As soon as I read about Bill Daley’s call for a referendum on reducing the City Council from 50 to 15 aldermen, I had three questions: Would it pass? Would I vote for it? And what does this have to do with Ratgate?
In short, the answers are: hell, yes; not sure; and . . . don’t get me started!
OK, time for a deeper dive . . .
First, the yes-it-will-pass part.
Chicagoans have a schizophrenic attitude toward aldermen. By and large, we despise the full council but like our individual alderman. How else to explain why we bitch and moan about every dumb, rubber-stamping thing the City Council does, then turn right around and reelect the aldermen who, you know, voted for those dumb, rubber-stamped projects. On the grounds that—hey, man, at least he or she returns my calls.
So passing a City Council-cutting referendum would be the easy way of doing what most Chicagoans are apparently too loyal or afraid do on an individual basis—throw the bum out!
Problem is, I’m not sure such a referendum would make the ballot. As we’ve learned from former governor Pat Quinn’s mayoral term-limit fight, taking on the man is really hard.
Quinn spent the better part of last summer in the rain, sleet, and heat, collecting more than 80,000 signatures to put the term-limit question on November’s ballot.
Then Mayor Rahm brought in his lawyers to challenge Quinn’s efforts on the grounds that you can’t have a binding referendum if the mayor’s already packed the ballot with three advisory ones—no matter how frivolous. As the mayor had done.
Quinn said a binding referendum takes precedence over an advisory one. And he’s still in court fighting lawyers for Rahm and the board of elections on this matter, though November’s election has come and gone.
In short, it takes a strong and resourceful political operative to get a binding referendum on the ballot. Bill Daley might fit that order—but I’m not sure his heart is into it. My initial reaction was that the council-cutting proposal was a PR stunt Daley devised to distance himself from his father and brother in the hopes of convincing voters that somehow a Daley can be a reformer.
(For all you youngsters out there, Bill Daley’s father—Richard J.—and his older brother—Richard M.—were mayors of this city for years. You know, I think even our youngsters know this.)
Bill Daley’s communications director—my old pal Peter Cunningham—tells me I’m just too cynical for my own good. And that Daley’s committed to allowing voters a say on cutting the council—he’d even help gather the signatures himself, if that’s what it takes.
“He’s going to push for this if he’s elected mayor,” says Cunningham.
Putting aside Daley’s motives, you can make a compelling argument for cutting the council. In comparison with other cities, we sure have a lot of aldermen. New York City has 51, but it has a population of over 8.5 million.
So it works out to about one alderman for every 166,666 residents.
Los Angeles has 15 council members—with a population of over four million, that’s one for every 266,666 residents. In Chicago, we have 50 aldermen—earning as much as $117,333—for 2.7 million, or one per 54,000 residents.
Cut 35 aldermen and you’d free up enough money to reopen at least one of the six mental health clinics the aldermen closed per Rahm’s request—speaking of really bad rubber-stamping council votes.
On a side note, we didn’t always have 50 aldermen. About a 100 years ago, we had 60. I know this because of a recent conversation with the aforementioned Pat Quinn, who knows everything about Chicago (and Illinois) political trivia.
“Until  we only had 30 wards, but each ward had two aldermen,” says Quinn. “You remember back then, don’t you, Ben? I think you were a cub reporter for the Reader back then.”
Oh, that Pat Quinn—he’s a regular Mrs. Maisel.
So, would I vote to cut the council? As always, I’m sort of blowing in the wind on this one.
On the one hand, I’m not really feeling pro-alderman right now. We’ve got one alderman (Willie Cochran) facing trial for allegedly taking a $3,000 bribe from a local liquor store owner. Another (Ed Burke) indicted for allegedly trying to shake down a Burger King franchisee. And a third (Rick Munoz) charged with domestic violence for allegedly grabbing his wife and throwing her into a staircase.
Just when I thought it couldn’t get any worse, along comes the bombshell in Wednesday’s Sun-Times that Alderman Danny Solis was wearing a wire and secretly taping conversations with Burke as part of the FBI investigation.
Even worse was the reaction of other aldermen. They were madder at Solis than they were at Burke, as Sun-Times reporter Fran Spielman discovered when she went around the council gathering quotes.
Like this one from Alderman Matt O’Shea: “Where I come from, if you wore a wire, someone’s gonna kick your ass.”
And Alderman Rod Sawyer: “If I was caught doing something wrong, I’d just take my punishment and deal with the consequences.”
And Alderman Jimmy Conway: “Never rat on your friends, and always keep your mouth shut.”
Actually, Jimmy Conway’s not really a Chicago alderman—unlike O’Shea (19th Ward) and Sawyer (Sixth Ward). He’s the gangster played by Robert De Niro in Goodfellas. But really, these days, what’s the difference? The aldermen sound like Donald Trump calling Michael Cohen a “rat” after Cohen testified against the president.
Look, I’m not saying Solis is a hero—my hunch is he was wearing a wire in exchange for a lighter sentence for whatever the FBI caught him doing wrong. But for better or worse, he is part of a larger fight to root out corruption.
And let me tell you—Ed Burke is pretty damn corrupt. To cite just one example, he was representing Sterling Bay as part of his second job as a property tax lawyer while using his influence as chairman of the City Council’s finance committee to pass a TIF deal that would underwrite Sterling Bay’s Lincoln Yards development with about $900 million in property taxes. (Thanks to the Sun-Times for breaking that scoop.)
I’m not sure if it’s against the law for the chair of the council’s finance committee to take legal payments from the same developers who are coming to his committee for a $900 million property tax handout—but it ought to be.
So, at the moment, I’m like—hell yes, gimme that referendum!
On the other hand, well . . .
Over the summer, we had an infestation of rats—big, ugly things scrambling through the backyard. In desperation, I called my alderman—Ameya Pawar—to say: Help.
He had his aide call my wife and give her the direct number to the dude at the city in charge of getting rid of rats (no, it wasn’t Alderman O’Shea).
Within a couple of days, the city put out some traps and poison and we haven’t seen a rat since.
So should I be so grateful that Pawar helped facilitate a service the city should be providing anyway? No, but I am. And, you know, even if Ameya and I haven’t always agreed on everything, I appreciate having a guy in City Hall.
Damn, I’ve lived here so long, I’m starting to sound like a real Chicagoan.