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The Works

Top: Robert Fioretti, Sharon Denise Dixon, Scott Waguespack. Center: Toni Foulkes, Sandi Jackson, Brendan Reilly. Bottom: Willie Cochran, Pat Dowell, JoAnn Thompson

Midterm Examination

Is the City Council class of 2007 reforming Chicago politics yet?

April 30, 2009

Two years ago voters elected a new class of rookie aldermen who promised to bring accountability and integrity to what was widely dismissed as a rubber-stamp City Council.

Hoping for the best, we wrote: “With mayor Daley safely ensconced at City Hall for another four years and his administration stocked with yes-men who approve his every whim, there’s no one to stop him from driving us bankrupt with wasted plans (think Olympics) paid for by Rube Goldberg financing schemes (like tax increment financing districts). Except the City Council.”

We then asked: “Are our representatives up to the task of telling the mayor ‘no’ once in a while, or better yet, of coming up with an alternative vision of Chicago government?”

So far the answer’s a resounding “uh-uh.”

Don’t be lulled by the occasional tremors of independence, like abstract calls for account­ability and transparency or interrogations of Daley underlings during council hearings. Some of the same aldermen who’ve demanded accountability have stood silent while the mayor sold off public assets and rammed through budgets stripping neighborhood residents of the services they’re taxed for.

But it’s not just that they’ve signed off on financial schemes like selling off the parking meters or committing $550 million as insurance for the Olympics—or that they’ve done so with almost no deliberation. It’s that they’ve done it even after the mayor has made it clear that he doesn’t take them seriously as policy makers or even as a check on his ambitions. The council may be weakened permanently. As veteran independent alderman Toni Preckwinkle put it recently: “We’re colluding with the administration on our own marginalization.”

Past rubber-stamp councils reasoned that even if they bowed to the mayor on major policy matters, at least they retained their control over zoning decisions in their wards. Yet in 2008 the council voted for a zoning change that allowed Daley to cram the Children’s Museum into Grant Park over the objections of the local alderman, Brendan Reilly, setting a new precedent that gives the mayor sway over decisions deemed to have citywide importance.

Their low point as a democratic body, though, might have come last year with the reversal of the foie gras ban they had passed, at alderman Joe Moore’s urging, two years earlier. It wasn’t the fact that it was overturned as much as the way it was overturned: Mayor Daley and key allies teamed up to break council protocol, deny Moore the right to speak, and demand a hasty vote on the repeal. As Mayor Daley hovered, glowering, and Moore shouted for his mike to be turned on, aldermen voted 43-6 to reverse the ban. It was like a scene out of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, with the aldermen acting like inmates at the asylum, assuring Nurse Ratched (Daley) that McMurphy (Moore) made them do it.

Now more than ever, it's important to follow what our 50 aldermen are up to. Are our representatives up to the task of telling the mayor "no" once in a while, or, better yet, of coming up with an alternative vision of Chicago government? Read our guide and decide for yourself what their prospects are.
By Ben Joravsky and Mick Dumke

Plus See a chart of each alderman's vote

The rookies couldn’t have stopped any of this alone—but how hard did they try? Halfway into their first term, the new aldermen who were expected to help steer the City Council toward a higher level of debate and oversight, at the very least, have instead helped make it even more pliant, authorizing an almost dizzying set of plans and programs that will affect Chicagoans for generations.

By our reckoning, since May 2007 the council has voted on 11 major initiatives of Mayor Daley’s: two annual budgets that have ended up in the red; accompanying tax increases to “keep Chicago moving forward”; the creation of a new city department topromote a “commitment to compliance with laws,” even though the city already had independent entities charged with that; a tax package for the latest CTA bailout; the $86 million purchase of land for an Olympic village; the zoning change for the Children’s Museum; the repeal of the foie gras ban; and lease deals for Midway and the parking meters. The council’s nine rookies voted the mayor’s way 70 percent of the time, compared with 82 percent for the rest of the council. But most of the no votes came from just three aldermen: Robert Fioretti, Sandi Jackson, and Scott Waguespack. Two first-termers—JoAnn Thompson and Willie Cochran—voted for every one of these initiatives.

In short, we made a political miscalculation when we assumed that people elected with a pledge to bring accountability and independence to the Chicago City Council might actually do so. Now, of course, it’s easy to see where specifically we went wrong. For starters, we overestimated the political skills, confidence, and in some cases competence of the newly elected aldermen. And hard as it is to admit, we underestimated Mayor Daley’s power: we figured he’d still be weakened from the hired-truck and patronage hiring scandals and wary of additional battles with organized labor, whose money and foot soldiers helped elect seven of the new aldermen (and helped reelect several sitting members of the council). We didn’t realize how easily he’d be able to whip his old minions back into line and extend his hegemony over first-termers with no political base or experience who are dependent on his administration to bring services to their wards.

Here are our report cards for the individual first-term aldermen:

Robert Fioretti, Second Ward No one showed as much promise. A savvy lawyer who could raise money, he defeated longtime incumbent Madeline Haithcock with promises to take better care of the ward and stop saying yes to everything asked by developers and Mayor Daley. “Presents himself as a civil rights warrior,” we wrote in 2007. “Rich enough to lend his campaign $75,000.”

He showed guts early on when he voted against creating an internal Office of Compliance—which he and other critics said would undermine the independent Inspector General’s office—and then gave a thumbs-down to the mayor’s 2008 tax increases. He also voted against Daley’s tax hike for the CTA—after which the mayor dressed him down in a nasty eruption you can watch to this day on YouTube. “If Alderman Fioretti believes they don’t need the CTA in his ward, then stand and say, ‘CTA, bypass my people!’” Daley dared him, prompting murmurs and derisive laughter from the other aldermen and spectators. “But you will not have the courage—you know that.” Since then Fioretti has voted with the mayor; he even deserted his fellow freshman Brendan Reilly and downtown residents who live just north of his ward to vote for moving the Children’s Museum into Grant Park.

Pat Dowell, Third Ward Dowell has been a big improvement over her predecessor, Dorothy Tillman, regularly attending community meetings and acting like the people who live there are constituents, not subordinates. To her credit, she’s one of the more thoughtful members of the council—it seems she actually reads things and thinks them over before voting on them. She alone had the nerve to say no to the appointment of Jody Weis as police superintendent for the astoundingly logical reason that he didn’t give straight answers to aldermen’s questions during council hearings. While Dowell has voted for all of Daley’s budgets and lease deals, she cast a nay vote on the Children’s Museum. But she disappointed south-side activists who say she didn’t push the mayor into accepting an Olympics community benefits agreement with teeth in it—the bid committee is largely free to break any promise it’s made on hiring minority vendors and building affordable housing. Dowell says she and other aldermen will be watching closely to make sure the promises are kept.

Seventh Ward, Sandi Jackson Another disappointment. Like Fioretti she owed nothing to the mayor, who endorsed her opponent Darcel Beavers; in fact, Jackson took office as part of a plan by her husband, Congressman Jesse Jackson Jr., to create a progressive council bloc that would stand up to Daley. With the fund-raising network and volunteers and name recognition to be unbeatable, she was free to become a leader in independent politics.

Well, no one in the council has as progressive or independent a voting record—when she’s around to vote. Like Fioretti, she started strong—voting against tax hikes and the Children’s Museum move—but she missed votes on the foie gras repeal and the parking meter lease deal and signed off on Midway privatization and buying the property for the Olympic Village. Even allies grumble that she’s not enough of a presence—her attendance at council committee meetings, where most of the legislative work is done, is erratic at best. Last year she launched a campaign against airline baggage fees, saying it made air travel prohibitive to ordinary residents, but after reaping some headlines, she appeared to drop the issue. The fees remain.

Toni Foulkes, 15th Ward, and JoAnn Thompson, 16th Ward We’ll lump them together because they have a lot in common. Foulkes won a runoff to replace the retiring “Silent” Ted Thomas; Thompson defeated incumbent Shirley Coleman after Coleman flip-flopped to back Mayor Daley’s veto of the big-box minimum wage ordinance. Both Foulkes and Thompson triumphed in large part thanks to organized labor, and both have had their hands full just trying to set up an office and confront some of the problems in their long-neglected communities. And for much of the time after they were elected, the unions were busy campaigning for Barack Obama; these aldermen, expected to look out for the interests of “working families,” have been very quiet. Thompson is now an even more reliable yes vote than Coleman ever was, and while Foulkes often shows up for press conferences with the council’s Progressive Caucus, she’s voted for all of Daley’s major initiatives in the last year, including the lease deals and the 2009 budget.

Willie Cochran, 20th Ward He’s not exactly a disappointment, since we never expected him to stand up to the mayor anyway. He was ushered in by two of Mayor Daley’s key allies—Bishop Arthur Brazier and Reverend Leon Finney—after his predecessor, Arenda Troutman, was charged with corruption. A former cop, Cochran did ask tough, skeptical questions of Jody Weis—then voted to confirm him.

Sharon Denise Dixon, 24th Ward Daley didn’t support her—for that matter, neither did the major unions. “No reason for her to be a rubber stamp,” we wrote. And she hasn’t been, saying no to the Children’s Museum and Mayor Daley’s tax increases. But she went along with the parking meter fiasco, and she and her staff have made it clear that they’ve got their hands full with all the work that needs to be done in the economically depressed ward. “Nobody paid attention to this place for years,” says Frank Watkins, her chief of staff.

Scott Waguespack, 32nd Ward We wrote two years ago that Waguespack’s prospects were “encouraging” after he knocked off Daley and developer ally Ted Matlak, but we predicted the big boys would be all over him. That’s truer than we could have imagined. Waguespack has led the resistance against the parking meter lease agreement, actually analyzing the numbers in the deal before voting—and then voting no. He admits some regret over voting for the Midway privatization and Olympic Village deals, but he’s also teamed up with First Ward alderman Manny Flores to call for reforms in the tax increment financing program. Waguespack doesn’t like to ask supporters for money, but he’s going to have to if he plans to keep that seat past 2011, and he doesn’t like to grandstand, but it would help the cause of transparency and accountability if he were a little more vocal about the nonsense he sees. If he figures it out, he could become a leader in independent, progressive politics in Chicago. Someday there might even be a few others to lead.

Brendan Reilly, 42nd Ward He may be the only rookie we underestimated: “Shows promise as major-league mayoral suck-up,” we wrote. But from the get-go he’s taken tough stances against Daley on issues of big importance to his downtown constituents, starting with his unsuccessful fight against moving the Children’s Museum to Grant Park. It’s no surprise that he’s spoken out on little besides ward-level matters—as his predecessor Burt Natarus will tell you, the Gold Coast demands attention. But Reilly hasn’t been willing to take a stand on citywide issues like the parking meter sale, even though the 42nd has more meters than any ward in the city, not to mention the highest concentration of businesses affected by them. Reilly will tell you he supports the mayor when he’s right and doesn’t when he’s not. Here’s hoping the long, contentious fight against the Children’s Museum didn’t simply exhaust his supply of independence.   R

Ben Joravsky discusses his weekly column with journalist Dave Glowacz at mrradio.org/theworks.

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