When Gov. J.B. Pritzker and Mayor Lori Lightfoot were running for office, they both faced the prospect of working with septuagenarian Irishmen from the Southwest Side who were relics of the Chicago Machine, encrusted to the body politic like a barnacle after a half-century in public life.
In Pritzker’s case, that elder statesman was House Speaker Michael Madigan. Pritzker’s predecessor, Bruce Rauner, attempted to portray Madigan as the personification of everything wrong with the state’s politics — “the Darth Vader-Lord Voldemort of Illinois,” as Illinois Issues put it.
That didn’t work out so well for Rauner. The state didn’t pass a budget for two years, until finally Madigan passed one over the governor’s veto — a supreme political humiliation.
Pritzker, on the other hand, allied himself with Madigan, both out of partisanship and practicality. During the 2018 election, Pritzker donated $7 million to Democratic Majority, a Madigan-controlled political fund dedicated to electing Democrats to the state House. It turned out to be a shrewd investment. The Democrats won a super-majority, which allowed Pritzker to make good on his most cherished campaign promise: passing a ballot initiative for a constitutional amendment on a graduated income tax.
In fact, thanks to his alliance with Madigan, Pritzker had one of the most successful legislative sessions in decades. After promising to make Illinois “the most progressive state in the nation when it comes to guaranteeing women’s reproductive rights,” he was able to sign the Reproductive Health Act, which declared abortion a “fundamental right” and repealed restrictions on spousal consent and late-term procedures. Pritzker also signed bills legalizing marijuana and sports betting, and authorizing a casino in Chicago.
Pritzker knew that nothing gets through the state House unless Madigan wants it to get through. Now, the partnership between speaker and governor has put a stamp on Illinois’s reputation as the most progressive state between New York and California.
Then there’s Lori Lightfoot. Her establishment specter was Ald. Ed Burke, and her approach could not have been more different than Pritzker’s. After Burke was indicted for shaking down a Burger King owner in his ward, Lightfoot portrayed him as Public Enemy Number One.
In essence, she ran for office as the anti-Burke. One of her most effective advertisements criticized her opponents for their connections to Burke, calling them the Burke Four and likening them to cockroaches. At her first City Council meeting, Lightfoot essentially told Burke to sit down and shut up.
But Lightfoot’s beef wasn’t just with Burke, it was with the entire City Council. To Lightfoot, Burke’s behavior was just a symptom of a culture of corruption nurtured by aldermanic prerogative, the custom which gives aldermen final say over pretty much every project in their wards.
Lightfoot’s first act in office was an executive order ending aldermanic authority over licensing and permitting. Late last month, the mayor went further, telling aldermen she planned to take away their authority to site Divvy stations, authorize special event permits, spend Neighborhood Opportunity Fund money, and even to distribute garbage cans and cut down trees. The aldermen were pissed: After all, when street fairs get out of hand or garbage isn’t collected, their constituents blame them, not the mayor.
“What does an alderman’s ability to get garbage cans … have to do with ending aldermanic prerogative?” 15th Ward Ald. Ray Lopez asked the Sun-Times. “The location of Divvy stations, landmark designations — all of that has nothing to do with what her stated goal was. … If you’re gonna take all of that out of the hands of the local alderman and give it to someone [at City Hall] … with no recourse to appeal, that’s gonna have dangerous implications in our neighborhoods.” The same Sun-Times article predicted that Lightfoot’s power play will make it tougher for her to persuade the Council to pass an ordinance reducing aldermanic power over zoning.
When he ran for governor, Pritzker promised results, but as a billionaire essentially buying his way into the state’s most influential office, he couldn’t convincingly portray himself as a reformer. So far, he’s been content to work with the Springfield power structure, instead of trying to dismantle it, as Rauner did. Pritzker sees his legislature as a partner, not a problem.
When Lightfoot ran for mayor, she promised reform. To her, that sometimes means treating the Council as an adversary. But getting the reform she wants may mean she’ll never achieve the same legislative victories as Pritzker.