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Why Chicago’s Spineless City Council Just Can’t Say No

Nearly two years after Rahm barreled into office, aldermen are still rubber-stamping everything he wants. Here’s why the trend is so troubling for Chicago’s citizens.

Rubber stamps

Have you ever sat in on a Chicago City Council meeting? The experience is strangely fascinating, at times maddening, and—if you care about good governance—downright depressing.

Each month, the 50 aldermen who make up the council (though not all 50 always show up) file into a red-carpeted room on the second floor of City Hall and sink into high-backed leather chairs. Mayor Rahm Emanuel stands before them, elevated on a dais between two towering slabs of marble, like a lord addressing his serfs. While the mayor isn’t a voting member of the council (unless there is a tie vote, which rarely happens), inexplicably he runs the meeting.

When the aldermen aren’t chitchatting, texting, or wandering around as if a meeting isn’t taking place, grandstanding is the order of the day. Those who try to take the committee reports and other proceedings seriously, say several frustrated independent-minded aldermen, are constantly chided by their colleagues. It’s like the high-school jocks hazing the nerds.

The agenda is driven by the mayor, and it’s tightly scripted, filled with rote bureaucratic work (such as approving a slew of permits for awnings and driveway extensions) and debates over relatively unimportant topics (such as the dangers of energy drinks and bedbugs). Given the longtime severity of Chicago’s gang problem, you’d think that the council would be consumed by weighty gun violence issues. But a mere 1 percent of items before its public safety committee, which first considers proposed crime-related ordinances, had anything to do with crime or violence, according to an analysis by the Chicago Justice Project, a nonprofit research organization funded by the Ford Foundation, which looked at the committee’s legislative actions from 2006 to 2009.

When it comes time for a vote, the typical alderman switches to zombie mode: Do whatever the mayor wants. 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.

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. No more unanimous budget votes. No more genuflecting to Dear Leader on the council floor. No more godforsaken parking meter deals. Back in February 2011, Emanuel told reporters that he too wanted a strong City Council. “[Aldermen] cannot be a rubber stamp,” he said at his first press conference as mayor-elect. “That’s unacceptable. They can’t be what they were in the last few years. They don’t want it. The city doesn’t want it. . . . I don’t want it.”

So why is it still happening?

For many of the same reasons it happened under Daley, as it turns out. Despite Emanuel’s press conference proclamation, he has wound up using a series of time-honored political strategies to gain firm control of the council. (Emanuel declined to be interviewed for this story.) Those strategies include threats, humiliation, and intimidation (such as planting unflattering stories in the media); information hoarding that keeps aldermen ignorant and subservient; and—perhaps the most effective strategy of all—letting aldermen cede power of their own accord in their desire to please the big cheese. Old habits, after all, are hard to break.

The fact that the council is complicit in its own relative powerlessness should bother you. A lot. After all, your quality of life depends on what the council does: The aldermen, along with the mayor, determine your property taxes, your water bills, the hours of your neighborhood library, even your parking rates. The whole point of having a legislative body is to provide a check to the power of the executive branch. But Emanuel is “surrounded by people who tell him he’s got the best ideas in the world. . . . [There is] no one in his inner circle to say he’s wrong,” says Dick Simpson, a professor of political science at the University of Illinois at Chicago and himself a former alderman.

So when disastrous ideas come around—like leasing the city’s parking meters to a banking consortium for 75 years without anyone vetting the contract—they pass with flying colors. And Chicagoans pay the price.

Chicago’s City Council has long been the butt of jokes and derision for its go-along-to-get-along ways and legislative small-mindedness. But it wasn’t always like that. In fact, the city’s original charter intended the council, not the mayor, to be the dominant political power. “Chicago has a weak-mayor, strong-council form of government,” explains Paul Green, the dean of local political punditry, who teaches political science at Roosevelt University. “Therefore, in order for a mayor to be effective, he or she has to gain power not governmentally but politically. If you show weakness, the City Council can run roughshod.”

Activist councils independent of the mayor were the order of the day for the city’s first 100 or so years, according to Simpson. A notoriously corrupt group of aldermen known as the Gray Wolves ran city government during the latter part of this period.

The rise of the rubber stamps coincided—not coincidentally—with the rise of Chicago’s Democratic machine. During the Ed Kelly–Patrick Nash era of the 1930s and 1940s, the Democratic Party bosses merged their interests with those of city government, unifying the mayor and the council. Then came the ironfisted rule of Richard J. Daley, mayor from 1955 to 1976, who further solidified the machine’s governing power by taking over the chairmanship of the Cook County Democratic Committee at the same time he reigned as mayor. Shrewdly, Daley vested aldermen with local autonomy over the city services in their wards in exchange for surrendering city government legislation—including budgeting—to him. He also wasn’t above having the microphone of a dissenting alderman turned off midsentence.

After Da Boss’s death, aldermen roused themselves—culminating in the early-1980s power grab known as the Council Wars. A bloc of 29 white ethnic aldermen led by Ed Burke (14th Ward), who is still in office, and Ed Vrdolyak (10th Ward), now an ex-con, contested virtually every move that African American mayor Harold Washington made—leading The Wall Street Journal to dub the city Beirut on the Lake.

But that newfound feistiness didn’t last long. When Richard M. Daley became mayor in 1989, he used some of his father’s strategies to seize near-total control of the council. It didn’t hurt that Daley, over his 22-year mayoralty, appointed 35 aldermen to their seats, all but ensuring their loyalty. The result: In Daley’s last term (2007 to 2011), for example, aldermen voted with Daley 82 percent of the time, according to Simpson. In the previous council (2003 to 2007), aldermen backed him to the tune of 92 percent. “We’re colluding with the administration on our own marginalization,” Cook County Board president Toni Preckwinkle complained more than once during her 19 years (1991 to 2010) as an alderman.

Perhaps it was folly to think that the council would grow a spine with a mayor whose nickname was Rahmbo. Sure enough, Emanuel’s effort to shape the council to his liking began even before he assumed office.

With 55 percent of the vote in the nonpartisan primary in February 2011, Emanuel avoided having to compete in a runoff. That left him free to spend time, energy, and money to help those aldermen who had runoffs in their own races. Despite his rhetoric of change during the campaign, Emanuel endorsed just one challenger in those runoffs, along with eight incumbents who were all reliable Daley votes.

Emanuel’s political fund, New Chicago Committee, spent at least a quarter of a million dollars on behalf of those incumbents. At the same time, an ostensibly independent PAC called For a Better Chicago—formed and run by Greg Goldner, a Daley operative who managed Emanuel’s first congressional campaign—spent nearly $1 million on aldermanic candidates expected to ally themselves with the mayor if they won. (Emanuel won six of the nine races in which he backed candidates.)

Once sworn in, the mayor set up a war room complete with an aldermanic scorecard in order to, as the Tribune put it, “determine who’s with him, who isn’t, and who falls between.” Then he scared the bejesus out of them by asking each alderman in a private meeting how he or she would feel about cutting the size of the council in half, to 25 aldermen from 50. Message received!

When it came to the leader of the council floor—one of the most powerful unofficial jobs in the city—Emanuel decided to keep Patrick O’Connor, the veteran North Side alderman who had held the position under Daley. The duo went straight to work “organizing” the council—that is, deciding which aldermen would hold the all-important committee chairmanships and other key posts.

Emanuel left Ed Burke in his role as chairman of the finance committee, the prestigious perch from which Burke had ruled for 29 of the last 30 years. But Emanuel also undermined Burke—whom he privately blamed for the residency challenge that nearly got him tossed off the mayoral ballot—by shifting some of the power of Burke’s committee to a brand-new committee chaired by, you guessed it, O’Connor.

The new mayor also installed many Daley administration stalwarts into key positions or left them in existing ones. Carrie Austin (34th Ward) stayed on as chairwoman of the budget committee. Michelle Harris, of the old Stroger 8th Ward organization, became president pro tempore. Ray Suarez (31st Ward), an ally of Cook County Democratic Party chairman Joe Berrios, became vice mayor. “This is a simple reorganization of the Daley loyalists,” complained the 22nd Ward alderman Ricardo Munoz, one of the few independents on the council, at the time. (Munoz, who had endorsed the independent-minded Miguel del Valle for mayor over Emanuel, was not given a chairmanship.)

The 49th Ward alderman, Joe Moore, long a thorn in Daley’s side, also wasn’t happy with Emanuel’s intrusion. After Emanuel hinted at a council restructuring in a televised campaign debate, Moore complained to reporters that “the City Council is the only legislative body in the Western world that acts like the Soviet Politburo. Unless we act like sheep again, it’s not really [Emanuel’s] prerogative [to change the council].”

Moore’s tune soon changed, however, after he landed a plum chairmanship of his own: the human relations committee. Now, in an astonishing reversal, he is one of Emanuel’s most enthusiastic allies.

With the council table set to his advantage, Emanuel coasted through his first spring and summer. But when the time for his first budget vote rolled around in the fall of 2011, he unexpectedly ran into trouble. Politically, Emanuel craved a big win—a unanimous vote—to establish once and for all that he was the top dog in town. He even personally led some of the preliminary briefings with aldermen, designed to smooth over any problems in private so that he could present a unified front in public.

Apparently, though, Emanuel did not tell aldermen everything. After he delivered a speech in October 2011 outlining increases in water and sewer rates and downtown parking fees, as well as police station closures and library hour cutbacks, all hell broke loose. Even O’Connor was unhappy, telling reporters that the aldermen had “to some extent . . . been blindsided.”

Emanuel must not have been completely surprised at the reaction. He went so far as to plant the police chief, Garry McCarthy, in a City Hall conference room with several aldermen to defend the police station closures and put down any mini-rebellions.

The library cutbacks got the most attention. Protesters who held a “read-in” at the mayor’s office were joined by at least eight aldermen. And worst of all for Emanuel, 28 of the 50 aldermen—enough to hand him an embarrassing defeat in his first budget proposal, which could set the tone for years to come—sent him a letter, made public, urging him to reconsider the basket of service cuts. Among those signing: six committee chairs.

Emanuel eventually restored some library hours and tinkered enough with other items to put down the insurrection, but not before “every committee chair got reamed the hell out,” says a well-placed source.

The budget passed unanimously, and it was back to business as usual. “You have handled this with grace and elegance,” Sandi Jackson, now the ex–7th Ward alderman, flattered Emanuel on the council floor. “For the first time, we have open and honest comments about the reality facing our city. How refreshing it is to have an open dialogue.”

Emanuel now had a new narrative to spin regarding his relationship to the council: He listens. He’s willing to make changes. He’s the Great Compromiser—not, as he once said himself, an emperor.

A complicated dynamic is at work here: the fear of reprisal (the Chicago way) and the lure of rewards (also the Chicago way) mixed with tradition, ambition, ineptitude, corruption, and one-party rule in a one-party town. “Everybody in the city knows there’s some kind of retribution if you don’t toe the line,” says Scott Waguespack, the 32nd Ward alderman. (Waguespack and Leslie Hairston, of the 5th Ward, are both convinced that Daley pulled snowplows out of their wards during the blizzard of 2011 because they voted against his parking meter deal.)

Other political insiders insist that while certain kinds of punishment still exist for dissenting aldermen, cuts to snow plowing or garbage pickup are a thing of the past. More common are the subtler slights. The mayor and his underlings “become dismissive,” Hairston says. “They just operate around you as if you’re not there. You don’t get information as timely as you should. You don’t get invites to places you should. It’s very high school.”

Sometimes the bullying comes not from the mayor or senior staff but from the posse of young City Hall aides scurrying around as if they’re in an episode of The West Wing—with council members the extras. “They’re emboldened by the style of leadership the mayor brings to the table,” says John Arena, the 45th Ward alderman.

“Access to information is key,” Arena continues. “They hold briefings and give you numbers but don’t tell you how they arrive at them or answer questions; it’s talking points. You’re just supposed to accept them, like you’re on the team and not part of a different branch of government providing a check and balance.”

Waguespack is one of five aldermen who in January asked the city’s inspector general to investigate the mayor’s controversial $99 million contract for janitorial services at O’Hare Airport. (Last November, the Sun-Times reported that the owner of the janitorial firm, United Maintenance Company, has alleged Mob ties; the firm also made an undisclosed change in ownership structure that resulted in the privatization of union jobs.) Waguespack says that he and his colleagues did so only after the mayor’s office wouldn’t adequately answer their questions about the contract. “We felt like we were getting the runaround,” he says.

The result was a confrontation in a council hallway that started with a mayoral aide screaming at Waguespack and ended with a red-faced Emanuel exploding in a way that will sound familiar to those—such as Chicago Teachers Union president Karen Lewis—who have experienced being Rahminated. “He just came up a couple, three times and grabbed my arm a couple times, squeezed my elbow,” Waguespack recalls. “He dropped the f-bomb a few times . . . no big deal. He did it in a way that was meant to be ‘I’m the tough guy.’ It just shows you what we’re doing has an effect, and it makes him very angry, I guess, just for asking questions and asking for an outside opinion.”

While withholding information is a key tactic of the mayor’s administration, aldermen say, sometimes the administration does the opposite: dumps more information on them than is possible to process within, say, the 48 hours they have until they vote.

Typically, say those aldermen interviewed, the mayor’s office briefs them in small groups, usually ten at a time. “There’s the A group, the B group, and the F group,” says Hairston. “The A group are the ones that are going to do it [vote the way the mayor wants], and I’m usually in the F group, the ones that are going to be the most difficult. We get the worst times; they want you to meet either the first thing or the end of the day on a Friday—‘Oh, we have no other slots.’ And you look in the room and, you know, the ‘no’ votes [are] in the room.”

Finally, there’s the mayoral control strategy of burying certain proposed ordinances in committee. The mayor and his council allies make sure a proposal they don’t support is assigned to a friendly committee controlled by a friendly chairman who won’t schedule hearings or otherwise let it come to a vote. Usually, it’s Richard Mell’s rules committee, a.k.a. the committee where legislation goes to die.

For example, while 6th Ward alderman Roderick Sawyer’s proposed ordinance to give the council more oversight over private contracts has 32 cosponsors—enough to pass over Emanuel’s objections—the legislation has been stuck in the rules committee since November. Similarly, though 3rd Ward alderman Pat Dowell’s proposal to tighten the credentials for bidders on city contracts has 16 cosponsors and, reportedly, the support of 30 aldermen, it has yet to emerge from the work force committee that O’Connor controls. Dowell introduced it in September 2011.

Both Daleys used to bury proposals they didn’t like in committee, too—then bring out their own versions, without crediting the aldermen who originated the ideas, when they felt the time was right. And so it goes with Emanuel. Waguespack says he tried for three years to get a digital billboard ordinance before Emanuel created his own version. Likewise, he says, he couldn’t get a hearing on a food truck ordinance for two years. Then, last summer, Emanuel introduced and passed his own food truck ordinance within the space of a month.

Of course, by law, the council has immense powers to pass any legislation it damn well likes; it doesn’t need the mayor’s blessing. That’s why independent-minded aldermen like Waguespack have a beef with their compliant colleagues as much as they do with the mayor.

What aldermen fear most is the mayor putting a brick (in Chicago parlance) on a project in their ward. Or, alternatively, putting a project of his—say, a library, a firehouse, or a rec center—in the ward of a friendly alderman instead of in a critical one. “You get a police station, you get a school, they find TIF money somehow when it was nowhere around to be able to do whatever project . . . these are doled out in a political way,” says Howard Brookins Jr., the 21st Ward alder-man, referring to both Emanuel and Daley.

What’s important, several aldermen agreed, isn’t whether this actually happens. The fear that it might is enough.

Then again, sometimes the fear is warranted. Just ask Alderman Robert Fioretti, a City Hall contrarian. He was the big loser in last year’s remap: His ward (the 2nd) was stretched, pulled, and altered beyond recognition.

Given that the remap was the result of a fight between the 19 black aldermen (who are trying to hold on to power despite huge population losses) and the 15 Hispanic aldermen (representing a population that has swelled), why would Fioretti become the fall guy? He’s neither black nor Hispanic, and he represents the gentrifying South Loop and Near South and West Sides. But he is one of the few council members who have talked about (and are still considering) running for mayor.

Much of the remap was done behind closed doors, causing all sorts of conspiracy theories, including the popular notion that Emanuel pulled the strings and the council danced. That’s clearly Fioretti’s take: “You pretty much have a puppet entity,” he says.

To see the rewards of going along with the mayor, look at Joe Moore—or, as he’s now known, Three-Minute Joe. Moore voted against Daley more often than any other alderman (which still meant voting with him 51 percent of the time). But he has cast only one “no” vote since Emanuel—the guy who gave him a committee chairmanship, remember—took office. (Moore opposed the council’s appointment of a legislative inspector general because, he claimed, the ordinance merely created a paper tiger.)

Moore’s turnaround has exasperated his colleagues in the progressive caucus, with one stating that he “sold his soul” and others just scratching their heads. “I just don’t know what to say about that,” says Hairston of Moore’s apparent about-face. Some speculate that Moore was playing nice because he hoped to be appointed director of the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency, after which Emanuel would name his wife as his aldermanic replacement. (Moore didn’t get the post.)

Nothing baffled and enraged Moore’s colleagues more than his July 2012 refusal to allow a hearing on a nonbinding referendum on whether school board members should be elected instead of appointed by the mayor. Moore claimed that supporters of the referendum—which the mayor, of course, opposed—filed their paperwork three minutes late. Supporters say that they watched Moore’s staff employ stall tactics, including recopying the paperwork until the clock ran out. (Moore did not respond to interview requests; he previously acknowledged to the Chicago Reader that he had given Emanuel a heads-up about the referendum.) “We thought we had an ally in Joe Moore,” 6th Ward alderman Roderick Sawyer told the Tribune afterward. “The people got screwed.”

At last April’s City Council meeting—during which an unprecedented 14 aldermen voted against Emanuel’s proposal to put speed cameras near schools and parks—another controversial issue illustrated the ways and means of this mayor’s relationship with the legislature. His proposal to establish an infrastructure trust was up for a vote.

It looked like the mayor could be headed for embarrassment: A reported four or five dissenting aldermen planned to use a parliamentary maneuver to delay the vote. Emanuel beat them to the punch, instructing Burke and O’Connor to invoke the delay themselves. Instead of getting (temporarily) beat, Emanuel called his own time-out. His allies explained to reporters that this proved the mayor was willing to listen to aldermen seeking changes in the plan.

The most important changes at issue involved the council itself: how much oversight it would have over a new financial body being entrusted to conceive, develop, and manage large, expensive, and controversial public-private partnerships involving city assets like, say, parking meters.

Emanuel apparently had no time for technical niceties such as making sure that the trust would be required to comply with the state’s open meetings law and the Freedom of Information Act. Or for establishing whether the city’s inspector general would have jurisdiction to investigate the actions of board members and contractors working on billions of dollars’ worth of projects. He was, as is his trademark, in a hurry. “My whole goal is not to try to answer everybody’s questions to their satisfaction,” he told reporters, “but to answer enough so we can move forward on building a new Chicago.”

He appeased aldermen by promising to issue executive orders governing transparency issues rather than codifying the rules in the ordinance itself. He then called for a special council meeting six days later—a period that included the weekend.

His proposal passed 41–7. But moving forward on building a new Chicago didn’t actually progress very fast: Ten months went by before Emanuel appointed an executive director for the trust.

Calls to shrink the size of the City Council—perhaps cutting it in half—have come and gone over the years, growing louder during the transition from Daley to Emanuel. The nonprofit Better Government Association has advocated for a smaller council, and the newspaper editorial boards are for it, too. So are the mayor and some progressive aldermen, including Waguespack and Fioretti. Fioretti even keeps a list with him of various cities around the country and the size of their councils: Phoenix, 8 members. San Diego, also 8. Los Angeles, 15. New York, with a population three times that of Chicago, has 51 councilors.

The City Council’s annual budget is about $25 million, and the BGA estimates that it costs about $350,000 a year to operate each aldermanic office, including a $73,000 expense account for ward operations. (Aldermen often use those accounts to hire friends and relatives and for other questionable spending.) It further estimates that Chicago could save $2.7 million in aldermanic pay, plus another $4.4 million in staff salaries, if the council were reduced by half. The city would see additional savings come election time because there would be fewer candidates (and, presumably, fewer petition challenges) and fewer taxpayer-paid expenses. “This is a legislative body that is better known for corruption than competence,” says Andy Shaw, president of the BGA. “I think 10 aldermen can do the job as well as 50.”

But is a smaller council a stronger council? The mayor would end up with even more power, one line of reasoning goes, with the council becoming even more feckless. Meanwhile, Chicagoans would get less representation because their aldermen would become responsible for twice as many people.

Maybe the answer isn’t a smaller council, but one that stops deluding itself that its current M.O. is good for the city. One that doesn’t repeat what happened during the last council meeting of 2012, when aldermen took up Emanuel’s proposal to let a private company place 34 digital billboards along the city’s expressways. Dissenting aldermen worried about the quality of life for residents in the path of the billboards’ lights and the loss of local control over signs in their wards; wondered if, like the parking meter deal, the city could have gotten more money from the agreement; and complained they weren’t provided with requested financial documents.

Too bad. Emanuel had tucked the expected $15 million in billboard revenue into his previously passed budget. In effect, the aldermen were voting on the details of a fait accompli.

After the proposal sailed through the council, 43-6, Emanuel’s aldermanic allies stood one by one to congratulate the mayor and themselves. “Just think,” said Mell, “if this issue was before Congress, it never could have passed. If it was before the state legislature, it never could pass. This body has the ability to pass issues and get the city moving.”

Emanuel thanked the aldermen for “a healthy debate”—and then chastised the ones who dared to vote no.


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