Year of the Incumbent? Only one sitting City Council member unseated this year — first time in a century

The solitary defeat of appointed Ald. Anabel Abarca (12th) marks the fewest defeated incumbents since Chicago instituted the 50-member City Council system in 1923. Seven sitting members were knocked out in each of the previous two election cycles.

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Southwest Side Ald. Anabel Abarca (12th), was the only incumbent knocked out of the Council this cycle. She was only on the job about two months before she was beaten by Julia Ramirez in the first round of municipal voting Feb. 28. 

Southwest Side Ald. Anabel Abarca (12th), was the only incumbent knocked out of the Council this cycle. She was only on the job about two months before she was beaten by Julia Ramirez in the first round of municipal voting Feb. 28.

Victor Hilitski/For the Sun-Times

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Last year will be remembered by many City Hall observers for the wave of incumbents who announced they’d give up their City Council seats — but this year has proven a record-breaking one for members being able to hold onto theirs.

With unofficial final runoff election results this week confirming a third term for West Side Ald. Chris Taliaferro (29th), only one incumbent was knocked out of the Council this cycle — a singular ouster that marks the smallest rejection of sitting members since Chicago switched to the 50-ward Council system a century ago.

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The sole incumbent voted out, Southwest Side Ald. Anabel Abarca (12th), was only on the job about two months before she was beaten by Julia Ramirez in the first round of municipal voting Feb. 28.

Abarca had been appointed by outgoing Mayor Lori Lightfoot last fall to replace former Ald. George Cardenas following Cardenas’ election to the Cook County Board of Review.

Cardenas’ former chief of staff, Abarca did not respond to the Sun-Times’ request for an interview.

But three other Lightfoot appointees were able to parlay their temporary positions into full terms, finding electoral success along with the 34 other Council members who held onto their seats. Counting the appointees, only six incumbent Council members were forced into runoffs earlier this month — and all six won.

Incumbent City Council members (from left) Timmy Knudsen (43rd), Debra Silverstein (50th), Nicole Lee (11th), Brendan Reilly (42nd) and Samantha Nugent (39th) stand with state Rep. Lamont Robinson, who eventually won the 4th Ward City Council seat, as they wait to file their petitions in December.

Incumbent City Council members (from left) Timmy Knudsen (43rd), Debra Silverstein (50th), Nicole Lee (11th), Brendan Reilly (42nd) and Samantha Nugent (39th) stand with state Rep. Lamont Robinson, who eventually won the 4th Ward City Council seat, as they wait to file their petitions in December.

Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times file

That in itself goes against the odds — which are a little better than even money that incumbents will hold their seats in a runoff.

Of the 226 sitting City Council members who were forced into runoff elections from 1923 through 2023, a little more than half — 117 — won, according to a Chicago Sun-Times review of city election results dating back to 1923, when the current 50-member council system was launched.

Seven incumbents were knocked out in each of the previous two City Council election cycles.

This year’s lone ousted alderperson marks the smallest exodus by vote since 1999, when voters rejected just two sitting Council members in the February and April elections. Two were also knocked out in 1967.

An average of six incumbents have been knocked out over the past five previous elections, but the city has seen that number hit double digits in the past. Twelve were voted out in 1947, 14 in 1949, 11 in 1941 and 10 in 1929.

Fifteen sitting Council members lost reelection bids in 1923, though some of those races — the first under the 50-ward system — pitted incumbents against each other.

‘Great resignation’ doesn’t explain it

Dick Simpson, the University of Illinois Chicago political science professor emeritus who served as the North Side lakefront 44th Ward alderperson for two terms in the 1970s, said this year’s win rate for incumbents was impressive even when accounting for the “great resignation” of 14 members stepping down.

While a few of those who opted against a reelection bid likely “saw the writing on the wall” falling into disfavor of voters, Simpson said most of those incumbents who retired could’ve won again.

“Normally, a few more get knocked off. But incumbents generally win by an overwhelming number,” Simpson said.

That’s because of three key factors: name recognition, goodwill built with constituents after a full term of providing services — and, especially, the experience of already having put a campaign organization in place.

“Politics is as much of a craft as being a plumber or a carpenter is a craft,” Simpson said. “A brand new person doesn’t have that knowledge.”

Ald. Dick Simpson (44th) speaks during a City Council meeting in 1976. 

Ald. Dick Simpson (44th) speaks during a City Council meeting in 1976.

Jerry Tomaselli/Chicago Sun-Times file

Incumbents who get the boot have typically committed either the political sin of neglecting ward services, Simpson said — or any selection of the more traditional cardinal sins that can result in unsavory headlines.

Logan Square Ald. Daniel La Spata (1st) has fought that political battle from both sides, unseating a predecessor who was mired in a series of scandals in 2019, before narrowly avoiding a runoff and holding on for reelection this year.

“You have a much more specific record of actions to run on as an incumbent. And you can’t count on people casting protest votes in your favor,” said La Spata, who beat former Ald. Proco “Joe” Moreno the first time around, and handily put down Moreno’s comeback attempt in February.

“In 2019, a lot of people cast an ‘anybody but Moreno’ vote,” said La Spata, who added that this year’s success for incumbents highlights how hard it is for challengers to get a foot in the door — and how last year’s ward remapping process “certainly” gave a leg up to those in office.

COVID-19 a booster for incumbents?

But La Spata said he also hopes it reflects “a functioning body” at City Hall that genuinely satisfied constituents.

“We were really able to increase basic city services in the mayor’s previous two budgets,” La Spata said, pointing to COVID-19 relief dollars.

Former Ald. Bob Fioretti — who unseated longtime Ald. Madeline Haithcock in 2007 and won a second term before being mapped out of his Near West Side 2nd Ward — said COVID itself could be a factor working in incumbents’ favors.

Bob Fioretti celebrates his defeat of Ald. Madeline Haithcock (2nd) in 2007 at Buddy Guy’s Legends at 754 S. Wabash. 

Bob Fioretti celebrates his defeat of Ald. Madeline Haithcock (2nd) in 2007 at Buddy Guy’s Legends at 754 S. Wabash.

Richard A. Chapman/Sun-Times-file

He suggested “there was still some holdover from the pandemic” with new candidates shying away from in-person campaigning.

“Challengers need to get out there and show their face to as many people as they possibly can. I had over 11,900 doors to knock on when I ran the first time, and I knocked on each one three times,” Fioretti said.

“I didn’t see a lot of that this year.”

In addition to Taliaferro’s 29th Ward reelection, the runoff election results confirmed newcomer Ruth Cruz defeated Jessica Gutierrez to replace retiring Ald. Ariel Reboyras in the Northwest Side’s 30th Ward.

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