At the risk of sounding hopelessly naive, I don’t mind admitting that I believe political reform in Chicago can come from the City Council.

I know we’ve grown used to a council filled with blowhards, scoundrels, and mayoral suck-ups. But if we work from the assumption that Daley’s going to be reelected, and we believe it’s wrong for one man to commandeer the government of this city, then we must look to the council for change.

It’s not as though the aldermen don’t have the power. By design, Chicago has a strong council/weak mayor setup. As Harold Washington learned during his troubled years as mayor in the 1980s, the city’s 50 aldermen have the authority to control budgets and appointments and school and transportation policies–if they choose to exercise it.

There are a few signs of rebellion. Last year the unions got 34 aldermen to take a stand against Daley on the big-box living-wage ordinance, forcing him to exercise his first mayoral veto. The council also managed to drag him, kicking and screaming, to an agreement to ban cigarette smoking in public places.

A majority of independents in the City Council would be nice, but you’d be surprised at how much only a few of them can accomplish. The mainstream media are largely reactive, and they’re always in need of stories driven by flashy personalities. If two or three aldermen dared to denounce, oh, the expensive and unnecessary underground station at Block 37, for instance, or using TIFs to capture tax revenues in wealthy neighborhoods, coverage would follow. Just look at all the excitement roused by our foie gras ban. And reporters are one thing Mayor Daley can’t completely ignore–failing to defend his programs, he might even change them. This is how Forrest Claypool, Mike Quigley, and Tony Peraica are forcing Cook County Board president Todd Stroger to adjust his budgets and policies.

Aldermanic candidates are far too cautious when it comes to Daley. More than one has told me that it’s just too dangerous for a challenger to criticize even his lamest ideas. They figure that would alienate voters who support him and scare off voters who fear him. So most either endorse Daley or pretend he doesn’t exist. “There’s a feeling that you can’t get things for your ward if you criticize the mayor,” says Martin Oberman, a former independent alderman from Lincoln Park. “You and I know that’s not true, but it’s a fear.”

Many candidates assure me privately that once elected, look out, they’re going to be tigers. We’ll see. Michele Smith, a candidate in the 43rd Ward, had the nerve to show up at a public CTA hearing on February 14 to blast the breakdown of the Red Line. The silence from north lakefront incumbents (Burt Natarus, Tom Tunney, Helen Shiller, Vi Daley, and Mary Ann Smith) is deafening.

In the 3rd Ward, Pat Dowell is a harsh critic of TIF waste. It’s no wonder Daley’s working to reelect the incumbent, Dorothy Tillman. Six other candidates who are smart and not afraid to speak out–Toni Foulkes in the 15th, Nick Sposato in the 36th, Greg Brewer in the 50th, Peter Zelchenko and Rachel Goldstein in the 43rd (they’re even more confrontational than Smith), and Bob Bank in the 45th–will all probably lose for the wrong reasons, lack of money being the chief one. But if even one gets elected it will mean more scrutiny of budgets, policies, public projects, and TIFs–especially TIFs. If one alderman–that’s right, just one–were willing to blow the whistle on the TIF scam, reporters other than me might have to cover it.

Of the incumbents, aldermen Joe Moore in the 49th, Toni Preckwinkle in the 4th, and Rick Munoz in the 22nd have shown some guts in defying Daley. I used to have high hopes for Sandi Jackson, who’s running in the 7th, but her husband, Congressman Jesse Jackson Jr., went soft and she may too.

Residents of the 35th Ward may be the luckiest people in town. Whoever wins there will probably join an independent crusade if one emerges in the council. Miguel Sotomayor is running with the support of local reformers. Vilma Colom, the former alderman, is so eager to prove she’s renounced her old machine ways that she’s vowed to vote against TIFs in wealthy areas. And although many of his independent buddies have turned against him over development issues, the incumbent, Rey Colon, has voted against the mayor on several key bills.

If I lived in the 48th Ward, I’d write in Chris Lawrence for alderman, if only to protest the way incumbents use election laws to stymie opposition. Lawrence, who served in Iraq, is enraged that alderman Mary Ann Smith was able to knock him off the ballot on a minor technicality. “This system’s fixed–it’s rigged, it’s an outrage,” he says, ripping into “waste, fraud, and patronage.”

That’s just the sort of cage-rattling rhetoric the City Council desperately needs more of. –Ben Joravsky

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Chicago City Council/AP Photo/M. Spencer Green.