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At midterm, Emanuel still cozy with City Council

As Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel hits his midterm Thursday in office, the city’s 50-member City Council is also marking a milestone: two years under a new mayor.

At his May 2011 inauguration, Emanuel promised a new dynamic between Chicago’s famously powerful mayor and the city’s famously compliant City Council.

“We don’t a rubber stamp City Council, we don’t want (a) Council War,” then-mayor-elect Emanuel said in March 2011. “I want a council that will be part of the reform agenda and be a partner in that effort.”

Emanuel has enjoyed near-unanimous support from aldermen on his key agenda issues. But some aldermen criticize his style of dealing with some especially controversial issues, such as a recent amendment to the oft-maligned parking meter privatization contract, and his plan to embark upon the largest round of public school closings in U.S. history.

Still, a recent study from the University of Illinois at Chicago shows the average alderman sided with Emanuel 93 percent of the time on divided roll call votes through February 2013. That’s compared to 88 percent during former Mayor Richard Daley’s last years in office.

And when you ask aldermen what they like about Emanuel’s style, a lot of them point to his regular calls or text messages, whether to chat or discuss policy, as one marked departure from the Daley years that has made dialogue on hot-button issues easier.

“You know, he speaks strongly and carries a big stick,” joked 12th Ward Ald. George Cardenas.

The face of Emanuel’s agenda in the council chamber is longtime North Side Ald. Pat O’Connor (40th). He is Emanuel’s unofficial floor leader – that is, his aldermanic temperature-taker, nose-counter and - when need be - arm-twister.

O’Connor held the same post under Daley, but says his job has been a lot busier since Emanuel took office two years ago.

“We are more engaged with the City Council on a number of fronts than we were previously, in terms of my role,” O’Connor said.

Daley rarely called aldermen directly, but  Emanuel’s hands-on style makes rounding up votes easier, O’Connor said.

Consider a recent City Council meeting, when aldermen took up a controversial plan to change the way the city charges nonprofits and churches for city water. When his proposal looked to be in danger, Emanuel himself huddled with aldermen and religious leaders near the City Council restrooms, seconds before the vote.

In the end, the churches got their reassurance, and every alderman voted yes – even O’Connor, who vocally disagreed with the mayor’s plan.

Still, O’Connor bristles at the phrase “rubber stamp.”

“It’s much better, in my opinion, to find areas where we can agree, and exploit them, and use those areas and try and limit the areas where we don’t agree,” he said.

But University of Illinois at Chicago political scientist Dick Simpson, a former independent alderman who now researches the city government, says the result is a City Council that is even more compliant than it was at the zenith of the Democratic Machine’s power.

“Well, what we ended up with is still a rubber stamp City Council,” Simpson said.

But Simpson says that could change in the second half of Emanuel’s term, as the city faces tough issues.

“Aldermen are being caught between pressures of their communities, and going along with the mayor and having a nice chummy time at City Hall,” Simpson said. “At some point, over some issue, that may fracture the council.”

Heading into his second term, the mayor is already facing several issues that could peel away some of his City Council support.

He’s pushing an amendment to the wildly unpopular parking meter contract, trying to anticipate summer gun violence, and facing the Chicago Public Schools board vote on closing 54 schools next week.

Even some of the mayor’s City Council allies, like 27th Ward Ald. Walter Burnett, say they sometimes don’t feel listened to, especially over school closings.

“Sometimes when you go toward that target, and you just focusing, you miss all of the things on the side and in the back of you,” Burnett said, referring to Emanuel’s pursuit of school closings despite community opposition.

Simpson says the mayor will tweak his agenda if aldermen make enough noise, as they did about his initial proposal to cut library hours and his changes to protest ordinances leading up to last year’s NATO summit.

But Emanuel rarely changes direction entirely on big issues. And when it comes to opposition from everyday Chicagoans, Simpson says don’t expect a phone call.

“He’s not very good at actual democracy,” Simpson said. “He’s not good at asking people what should happen, and building a consensus. He’s good at saying, ‘This is what I did for you this week.’”

Alex Keefe is a political reporter for WBEZ. Follow him @akeefe.

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