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Aldermanic Turnover Higher Than Usual ... For Better or Worse?

By Ted Cox | April 27, 2015 6:02am
 Aldermen gather before the last City Council meeting for one of their last photos together as a group.
Aldermen gather before the last City Council meeting for one of their last photos together as a group.
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DNAinfo/Ted Cox

CITY HALL — They say the only constant in politics is change, and for evidence of that, just look at the City Council.

Thirteen new aldermen will join the council when they're inaugurated May 18, which is more than a quarter of the 50 sitting members. Yet 15 new aldermen were seated four years ago, swept in with Mayor Rahm Emanuel.

And many of those same Emanuel-backed candidates were swept out this year, even as the mayor won re-election.

Dick Simpson, political science professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago, author of the council history "Rogues, Rebels and Rubber Stamps" and a former Chicago alderman himself, said that whiplash change began with Emanuel's election four years ago.

 UIC Professor Dick Simpson expects more give and take between the mayor and the new City Council.
UIC Professor Dick Simpson expects more give and take between the mayor and the new City Council.
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DNAinfo/Ted Cox

"Before that, the council was pretty stable," Simpson said Friday. "There were very few changes. So aldermen tended to be in for 10 or 20 years."

Ald. Ameya Pawar (47th), who was elected four years ago in the mayor's home ward and had little trouble retaining his seat in February's general election, said that's a good thing, because aldermen are being held more accountable by voters.

"Generally speaking, I think the politics in Chicago is evolving such that I think it's going to be tough for people to just sit in office for 30, 40 years," Pawar said.

"The ones who did the least in the council to represent their constituents were the ones who tended to lose re-election," Simpson said, whether or not they got financial backing from the mayor. That taught a lesson to the survivors.

"The aldermen took note that having the mayor's money wasn't enough to save them," he added.

All told, seven incumbent aldermen lost their seats: Natashia Holmes (7th), John Pope (10th), Lona Lane (18th), Deborah Graham (29th), Ray Suarez (31st), Rey Colon (35th) and Mary O'Connor (41st). They'll be replaced by Aldermen-elect Gregory Mitchell (7th), Susan Sadlowski Garza (10th), Derrick Curtis (18th), Chris Taliaferro (29th), Milly Santiago (31st), Carlos Ramirez-Rosa (35th) and Anthony Napolitano (41st).

Six other new aldermen won open seats: Brian Hopkins (2nd), Patrick Daley Thompson (11th), Raymond Lopez (15th), David Moore (17th), Michael Scott Jr. (24th) and Gilbert Villegas (36th).

Pawar sees the new council as mirroring the city's shifting demographics. "The city's changed over the last 25, 30 years, and the new people coming in are reflections of that," he said. "You see a lot of neighborhoods across the city taking on progressive issues."

The mayor calls himself a progressive, and Pawar was a charter member of the Progressive Reform Caucus, although he soon shifted to the less-confrontational Paul Douglas Alliance.

The Progressive Reform Caucus won all seven of its races for re-election, then trumpeted gaining as many as seven new members after the runoffs were completed. Yet the Alliance also won all but one of its re-election bids, losing only Ald. Colon to Ald.-elect Ramirez-Rosa, who has already signed on with the Caucus.

Simpson called that group "the real progressive bloc," although he acknowledged that the Alliance had a point in its approach, even as, his studies on rubber-stamp aldermen have shown, they vote more consistently with the mayor on issues.

"Their argument was that they made some changes behind the scenes, and then they could feel free to vote with the mayor," Simpson said.

Pawar confirmed that, accusing the Caucus of sometimes advocating a "scorched earth" policy.

"It's not whether you voted yea or nay, it's what did you do to influence the process?" Pawar said.

To that end, he sees the new council moving toward genuine compromise and getting things passed as a body.

"My sense is this time, with the new council, it's going to be less about personality and more about issues," he added. "It's about moving the ball, and we all want to pass things this next term."

Simpson agreed, while emphasizing that a more robust debate would also be healthier for the democratic process.

"I expect to see, I guess you could say, more volatility in the new council, and more opposition," he said.

That would especially prove true, Simpson added, if the mayor is forced to propose an increase in property taxes to deal with the "$600 million pension cliff" he has talked about with pension payments coming due at the end of the year. That could lead, Simpson said, to a full-scale "property-tax revolt," adding, "That's happened every time the mayor has made a major raise in the property tax."

No one, progressive or not, is eager to raise taxes for voters, even if the next election is almost four years away.

Still, there is potential for real give and take between the mayor and the council on even that issue, Simpson said, and Friday's announcement that Forrest Claypool would return to City Hall as Emanuel's chief of staff might signal the mayor's willingness to engage in a dialogue with council renegades.

Claypool is a classic case of Mr. Inside/Mr. Outside, Simpson said, in that he is about to serve his third term as chief of staff, after twice filling that role for Emanuel's predecessor, Mayor Richard M. Daley, yet he also ran quixotic campaigns against Cook County Board President John Stroger and against Chicago Democratic Party Chairman Joe Berrios for assessor, a race in which he filed as an independent.

He also was a genuine reformer on the Cook County Board alongside Commissioners Larry Suffredin (D-Evanston) and Mike Quigley, now the U.S. representative who, ironically enough, replaced Emanuel in Congress.

"He has that sort of independent streak," Simpson said of Claypool. "So I would expect to see some changes in policy advice to Emanuel that maybe allows him to steer clear from making mistakes on some of the things that anger constituents," such as traffic cameras, police procedures and school closings.

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