Rubber Stamp Aldermen: Why Does Chicago City Council Always Vote For What The Mayor Wants?

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Katherine Nagasawa / WBEZ
Aldervote Thumbnail
Katherine Nagasawa / WBEZ

Rubber Stamp Aldermen: Why Does Chicago City Council Always Vote For What The Mayor Wants?

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When I arrived at Ald. Joe Moore’s office to interview him for this story, he was already prepared with a joke.

As soon as I turned on my recorder, he loudly called out to his staffer in the next room:

“Hey Bob, you got my rubber stamp?”

Moore is one of many aldermen who have earned the not-so-endearing title of a “rubber stamp alderman” someone who always supports the mayor’s agenda.

And this political practice is what led Juanita Balark to ask Curious City this question:

Why do aldermen always vote with the mayor?

As a City Hall reporter for WBEZ, I run into this rubber stamp idea often, whether it’s from voters who think aldermen don’t stand up to the mayor, or the aldermen themselves who feel the term isn’t a fair characterization of the work they do.

Legislative bodies are supposed to act as a check on the executive branch. (Remember elementary school?) In fact, Chicago’s city government was actually built to be a strong council, weak mayor system, meaning the power structure is supposed to lean toward the city’s legislative branch.

But that’s not usually how it works in Chicago, and it hasn’t for a very long time.

The 50 members of the current City Council tend to vote with Mayor Rahm Emanuel, giving him enormous power to legislate over most citywide issues without any opposition. But over the last few years, that’s started to change.

Emanuel was forced into a runoff election in 2015, one of the few times in modern history an incumbent mayor did not outright win during the first round of voting. Emanuel emerged from the election politically weaker, says Dick Simpson, a former alderman and political science professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Then, only a few months into his second term, Emanuel faced his greatest political scandal — the police shooting of Laquan McDonald, which put a spotlight on misconduct inside the Chicago Police Department.

Simpson, who studies the City Council’s voting records, says all of these factors combined have made it easier for some aldermen to vote against Emanuel.

Do aldermen always vote with the mayor?

To really answer Juanita’s question, we need to first tackle the “always” part of her inquiry: Do aldermen really vote with the mayor every time?

It’s pretty close.

By Dick Simpson’s count, aldermen cast around 1,000 votes a year, but there are only about 30 times when at least one aldermen votes against the mayor. In fact, Emanuel has never faced a majority of aldermen voting against one of his policies.

But in his latest study, which was released this month, Simpson found that more aldermen have been emboldened to stand up against Emanuel. But don’t expect a golden age of council independence anytime soon.  

“It is still safe to say that the Chicago City Council is a rubber stamp,” Simpson says.

The roots of rubber stamp politics

Simpson says rubber-stamp politics were established under Mayor Richard J. Daley, who took away some of the aldermen’s legislative powers. For example, Simpson says aldermen used to write the city budget themselves, and the mayor would have to submit requests to them. Daley changed things so it now works the other way around.

Daley’s tenure was also the height of political patronage and machine politics. Thousands of people got jobs with the city based on their political clout, and in return, they’d help turn out the vote for the mayor’s allies on the City Council.

Patronage may mostly be a thing of the past, but Simpson says it’s still a big problem that power continues to rest with the mayor.

“All the people around the mayor say, ‘Oh, that’s a great idea, Mr. Mayor! Oh, you can’t be wrong!’ Well, in fact they often are wrong, and you need to have the process of convincing a genuine City Council that this is the best policy and they force you to make changes, which improve the end result for the public,” Simpson says.

There was one time in recent history where a majority of aldermen did rally against the mayor’s agenda: the Council Wars.

In the 1980s, the election of Chicago’s first black mayor, Harold Washington, kicked off years of intense racially-charged fighting at City Hall. Twenty-nine aldermen, almost all of them white, blocked anything Washington proposed, leading to constant gridlock in the City Council.

“Council Wars was not all bad. The racism, the yelling, the screaming — maybe that was bad — but the actual opportunity for people to offer alternative ideas and force compromise that improved the city as a whole was actually a good thing,” Simpson says.  

“We’re like mayors of our respective wards.”

Some aldermen push back on the idea that voting with the mayor is a bad thing, and they say the term “rubber stamp” doesn’t capture the full scope of what it takes to be an alderman.

Ald. Joe Moore (49th Ward), the guy with the rubber stamp joke, almost always votes with the mayor. He says the job of the alderman is in the neighborhood, not creating citywide legislation.

“We’re like executives, we’re like mayors of our respective wards,” Moore says.

Being an alderman comes with a lot of local responsibilities: There are requests for sewer cleaning, tree-trimming, block parties, parking permits, zoning changes, new developments and on and on.

And Moore says getting all that stuff done takes a lot of attention.

“Unlike other cities where aldermen have time and resources to devote to really paying attention to citywide issues, the 50 aldermen in Chicago, we have to pay more attention to the ward issues in order for us to ensure that we get reelected,” Moore says.

Moore says this has led to a custom of aldermen generally supporting the mayor on citywide issues, and in return, the mayor then defers to the aldermen on issues in their wards.

What do aldermen get for publicly supporting the mayor?

Aldermen can also be rewarded for being a public ally of the mayor. He can appoint them to be committee chairs, which means more power and more staff.  Emanuel is also known as a prolific fundraiser, and he or a pro-Emanuel super PAC have helped fund some aldermen’s reelection campaigns.

Many aldermen say they actually do disagree with the mayor, but they express their opposition to the mayor outside of the public eye.

Ald. Walter Burnett Jr. (27th Ward) has also faced criticism for being a rubber stamp. He’s voted with the mayor 97 percent of the time over the past year or so, according to Simpson’s latest report.

Either way, Burnett says people don’t understand that Emanuel is very accessible and open to compromise. Burnett says if he disagrees with the mayor, he tells it to Emanuel straight but in private.

Burnett says during the school closings debates in 2013, the mayor reached out to aldermen for support to merge Jenner and Manierre elementary schools.

“Hell naw. You not gonna put them together,’” Burnett recalls telling the mayor.

Burnett grew up in the neighborhood he now represents, and he says those two schools have deep gang rivalries. Putting them together, he says, would create a bloodbath. Parents were also extremely upset, Burnett says, so he couldn’t back the mayor’s plan.

“I kept riding him on it and riding him on it. Then finally one day, he calls me in and said, ‘Aight man, I’m gonna give you what you want.’ And I said, ‘Thank you!’” Burnett recalls.

What happens if aldermen publicly disagree with the mayor?

Emanuel and his supporters have also spent money against aldermen who are openly critical of the mayor, like Ald. Scott Waguespack (32nd Ward). He leads the Progressive Reform Caucus, a group of aldermen who often disagree with the mayor. They’ve seen their numbers grow in recent years and have led a series of votes against him, especially on issues over transparency.

“I just happen to be one of those who doesn’t feel that you have to vote with the mayor all the time to get things done,” Waguespack says.

Waguespack says many of his colleagues vote with the mayor because they’re afraid of the consequences.

Even some constituents worry about retaliation from the mayor, Waguespack says.  A few years ago, when the potholes were particularly bad, Waguespack says he kept getting calls from his neighbors.

“People were like, ‘Oh, you know if you would stop voting against the mayor, we’d get these potholes filled,’’’ Waguespack recalls. “And I was kinda like, ‘Well, we only got like a few dozen [potholes] in the ward, and the people who vote with the mayor 100 percent of the time, some of their wards look like the moon.’”

Waguespack says his ward gets its trees trimmed and sewers cleaned just like any other ward, so some of this fear is irrational.

And despite the spending against him, Waguespack ended up winning reelection in 2015.

The Progressive Reform Caucus doesn’t have enough members alone to vote down or block the mayor’s proposals, but they’ve recently been teaming up with members of two other blocs the Black Caucus and Latino Caucus on certain issues, like minority contracting.

UIC professor Dick Simpson says the ability of aldermen to vote against the mayor is a good thing for the city.

“We seem to be inching slowly toward being a representative democracy, and I think we should try it in Chicago and see if it works,” he says.

Over the past two years, there have been a few more aldermen who stand up to the mayor. And while the change is small, it shows that the aldermen aren’t as much of a rubber stamp as they used to be although not by much.

Lauren Chooljian covers city politics for WBEZ. Follow her @laurenchooljian.