By John Ruberry
Chicago’s reputation for corruption is well-deserved. Since 1973 there have been thirty-five members of the City Council who have been sentenced to federal prison. Likely there will be thirty-sixth soon as outgoing Ald. Willie Cochran pleaded guilty two months ago to a charge of wire fraud.
In January, Chicago’s most powerful alderman, longtime Finance Committee chairman Ed Burke, was accused of extortion in a federal criminal complaint. Burke, was has been a member of Chicago’s City Council for an astounding 50 years, quickly resigned committee chairmanship but was reelected 14th Ward alderman following month by a huge margin. As H.L. Mencken famously said, “Democracy is the theory that the common people know what they want, and deserve to get it good and hard.”
Chicago swears in a new mayor, Lori Lightfoot, tomorrow. Her election is being called historic, as she will be the city’s first female African-American mayor and one of the few openly-lesbian mayors in America. But I view Lightfoot’s stance on aldermanic prerogative, also known as aldermanic privilege, as more important as Chicago circles the drain.
Most of those jailbird aldermen ran afoul of the law because of aldermanic prerogative. The tradition, as aldermanic privilege is not codified in law, gives Chicago’s 50 City Council members strong veto or delaying powers on zoning changes, issuance of permits and licenses–including liquor licenses–as well as the sale or purchase of city property in their wards.
Let’s use the criminal complaint of Burke as an example of why aldermanic prerogative is awful. The owners of a Burger King in his ward needed a building permit, according to that complaint, to renovate their establishment. Burke is accused of demanding that the owners, in order to receive that permit, hire his law firm to represent them and to contribute $10,000 to the campaign fund of Toni Preckwinkle, the president of the Cook County Board, chairman of the Cook County Regular Democratic Organization, known to outsiders as “the Machine,” and later, Lightfoot’s runoff opponent in the mayor’s race.
While not all alderman play, to borrow the term a ward employee used with the Burger King owners, “hardball” in regards to permits and zoning and the like, many do.
Ending aldermanic prerogative is something that Lightfoot–who prevailed in all 50 of Chicago’s wards and all but 20 of the city’s nearly 2,100 precincts–campaigned on. And the mayor-elect for another day is pushing this issue. A few alderman are publicly pushing back, including one, Raymond Lopez, who says someone like him who has a better feel of the local scene, will be able to block a street parade of gangbangers, for instance. Really now? That’s the best you can come up with Ray? These criminals do what they want anyway. Sheesh.
Lightfoot may have to compromise to get her way on aldermanic prerogative. Zoning changes might still end up falling under the sway of aldermen. Even that half-a-loaf will be a big improvement for Chicagoans and business owners considering setting up shop in the city.
Let’s say you’re a CEO of a retail giant thinking of expanding into midwestern cities. Would you really want to subject yourself or your underlings to the illegality of banana republic-style extortion attempts? Or would you simply skip Chicago and open up outlets in Milwaukee, Minneapolis, and Cleveland instead?
During the permit standoff the Burger King that was the alleged victim of Burke’s shakedown was able to operate only a drive-thru window–the dining area was closed. That had a severe negative effect on revenue for the restaurant and it probably meant fewer employees.
It’s an example of what is known in Chicago as the corruption tax.
Aldermanic prerogative hurts Chicago.
On another note, during her transition period Lightfoot has not confronted Chicago’s biggest problem–the worst-funded municipal pension plans of any big city. She largely ignored the pension bomb during the campaign too. On Friday the mayor-elect said that the budget shortfall she’s inheriting from Rahm Emanuel is over $700 million.
Lightfoot’s time as mayor will be a difficult one.
John Ruberry regularly blogs at Marathon Pundit.