City Council exodus is a chance to vote for Chicago’s future

The City Hall exodus needn’t be cause to panic. Chicago has experienced turnover before, and our city survived and emerged even stronger.

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City of Chicago City Hall at 121 N LaSalle St, Monday, May 9, 2022.

Chicago City Hall at 121 N LaSalle St.

Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

The number of City Council members bidding adieu to 121 N. LaSalle St. has many Chicagoans scratching their heads with questions and concerns.

Feelings of uneasiness are to be expected with large-scale change. In a city where Daleys ruled for decades and Council members have largely toed the Machine line, upheaval seems like an anomaly.

The loss of institutional knowledge of a dozen-plus alderpersons will be hard to match. No doubt, experience goes a long way. You’ve got to know how the wheels of city government work first, before you can make the wheels turn better.

The City Hall exodus needn’t be cause to panic. Chicagoans, we hope, will seize the opportunity to deepen their civic engagement and demand more of their elected representatives.

Our city hasn’t had a mass departure of alderpersons in recent history — but Chicago has dealt with similar situations before and survived to emerge even stronger. Remember, it was only 11 years ago that the council welcomed 18 newly elected or appointed members, as the Sun-Times’ City Hall reporter Fran Spielman noted when Ald. Howard Brookins (21st) announced last week he would not seek re-election.

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The mayoral and aldermanic elections in 2023 will be an opportunity for voters to read up on the many new faces who will vow to shake up the status quo — and to make sure they can back up their promises with smart action. It’s up to voters to do their homework and thoroughly vet the candidates.

Those Chicagoans lamenting the loss of veteran City Council members must keep this in mind: The old timers were also once unknowns.

After World War II, many returning GIs decided to run for City Council and changed the makeup of the government body, as Dick Simpson, a political science professor at the University of Illinois Chicago and a former alderperson, told us.

Then, several decades later in 1983 when Harold Washington, the city’s first Black mayor, took office, a “major changeover” followed during his tenure, causing a significant impact, Simpson said.

That transition brought progress, including affirmative action in city government and greater transparency with a Freedom of Information executive order.

No ‘warm and fuzzy’ mayors

We’ve heard the theory that City Council members want out these days because City Hall culture has changed and the quid pro quo perks of the past have dried up. Others are convinced Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s brusque manner is driving council members out.

But as Simpson pointed out, neither Rahm Emanuel nor Richard M. Daley — especially in his latter years as mayor — were “warm and fuzzy.”

And even those alderpersons who are now lambasting Lightfoot have sided with her on most of the 131 divided roll calls between June 12, 2019, and late March 2022, according to a UIC report Simpson spearheaded.

Retiring Ald. Susan Sadlowski Garza (10th), who said she was “sick and tired of being thrown under the bus,” supported Lightfoot 99% of the time.

Ald. Tom Tunney (44th), who announced his retirement last month, called Lightfoot “divisive” and said City Hall was no longer “a good place to work these days.” He sided with Lightfoot 93% of the time.

Even mayoral challenger Ald. Roderick Sawyer (6th), who described the mayor as “mean-spirited,” voted with her 95% of the time, the study showed.

Simpson said most of the reasons for the City Council departures are simpler.

Some of the motivation is generational or personal. Despite Garza’s grumbling, her goddaughter’s shooting death played a key role in her decision. Former Ald. Michele Smith (43rd) stepped down from politics to focus on helping her aging relatives.

A few other City Council members are seeking higher office. Sawyer, Ald. Sophia King (4th) and Ald. Ray Lopez (15th) hope to unseat Lightfoot. Ald. George Cardenas (12th) is also expected to leave if he wins his bid for the Cook County Board of Review. Lightfoot ally Ald. Michael Scott Jr. (24th) took a job at Cinespace Studios.

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Simpson also stressed that City Hall has not been immune to the Great Resignation and its aftereffects.

Many alderpersons are not “wildly computer literate” and were forced to learn new technology to aid constituents and attend meetings online, Simpson said. So for many of them, “the sheer frustration of being an alderman” during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic was the nail in the coffin, he said.

As Smith said, “The pandemic was the most challenging work environment I have ever had in my professional career.”

Yet Chicago needs to keep running. The city is at a crossroads, searching for the best ways to lower crime, shore up finances, improve public schools, invest in communities, help businesses and workers both thrive — the list goes on.

The 2023 municipal elections are about more than the next four years. They’re about the city’s fate for the next few decades. That fate will depend on how many progressives and moderate liberals are elected or re-elected, as Simpson, who is also retiring, pointed out.

More City Council members may head for the exits. No matter the number, our civic duty is clear and crucial.

Get ready for 2023. Local elections, and your vote, matter.

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