Opponent-free aldermen expect big changes in Daley-free council

February 9, 2011

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The Chicago City Council chamber is going to be a different place after May 16th. A new mayor will be joined by 11 or more new aldermen. But familiar faces will remain, their victories a given. We talked with a couple of these opponent-free aldermen about their low-key campaigns, and about the future of the council.

Six aldermen face no challengers. They're on the ballot all by themselves - guaranteed another four years in office. That means Ray Suarez can focus on the big issue this week in his 31st Ward office on the Northwest Side.

SUAREZ: Alma! You can call the lady on George...He went by there again...Now there's a lot of slush there, but I can't help slush.
HUDZIK: Your cell phone's been buzzing. The phones are ringing. I guess this is a busy time for you.
SUAREZ: It's a very busy time. It's a double whammy, as you can say. Because you got this snow storm that came in, this blizzard, and you have elections coming up. I thank God that I'm very fortunate I'll be able to run unopposed this term again.

Suarez has been on the council for almost 20 years, making this his sixth election. It's the third time no other candidates made the ballot against him.

But luck has nothing to do with it, this year at least. A Suarez ally filed petition challenges against four candidates who tried to run against the alderman.

HUDZIK: Your opponents didn't just magically get removed from the ballot?
SUAREZ: Well, my opponents have to meet a criteria that's set my municipal law, and state law. [...] If you're going to be an elected official and have that privilege of represent people, how can you set the example, and how can you create laws, and then you break them yourself?

Suarez says with or without an opponent, he provides great service to his constituents, who approach him to talk about their problems all over the ward - even at church.

SUAREZ: And that's fine. Sometimes you say, 'Well, can't you just give me the chance to go worship the lord?' But - listen - people are people, and you have to sometimes understand that sometimes they don't get a chance to see you as much as they'd like to, so when they see you they take the opportunity to do this.

Opposition or not, Suarez is not uninvolved in this election. He's endorsed Gery Chico for mayor. And as of December 31st, Suarez had more than a million dollars in cash and investments in his campaign account. He's recycling signs used in past elections, and will be sending a mailer to voters ahead of February 22nd. He'll win, of course, and then be a part of a city government with more potential for upheaval than any in more than two decades.

SUAREZ: It's going to be a tremendous change. [...] I think that the city council will probably try to make sure that more authority goes on back there way, like it should be.

That may sound like a plea for aldermanic independence, but Suarez is no Daley rebel. Take, for example, the controversial parking meter lease the council okayed a couple years ago. Suarez voted against it in committee, but when it came before the full council, he changed his mind, with a little prodding.

SUAREZ: They asked me to consider voting for it, because it was, you know...
HUDZIK: Who's they? The administration?
SUAREZ: The administration lobbied me, and some of my colleagues lobbied me.
HUDZIK: Do you regret that vote?
SUAREZ: Yes.

O'CONNOR: People need to appreciate that as Daley's time in office is written...

Pat O'Connor is alderman from the 40th Ward.

O'CONNOR: ...they worked a tremendous amount of time to make sure they had consensus on the things they wanted. [...] They worked towards making sure that things passed overwhelmingly, so that they worked from a position of strength.

O'Connor has helped the Daley administration get things through the council. Efforts that've earned him an unofficial title from city hall reporters: "Daley's unofficial floor leader."

O'CONNOR: I'm not telling people they have to vote something. I'm there as a resource to tell them, 'Here's what the current position is, here's what we think the benefits are, and if you'd like to come along with us, we'd appreciate it.'

I sat down with O'Connor this week in his North Side office, a small room with walls covered in photographs, drawings and etchings of John Wayne. There is, of course, a story behind this, and it begins when O'Connor was a newly-wed, his wife was out of town, and some friends came over to his apartment.

O'CONNOR: We had a card game and we had John Wayne in the Betamax. And everybody brought liquor, but by the end of the night it was just bourbon, ginger ale, cards, John Wayne. And we all decided that that's the best that life had to offer at that point.

He was young back them, and was also young - just 28 years old - when he joined the city council after the 1983 election. That's also when Harold Washington won, and the 'Council Wars' began. O'Connor aligned with the white opposition block.

He sees some parallels to today.

O'CONNOR: In 1983, you had a new mayor get elected and you had a large number of the city council that turned over. And you had issues that confronted the city that people thought, 'Oh, how are we ever going to get out of these?'

O'Connor this year is supporting Rahm Emanuel for mayor - and expects him to win - but is making no promise he would serve as Emanuel's unofficial floor leader.

That could be a tough job, regardless of who's mayor.  A handful of other aldermen have promised a more outspoken, combative and independent city council under a new mayor. To them, O'Connor warns of the fine line between independence and obstructionism. The newspaper editorial boards, he points out, have endorsed Emanuel, but also called for more independence from aldermen.

O'CONNOR: Does that mean that if they go against these solutions that these guys have embraced, and endorsed Rahm Emanuel for, are we then obstructionist or are we independent? When Harold was the mayor, we were obstructionist. And so when Rahm is mayor, will we be independent or obstructionist?

For the election this year, O'Connor is not doing much in the way of campaigning for himself. His regular ward fundraisers have continued, he's printing yard signs. Though, like Suarez, O'Connor is unopposed this year. Actually, he hasn't faced an opponent in an aldermanic race in nearly 20 years.

O'CONNOR: I think if I wasn't doing the job, you know I'd be in the situation where there was 10 or 11 people running for the job. Part of it is people's satisfaction with the job you're doing.

And part of it, O'Connor says, is an assessment of whether you can be beat.

Music Button: Nomo, "Hand and Mouth", from the CD New Tones, (Ubiquity)