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Curing the Chicago Way

Our city is arguably the last vestige of boss-style government in urban America. In a new book, two authors propose reforms that could change that.

Mayor Richard J. Daley and his wife, “Sis,” on their way to cast votes on April 4, 1967. Photo: Ron Bailey/Chicago Tribune

Chicago is the last vestige of boss-style government in urban America — or at least that’s the argument at the crux of The New Chicago Way: Lessons from Other Big Cities, a book by Ed Bachrach and Austin Berg published last month by Southern Illinois University Press.

Their case: While New York City and Los Angeles have rejiggered their city governments to disperse power among many officials, the mayor of Chicago remains as all-powerful as during the reign of Richard J. Daley. That top-down structure, they argue, is responsible for many of the city’s problems, from police misconduct to pension debt.

Bachrach and Berg, both Chicagoans, suggest a number of reforms that would place a check on the mayor’s power. One: reducing the number of aldermen and stripping them of aldermanic privilege, so they’ll focus less on ward matters and more on citywide issues. Another: creating citywide positions with real power, like a controller to handle financial matters and an attorney for legal issues.

I spoke with the authors, who are both affiliated with the conservative Illinois Policy Institute, ahead of their appearance at the Book Stall in Winnetka on February 12. Here, an edited transcript.   

What is the “old” Chicago Way, and why do we need a new one?

Ed Bachrach: There are quite a few meanings of the Chicago Way, going all the way back to when Al Capone would whack people. But all of them have a negative connotation. If we’re going to lay out a blueprint from reformed governance in the city, what better term than the New Chicago Way?

You say that centralizing power in a strong mayor is at the root of the city’s problems. Why do Chicagoans seem to like having a strongman mayor?

EB: There is a culture that has existed here for decades where everybody thinks, “we just need one big boss.” Other cities were like that, but at a time when other cities were facing challenges and started to reform, Chicago became insular. Even by design, other elected city offices are neutered, they’re geldings. They don’t really have any power or sway. 

In the book, you write that Chicago has a strong mayor/weak council form of government. But others say it’s the opposite: the City Council can check the mayor, but has never chosen to, except during Council Wars.

Austin Berg: [That may be because] many of them were appointed by the executive in the first place. At the time we wrote the book, the mayor had appointed 28 aldermen over the last 28 years.

Would you like to see that replaced by special elections?

AB: Yes.

EB: There are many reasons the mayor retains total control over the Council. Part of it is filling vacancies. Part of it is redistricting. The Municipal Code doesn’t give the mayor a role, but he takes a role anyway. If he doesn’t like you, he’ll district you out of a ward, like [Rahm Emanuel did with] Bob Fioretti.

You’ve got menu funds. The mayor defers with aldermanic privilege.

It’s like the court of Louis XIV. He built Versailles, and he got all of the counts and barons and nobles off their manors to come live in Versailles to gamble and have affairs and theater and music and food. They were completely pacified, and he didn’t have to fight all his nobles in wars all the time.

You suggest reforms to the City Council to get the aldermen away from just looking after their wards and have them take more responsibility for citywide affairs.

AB: The biggest reform would be to do away with aldermanic privilege. Some form of that exists in other big cities, but nowhere is it as pervasive as in Chicago, where it is literally down to signed permits for sidewalk cafes and awnings.

We could also make our representation proportional to what other big cities do: cutting the number of aldermen in half. Those two things would lead to more adversarial but productive citywide policy discussions.

EB: Other innovations would be a city council president, so the mayor does not preside over City Council meetings. You don’t see that anywhere else in the United States. Do you see Donald Trump presiding in the Senate?

We also need an elected chief financial officer and an elected city attorney. 

You talk about how our murder rate and our police misconduct payments are higher than other big cities. Does Chicago’s top-down model of government contribute to that?

EB: First of all, you have a police chief that serves at the whim of the mayor. If the mayor needs to do something politically to show his testosterone, he fires Garry McCarthy. Garry McCarthy had nothing to do with Laquan McDonald. [McCarthy] was trying to discipline Jason Van Dyke. You need to separate the professionalism of the police force from the mayor.

I think it really calls for a Los Angeles-type police commission, where the mayor appoints a police commission of civilians, so you have oversight, and then he can’t do anything. He can’t hire the police chief, and he can’t fire him. 

AB: L.A. has double the land area of Chicago and 50 percent more people, but it spends the same amount of money on policing. Their policing reputation, post-Rodney King, has improved, especially as a result of the insulation of policing from the mayor. L.A. residents enjoy far more oversight over policing than do those of Chicago.

Chicago’s per capita city pension debt is $15,380, which is almost three times as high as New York’s. Is that tied to a problem in our government structure?

AB: It’s intimately tied in that there is no fiscal check on the mayor’s whims. We [propose] three fiscal firewalls: an elected city controller, voter approval for tax hikes and new debt, and a City Council that engages with the budget. Of the 15 most populous cities, only Chicago has none of the three. When you have no institutional safeguards to borrowing, it’s not surprising that borrowing’s out of control.

You suggest moving future city employees off a defined benefit plan. Do you want to put them on a 401K?

AB: Or Social Security. Rather than being a basket case, we could be the first city in America to outlaw defined benefit plans. It’s going to end up there, anyway. Pensions are collapsing all over.

Los Angeles and New York City were able to rewrite their city charters in recent years. Would that be more difficult for Chicago?

AB: It would probably require an amendment to the state constitution. The 80 percent of Illinoisans who don’t live in Chicago have an enormous opportunity to leverage their political power — to give the the 20 percent who do live in Chicago a chance to vote for a new form of government.

Around 38.5 percent of Chicagoans have a college degree, which is above the national average. It seems that the “old” Chicago style of government was developed to serve a different population than lives here now — one that was more blue collar and more composed of immigrants.

EB: In classic political theory, as a society modernizes, new social and interest groups arise, and it is the function of the political process to balance the needs of the different social groups.

A hundred years ago, when Chicago was in its ascendancy, the principal organizing social groups were ethnic minorities, who got together in wards and were seeking political and economic power. You have different interest groups now. The biggest interest groups are public employees, real estate interests, bankers, and vendors. And they’re really preying on the city. 

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