Chicago’s City Council Barely Meets the Standards of Democracy

A new study shows Emanuel’s rubber-stamp City Council to be just as broken it has been for decades before him.

Richard Daley Rahm Emanuel

Brian Cassella/Chicago Tribune

UIC out with another report, by Melissa Mouritsen Zmuda and Dick Simpson, following the pallid drama of Chicago’s city council. The conclusion is in the title: “Continuing the Rubber Stamp City Council.” 

It shouldn’t come as a surprise if you read Steve Rhodes’s Chicago piece on the same subject:

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. The council has crossed Emanuel exactly once, in a February 2013 vote on his ethics proposal—which toughened the provisions for the inspector general to oversee the aldermen. Members of the council’s rules committee voted 25–3 to table the proposal. Still, the mayor largely prevailed: Days later, the full council passed a watered-down version of the ordinance.

Rhodes contrasts this to the campaign rhetoric: “This state of affairs is disappointing, given that several aldermen had proclaimed that without Richard M. Daley riding herd, the council would finally rouse itself from its 22-year slumber and start acting like the legislative branch the law empowers it to be.” But the slumber has gone on a lot longer than that. It’s gone mostly unbroken in modern history… and when it was broken, we didn’t appreciate being woken up from it.

In 1999, Simpson and UIC’s Tom Carsey looked at ten city councils over 40 years under all the different mayors during that time. How’d we do?

“Thus, in the 40-year period from 1955 to 1995, we find in Chicago a dominant pattern of Rubber Stamp and Weak Rubber Stamp Councils. None of these meet the standard of a representative legislative body in a deliberative democracy…. [T]he basic conclusion that emerges from our study of Chicago is the absence of representative democracy.”

Daley the Elder ruled over plenty of rubber stamp councils, but one of the strongest in their sample was—surprise!—Michael Bilandic:

In 1977, 45 aldermen voted with Bilandic’s floor leader at least 90 percent of the time. So strong was his hold on the council that when vacancies developed in the 46th and 48th lakefront wards likely to elect anti-machine representatives, the council voted down three different ordinances requiring them to hold elections. It took a court order to force the city to provide special elections.

So in that case, it was literally the absence of representative democracy, even during the tenure of Bilandic, “a weak imitation of the old boss.” By contrast, Richard M. Daley began his career with a weak rubber stamp council. In 1991-1992, early in his tenure, Daley had six aldermen that voted with him 30-39 percent of the time (none less than that); five that voted with him 40-49 percent of the time; and six that voted with him 50-59 percent of the time.

Compare that with Rahm. In 2011-13, Emanuel had one alderman that voted with him 40 percent of the time (James Arena); one that voted with him 53 percent of the time (Bob Fioretti); and two that voted with him 60-70 percent of the time (Scott Waugespack, Nicholas Sposato). Everyone else voted with him more frequently, including 39 aldermen that voted with him 90 percent of the time or more.

It’s a strong start, but Rahm’s no Michael Bilandic.

Which unlucky mayors drew the “Fragmented” and “Council Wars” city councils? I’m sure you can guess the latter: 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 (the rest were above 70 percent).

His successor, Eugene Sawyer, had a “fragmented” council, if by “fragmented” you mean a bell curve of support beginning at 50-59 percent, peaking at 70-79 percent, with no one supporting every single wish of the mayor. Simpson and Carsey point Sawyer’s council fragmentation not as the result of healthy deliberation, but “petty personal politics as divisons based on personalities, race, and self-interest grew among alderman.” It wasn’t divided so much as chaotic.

So they found one city council statistically resembling representative democracy, and it’s the one that got Chicago the nickname “Beirut on the Lake.” Nor were its ideological divisions particularly healthy or conducive to the kind of legislative compromise and negotiation that the institution is meant to develop:

In reality, it is more the classic case of gridlock in government. In Chicago, Council Wars were created by deep racial and ideological divisions in the city that were manifested in the city council. As we have seen in our national politics over the last few years with the Clinton presidency and a Republican Congress, divided party government is not all bad…. In Chicago’s case, better city budgets and neighborhood development programs emerged from the Council Wars period. But deliberative legislative democracy was not the result, and considerably better policies might have emerged from a more deliberative process.

We’ve tried lots of different things: mayors who ran the machine (Daley), mayors who were chosen by the machine (Bilandic), reform mayors that embraced the machine (Byrne), and the closest we’ve gotten to “democracy” is a black mayor whose race was a primary driver of the ideological divisions the city lacked. It was sort of like the sausage-making of democracy, and it actually produced something like sausage… and Chicago didn’t like the taste of it.

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