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Why You Can’t Impeach a Chicago Mayor

It’s not like this in other cities.

Protesters demand Rahm Emanuel’s resignation in December 2015 following the release of the Laquan McDonald video.   Photo: Jose M. Osorio/Chicago Tribune

As impeached President Trump awaits his Senate trial — and as impeached Governor Rod Blagojevich angles yet again for a pardon from him — we’ve found ourselves wondering: Is there a way to impeach, or otherwise get rid of, a Chicago mayor?

Not that we want to get rid of Lori Lightfoot after just seven and a half months. In that time, she’s not only balanced a budget, but has put an end to Ald. Ed Burke’s long, windy speeches on the City Council floor.

But Chicago has had worse mayors, and ones its voters have wanted to toss out. There was William Hale Thompson, who gave Al Capone the run of the town. Just last decade, there was Rahm Emanuel, who this magazine called “The Least Popular Mayor in Modern Chicago History” when his approval rating fell to 27 percent, following the alleged coverup of the Laquan McDonald shooting video. Most Chicagoans were sick to death of Emanuel by 2017, but we had to wait until last year’s election to get a new mayor.

Illinois governors can be impeached, as Blagojevich was in 2009, after the FBI taped him trying to sell Barack Obama’s Senate seat. Because of Blagojevich, governors can also be recalled directly by the electorate: Voters added that provision to the state’s constitution in 2010.

But there’s no political mechanism for removing a Chicago mayor from office. The City Council can’t impeach, and the voters can’t recall. In this town, only a felony conviction can force a mayor from office. (To be fair, felony convictions are pretty common among Chicago politicians.)

It’s not like that in other cities. In 2008, when Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick was facing perjury charges for lying about an affair with his chief of staff, Gov. Jennifer Granholm convened a hearing on removing him from office, which she had the power to do. (Kilpatrick resigned first.) When Dennis Kucinich was mayor of Cleveland, he barely survived a recall election. Miami mayor Carlos Alvarez was recalled in 2011. Among other top-10 municipalities, Los Angeles and Houston allow voters to recall their mayors, and New York allows its governors to do so.

In Illinois, though, we don’t let voters to get too involved in the political process. In the entire history of this state, the only known case of a local official being recalled from office was a Buffalo Grove village trustee, in 2010.

Currently, two bills before the General Assembly would create procedures for recalling the mayor of Chicago. One is sponsored by Rep. LaShawn K. Ford, himself a candidate for mayor in 2019. It would allow a recall election if petitioners collect signatures equal to 15 percent of the votes cast in the last mayoral election, with at least 50 signatures from each ward. If the mayor is recalled, a special election to choose a new mayor would take place 60 days later. The vice mayor, currently Ald. Brendan Reilly, would hold the office until then.

(Ford introduced a similar measure in 2015, right after the Laquan McDonald video was released. He called it the “recall Rahm” bill.)

The other bill, sponsored by Rep. Anne Stava-Murray of Naperville, is known as the Laquan McDonald Act. This bill would not only allow for the recall of a Chicago mayor, but of aldermen and the Cook County State’s Attorney. The petition threshold is lower: only 10 percent of the votes cast in the last election for mayor and alderman, and only 5 percent for state’s attorney.

Both bills are currently languishing in the House Rules Committee, where they will continue to languish. That’s because that committee, and the rest of the state legislature, is controlled by House Speaker Michael Madigan, one of the last living remnants of the Daley Machine. (Imagine trying to recall Old Man Daley: Anyone who signed or circulated that petition would have their home and/or business swarmed by building inspectors writing code violations.) There may also be less of an impetus for a recall procedure now that Emanuel, the target of both bills, has left office.

Emanuel won’t be the last unpopular mayor of Chicago, just as Blagojevich won’t be the last corrupt governor. If any voters need the power to recall politicians, it’s those in Illinois — and not just mayors and governors, but village trustees, aldermen, and state legislators. Maybe one reason our elected officials misbehave so often is that they know they’re immune from the voters until the next election. Since 1976, the U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Illinois has won 1,731 corruption convictions, more than any other federal prosecutor’s office. But why rely on prosecutors to kick out our bad actors when there’s a world in which we, like so many other states, could just do it ourselves?

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