For me, the City Council moment that sums up the spirit of Chicago occurred in the wee hours of December 2, 1987.
It was then that the council met to fill the vacancy caused by the death of Mayor Harold Washington. One alderman—I can’t remember which one—complained of the excessive dealmaking going on that night. And Big Bill Henry—alderman of the 24th Ward, on the west side—rose to proclaim: “Making deals? We was all making deals.”
For better or worse—and usually worse—that pretty much sums up life in Chicago, where just about everyone likes to think they’re a dealmaker.
It’s as if you can’t just get basic services by paying your taxes the way folks in, oh, Wilmette may do it—just to pick Mayor Rahm’s hometown.
No, no, you’ve got to give a little something to get a little something. We not only tolerate this condition, we’ve come to like it in a sadomasochistic sort of way.
Alderman Richard Mell has said that he routinely traded his council votes in exchange for city jobs he could dole out to members of his ward organization. Of course, there aren’t as many city jobs to dole out in the days of budget cuts and anti-patronage court rulings. So now aldermen trade their votes for everything from TIF-funded projects to street paving. And you wonder why the council recently passed the mayor’s budget by a vote of 47-3 (well, you don’t actually think that’s ’cause it’s a sound budget, do you?).
I remember the great council debate from 2008 over Mayor Richard M. Daley’s plans to move the Children’s Museum from Navy Pier to Grant Park. The local alderman, Brendan Reilly, opposed the move.
Aldermen traditionally have the final say over planning or zoning issues in their wards, and so the council was called upon to make a monumental decision: Stand with their aldermanic brother on this hugely symbolic issue or bow to the mayor?
Alas, one by one, the aldermen caved in to Daley’s pressure. In the end, only 16 dared to stand with Reilly (though the museum eventually decided to remain at Navy Pier). So much for aldermanic prerogative.
Of course, I assumed the aldermen got something from Daley for their anti-Reilly votes. Sure enough, one alderman told me his ward got a soccer field. Another said Daley promised TIF funds for a favorite project. But one alderman swore up and down he got nothing.
He claimed he stayed up late the night before the vote with a piece of paper. On one side he wrote the pros of Daley’s proposal and on the other he wrote the cons. In the end, he said, the pros outnumbered the cons, so he voted with Daley.
Of course, no one believed him—I’m not even sure he believed him.
By the way, it’s not just aldermen who cut deals. Years ago, one of my neighbors bragged to me that our block got fast snow removal because he went to school with the alderman.
On Election Day, my neighbor stopped by to remind me not to forget the alderman who got our street plowed so fast.
“But the streets are supposed to be plowed anyway,” I responded.
“What, are you a choir boy?” he said.
Speaking of deal cutting: Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Governor Bruce Rauner have offered about $2.25 billion to Amazon to open a second headquarters here.
Think about that. Amazon—one of the world’s richest corporations—gets billions and I get my street plowed. Obviously, some deals in Chicago are better than others. v