Chicago's City Council is full of new faces following the completion of last night's election cycle. We talk to a few observers and aldermen about how the new council might align.
Chicago's City Council is brimming with new faces following the completion of the 2011 municipal election cycle last night. In all, 17 new people were elected to the council for the first time in a run-off yesterday or during the first round of voting on February 22.
These folks are not political novices. Quite the contrary, in fact. Aldermen elected for the first time include three -- Deborah Graham (29th Ward), Will Burns (4th Ward) and Harry Osterman (48th Ward) -- who left (in the case of Graham) or are leaving (the other two) the State House of Representatives to take their chairs on the council floor.
Newcomers Michele Smith (43rd Ward) and Matt O'Shea (19th Ward) are currently Cook County Democratic Party committemen. Ald. Roberto Maldonado (26th Ward) is a former Cook County commissioner. Debra Silverstein (50th Ward), Roderick Sawyer (6th Ward), and Timothy Cullerton (38th Ward) are from Chicago political families. And Michael Chandler (24th Ward) is making his second trip to the council.
One of the questions begged by the aldermanic newcomers as well as Mayor-elect Rahm Emanuel's election is whether the council will split into factions, each offering a particular vision for the city. During Mayor Richard M. Daley's decades in office, the City Council didn't have fast-and-hard blocs of aldermen. Most, in fact, supported Daley's positions on the big-ticket items the vast majority of the time.
Dick Simpson, a political science professor at the University of Illinois-Chicago, thinks that's about to change. Simpson believes the council will split into three blocs: one tethered to the new mayor and his priorities, one close to powerful 14th Ward Ald. Ed Burke, and a third comprised of independent-minded council members "who have their own ideas about how things are going to run."
Ald. Scott Waguespack (32nd Ward) told Progress Illinois this afternoon he's looking to solidify what has been alternatively called the independent or progressive caucus for the next council term. He said he is writing a mission statement for the group and preparing binders for council newcomers that offers pointers about how to conduct ward business.
Waguespack, who garnered nearly 66 percent of the vote versus three opponents in the Feb. 22 election, said the group's support could wax and wane depending on the issue. But he described the caucus as bringing a particular approach to City Hall business; the point is to marshal a group of aldermen who will conduct their duties critically, scrutinizing deals and keeping issues on the table.
"The caucus is designed to create a balance, not only in City Council, but with elected officials in the city where we haven't had it before," he said. "What we're trying to do is make sure there are different voices for budgeting, tax increment financing, crime and public safety, our schools. We want to create a platform where there are issues that always have to be on the table and a perspective that always has to be on the table."
"Between the new mayor and the City Council there's going to be enough change ... to really see some significant progress in the way we do business in the city," he said.
Not everyone agrees that the council breaks down into particular alignments. Greg Goldner, head of For A Better Chicago and one of Mayor Daley's former campaign managers, was skeptical.
When asked if he saw particular alignments forming on the council, Goldner said council work tends not to "play out that way." There will be debate and differing perspectives about how the city should operate, but, Goldner said, "I think the work of City Council and the challenges facing them are not driven by caucuses."
For A Better Chicago burst on to the political scene in Chicago this year, using $855,000 in non-disclosed donations given to a non-profit and routing much of the money to a state-constituted political committee to support a list of aldermanic candidates. (Goldner said the group planned "public education and advocacy" work around the issues identified in its candidate questionnaire but declined to discuss those tactics.)
Some of this could sharpen into focus during the new council's first meeting. There, the aldermen will set the rules for the legislative body's next term. A key question, of course, will be whether Ald. Burke maintains his chairmanship of the Committee on Finance, through which most major pieces of legislation pass.
"By their first meeting ... they're going to have to decide whose side they are on," Simpson said of the council members. "The first vote cast is about rules and membership of council committees and the chairs of those committees."
Ald. Pat Dowell (3rd Ward), who won her re-election bid with more than 67 percent of the vote, is looking for change as the new council gets organized. She said that when she was sworn in in 2007, "We were just presented with the committees and who was on the committees and who the committee chairs were ... We had no say what committees we were assigned to."
"I'm hoping with the new City Council," Dowell went on to say, "we will take our responsibility seriously, as stated in the council rules, to organize our own City Council."