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Why the 40 percent drop-off in candidates for a City Council in transition?

Wednesday, Mayor Rahm Emanuel will preside over a Chicago City Council meeting for the last time. | Rich Hein/Sun-Times

The last time an incumbent Chicago mayor chose political retirement over an uphill battle for re-election, the tidal wave triggered by that announcement prompted 20 candidates to file for mayor and 351 candidates to file for aldermen.

This time, Chicago has 21 mayoral candidates, but only 212 aldermanic candidates. That’s even after Zoning Committee Chairman Danny Solis (25th) became the sixth veteran alderman to follow Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s lead and not seek another term.

Why the 40 percent drop-off in candidates for what appeared to be a City Council in transition?


Retiring Ald. Ameya Pawar (47th), who’s abiding by a self-imposed two-term limit and running, instead, for city treasurer, pointed to the 473 signatures required to run for alderman.

It was quietly doubled — from 2 percent of the votes cast in the last election to 4 percent — in an omnibus 2013 state election law widely viewed as an incumbent protection plan.

“Four-hundred-some-odd seems like a small number, but you have to do at least three-to-four times that to be a viable candidate,” Pawar said.

“Unless you can self-finance, there’s only a finite number of people who write checks in this city. That limits the amount of people those folks write checks to. We need public financing of campaigns.”

Former independent Ald. Dick Simpson (44th) agreed the money now needed to win a City Council seat is a mountain difficult to climb.

“It literally requires close to $250,000. You can get by for a little less. But you can’t get by for $10,000 or $50,000. So building the base to have a realistic chance is difficult. You have to be a substantial candidate to do it,” Simpson said.

Still more impediments — or at least discouraging factors — are the difficult votes that await the new City Council and the angry mood of an electorate buried by tax increases and facing more of the same to confront a $1 billion spike in pension payments.

“When I ran in 2011, people told me that I should just stick to picking up garbage and filling potholes. I was saying, `No. Aldermen should be legislators,’” said Pawar, whose open seat has drawn nine candidates.

“Now, it’s no longer just a job where you can be a feudal lord. You have to be able to work on local issues and citywide issues. … Expectations are more difficult.”

Simpson said most of the aldermanic challengers he mentors seem energized by Chicago’s intransigent problems.

“The fact that there’s a $1 billion ramp-up in the pensions and the crime and the schools [seem daunting]. But most of `em come in with what they think are solutions. They’re not seeing it as overwhelming. They’re seeing it as a challenge and they’ve got the answers,” he said.

Four incumbent aldermen are running unopposed: Brian Hopkins (2nd); Scott Waguespack (32nd); Gilbert Villegas (36th) and Brendan Reilly (42nd).

The $1.2 million campaign war chest Reilly had by late October obviously scared off would-be challengers. He has raised nearly $200,000 since then.

Eleven incumbents have drawn just one challenger: Sophia King (4th); Patrick Daley Thompson (11th); Marty Quinn (13th); David Moore (17th); Derrick Curtis (18th); Matt O’Shea (19th); Walter Burnett (27th); Carrie Austin (34th); Nick Sposato (38th); Anthony Napolitano (41st) and Harry Osterman (48th).

Ald. Edward Burke (14th) has run unopposed in 10 of the last 11 elections, but now has four challengers, including a former aide to congressman-elect Jesus “Chuy” Garcia.

Burke has had a political bull’s-eye on his back ever since his brother, state Rep. Dan Burke (D-Chicago), was defeated by political newcomer Aaron Ortiz in a primary race dominated by Edward Burke’s property tax reduction work for the riverfront hotel and condominium tower bearing the name of President Donald Trump.

Burke has since cited “irreconcilable differences” for his decision to stop representing Trump. But that didn’t stop Garcia from recruiting a challenger.

The most crowded race is in the 20th Ward, where 15 candidates have lined up to replace indicted Ald. Willie Cochran, who is trying to negotiate a plea agreement.

Simpson, who has endorsed mayoral candidate Lori Lightfoot, expects the extent of City Council turnover to rely heavily on who wins the crowded race for mayor.

If it’s Lightfoot or Amara Enyia, the Council will have more turnover. If the new mayor is Toni Preckwinkle, Susana Mendoza, Bill Daley or Gery Chico, there will be less turnover.

“There are two competing definitions in the mayor’s race. One is for reform and change. The other is competency: ‘I’ve been here forever and I know how to run the schools, the county board or whatever and, therefore, I can run the city,’” Simpson said.

“If the definition of, ‘I’ve been effective at other things’ wins, the spirit of reform will be less powerful and sweep in fewer aldermen. If the reform definition wins, like it did with Harold Washington, it will sweep in a number of reformers along with the mayor.”

No matter how many new aldermen there are, Pawar said the new mayor and council face a daunting political reality.

“Cities have to function like nation-states because the federal government isn’t gonna do anything about income inequality anytime soon,” said Pawar, a proponent of providing a universal basic income.

“This is why there is this tension in big cities and why cities are moving further and further to the left. People are getting squeezed at every level. The job of the next mayor is to figure out how to guide that movement.”

City Council change from death, resignation/not running again or re-election loss

1943 – 131947 – 171951 – 121955 – 141959 – 131663 – 141967 – 131971 – 171975 – 131979 – 171983 – 151987 – 141991 – 121995 – 111999 – 62003 – 62007 – 92011 – 162015 – 16* Some of these are not “new” aldermen, as they may have been appointed before they were elected.