The last time Chicago elected a reform-minded mayor, all political hell broke loose. Will the April 2 mayoral and aldermanic elections usher in Council Wars II?
Chicago’s city charter calls for a strong council/weak mayor system. That’s a counter-intuitive fact. Since 1955, when Mayor Richard J. Daley took office, most Chicago mayors have ruled the council through a divide-and-conquer strategy bolstered by patronage jobs, contracts, appointments and fear.
The notable exception was Harold Washington, elected Chicago’s first black mayor in 1983.
Washington preached change and promised to bring equity and fairness to City Hall, a venomous threat to the Chicago Democratic Party Machine.
There was no way the white-dominated Chicago City Council would concede power to a black man, mayor or not.
So, the infamous Council Wars were on, as an all-white majority of 29 aldermen, proceeded to block virtually every Washington initiative, from 1983 to 1987. I was there, serving as a Washington aide, proudly helping to put out the fires.
In Tuesday’s runoffs, both African-American mayoral candidates claim the “progressive” mantle and promise their own brands of reform. And some aldermanic incumbents face stiff challenges from avowed reformers on the left.
Mayoral hopeful Lori Lightfoot frequently evokes Washington’s name on the campaign trail, as she vows to “bring in the light” and slay the Machine.
The former Chicago Police Board president suggests ending aldermanic prerogative, the unwritten practice that gives council members power over everything in their wards, from development to zoning to permitting. Lightfoot wants term limits for the mayor and aldermen, and is open to curbing outside employment for aldermen.
In other words, she is asking aldermen to cut their own political throats.
Her opponent, Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle, previously served in the City Council for 19 years. The chair of the Cook County Democratic Party has been less vocal about pushing for council reform.
Lightfoot can’t accomplish any reforms, much less the rest of her agenda, without cutting some deals.
Unlike Washington, she may have more room to maneuver.
There’s the ongoing federal investigation that has consumed the City Council since 14th Ward Ald. Ed Burke’s office was raided last December.
Once the election dust settles, the feds are expected to slam into City Hall with new charges and revelations. That may strengthen her hand for reform and tame opponents.
And if Lightfoot fulfills the promise of recent polls and wins big, her mandate could weaken Preckwinkle’s hold on party operatives in the council and beyond.
Most intriguing, Lightfoot is quietly making aldermanic alliances, in a strange and unprecedented brew.
She has been endorsed by aldermen of diverse racial, economic and political stripes.
A leading ally, 32nd Ward Ald. Scott Waguespack, is an Emanuel archenemy who brings blue-chip progressive credentials.
Others in Lightfoot’s camp regularly vote with Mayor Rahm Emanuel and have benefited from his Machine ways.
Among them 43rd Ald. Michele Smith; Tom Tunney of the 44th, who represent the prosperous north Lakefront; and Deb Mell of the 33rd, daughter of former aldermen Dick Mell, a longtime Machine lion.
Even so-called Republican-leaning aldermen, 38th Ward Ald. Nicholas Sposato and Anthony Napolitano of the 41st Ward, both from the Northwest Side, are with Lightfoot. (“Trump supporters,” Preckwinkle charges).
Maybe no Council Wars but surely a wild ride.
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