Ray Hanania

Ray Hanania

Chicago aldermen need to be assertive

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By Ray Hanania

Chicago’s City Council aldermen were always intended to be equal to the city’s mayors, to exert influence and represent the needs of their residents.

Long before Richard J. Daley took control, creating the Chicago Machine in 1952 and becoming mayor in 1955, aldermen had power. But during those first 100 years, aldermen were driven by greed and corruption.

They were the “Gray Wolves” who controlled City Hall from the 1890s until the 1930s.

Under Daley, “the Boss,” the council meekly rolled over as a rubber stamp, allowing the mayor to dictate policies and legislation, punishing critics, and controlling the Democratic Party and local elections. In exchange, they received jobs, favors and even money.

RayHanania

Ray Hanania

There were four aldermanic attempts to increase their powers, although the rule of the Gray Wolves associated aldermanic power grabs with corruption.

In the 1970s, Ald. Ed Vrdolyak (10th) organized “The Young Turks,” who led a “coffee rebellion” demanding more influence. They stymied Daley’s floor leader, Ald. Thomas Keane (31st), who was called “The Professor” and was credited with getting Daley elected mayor.

Keane was chairman of the powerful Finance Committee. That went to Ald. Edward M. Burke (14th), one of the original Young Turks, after Keane was convicted of corruption.

Daley basically picked away at “The Young Turks,” offering them individual benefits, power, jobs and more freedom in their wards. But not equality.

In 1978, the “Reluctant Rebels,” led by Aldermen Jeremiah Joyce (19th) and Bill Lipinski (23rd), challenged the powers of Daley’s successor, Mayor Michael A. Bilandic and his capable Chief of Staff Tom Donovan (who many said was really the mayor).

They demanded modest “reforms” Bilandic supported, but their gains didn’t undermine mayoral powers.

In 1992, a group of nine aldermen, mostly from the Northwest Side wards, led the “Docile Insurrection” against The Boss’ son, Mayor Richard M. Daley.

Among them were Aldermen Eugene Schulter (47th) and Dick Mell (33rd), who demanded specific policy changes on issues directly affecting their interests.

Daley’s powerful patronage chief, Tim Degnan, reached out to cool them off, ending what could have been the makings of a new drive to make aldermen equal. It quickly ended.

In 1983, Vrdolyak, one of the council’s more brilliant leaders, rallied 29 aldermen to confront Mayor Harold Washington. It was the first time aldermen had a majority of 26 votes to pass council changes, but not enough to overcome Washington’s vetoes over laws.

Washington and his allies said the Vrdolyak 29 were driven by racism. But while racial tensions were an underlying problem–not just among some aldermen, but across the entire city in black and white wards–Vrdolyak was more interested in power than racism and he used racism as a political tool, not a movement of hatred.

He demonstrated that in 1979, when he convinced newly elected Mayor Jane M. Byrne, Washington’s predecessor, to abandon her “reform” agenda and embrace the old ways.

Although Byrne had denounced Vrdolyak and Burke during her campaign as an “evil cabal of men,” Vrdolyak convinced Byrne that her “ally,” Richie Daley, really wanted her job. All Vrdolyak wanted, he convinced her, was political power and control of the committees. He didn’t want her job.

Months before the April 4, 2023 mayoral runoff election, Chicago aldermen raised the specter of restoring ward power and being equal to the mayor. These aldermen are driven by making Chicago a better place and ending the mayor’s dictatorial powers.

Led by Aldermen Marty Quinn (13th), Silvana Tabares (23rd), Matt O’Shea (19th), and more called for truly needed reforms, including giving more blacks, Latinos, LGBTQ and women aldermen more powers and committee chairs. One alderman not involved was Raymond Lopez (15th), truly one of the council’s more inspiring voices.

The move to shift power to aldermen away from the dictates of the Mayor’s Office is moving forward.

It got momentum when Cook County Commissioner Brandon Johnson, who embraces defunding police and supporting looters, defeated moderate Paul Vallas.

Johnson is really inexperienced, though he has the backing of his own Machine, the Chicago Teachers Union, and the AFSMCE union.

Johnson will try to resist, asserting it is driven by the same racism that Washington faced in 1983. Johnson lifted many of Washington’s election slogans during his campaign.

But, in order to save Chicago, aldermen must assert themselves and play a more influential role to save Chicago, which is mired in crime, a poor economy, economic turmoil and schools that fail to educate students.

Even if he abandons his “defund the police” beliefs and defense of looters, Johnson can’t save the city by himself.

A sharing of power between the mayor and aldermen is the only solution that makes sense.

(Ray Hanania is a former Chicago City Hall reporter and award-winning columnist. Visit hanania.com for more commentary.)

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