Last week in the City Council 28th Ward alderman Ed Smith made a plea for unity–a simple request, but one that exposed a new fault line in local politics. “We should not allow this ordinance to be so divisive that it takes years to get over it,” he said during the big-box minimum-wage debate. “This issue has caused some people to feel bad and not want to work together.”

The idea that some council members might not want to work together is almost shocking, given that Mayor Daley has long been able to pass one initiative after another with little or no debate. It wasn’t always that way. Until the mid-90s he frequently had to fight off a group of black aldermen, along with a couple of white and Latino independents, who didn’t agree with his agenda. But eventually he quelled the opposition by letting aldermen take over the delivery of certain services and public-works projects in their wards in return for yielding control of city policy. When aldermen tried to stare him down he enlisted the help of key ministers (and their thousands of congregants) and threatened to dispatch armies of city workers at election time. Some black aldermen grumbled now and then about school reform, city contracts not going to enough minority firms, or the CHA’s Plan for Transformation, but there was no organized, sustained resistance.

In early July four top Daley aides were found guilty of rewarding political workers with jobs and promotions, and with the spotlight on patronage, it’s no longer clear that the mayor will have an army to mobilize in February’s municipal elections. He also might not be able to make the same demands of council members or offer them the same protection. Aldermen seemed to be testing that theory when they banned foie gras and smoking in public buildings, ignoring Daley’s stated positions and yielding to heavy lobbying by advocates.

Then came the big-box ordinance, which required large retailers like Wal-Mart to pay employees a minimum of $10 an hour plus $3 in benefits by 2010. No one had as much to say about it–or as much at stake–as the council’s 19 black members. Representing some of the city’s most depressed areas, they’re eager to get new development and jobs in their wards, and some had big boxes promising to come in long before the ordinance became an issue. Most are indebted to Daley, and even now none can afford to declare war on him. Yet the debate last week made it clear that at least a handful of them believed they had a little more room to maneuver, and that’s what they intended to do.

During the debate this group of aldermen let it be known that they were tired of being pressured by ministers who answered to Daley, and they seemed to see the union members and community activists who were lobbying in favor of the big-box ordinance as potential new foot soldiers in the upcoming elections–no doubt aware that the union members, who hoped to expand their living-wage campaign, were threatening to work against anyone who didn’t vote for the ordinance. Wal-Mart and Target were threatening to drop plans to build several stores in the city, and Daley warned that aldermen who voted for the law would scare off more employers and throw away jobs and sales-tax revenue. The aldermen came out in support of the ordinance anyway.

This angered other black aldermen, who seemed to feel that they’d played by Daley’s rules for a decade and weren’t about to give up the rewards. They certainly weren’t going to let a coalition of white liberals and African-American apostates mess things up for them. They made up the heart of the opposition to the ordinance.

The line between the two camps wasn’t hard and fast. Some black aldermen stayed quiet during the debate, and others tried to stake out a middle ground. A week earlier, when they chose a replacement for Cook County Board president John Stroger on the November ballot, some had been allies of people who were now in the opposite camp. But that there are camps at all suggests that struggles in the council could become more common and might even signal the reemergence of an independent movement.

It was somewhat surprising to see Ed Smith taking sides. Earnest and nonconfrontational, he’s easy to underestimate. But there he was waving around posters showing that some Wal-Mart employees earn less in a year than the company’s top executives make in an hour. He was nice about his defiance, noting that he’d told his constituents he’d support the ordinance and couldn’t go back on his word. He also tried to head off charges that he’d succumbed to pressure. “I am not an agent for the unions–the unions can carry their own water,” he said. “I am carrying the water for the people I serve.”

William Beavers’s position was less surprising. The Seventh Ward alderman had earlier bluntly dismissed supporters of the ordinance as fools or tools. Now he attacked its chief sponsor, the 49th Ward’s Joe Moore, accusing him of meddling in other people’s business and stirring up trouble on issues he knew nothing about. “Joe Moore is sitting over there thinking he’s a savior,” he said. “Let me tell you about Joe Moore–he voted against affirmative action.”

There was a collective gasp. Beavers was referring to a 2004 ordinance setting new rules for awarding city construction contracts to minority firms. Moore rose and asked Daley, in his role as council president, for a chance to respond. Daley granted the request.

“I voted against that ordinance because it did not include Asians,” Moore said. “It wasn’t expansive enough.”

Beavers laughed. The Third Ward’s Dorothy Tillman mocked Moore, calling out, “Anything he can come up with! Anything!”

Fourth Ward alderman Toni Preckwinkle, Moore’s closest black ally, jumped to her feet. “Mr. President, point of order!” she said. “I ask that we halt the personal attacks.”

Daley pounded the gavel. Beavers sat down, and Tillman momentarily lowered her voice. Neither of them had mentioned that one of their allies in the big-box fight, 50th Ward alderman Berny Stone, voted against the ordinance for the same reason Moore did or that 42nd Ward alderman Burton Natarus, another ally, had voted against it because he thought contracts should be awarded solely on merit.

A few minutes later Shirley Coleman tried to strike a balance. Coleman, whose 16th Ward is one of the most blighted areas of the city, took a moment to thank Daley for his help in building a new campus for Kennedy-King College in her ward. “Mr. Mayor, I will be forever indebted to you,” she said. But she didn’t feel the need to pay the debt back right then. She said she too was there to represent the poor people in her ward, and as a former welfare recipient, she just couldn’t vote against a higher wage for struggling workers: “I say to the big box, it’s your loss if you don’t come into our neighborhood.”

Poor people were also on Tillman’s mind. She decried the astronomical unemployment in black neighborhoods and said organized labor was partly to blame for not getting enough black workers into the trades. Moreover, she said, union workers had encouraged dozens of people to call her office to pressure her to support the ordinance. “They won’t hire our people, but they get them to call me!” she said. “I think it’s suspect.”

Most of the people in the audience were black people wearing union shirts, and they booed Tillman until Daley pounded his gavel. “Let’s be respectful,” he said. “This is not a Sox or a Cubs game.”

Preckwinkle, who has often criticized the Daley administration’s record on minority hiring and was the only member of the council to vote against Daley’s budget last December, coolly rebutted several of Tillman’s points. She said activists from both sides of the big-box debate had been lobbying aldermen–she’d received dozens of calls from opponents–and she noted that while some trade unions had a poor record of inclusiveness, others were dominated by nonwhite workers. She also shrugged off Tillman’s charge that supporters of the ordinance were simply giving in to the union threat to work against them at election time. “This is not a union bill,” she said. “It doesn’t mention unions at all.”

She didn’t persuade 29th Ward alderman Isaac Carothers, who warned of the dangers of clever speech making and outside activists. “This will go down as one of the longest days in the City Council in some time,” he predicted, then proceeded to make it ten minutes longer. He lamented not having more jobs to hand out–“I have people coming to me every single day; I would love to have something for them”–then blasted unions for trying to deny him the ability to offer them jobs at big-box stores. The ordinance, he said, “comes from people who’ve never been in the community, who grew up someplace else, telling us what’s best for us.”

Howard Brookins, alderman of the 21st Ward, also deplored the threats from union and community activists. “We were elected to be leaders,” he said. “Unfortunately we are living in a time when we will be led the wrong way if we listen to the people.”

The audience booed. Daley banged his gavel again and said, “This is not the Cubs and the Sox!”

Brookins went on. “The unions are putting more money into finding people to run against aldermen than they’re putting into finding people jobs,” he said. “The wrong people are driving this bus.”

Fifth Ward alderman Leslie Hairston had been forced to switch camps. She’d defended the ordinance even though Target threatened to pull out of a project in her ward, but then she held a community meeting. “I will vote the way my community told me to vote last night,” she said. “And they told me to vote no.”

None of the ordinance’s supporters was as fiery as Sixth Ward alderman Freddrenna Lyle, and none of them linked the fortunes of the ordinance so closely to broader political trends. She tore into her opponents for suggesting that she’d sided with unions instead of black people. “I was wondering who would play the first race card, and it was the Wal-Mart supporters,” she said. “I think it’s racist that they only trotted out African-American ministers to say this is a bad ordinance. I think it’s racist that you can stop a development on the north side because of a traffic issue–but we’re not supposed to stop one on the south side because they’re paying their workers a lousy wage! Maybe those of us who are working for the ordinance are stooges–of Dr. Martin Luther King!”

The audience cheered, and Daley, looking resigned, banged the gavel.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh, AP Photos/M. Spencer Green.