“Change is coming,” Mayor-elect Lori Lightfoot observed Tuesday in a warning to Chicago aldermen nearly as ominous as Ned Stark intoning “Winter is coming.”
For those who never bothered with “Game of Thrones,” Stark was an especially virtuous clan leader who struck some of his competition as a meddling goody-two-shoes and got his head chopped off for his troubles.
I expect no outcome nearly so dire for Lightfoot, but after the events of Tuesday, I’m more concerned than ever she’s headed for a power struggle the outcome of which is completely uncertain.
It was a portentous day in the lead up to Monday’s swearing-in ceremonies for both Lightfoot and the new City Council.
For starters, aldermen took turns making the short trip from City Hall up LaSalle Street to an old brick building on the Chicago River that Lightfoot is using for her transition office.
Longtime Chicagoans will recognize the building as the former location of Traffic Court, a den of judicial corruption that gave us the Operation Greylord scandal of the 1980s.
Perhaps it was fitting then that this is where Lightfoot chose to brief aldermen on her proposed antidote to what she believes to be a key element of City Hall corruption—the practice known as aldermanic prerogative or privilege.
Lightfoot promised during her campaign to issue an executive order on her first day in office ending the practice, which gives aldermen virtual veto power over matters large and small in their wards—everything from zoning decisions to block party permits.
Lightfoot sees it as an ethics issue.
She’s right about that. History shows that aldermanic prerogative supplies corrupt aldermen with the leverage to shake down local businessmen for campaign donations and developers for old-fashioned bribes.
But aldermen argue that they’re not all corrupt and that aldermanic prerogative is the essential power that allows them to reflect the wishes of their constituents on matters of local concern that they know best. I have to admit there’s some truth on their side as well.
It was a big promise from Lightfoot, maybe a little too big considering the legal limitations on the mayor’s powers and the enmity it was sure to create with aldermen. But it was a promise Lightfoot is determined to keep — in some fashion.
Aldermen understand that much, to a point, and many of them arrived at her transition office Tuesday hoping to get an advance look at her executive order and for an opportunity to share their concerns and work out a deal.
Some were relieved by what they heard — an indication that Lightfoot is targeting only their powers over licenses and permits in their wards, leaving alone for now their control over zoning matters.
Even on matters of licenses and permits, they were promised they would have “input.”
But Lightfoot did not participate in the briefings and they never got a look at the executive order, only a broad brush slide presentation that many described as vague.
Most of the aldermen who emerged afterward and faced the press (many scurried out the back door to avoid us) were either supportive or conciliatory, mixing their disappointment with renewed promises to work with Lightfoot.
But there also was a definite undercurrent of discontent, expressed most pointedly by Ald. Ray Lopez (15th), who accused Lightfoot of picking an unnecessary fight and predicted two-thirds of the Council would oppose her plan.
“If you’re going to say that, what our job description is, is not what you want any more, then she should just say we don’t want aldermen, period,” Lopez said.
Ald. Anthony Beale (9th) didn’t embrace Lopez’ rhetoric but said Lightfoot’s proposed executive order is “overreaching.”
And Ald. Nicholas Sposato (36thsaid: “I don’t think anybody walked out of there happy.”
While that was going on, Lightfoot was busy giving an interview to WBBM-AM in which she was totally dismissive of a City Council reorganization plan advanced last week by Beale and other veteran aldermen and said she’s drawn up one of her own.
But here’s the line that will either send cold chills down their spines or heat up their tempers.
“They’re old-school aldermen who want me to just fall in lock-step with what’s been done forever and keep them and perpetuate their power. And that’s not what I’m gonna do. They’re unhappy because change is coming, and they’re not going to be able to have absolute dominion over a fiefdom, which is offensive to any notions of good government,” Lightfoot said.
She surely won’t need a dragon to win that battle, but I certainly hope she’s got somebody on her side who knows how to count votes.