Could next year’s municipal elections be a watershed in Chicago history?
Could the Chicago City Council, after six and a half decades under the thumb of boss mayors beginning with Richard J. Daley, finally reclaim the powers granted it by the city’s founders? Could it operate again as a legislative body, instead of, as one alderman once called it, “the Soviet Politburo”?
You wouldn’t know it from the way Chicago functions, but the City Charter calls for a “strong council/weak mayor” form of government. Here’s what it says about the Council’s role:
“The Common Council shall have … the general management and control of the finances, and all the property, real, personal and mixed, belonging to the corporation…The Common Council shall have power to require from any officer of said city, at any time, a report in detail of the transactions in his office, or of any other matter the council deems necessary.
And here’s what it says about the mayor’s role:
“The mayor shall provide over the meetings of the common council, and take care that the laws of the State and the order of the city are duly enforced, respected and observed, and that all the executive officers of the city discharge their respective duties. He shall, from time to time, give the Common Council such information, and recommend such measures as he may deem advantageous to the city.”
In short: The Council controls the purse strings, and the mayor is a city manager, required to submit financial reports whenever the aldermen ask.
But Richard J. Daley didn’t like that arrangement. Upon taking office 1955, his first move was to shift the budget-writing process from the City Council to the mayor’s office. In his inaugural speech, he announced his intention to “relieve the council of administrative and technical duties…and permit the aldermen to devote most of their time to legislation.”
He wasn’t doing the aldermen any favors. As Adam Cohen and Elizabeth Taylor wrote in American Pharaoh, their biography of the Old Man:
“True to his word, Daley went to work to change the balance of power between the mayor and the City Council. A few months before his election, he had arranged for the Chicago Home Rule Commission to recommend shifting responsibility for preparing the city budget from the City Council to the mayor. The commission also called for ending the long-standing requirement that the City Council approve all city contracts over $2,500. When those recommendations became law, Daley could afford to treat the City Council as little more than an advisory body. Equally important, his dual role as mayor and machine boss made the majority of the council his political supplicants. With a few words at a slate-making meeting, Daley could end the political careers of most of them.”
The City Council has played a subservient role ever since; the lone exception was during Council Wars in the mid-'80s, when 29 aldermen, most of them white, united to frustrate the agenda of the city’s first black mayor, Harold Washington.
Dick Simpson, a political science professor at the University of Illinois-Chicago, was an independent alderman during Richard J. Daley's reign. Last week, Simpson wrote in an op-ed for the Tribune: “[W]ith a new mayor, it is especially important that the City Council no longer operate as a rubber stamp to the mayor’s wishes. It is time for the council to be a legitimate legislature, initiating its own proposals and holding the new mayor accountable.”
We may get a City Council that demands that kind of authority — or at least, more of a Council than we now have. The body's Progressive Caucus, a group of independent aldermen which now numbers about a dozen members and includes Scott Waguespack and Carlos Ramirez-Rosa, is certain to grow after the next election.
At the same time, old machine warhorses such as Margaret Laurino, Pat O’Connor, and Ed Burke are retiring or facing serious challenges. And voters radicalized by the Trump presidency are looking for candidates who share their anger and passions.
The City Council “can take as much [power] as they’ve got the votes to take,” Simpson told Chicago. “They’re already starting to get a better handle on finances and the budget, although there are still fewer than 10 aldermen who can read the budget.”
The relationship will also depend on the next mayor, Simpson said. “If the mayor was weak, they’d be able to bargain with the mayor.”
Jose Torrez, a City Colleges advisor and activist who's challenging Burke — the last remaining alderman who served under Daley 1 — says he'd like to see the Council reclaim its budget-writing powers.
“Who knows better how to write the budget than the aldermen who know what their constituents need?” Torrez said.
Meanwhile, former Gov. Pat Quinn is pushing a referendum to limit mayors to two terms in Chicago. In the same way as the 22nd Amendment prevented another president-for-life after Franklin D. Roosevelt, term limits could be a corrective to decades of Daleys amassing unlimited power.
Emanuel was able to dominate the Council because he doled out money to aldermen from his campaign fund, which now contains $10 million. Toni Preckwinkle, the frontrunner in the first serious poll of the mayoral campaign, would also likely be a boss mayor. In fact, she'd be the first since Richard J. Daley to hold both the mayoralty and the chairmanship of the Cook County Democratic Party.
So if you want to see the city operate as a democracy, with checks and balances between the Council and the mayor’s office, vote for an independent alderman and a mayor who can be pushed around. If you want another four years of bossism, vote for a Machine alderman, and a boss mayor. Your choice, Chicago.