To understand politics in Chicago, you start with one basic fact–there’s one all-powerful mayor and 50 very wimpy aldermen.

The aldermen on the City Council, who represent the city’s 50 wards, are afraid of crossing Mayor Richard M. Daley, whose reelection for a sixth term is a foregone conclusion (despite ongoing federal investigations into corruption in his administration). Even independents running against Daley’s lackeys pull their punches: they’ll savagely attack the incumbent but tell you their reasons for running have nothing to do with the mayor.

Daley lets the aldermen control the little stuff in their wards, while he directs the big stuff–budgets, patronage, promotions, construction projects, and housing and education policy. The mayor’s control of the big stuff has been responsible, in recent years, for the hideous rehab of Soldier Field, the construction of the vastly overbudget Millennium Park, the destruction of a municipal airport under cover of darkness, the continued rise in property taxes, the overpriced and much delayed Brown Line reconstruction (which is causing long delays on the Red Line), and the Pink Line addition coming at the expense of other services on the west side, as well as sweeping education and public housing policy changes that allowed Daley appointees to hold thousands of kids back or kick thousands of families out of their homes. All took effect with little debate, much less opposition, from the rollover council.

In return the aldermen get to decide which cafes get to hang an awning, which blocks get to throw a party, which home owner gets to build a porch.

Recent events might suggest the aldermen are coming around, that they’re ready to have their say. Don’t be fooled. True, the council passed an ordinance banning smoking in restaurants and bars, but only after Daley watered down the bill. And yes, the foie gras ban slipped through over Daley’s objections, but it didn’t have much more significance than the council’s resolution against the war in Iraq.

In fact, when the foie gras ban passed by an overwhelming margin in April, Daley’s opposition was measurable only by a few snickering comments to the press. But on August 22, when it actually took effect, it was a much different story. Daley was up in arms over the measure and looking to be quoted. “It’s a silly law,” he sputtered. “The silliest law they ever passed.” He went on to assure restaurant operators, already openly defying the ban, that he was in no hurry to enforce it.

What had changed? On July 26, against Daley’s wishes, the council passed the so-called big-box bill by a large margin of 35 to 14 (Alderman Helen Shiller didn’t vote). Some aldermen may have fallen to the pressure of the unions. Others may simply have underestimated the mayor’s opposition or figured he was too distracted by federal investigators to care much. Whatever the case, they clearly stepped out of line.

Over the last few weeks, Daley’s been reminding them where they really stand. Not only did he join the chorus mocking the foie gras ban, he orchestrated a campaign to overturn the big-box ordinance. He held press conferences, rallied business leaders, solicited editorials–and then he played the race card. “It was all right for the north and southwest sides to get big boxes before this,” he said at a rally on the far south side. “No one said anything. All of a sudden when we talk about economic development in the black community, there’s something wrong.”

An angry father stripping privileges from a rebellious adolescent, he was letting the council know that from here on out nothing would pass without his consent. Two of Daley’s closest allies, Aldermen Burt Natarus and Bernard Stone, said they’d changed their mind and moved to overturn the ban.

Obviously, the rest of the council got the message too. Three other aldermen flipped (George Cardenas, Danny Solis, and Shirley Coleman) and Shiller came on board, killing any hope the council had of overriding Daley’s veto. The council’s flirtation with independence ended and things went back to normal. Daley will let the aldermen oversee neighborhood permits, and he’ll control everything else.

The real mystery is why voters keep electing Daley and the aldermen who serve him. The standard explanation is that we’re so grateful for the services he gives us we’ll overlook his shortcomings. But taxes have been soaring and trains are running late, and maybe the voters are afraid of Daley too. Not just afraid of what will happen if they complain (you can’t imagine how many times ordinary citizens criticizing him have begged me not to print their names for fear of retaliation). They’re also afraid of what will happen if he leaves office. “You think I would want to leave the city in the hands of these dummies?” a Bucktown bar owner recently asked me.

He was, of course, speaking of the aldermen. Then after complaining about his alderman he admitted he had voted for him, donated money to his campaign, and hung his election sign in his bar. Hmm–who’s the real dummy?

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Tim Boyle/Getty Images.