Catastrophic financial problems and outrage over corruption led to a decade of change in local politics.
Many high-profile, old-school practitioners of the “Chicago way” resigned, were voted out, or went to jail. The biggest names on those lists were Mayor Richard M. Daley, Cook County Assessor Joe Berrios and Gov. Rod Blagojevich.
Changes in the political establishment allowed newcomers to step into the public spotlight — with mixed results — from the growing clout of the Chicago Teachers Union under Karen Lewis to the devastating gridlock that defined Gov. Bruce Rauner’s short political legacy.
Below are 10 of the most consequential political stories that defined Chicago and Illinois over in the 2010s.
10. Lori Lightfoot elected mayor
Lightfoot’s ascension to the fifth floor of City Hall drew national attention: She was not only the first black woman to become Chicago’s chief executive, but also the city’s first openly gay mayor.
Her support from voters was partly fueled by public outrage over political corruption at City Hall. And right as the race for mayor started to heat up, federal authorities raided the offices of the longest serving alderman in Chicago history, Ed Burke, who had a powerful voice within the Cook County Democratic Party.
Lightfoot’s lack of political experience suddenly became an asset, as some of her opponents — like Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle — had their relationships with Burke come under public scrutiny. Lightfoot’s background as a former federal prosecutor and head of the city’s police board also played well with voters, who sent City Hall a clear message when they overwhelming elected her.
9. The feds flexed their subpoenas
In 2019, it seemed like hardly a month went by without federal authorities raiding some politician’s office. One of the bigger fish caught in the FBI’s net is powerful Chicago Ald. Ed Burke, one of the last vestiges of the city's old Democratic machine.
Burke, who is the longest serving member of the City Council, faces a host of federal corruption charges that allege he used his office for his own personal gain. Burke, who denies any wrongdoing, has since found his power diminish on the City Council, where he no longer serves as the chairman of the council’s influential Finance Committee, which oversees city contracts.
Federal authorities have also opened a wide-ranging investigation into utility giant ComEd. WBEZ was the first to report that federal agents are investigating whether ComEd hired multiple politically connected consultants who did little or no work in exchange for electricity-rate increases.
And several figures who have drawn federal scrutiny have strong ties to powerful Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan, the longest serving House speaker in American history. Madigan was named in a federal subpoena, and some of the alleged clout hires at ComEd have ties to Madigan.
8. Political stalemate between Rauner and Democrats
Wealthy businessman Bruce Rauner said he wanted to “shake up” Springfield as he successfully campaigned for governor in 2014. He also said it wouldn’t be easy.
Rauner, a Republican and political newcomer, demanded state lawmakers approve his “Turnaround Agenda,” a list of mostly pro-business measures that the governor said were needed to fix the state’s financial problems, such as how the state was spending more money than it was taking in. Democrats, who controlled the majority in the Illinois House and Senate, refused to approve Rauner’s legislative agenda, saying it would hurt the state’s middle class.
With neither side in agreement, an impasse unfolded over the state’s budget and lasted two years, hurting state colleges and universities, and causing cuts to social service providers for low-income residents. The state’s overdue bills climbed into the billions, and Wall Street ratings agencies threatened to downgrade Illinois’ credit to junk.
Republican lawmakers broke from Rauner and joined Democrats to end the stalemate in 2017. Illinois voters ousted Rauner the next year.
7. Mayor Rahm Emanuel closes nearly 50 schools in 2013
The mayor’s sweeping plan to close an unprecedented number of schools set off months of heated debate and raised concerns that poor and minority communities were being disportionately impacted.
Chicago Public Schools gave many reasons for closing the under-enrolled schools, including a $1 billion budget deficit. Emanuel argued the quality of education would actually improve from the closings, allowing CPS to reinvest saved money into schools and ultimately lead the district to a “brighter future.”
But Chicago students whose schools were closed didn’t benefit academically and their performance suffered on average, particularly in math, according to a 2018 study from the University of Chicago Consortium on School Research.
The closings had another effect: It further galvanized the Chicago Teachers Union to make a power play in the 2015 city elections. CTU President Karen Lewis considered running for mayor but decided to stand aside after being diagnosed with cancer. The union instead backed Jesús “Chuy” Garcia, who dragged Emanuel into the city’s first run-off election.
6. Former Gov. Rod Blagojevich sentenced to 14 years in prison
Federal Judge James Zagel handed down the firm sentence in 2011 as a strong signal that political corruption will not be tolerated in a state where politicians seem to head to prison on a regular basis.
Blagojevich was found guilty on several corruption charges stemming from his attempt to sell or trade a Senate seat that became vacant when Barack Obama headed to the White House. The U.S. attorney at the time, Patrick Fitzgerald, claimed the allegations against Blagojevich were so bad that it would cause Abraham Lincoln to “roll over in his grave.”
The disgraced former governor repeatedly and unsuccessfully tried appealing Zagal’s ruling, going all the way up to the U.S. Supreme Court. President Donald Trump has frequently floated the idea of commute Blagojevich, who was a former Celebrity Apprentice contestant, but Blagojevich remains in prison.
5. Mayor Richard M. Daley exits City Hall
After serving more than 20 years in office and becoming the longest serving mayor in Chicago’s history, Mayor Richard M. Daley made a surprise announcement on Sept. 7, 2010 that he would not seek reelection.
Daley’s decision came after the controversial move to privatize the city’s parking meters for 75 years and the city’ failure to win the 2016 Summer Olympics, which local officials had hoped would help shore up the city’s abysmal finances.
But even with those setbacks, Daley’s retirement from City Hall seemed unthinkable to some political observers, and many of his longtime allies in the City Council also stepped aside.
4. The pension crisis
Illinois and Chicago officials have struggled to get a hold of ballooning pension costs — a crisis decades in the making — and a 2015 ruling from the Illinois Supreme Court gave little wiggle room for solving the problem.
The state’s high court ruled that a state law cutting benefits to public employees was unconstitutional because the benefits are contractual and cannot be “diminished or impaired.” The state justices basically said lawmakers would have to pay up.
With the “let’s cut benefits” option off the table, lawmakers have turned to tax hikes to get a hold of runaway pension costs. In Chicago, Mayor Rahm Emanuel pushed a record property tax hike in 2015 to shore up the city's underfunded police and fire pension systems.
But the overall situation remains dire. A state report this year found that Illinois’ unfunded pension liabilities have reached a historic $137.3 billion.
3. Chicago teachers go on strike in 2012
The Chicago Teachers Union saw its political power grow in the 2010s, and that’s largely in part because of Karen Lewis. Under her watch as president of the Chicago Teachers Union, the city’s public school teachers went on strike for the first time in 25 years in 2012.
Union officials at the time said teachers felt newly elected Mayor Rahm Emanuel had disrespected teachers by successfully pushing state legislation expanding the school day and rescinded a pay raise he had previously promised. Emanuel, meanwhile, said the demonstration was a “strike of choice” and urged teachers to return to classrooms.
The strike ended after seven days with both sides able to claim some victories. Teachers got raises, and the school day was lengthened. But the 2012 strike cemented a rivalry between the union and Emanuel that would last throughout the mayor’s two terms.
2. Chicago’s gun violence
Shootings became a singular issue that defined Chicago to much of the nation and the world. The situation became so bad that 2016 marked the deadliest year in almost two decades, seeing a surge in violence that left 762 people dead.
Homicides steadily declined since 2016, and Chicago has seen about 500 fatal shootings this year, but deadly spats of violence continue to grab national and international headlines.
1. The Laquan McDonald shooting
The deadly police shooting of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald lasted only a few seconds but the fallout continues to this day.
On Oct. 20, 2014, Chicago Police Officer Jason Van Dyke shot McDonald 16 times as McDonald walked in a street with a knife on the Southwest Side. Police officials said McDonald lunged toward Van Dyke, but a police dashboard camera video showed McDonald veering away from officers.
The dramatically different police account, coupled with the city’s refusal to release the police video until a judge’s ruling in 2015, set off allegations of a coverup and citywide protests.
Mayor Rahm Emanuel fired Police Superintendent Garry McCarthy, voters ousted Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez, and the U.S. Department of Justice launched an investigation and found the Chicago Police Department systematically infringed on constitutional rights.
Van Dyke was found guilty this year of second-degree murder and sentenced to nearly seven years in prison . And now a court-appointed monitor oversees the department’s implementation of reforms.
Hunter Clauss is a digital editor who writes the station’s daily newsletter, The Rundown. You can follow him on Twitter at @whuntah.