a way of life was tossed in the air, threatened.” (As quoted in Moser’s post, “in 1985, Harold Washington had 18 aldermen who voted with him a mere 20-29 percent of the time, and 11 who voted with him 30-39 percent of the time”)

Generations of students have been taught that Chicago has a strong Council-weak mayor system. Not true, says Bennett, and not true for most major American cities, which tend to be one-party systems (that party being the Democrats). “You’d have a hard time finding any city council that actually represented a two-party debating society; you wouldn’t find many councils that have the political weight to consistently counter the city administration. It’s sad but true that city councils are weak in most American cities.” (Bennett specifies that although its council members aren’t smarter than their counterparts elsewhere, Los Angeles swerves a bit from this pattern, with a mayor who is beset by so many independent commissions that he has “a hard time accomplishing things.”)

Costas Spirou, until last year at National-Louis University, now professor and chairman of the department of government and sociology at Georgia College and State University, sees Rahm as following in the footsteps of the two Richard Daleys. (Spirou is co-writing a book on Richard M. Daley.) Spirou notes that both Rich, when he took office in 1989, and his father, when he took office in 1955, talked about themselves as reformers, and both left a record of corrupt politics with aldermen landing in jail. “Rahm is following the same path,” Spirou says. The culture is already set and it’s difficult to change and “almost necessitates that he be in control of the aldermen; he can’t afford not to contain the alderman.”

Spirou describes Rahm as coming into office “having to play the reform card, because the reform card is the card that excites voters, engages them, promises them a new start.”

Spirou echoes Bennett in his observation that the aldermen owed their jobs to Rich Daley either by appointment or support—he claims that by 1998, 40 percent of the 50 members “owed their jobs to Daley.” If opposition formed on ordinances or budgets, “Daley stayed in the background and threatened with a alternative candidate.” Spirou calls this a “generalized threat,” a “culture running city hall, a culture that everybody knows from the stories being told term after term. People knew their role.”

That was a system, Spirou adds, that was passed along to Rahm—a system allowing aldermen “to maintain control over their wards; as if they were independent fiefdoms.” “Restructuring a system that is so much engrained, so much embedded, is hard even if a new mayor really aims to reform it,”

When I spoke WTTW’s Joel Weisman earlier this year, he told me, “I think Rahm [is] extremely crafty in grabbing control in the City Council. Those guys are born to be led by the nose. Pretty good rubber stamp—instead of one or two dissenters, now maybe three or five speaking out; it makes no difference in the end. Rahm is large and in charge.” One might dispute the word “large” but certainly not the phrase “in charge.”

One of the best descriptions of Rahm’s dominance of members of his City Council comes from the aforementioned Steve Rhodes article. He describes Rahm at Council meetings standing before the aldermen on an elevated dais “between two towering slabs of marble, like a lord addressing his serfs.” Meanwhile, aldermen are “chitchatting, texting, or wandering around as if a meeting isn’t taking place” when they’re not “grandstanding” and “chid[ing]” their more serious “independent-minded aldermen….like the high school jocks hazing the nerds.” When it’s time to vote, Rhodes wrote, aldermen descended into “zombie mode: Do whatever the mayor wants.”

Carol Felsenthal is a lifelong Chicagoan and self-proclaimed political junkie. She writes occasionally for Politico Magazine and The Hill. Her books include biographies of Bill Clinton, Katharine Graham, and Alice Roosevelt Longworth. Among her many stories for Chicago are memorable profiles of Michelle Obama and Bruce Rauner. Follow her on Twitter at @csfelsenthal.


Edit Module
Submit your comment

Comments are moderated. We review them in an effort to remove foul language, commercial messages, abuse, and irrelevancies.

Edit Module