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Third effort to crowd airport question off ballot succeeds

A referendum that could wrest control of Chicago's airports from Mayor Rahm Emanuel was pushed off the ballot after a parliamentary maneuver. | File photo

Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s allies on Wednesday used another “parliamentary trick” — successfully, this time — to crowd off the ballot a referendum asking Chicago voters whether they want to strip the mayor of his authority over O’Hare and Midway Airport.

Last week, a tie vote in the Rules Committee seemingly killed the effort to replace the airport referendum with an innocuous question about whether the city should work to “prioritize significant new investments” in infrastructure projects, the alternative question came back from the dead.

The opening was created by the fact that the anti-airport referendum forces failed to call for a “motion to reconsider” at last week’s meeting.

That created an opening to bring the question up again. This time, Emanuel’s allies had enough aldermen in attendance to pass the alternative question.

Since only three referenda can be placed on the ballot, adding that question now guarantees that there is no room for the O’Hare/Midway question.

Ald. Scott Waguespack (32nd), one of Emanuel’s staunchest City Council critics, was disgusted by the heavy-handed “parliamentary trick.”

“The rules are very clear. A failed vote means you have a failed vote. You can’t find new ways to keep coming back for a vote,” Waguespack said.

“I don’t think you should be playing games with the ballot. … Let people be heard. Let people vote on the motions they want.”

The airport referendum would have been an advisory question — not a binding one.

Given that fact, Waguespack was asked what he believes the mayor was so afraid of.

“The elected school board [referendum]. That was an extremely high vote count in favor of an elected school board. I don’t think they want to repeat that,” Waguespack said.

Ald. Pat O’Connor (40th), the mayor’s City Council floor leader, was asked why Emanuel was so desperate to keep the airport question off the ballot that he would instruct his allies to try three times. The third time turned out to be the charm.

“I’m not sure that he’s desperate to do anything. The fact of the matter is, this is more inside baseball with the Council than it is having anything to do with the mayor’s office,” O’Connor said.

“You have some dueling going on between Council members and I would put it down to that more than anything else. It didn’t make it to the ballot. That’s the point.”

Wednesday’s maneuver marked the latest of three attempts by Emanuel allies to use a familiar political ploy to keep controversial questions that might embarrass the mayor off the ballot.

The tame question on infrastructure was the latest option floated after two other non-binding referenda were dropped like hot potatoes after interest groups objected.

A proposal to ask voters whether the city should create municipal identification cards that will expand access to city services for residents unable to access other former of identification was nixed amid concern that it would undermine efforts already underway to create a county-wide identification for undocumented immigrants.

And a follow-up proposal by Ald. Joe Moore (49th) to plug the gap with a question about whether Chicago should stop investing in corporations that produce fossil fuels bit the dust after Moore learned the city only invests in “short-term instruments like commercial paper.”

The airport referendum was fueled by the Service Employees International Union Local 1, the powerful union behind the airport referendum that represents roughly 1,000 janitors and baggage handlers at O’Hare.

Ald. Anthony Napolitano (41st) supported it to give his noise-weary residents a vehicle to unleash their anger about lives made miserable by O’Hare jet noise.

The rookie alderman has said he’s learned a valuable political lesson after witnessing the last few weeks of maneuvering and stumbling by Emanuel’s allies.

“As a freshman alderman here, I think it is absolutely hysterical how this process works,” Napolitano said.

“When we first proposed this [airport question], I started looking at all of these [other] referendums coming out and I said, ‘This is a great idea. This is a great idea.’ I didn’t know how the process worked. And a couple of aldermen said, ‘Hey. This is to block what you guys are trying to do.’ And I said, `Oh, my God.’ This is like being in student government.”