Don’t underestimate the lure of the mayoral gavel. Credit: Bill Oxford / Unsplash

With the approval last week of the $12.6 billion budget, Chicago proved that there are zero consequences for defying the mayor.

Especially if the defying alderman hails from a relatively well-to-do north-, northwest-, or southwest-side ward.

Then—defy away, baby!

Want proof? Consider exhibits A, B, and C—or Aldermen Tom Tunney, Matt O’Shea, and Harry Osterman, who, respectively, chair the City Council’s zoning, aviation, and housing committees.

They voted no on Mayor Lightfoot’s budget and they’re still chairing their committees.

While we’re at it—throw exhibit D into the mix. Or Alderman Brendan Reilly, the council’s president pro tempore. A fancy way of saying he’s the vice mayor.

A vice mayor gets to wield the mayoral gavel and run city council meetings in the mayor’s absence. 

Don’t underestimate the lure of the mayoral gavel—a lot of aldermen would give up a lot just to get a chance to whack that thing.

Exhibits A through D were among the 21 aldermen who voted against Mayor Lightfoot’s budget—a curious coalition that included aldermen of the MAGA persuasion and my beloved Democratic Socialists.

In contrast, Tunney, Osterman, O’Shea, and Reilly are basically centrist Dems who represent Lakeview, Edgewater, Beverly, and the Gold Coast.

They say they voted no on the budget because it raises property taxes by $94 million—a raise the mayor said was needed to save 350 city workers from losing their jobs.

Word of warning, Chicagoans—never believe aldermen who say they’re protecting you from rising property taxes. Especially if they voted to raise your property taxes by helping approve a tax increment financing deal. More on TIFs later.

Back to committee chairs . . .

Chairing a committee is a big deal because you get to hire committee staffers.

Of course, chairing a committee also comes with strings attached. You must be loyal to the mayor, who appoints the chairs.

Why would the mayor get to pick council chairs when the City Council is supposed to be an independent check on the mayor’s power?

Short answer—’cause the aldermen let the mayor get away with it.

Longer answer—the powers that be in this city have always wanted a mayor to have all the power. Unless that mayor is a lefty, like Mayor Washington. Then it’s like—Oh, my god, the chaos!

Don’t believe me? Listen to banker Norman Bobins in the movie City So Real explain how things really work in Chicago.

Mayors Daley and Rahm limited chairmanships to rubber-stampers.

In fact, I think there was a test. The mayor would introduce something especially stupid, like selling the parking meters for a fraction of what they are worth, just to make sure the council kiddies stayed in line.

In the case of the zoning committee, the chair’s chief responsibility is to make sure that any development deal supported by the mayor sails through.

Same thing for the housing chair. 

With aviation, if the mayor wants to, say, expand the airport, bam goes the gavel. Deal done. And just like that, ten percent of Bensenville gets plowed over for a runway.

Conversely, council chairs make sure proposals opposed by the mayor—even ones that make sense—get buried in the rules committee. Also controlled by a mayoral flunky.

In short, chairing a committee is a bone that mayors throw to their favorite aldermanic pets. And rule number one for pethood is that you must vote for the mayor’s budget.

Our last mayors—especially Rahm—wanted as many yes budget votes as they could get. As they saw it a sign of power and order.

I can’t imagine Danny Solis, who ran zoning under Mayor Rahm, or Ray Suarez, who ran housing under Daley and Rahm, voting against a mayoral budget.

If they did, Daley and Rahm would take that mayoral gavel and whack them over the head with it.

But that was then and this is now. Part of the change is the realization that the mayors are not as all-powerful as they used to be.

I think we can all agree that Lori Lightfoot would have whooped Mayor Rahm’s sorry little bohunkus in 2019 had he not chickened out and dropped out of the race.

And even Mayor Lightfoot is probably more vulnerable than, say, Aldermen Reilly or O’Shea or Tunney. Especially Tunney. Man, Lakeview residents start salivating like Pavlov’s dogs the moment they see Tunney’s name on the ballot.

Actually, Tunney and Reilly could have voted against Mayor Rahm and Daley on any matter without fear of retribution. As they come from two of the wealthiest wards in the city.

It’s inconceivable that a mayor would ever deny resources to wealthy wards.

Money follows money. The more money a ward has, the more money it’s going to get. It doesn’t matter how the alderman votes.

Sometimes wealthy wards get city money simply because wealthy well-connected developers demand it.

Such was the case last year when the City Council infamously voted to fork over about $2.4 billion in property tax dollars for the Lincoln Yards and 78 TIF deals.

They sailed through the council even though they’ll raise everybody’s property taxes.

In fact, some of the same aldermen who voted against Mayor Lightfoot’s budget on the grounds that it hiked taxes voted for those TIF deals.

I’m looking at you, Aldermen Brian Hopkins, Anthony Napolitano, and Tunney.

Why, you ask, is it OK to dedicate $2.4 billion in property taxes for an upscale development in an already gentrifying community but it’s not OK to dedicate $94 million to save 350 employees from losing their jobs?

Obviously, aldermen care a lot more about powerful developers than they care for ordinary city workers—even those workers who live in their wards.

As you can see, Chicago mayors come and go, but the real power around here remains the same.  v