This is as good a time as any to pick a fight with Chicago aldermen — the public thoroughly disgusted by a federal investigation that has left the City Council’s most powerful member severely wounded and threatening others.
Mayor Lori Lightfoot pushed to take full advantage Monday on her first day in office.
She started by using her inauguration speech to give the aldermen a visual demonstration that the public is on her side in her call for reform, employing the audience at the Wintrust Arena to help make them squirm.
Then she followed up by delivering on a promised executive order that is intent on limiting their coveted power known as aldermanic prerogative, a move that already has been making some of them squirm for weeks.
The question aldermen keep asking is whether what plays well for Lightfoot on day one can carry a mayor through four years in which she will need to enlist the support of 26 of these very same aldermen on some extremely tough votes regarding the city’s financial future.
I don’t know the answer, but for now, it’s good to see that our tough and principled new mayor is choosing to start off being tough and principled.
In the future, Lightfoot should find it advantageous that the City Council chamber is designed so that she will always have the aldermen in front of her where she can see them while speaking to them.
On Monday, they were arrayed on the stage behind her, and while I was stationed too far away to tell how many were staring daggers into her back, it was evident from any distance that they were losing enthusiasm for her speech the further she ventured into the topic of reform.
Oh, the aldermen dutifully stood and applauded her signature line, which answered the old “Chicago ain’t ready for reform” chestnut with: “Well, get ready … because reform is here.”
Some were truly into it. The rest didn’t have much choice considering how everyone else in Wintrust Arena was already on their feet, even the aldermen’s own invited guests.
But the more interesting part came a minute later when Lightfoot called out public officials who “cut shady backroom deals.”
“Stopping it isn’t just in the city’s interest. It’s in the City Council’s own interest,” Lightfoot said.
When she delivered that line, she struck a tough guy pose, turned around and looked at the aldermen directly — among them Ald. Edward M. Burke, currently facing federal charges.
The crowd went wild, seeing exactly what she was doing. Then Lightfoot began a slow clap and raised her arms to instruct the aldermen to get to their feet, too.
This was how she led up to her comments on taking away “the worst abuses of the so-called aldermanic privilege.”
Notably, she did not claim to be totally taking away aldermanic privilege, just the “worst abuses,” although the executive order she issued just a few hours later (referring to “aldermanic prerogative”) seemed fairly complete.
As mayor, Lightfoot can’t really order aldermen what to do but she instructed those who staff the bureaucracy of city government that while they may consider “input” from aldermen before making decisions, they should no longer “defer” to the aldermen.
And this part could be just as important: any “input” would have to be in writing, meaning no alderman could just pick up the phone and call a friendly city commissioner or inspector in an effort to get them to do their bidding.
Although aldermanic privilege enables corrupt aldermen to solicit campaign contributions and bribes, many aldermen say it is an essential element of their job.
Ald. Nicholas Sposato (38th), a Lightfoot supporter who staunchly believes in aldermanic privilege, provided reporters with a partial list last week of ways it comes into play.
Under current practices, a restaurant can’t operate a sidewalk café or beer garden without an aldermanic sign-off. Aldermen also are allowed to override departmental decisions about who gets disabled parking spaces in front of their homes, or whether a corner gets a stop sign, he said.
Sposato and others say nobody at City Hall knows more about how those types of decisions affect their communities than they do.
Still, don’t expect any of this to lead to a revolt. Other aldermen would only be too happy to get rid of such duties, and another factor in Lightfoot’s favor is that aldermen have been trained by experience to go along to get along. Their first instinct is to do what the mayor says, even if they don’t like it.
Check back later, though, when she has to ask them for a tax increase.