One of the more revealing scenes in City So Real—Steve James’s insightful documentary about Chicago politics, takes place in a Gold Coast penthouse.
It’s 2019. And James, chronicling the last mayoral election, is filming a dinner party hosted by Christie Hefner.
They’re talking politics and one of the guests—Norman Bobins, a retired banker—opines that no matter who wins the upcoming election, he hopes we don’t return to the days of Mayor Harold Washington.
Too much chaos, he explains.
To her credit, Hefner pushes back, pointing out that “the chaos” of Council Wars was instigated by a pack of white aldermen who tried to sabotage Washington’s administration at every turn.
I suppose I should appreciate that in his bluntness, Bobins revealed what you could call the corporate attitude toward democracy, which goes a little like this . . .
It’s OK in principle, but let’s not let it get in the way of grownup stuff, like electing all-powerful mayors and rubber-stamp alderpeople who know how to get things done. Even though the things they get done have at best only a trickle-down benefit for most of the people who live here.
It’s good to reflect on that salon scene as we head into the final month of what will most likely be the first round of the mayoral election. As no candidate will likely capture more than 50 percent of the vote.
At the moment, we seem to be heading in the opposite direction of corporatocracy.
That is, we seem to be at least experimenting with the concept of democracy and the diminishment of the mayor’s authority. In February, for instance, we will hold the first-ever elections of police district councils that will have a say in policing decisions.
This is partly a result of the cold-blooded execution of Laquan McDonald by a police officer in 2014. And the subsequent coverup by Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who sat on the incriminating evidence for 13 months until a Cook County judge ordered him to release the videotape of McDonald’s murder.
We’re also only a few years away from electing a school board, which is the by-product of years of grassroots activism that mayors (and their corporate friends) generally abhor.
So many times over the last ten or so years, school activists thought they had the statehouse votes to pass an elected school board bill. Only to see the sure thing evaporate in the final moments of the legislative session—killed at the behest of the mayor by Illinois senate president John Cullerton or former Illinois house speaker Michael Madigan, who purportedly supported the bill.
Ah, the games that Madigan played.
There’s also a movement toward democracy in, of all places, the City Council, where alderpeople Sophia King and Matt Martin have led mini rebellions against the mayor’s control of council chairs.
Few things expose Chicago’s indifference toward democracy as the city custom of allowing the mayor to determine who gets to chair a committee.
The council, remember, is supposed to be a legislative check on the mayor’s power. But since Mayor Daley was elected in 1989, it’s been a mayoral rubber stamp in part because the mayor controls the flow of legislation by controlling council chairs. The mayor chooses council chairs as a reward for their past subservience and a promise that they’ll use the power of the chair to kill legislation the mayor opposes.
This tradition continues, as we saw last November when Mayor Lightfoot stifled the attempt of leftist alders to approve, or even hold a meeting to consider approving, the Bring Chicago Home ordinance. That ordinance would pay for the construction of low-income housing by slapping a tax on the sale of high-priced real estate.
The traditional argument for all-powerful mayors is that they know how to get things done. But in the case of the Bring Home Chicago ordinance, it’s more like they know how to keep things from being done—even if that means more homeless people living in tents under viaducts.
As to Alderperson Martin . . .
He was the vice chair of the council’s Ethics Committee, when its chair, 43rd Ward alderperson Michele Smith, suddenly resigned last summer with about nine months left in her term. By retiring, Smith enabled Mayor Lightfoot to name a successor—Timmy Knudsen—who now has the advantage of “incumbency” in the February election.
Not sure what’s ethical about any of this.
Martin proposed that he be named council chair, as he was the vice chair. Mayor Lightfoot resisted on the unstated grounds that Martin’s never been a rubber stamp, so why should he get any privileges?
On January 23, Martin convened an ethics committee meeting anyway, as though he actually were the chair. Mayor Lightfoot sort of looked the other way—apparently too busy with her reelection campaign to try to block Martin.
By chance, I recently moderated a forum in the 30th ward, where four candidates are running to replace Alderman Ariel Reboyras, who by virtue of his loyalty to the last two mayors, got to be a committee chair. I asked the candidates what I called “the Matt Martin question.”
That is—did they believe alderpeople or the mayor should select council chairs?
All of the candidates said they sided with Martin.
I was impressed by their dedication to democracy until skepticism set in. My guess is that council democracy is like TIF reform—a concept candidates know enough to endorse when they’re running for office. Once in office—well, that’s another thing.
So, I can’t predict where these currents of democracy will eventually lead us. I can easily see Chicago going back to the old ways, with future mayors—cheered on by future Norman Bobins—acting as though democracy was just too chaotic to abide by.
Instead, they’ll say we need a powerful mayor and a rubber-stamp council, like in the good old days. Even though those days really weren’t so good for ordinary Chicagoans.