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Ald. Zalewski to resign from Council May 31; paves way for Hispanic replacement

Ald. Mike Zalewski (23rd) plans to resign before finishing his fifth term, giving Mayor Rahm Emanuel (left) a chance to appoint his replacement, who would then have an advantage in running for a full term. | Sun-Times file photo

Ald. Mike Zalewski (23rd), powerful chairman of the City Council’s Aviation Committee, said Monday he will resign May 31, paving the way for the appointment of a Hispanic alderman in the majority-Hispanic ward.

“What happened in the last election was real,” Zalewski said, referring to the sweep by County Commissioner-turned-Democratic Congressional nominee Jesus “Chuy” Garcia and Garcia’s entire slate of progressive Hispanic candidates.

“That’s gonna be a large part of my recommendation. I know the ward is overwhelmingly Hispanic.”

Zalewski’s decision to resign from the aldermanic seat he has held since 1995 comes just weeks after he helped Mayor Rahm Emanuel muscle through the City Council an $8.5 billion O’Hare Airport expansion project billed as a game-changer.

By resigning early instead of serving out the remainder of his fifth and final term, Zalewski will give Emanuel an opportunity to fill another aldermanic vacancy and give that appointee an opportunity to get a leg up on the competition.

Zalewski said he has a replacement in mind for a ward now 67 percent Hispanic. But he refused to say whom he would recommend to the mayor.

Community leaders are expected to rally around state Rep. Silvana Tabares (D-Chicago) as Zalewski’s replacement.

The appointment of a prominent Hispanic woman would also help state House Speaker Michael Madigan (D-Chicago) with the “Me,Too” scandal swirling around his 13th Ward Regular Democratic Organization.

Tabares, who lives in the 23rd Ward’s Garfield Ridge neighborhood, is a close ally of Madigan’s.  She’s the state central committeewoman in the 3rd Congressional District, where Madigan is the state central committeeman.

Tabares’ election to the party leadership post — which gives her a vote on Madigan remaining as chairman of the state Democratic Party — was a top priority of the powerful House speaker in last month’s primary. Tabares’ name was above Madigan’s on the yard signs that blanketed the 13th Ward before the primary.

Yard sign from March Primary. Sun-Times Photo.

In 2012, a last-minute boost in the Hispanic population of the Southwest Side’s 23rd Ward – from 54 to over 60 percent – sealed a deal on a new Chicago ward map. Zalewski was adamantly opposed to the changes, but his vote was not required.

Zalewski ran for re-election anyway — harder than ever — and managed to win with nearly 67 percent of the vote.

But Zalewski, 61, said he’s had enough.

“There’s no sub-plot here … I’m just gonna end it on May 31 and walk away as proud as I can be,” he said on Monday.

“I’ve got a wife who’s facing her fourth surgery in two years. I’ve got seven grand-kids. I’ve got no regrets.”

A self-described “worrier,” Zalewski said he “never got a chance to not worry about snow, about rain, about flooded basements and power outages” in 42 years with the city, 23 of them as alderman.

“I just made this decision to do this now and not go through another whole election cycle….I’m just tired,” said Zalewski, a former deputy commissioner in the city’s Department of Streets and Sanitation.

Zalewski’s resignation may well signal a broader overhaul of the City Council.

A wave of incumbents could follow Zalewski’s lead — either by resigning early or by deciding not to put themselves through, what will almost certainly be a difficult re-election bid for aldermen who had little choice but to saddle Chicago taxpayers with an avalanche of tax increases to solve the city’s $36 billion pension crisis.

Those who choose to stay and fight run the risk of being defeated by aggressive aldermanic challengers who target incumbents for those difficult tax votes.

Zalewski was asked whether the difficulty of winning re-election factored into his decision to retire and concentrate on his political consulting business.

“I’m being honest. That’s not part of my decision. I won my last election bigger than I’ve ever won. And I truly believe I could get re-elected. But I also believe you don’t run just because you can win,” Zalewski said.

Ald. Edward Burke (14th), chairman of the City Council’s Finance Committee, has a political bullseye on his back after his brother, state Rep. Dan Burke (D-Chicago), was defeated by 26-year political newcomer Aaron Ortiz in a race dominated by Edward Burke’s property tax reduction work for the riverfront hotel and condominium that bears the name of President Donald Trump.

Even more humiliating was the fact that Edward Burke managed to carry his own 14th Ward for his younger brother by just 62 votes.

But Zalewski said Monday, “I don’t believe for a second that Ald. Burke is interested in leaving.”

Pointing to Edward Burke’s massive campaign warchest, Zalewski said, “Everyone is gonna have to campaign a little harder next time. Ald. Burke is well aware of that. And I think he’s ready for it.”

Emanuel released a statement praising Zalewski as a “tireless advocate.”

“As chair of the Aviation Committee, he played a crucial role in modernizing Midway, transforming O’Hare and supporting the city’s efforts to overhaul contracting and to ensure our airports are ready for the future of aviation,” the mayor was quoted as saying.

“I join Chicagoans across the city in expressing my gratitude to the alderman for his service and wishing him the best in his next chapter.”