How long will Emanuel's City Council honeymoon last?

May 16, 2011

Download Story
(Flickr/Mason)

On Monday, Rahm Emanuel - Chicago's next mayor - will be sworn-in. So will the 50 members of the city council. It's the official first date in a relationship that's bound to be tested, especially as the city deals with major budget problems.

Retiring Mayor Richard Daley hated when reporters referred to the city council as a "rubber stamp" for his proposals.

"None of them are a rubber stamp, regardless of what you say," Daley said at a news conference earlier this month. "I worked each and every one of [the aldermen] continually, whether they agreed or disagreed with me on many, many issues."

The "rubber stamp" label is also dismissed by aldermen - even some of Daley's most frequent critics. Sure, they knock him as autocratic and, at times, undemocratic. But they point out the administration did a lot of work behind the scenes to find compromises.

Alderman Leslie Hairston of the 5th Ward thinks the media missed this part of the story.

"Unfortunately, all we see is the day at the council after all the work has been done and there's no acknowledgement to the other work that has been going on before we get to the council floor," Hairston said.

Still, Hairston said Daley came up short on some issues important to her, such as economic development in her South Side ward. And she says she likes some things she's hearing from Emanuel.

In fact, the mayor-elect is coming off a transition that's been nearly free of aldermanic criticism.

He waded into some city council runoffs, spending close to $300,000. Seven of the 10 candidates he endorsed won. Emanuel denied he was just trying to buy a friendly council.

"We don't want a rubber stamp city council, and we don't want council war," Emanuel said in March, shortly after his campaign announced he was forming a political action committee. "I want a council that will part of the reform agenda, and be a partner in that effort."

So, a middle ground between a go along get-along city council like what's existed under Daley, and a council at war with itself, like what happened during the first term of Mayor Harold Washington. But where is that middle ground? Some disagreement, just not angry disagreement?

If you hear Ald. Bob Fioretti of the 2nd Ward explain it, it sounds a touch Kumbaya-ish.

"Working together doesn't mean that you're against each other," Fioretti said. "It's how we all lock arms with all of our citizens to move the city forward."

That all sounds great. But is it actually going to happen?

"I think it will," he said. "I think we're going to see differences disappear, because I think every one of the 50 aldermen that're coming in and the new mayor realize what a financial problem that we have."

But don't expect aldermen to instantly lock arms with the new mayor, and agree on cuts to erase a $587 million budget deficit.

Jason Ervin was appointed in January to represent Chicago's 28th Ward on the far West Side, an area of the city he says has been short-changed in the past.

"I understand you've got to balance the budget, but because so much has gone on and has not happened in the ward that balancing the budget on the backs of the residents of the 28th Ward is not a good thing," Ervin said.

Ervin said he relayed that message directly to the mayor-elect. And how did Emanuel respond?

"Well, I won't way it was overly negative or positive," Ervin recalled. "You know, I understand his position, and I want him to understand mine."

The first responsibility of the new council will be to pick its leaders. Technically, Emanuel has no say in this, but he says he came up with a plan after talking with every alderman. It would shrink the number of council committees.

Alderman Ed Burke of the 14th Ward, who supported an opponent of Emanuel's in the mayoral campaign, keeps his committee but would lose some power, while an Emanuel ally, 40th Ward Ald. Patrick O'Connor, gains influence.

Emanuel's plan also includes a bone for a longtime foe of Mayor Daley's. Alderman Joe Moore, 49th Ward, would chair the Human Relations Committee. Moore never got a committee chairmanship while Daley was in charge, despite serving in the council for 20 years.

"The only committees I chaired were ad-hoc committees that I named myself chairman of," Moore said with a laugh. "But, no. This is the first time I've been a chairman in a city council committee."

Moore sounds excited - giddy, even - about post-Daley politics at City Hall. He said he has chatted with Emanuel four or five times since the election, and said he feels like he's being listened to.

"I think we're dealing with a new paradigm here," Moore said. "The old divisions between...independent aldermen...and machine aldermen...I don't think those divisions really have as much meaning now that we're facing these very difficult issues that don't fall neatly along ideological lines."

This does not mean there won't still be disagreements in the council, still be divisions. Moore just said he thinks the alliances will shift, depending on the issue.