While the focus is on the November midterm elections, Chicago residents will soon head to the ballot box again for February's municipal elections. In order to help voters prep for that election, community activists launched a new website Thursday designed to make the votes of Chicago aldermen more transparent and clear.
"Voters need a real tool to understand who their alderman stand for and what they stand for," said Amisha Patel, executive director of Grassroots Illinois Action, which helped put the website together.
The website, TakeBackChicago.org, displays city council members' votes on select issues, including a $15 minimum wage, school closures and charter school expansion, mental health clinic closures, expanding affordable housing, the Chicago Infrastructure Trust and the mayor's budget proposals. It also provides an opportunity for voters to send a pre-written letter on those select issues directly to aldermanic offices.
The website then scores the aldermen from best, or "Champion" - meaning the elected official "sponsors people's legislation" and is "ready to take tough votes" - to worst, or "Rahm's Rubber Stamp."
To qualify for a "Rahm's Rubber Stamp" rating, an alderman must vote in line with Mayor Rahm Emanuel more than 89 percent of the time.
Patel said the city has too many aldermen who blindly support whatever the mayor puts in front of them, disregarding the wants and needs of their constituents.
"The problem is, that Mayor Emanuel too often has moved policies that are in the interest of corporations or banks and not necessarily in the interest of working families," she said. "Aldermen pretty much vote lockstep with the mayor and move forward his agenda. There's very little dissent and very little debate about the merits of his policies, and who they're hurting and who they're helping."
Of Chicago's 50 aldermen, 23 were ranked "Rahm's Rubber Stamp." Those aldermen include Alds. Will Burns (4th), Michelle Harris (8th), Anthony Beale (9th), John Pope (10th), James Balcer (11th), George Cardenas (12th), Marty Quinn (13th), Ed Burke (14th), JoAnn Thompson (16th), Latasha Thomas (17th), Lona Lane (18th), Howard Brookins (21st), Michael Zalewski (23rd), Daniel Solis (25th), Roberto Maldonado (26th), Ariel Reboyras (30th), Ray Suarez (31st), Deborah Mell (33rd), Carrie Austin (34th), Emma Mitts (37th), Margaret Laurino (39th), Patrick O'Connor (40th) and James Cappleman (46th).
Eight aldermen are labeled "Champion," including Alds. Leslie Hairston (5th), Roderick Sawyer (6th), Toni Foulkes (15th), Ricardo Munoz (22nd), Scott Waguespack (32nd), Nicholas Sposato (36th), John Arena (45th) and 2nd Ward alderman and mayoral candidate Bob Fioretti.
If an alderman falls short of being ranked a "Champion," they qualify as being an "Ally," meaning their "voting record demonstrates ability to act independently from the Mayor." Aldermen who were ranked as allies include Alds. Joe Moreno (1st), Pat Dowell (3rd), Walter Burnett (27th) and Jason Ervin (28th).
Another category of aldermen are labeled "Corporate Followers," meaning they frequently vote "in the interest of corporations over everyday people" and "bend only with substantial community pressure on a limited set of specific issues." Current city council members that qualified as corporate followers include: Alds. Natashia Holmes (7th), Matthew O'Shea (19th), Willie Cochran (20th), Michael Chandler (24th), Deborah Graham (29th), Rey Colon (35th), Timothy Cullerton (38th), Mary O'Connor (41st), Brendan Reilly (42nd), Michele Smith (43rd), Thomas Tunney (44th), Ameya Pawar (47th), Harry Osterman (48th), Joe Moore (49th) and Debra Silverstein (50th).
Ald. Pawar, for example, does not support a $15 minimum wage, but supports a moratorium on charter school expansion while neighborhood schools are being closed in Chicago Public Schools, according to the website. He is therefore ranked as a "Corporate Follower."
Patel said, in light of the data, she predicts a "big change" in the Chicago City Council in 2015.
"We don't have a city council today that allows for a vibrant democracy and debate, it just does the mayor's bidding," she said. "There's so much fire for change. People are ready and taking action, and organizing to make things different in their neighborhoods."
The Chicago municipal election is February 24. Candidates must submit nomination papers for the Chicago City Council by November 24. Several aldermen, including Moreno, Colon, Cullerton, Smith, Laurino and Arena, already have competition for their seats.
Dick Simpson, former Chicago alderman and professor emeritus at the University of Illinois at Chicago, referred to the current city council as "more of a rubberstamp city council than either of the councils under Richard J. Daley or Richard M. Daley."
He predicted there will be 250 aldermanic candidates in the upcoming election.
"Most of the wards are going to have a contest, but it really depends on the resources that the candidates can bring to the race," Simpson said, adding that aldermanic races can't be won for less than $100,000 and candidates also need an abundance of volunteers.
But he said it's too early to tell whether the February election will be a repeat of what happened in May 2011. In that election, 10 aldermen retired and eight incumbents were defeated, bringing 18 new people to serve on the Chicago City Council. It signified the highest turnover among the city's aldermen in decades.
"It's too soon to tell whether the turnover in the council will be that big this time," Simpson said. "But there will be some aldermen who will be defeated if their opponents can put together a good platform and get their message to the voters successfully."