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New study shows traces of spine in Chicago City Council

Mayor Rahm Emanuel. | Ashlee Rezin / Sun-Times

Long known as a rubber stamp for Chicago mayors, the City Council has been showing rare signs of independence.

It started slowly when Mayor Rahm Emanuel was forced to spend $24 million to survive Chicago’s first mayoral runoff against a relative political unknown. It gained momentum after Emanuel was deeply wounded by his handling of the Laquan McDonald shooting video.

Now there’s hard evidence of that political pushback by aldermen who no longer fear a mayor whose powerful veneer has been lifted: a study of City Council voting patterns by the University of Illinois at Chicago’s Department of Political Science.

The report shows that the number of divided roll calls surged dramatically — from 67 during Emanuel’s first four years in office to 32 over a 10-month period ending in mid-April.

During Emanuel’s first term, 37 aldermen — 74 percent of the 50-member City Council — supported the mayor at least 90 percent of the time. That reliable bloc of support has dropped to 28 aldermen, or 56 percent. That’s only two votes more than needed to pass legislation.

There are now 13 aldermen, or 26 percent of the Council, who vote with the mayor less than 80 percent of time. That’s compared to just seven aldermen, or 14 percent, during his first three years in office.

Former independent Ald. Dick Simpson (44th) is a principal author of the study. He contributed $5,000 to Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis before a brain cancer diagnosis forced her to drop out of the mayoral race. Simpson then contributed $10,250 to Lewis’ handpicked replacement, vanquished mayoral challenger Jesus “Chuy” Garcia.

Simpson has also been a reliable contributor to the City Council’s anti-Emanuel Progressive Caucus and to its individual members, who are among the mayor’s most outspoken critics.

But the numbers don’t lie, in spite of Simpson’s political history.

“This is less than a full rebellion. But there is an increase in opposition and independence. . . . It’s still a rubber-stamp City Council. But it’s a weaker, less reliable rubber stamp than Emanuel had in his first four years,” the report states.

“The level of dissent . . . is growing. . . . The mayor/council relationship is changing. . . . Because Mayor Emanuel has become politically weaker, aldermen are less willing to follow him blindly, especially on hard votes. . . . More aldermen are engaged in the tussle to shape legislation. . . . They are more often willing to produce their own legislation and propose solutions to critical city problems rather than wait for or clear their proposals with the fifth floor.”

The study identifies 15 aldermen who voted with Emanuel 100 percent of the time, led by Ald. Pat O’Connor (40th), the mayor’s floor leader, and by Ald. Edward Burke (14th), whom Emanuel threatened to remove as Finance Committee chairman before negotiating a deal to retain Burke in exchange for the alderman’s support.

The other loyalists are former Ald. Will Burns (4th), who abruptly resigned to become Midwest policy director for Airbnb, Gregory Mitchell (7th), Michelle Harris (8th), Anthony Beale (9th), Patrick Daley Thompson (11th), Derrick Curtis (18th), Danny Solis (25th), Walter Burnett (27th), Ariel Reboyras (30th), Carrie Austin (34th), Emma Mitts (37th), Marge Laurino (39th), and Joe Moore (49th).

Five aldermen were most likely to oppose the mayor — with support levels ranging from 44 percent to 69 percent. They are Chris Taliaferro (29th), Scott Waguespack (32nd), Carlos Ramirez-Rosa (35th), Anthony Napolitano (41st) and Brendan Reilly (42nd).

The Chicago Sun-Times reported in early December that aldermen emboldened by a once-powerful but now wounded mayor were likely to question virtually everything Emanuel does in a second term, in part, to save their own political necks.

Like Emanuel, they were harshly criticized for signing off on a $5 million settlement to the family of Laquan McDonald one week after the April 7 runoff — even before a lawsuit had been filed — without asking tough enough questions and seeing the incendiary video.

That means the embattled mayor who managed to persuade 35 aldermen to support a $588 million property tax increase for police and fire pensions and school construction will have a tough time getting 26 votes for the tax increases that lie ahead now that the Illinois Supreme Court has overturned Emanuel’s plan to save two other city employee pension funds.

The mayor also has offered to raise property taxes by an additional $170 million to stave off devastating classroom cuts at the Chicago Public Schools, whether or not Springfield rides to the rescue.

The UIC study cited four factors for the mayor’s “changing” relationship with the City Council:

  • Garcia’s ability to force a runoff, which Emanuel won, only after record campaign spending.
  • The massive pension crisis that dropped Chicago’s bond rating to junk status, forcing the largest property tax increase in Chicago history; a first-ever garbage collection fee; and a total of $755 million in new taxation wildly unpopular with aldermen and their constituents.
  • The “revolt in the African-American community” over Emanuel’s decision to keep the McDonald shooting video under wraps for more than a year and release it only after a judge ordered the city to do so.
  • The mayor’s approval rating plummeting to 25 percent in a recent New York Times poll, which UIC researchers call the “lowest level since Michael Bilandic, who lost a subsequent election.”

Council Report #8 June 17, 2015 — April 13, 2016