The City Council’s May 26 votes on Wal-Mart violated so many council protocols that even the experts are baffled. “If you figure out what’s going on, please let me know,” says 35th Ward alderman Rey Colon. “I was there, and I still can’t figure it out.” So let’s take it point by point.

Why didn’t Mayor Daley just tell the aldermen how to vote?

As everyone knows, Daley generally orchestrates the vote on important council matters. But on this obviously important issue he seemed curiously detached, though he’d stated for the record that he supported Wal-Mart. “He didn’t even try to tell us how to vote,” says 49th Ward alderman Joe Moore. “We were free to vote the way we wanted.”

Most aldermen think the mayor was being a little sneaky, because he didn’t want to take a strong stand. On the one hand, he wants to look like a probusiness mayor, willing to stand up to unions if that’s what it takes to create jobs. On the other hand, he reads the papers. He knows that Wal-Mart is unpopular with lots of voters. So he opted to let the aldermen make the decision for him.

“Daley’s no dummy,” says one northwest-side alderman. “He doesn’t want to get blamed for Wal-Mart coming here, and he doesn’t want to get blamed for running them out of town. Instead, he says, ‘Gee, I dunno, fellas. What do you wanna do?'”

Most aldermen admit that they enjoyed the brief limelight, as they were interviewed by reporters and lobbied by both factions. “It was kind of fun to get all that attention, but I don’t know when it’s going to happen again,” says the northwest-side alderman. “It’s the first time Daley gave us this much freedom–and it’s probably gonna be the last.”

Given that they had the freedom to vote their conscience, why didn’t the aldermen agree to what the local aldermen wanted, upholding the long tradition of aldermanic privilege?

The tradition isn’t dead. It’s just been amended. As most council observers know, part of the aldermen’s little arrangement with the mayor is that he gives them control over zoning, and they give him control over just about everything else. So aldermen are still the bosses of zoning in their wards–except when they’re not. The council voted on two separate zoning requests. Thirty-seventh Ward alderman Emma Mitts and 21st Ward alderman Howard Brookins Jr. had asked for zoning upgrades that would allow Wal-Mart to build in their wards. The council approved Mitts’s request, allowing Wal-Mart to build on the site of an old factory at Grand and Kilpatrick. It rejected Brookins’s request–though only by one vote–stopping Wal-Mart’s plans to build at 83rd and Stewart.

Council watchers can’t recall the last time the aldermen bucked the tradition of aldermanic privilege, even on a controversial matter. “I remember when [19th Ward] alderman [Virginia] Rugai wanted to put some culs-de-sac in her ward that some folks thought were to keep black people out, but even the black aldermen voted for her,” says Jerald Wilson, a political consultant. “[Third Ward alderman Dorothy] Tillman said, ‘Rugai can do what she wants–it’s her ward.’ That’s how strong this goes.”

But this time around 15 aldermen voted against Mitts’s zoning request, and 25 voted against Brookins’s. Apparently, the deal was just too big to relegate to local control. “First of all you had all that union opposition–they still count in this town,” says Rey Colon. “Second, this is not some little local thing like a zoning change for a town house. You’re talking about a big store that’s going to impact the whole city. It’s definitely going to impact my ward, ’cause I’m right down the street from Emma. Sometimes you just have to step in and say, ‘No, this is for the good of the city.'”

After the vote a few disgruntled aldermen vowed to punish those who’d ignored Brookins’s and Mitts’s wishes. “I’ve heard rumblings from some guys–‘Wait till you want to put your project forward. We’ll get you,'” says Colon. “They can do a lot to you. They can keep a project in committee limbo. They can keep you from getting what you want for your ward.”

But most aldermen don’t think that will happen, because 36th Ward alderman William Banks, chairman of the council’s zoning committee, voted against both Wal-Mart requests. “Every zoning request comes through Banks, and, trust me, Banks won’t let anyone punish anyone else for voting against Wal-Mart,” says the northwest-side alderman. “If someone tries to mess with us over this, Banks will hit him in the head and it will be all over.”

So if the aldermen weren’t obligated to Daley, Mitts, or Brookins, why did they vote the way they did?

The answer varies from alderman to alderman, and it’s hard to find a pattern in the votes. Examine any usual voting bloc–Hispanics, northwest-side alder-men, southwest-side aldermen, lakefront aldermen–and you’ll see mixed results. For instance, among the “progressive” Hispanics (as opposed to the machine hacks), 26th Ward alderman Billy Ocasio voted for Wal-Mart (wonder what his prolabor mentor Congressman Luis Gutierrez thinks about that). But Colon and 22nd Ward alderman Rick Munoz voted against it. First Ward alderman Manny Flores took a more cautious approach, voting for one Wal-Mart and against the other. “I voted for the Wal-Mart on the west side,” he explains, “because they really needed the jobs.”

Perhaps the biggest inconsistency was in the votes of the council’s 19 black aldermen. A few years ago they’d talked of forming a powerful voting bloc. Last week they were all over the map. Eleven voted for both zoning changes, and eight did not. Fifteenth Ward alderman Ted Thomas, a former community activist, voted against both requests. Aldermen Freddrenna Lyle (6th), Leslie Hairston (5th), Shirley Coleman (16th), and Anthony Beale (9th) voted for Mitts but against Brookins. Latasha Thomas (17th) voted for Mitts but wasn’t present for the Brookins vote. Toni Preckwinkle (4th) voted against Brookins but wasn’t present for the Mitts vote. Dorothy Tillman missed the meeting.

Some observers say it was the south side versus the west side. “Most of the west-siders voted for both deals ’cause Ike told them to, and Ike runs the show on the west side,” says one observer, referring to 29th Ward alderman Isaac Carothers.

Others blame Brookins for not winning more votes. “Folks in the council don’t like him,” says Pat Hill, a south-side activist. “This stuff is really petty.”

Why don’t they like him?

“You’d be amazed over how much personalities played in all of this,” says Colon. “It wasn’t the Wal-Mart vote. It was the Emma vote and the Howard vote. You heard the debate. ‘Emma’s my girl.’ ‘I gotta go with Emma.’ ‘I made my commitment to Emma.’ ‘Emma called me early, but Howard called me late.’ I’m thinking, ‘What’s Emma being a good person got to do with what’s best for the city?’ But that’s the way it went down.”

The outcome might have been different had Brookins, as Jerald Wilson puts it, “showed his colleagues some respect.” But Brookins brought in his father, former state senator Howard Brookins, and Niles Sherman, former 21st Ward alderman, to do his preliminary lobbying. “People don’t want to be lobbied by the daddy or the old alderman,” says Wilson. “They want to be lobbied by the alderman.”

In contrast, Mitts personally lobbied other aldermen. “Emma’s a sweetheart–you have to love her,” says Manny Flores. “She made a very strong pitch.”

In fairness to Brookins, the south-side site faced strong objections from Alderman Lyle that had nothing to do with personalities. “Freddie’s got a Target in her ward, which is right next to Howard’s ward,” says Wilson. “There wasn’t any way she was going to let Brookins bring in a Wal-Mart that would compete with that Target.” According to Wilson, Lyle built an alliance with other south-side aldermen–Preckwinkle, Hairston, Coleman, and Thomas.

“Part of it was ‘Let’s show Howard,'” says the northwest-side alderman. “Part of it was ‘Hell no, we can’t have a Wal-Mart going up against Freddrenna’s Target.’ Then it got silly. Toni [Preckwinkle] didn’t want to vote against Emma, but she didn’t want to vote for Wal-Mart. So she found some reason to be not present when Emma’s vote came up. That way she can tell Emma, ‘Hey, I didn’t vote against you,’ and she can tell her constituents, ‘Hey, I didn’t vote for Wal-Mart.'”

Whatever happened to the traditionally prounion lakefront liberals?

“You’re talking to the last of the breed,” says Moore, who represents Rogers Park. “Get over it. They don’t exist anymore–at least not in the 42nd, 43rd, or 44th wards.”

In the 60s and 70s politicians from the north lakefront wards could be relied on to vote with unions on issues of jobs and wages. But aldermen Tom Tunney (44th), Vi Daley (43rd), and Burt Natarus (42nd) lined up with Wal-Mart, even though the unions begged them not to. Moore says, “They think like yuppies–‘Wal-Mart’s not going to hurt my neighborhood. What the hell do I care?'”

For what it’s worth, the anti-Wal-Mart factions found more support from old machine guys such as Pat O’Connor (40th), Pat Levar (45th), and Tom Allen (38th) in the wards west of the lakefront.

So is the south-side Wal-Mart dead?

No. The proposal was sent back to the zoning committee, where chairman Banks can bury it if he chooses. Or the mayor could tie it to some sort of nonbinding resolution that calls, say, for Wal-Mart to pay its employees a decent wage. By voting for such a resolution, aldermen would have the symbolic cover they need to reverse their previous vote.

Or the matter could turn into another showdown in which each aldermanic vote is crucial. Given that Wal-Mart needs only one more vote to win, who would cast it?

The best bet is Daley’s most obedient council acolyte, 25th Ward alderman Danny Solis. On May 26th he voted for the west-side Wal-Mart but wasn’t present for the south-side vote. “Danny told us he had a plane to catch,” says the northwest-side alderman. “We’re all laughing over that one–it’s the biggest vote of the year and Danny’s got a plane reservation. He probably figured, ‘Hell, I don’t know how to vote. I’m outta here.’ Personally, I hope we have a 25-25 deadlock, which means Daley’s got to break the tie. You know Daley doesn’t want any part of that. He’ll be hopping on that next plane outta town with Danny.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/AP–Wide World Photos.