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What Do Today’s Aldermanic Challengers Want?

Those seeking to challenge incumbent aldermen are widely in favor of an elected school board and increased police staffing. TIF reform comes in a somewhat-distant third.

Melissa Rubio, who works for Reclaim Chicago, canvasses for Alderman John Arena (45th Ward) in January.   Photo: Terrence Antonio James/Chicago Tribune

Almost 200 Chicagoans are running for alderman this year, between incumbents, their challengers, and candidates for open seats. Few of those running against the incumbents will stand a chance. Upset victories like Ameya Pawar’s 2011 triumph over the local machine will be few and far between.

Nonetheless, their efforts provide a good opportunity to get a sense of what the city’s concerns and anxieties are—where a small sample of politically engaged residents from across the city believe the existing Council is vulnerable, what they perceive constituents are worried about and aren’t getting from the existing order.

So I went through the platforms of about 100 candidates, looking for what issues they were running on. (Mostly through their websites, but where those were insufficient—which happened with some frequency—I also relied on questionnaires.)

I skipped over vague plans to work with the community on issues of concern, or statements that a particular issue needed to be “studied,” looking for specific changes the candidates wanted to make. And I lumped a sometimes broad menu into somewhat broad categories—"infrastructure” might mean viaduct repair for one candidate, bike lanes for another.

And it’s not meant to be comprehensive. More candidates might support initiatives under these rubrics. What I was interested in was this: what’s at the top of their minds? What do they think is most likely to grab the attention of the average voter?

There were two clear winners. Most non-incumbent candidates expressed explicit support of an elected school board, a couple in a hybrid form of appointees and elected candidates. And a lot of candidates wanted to hire more cops, whether it was to meet the mayor’s promise to hire 1,000 more cops, or to bring the head count up to the rather amorphous concept of “full” staffing.

Yes, it’s a bit obvious. The two big stories of Rahm Emanuel’s first term have been the closing of neighborhood schools and the crime rate. But consider the many things aldermanic candidates could run on: criminal-justice reform, strengthening the position of the inspector general, affordable housing, segregation. Public transit rarely came up as an issue (though promises to get potholes filled and generally secure city services for the ward abounded).

What it says about an elected school board or police staffing levels is hard to say. But if the incumbents turn out to be at all vulnerable today, expect those issues to be on the front burner.

What Issues the Candidates are Running on

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