When Mayor Rahm Emanuel made his first appointment to a City Council vacancy in 2013, he chose then-state Rep. Deb Mell who — surprise — was the daughter of longtime political powerhouse Dick Mell, the departing 33rd Ward alderman.
Let’s hope Emanuel has trashed that template for good, now that Ald. Michael Zalewski (23rd) has announced he will step down next month in his increasingly majority-Hispanic ward, nine months before the next municipal election.
Instead, Emanuel should appoint a panel of community members to consider applicants, as he did when Sandi Jackson (7th) and Will Burns (4th) left the Council. Our town doesn’t need one more hand-picked yes-man or yes-woman, which is so the Chicago Way.
People can be forgiven for being suspicious of the timing of Zalewski’s retirement. Following the rule of not wanting nobody nobody sent, Chicago has a long history of politicians circumventing the voters and ushering in replacements — often family members — through the back door.
Former U.S. Rep. William Lipinski (D-Ill.) quit the ballot after winning the 2004 primary to give a clear shot at his southwest suburban seat to his son, Dan.
In 2014, City Treasurer Stephanie Neely quit just four months before the next election, giving Emanuel the opportunity to appoint a replacement, just as then-Mayor Richard M. Daley had appointed Neely eight years earlier after then-City Treasurer Judy Rice also resigned four months before an election.
In 2006, then-Cook County Board President John Stroger’s serious illness was concealed until he won the primary election, at which point he was replaced on the ballot by his son, Todd Stroger, who went on to win easily in the fall. As part of that deal, Ald. William Beavers switched to become a Cook County Board commissioner and engineered the appointment of his daughter to take his Council seat.
Oh, and in 2008, Zalewski was among the committeemen who appointed his son, Michael J. Zalewski, to run for the Legislature after then-state Rep. Robert Molaro dropped out after winning the primary.
It’s not a political game played just by traditional Machine insiders. Last fall, U.S. Rep. Gutierrez, D-Ill., announced just days before the filing deadline that he wouldn’t seek re-election, paving the way for Cook County Commissioner Jesus “Chuy” Garcia, a leader of the progressive wing of the party, to secure the Democratic nomination to replace him.
Dick Simpson, a former independent alderman who taught political science at the University of Illinois at Chicago, explains that mayors can build their power by making appointments to Council vacancies. At his height, Daley had appointed 18 of the 50 aldermen.
“[The appointees] are very beholden to the mayor and almost always become a rubber stamp on the Council,” Simpson said. “At least 80 or 90 percent of the time, they win re-election.”
As Fran Spielman reported Tuesday in the Sun-Times, community leaders are expected to support state Rep. Silvana Tabares, a two-term Southwest Side Democrat and a close ally of Illinois House Speaker Michael J. Madigan, to replace Zalewski. If appointed, Tabares might be a reliable vote for Emanuel.
Well into his second term, Emanuel has filled only three Council vacancies, and only two of them remain on the Council. One of his appointees, Natashia Holmes, lost to Ald. Greg Mitchell (7th) in the 2015 election.
Emanuel’s other two appointments have not been rubber stamps. In 2015, Mell voted against Emanuel’s 2015 $589 million property-tax increase, and his most recent appointee, Ald. Sophia King (4th), joined the Progressive Caucus, which has diverged from the mayor on a range of issues.
In the wake of Spielman’s story, Ald. Zalewski told us his wife is facing a fourth surgery in two years, leaving him to shoulder more of the care for his 93-year-old mother. He said didn’t want to create a “guessing game” about whether he would run again as the February election draws nearer.
To replace Zalewski, Emanuel should again get community input before making an appointment. And whomever he supports, voters should do their homework and pick the best candidate when they finally get to speak at the polling place.
We’ll do our best, when the time comes, to help you with that.
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