UPDATE: Since this story was first published Aug. 13, two more aldermen — Leslie Hairston, 5th Ward, and Tom Tunney, 44th Ward — announced they too would resign after their terms end. That brings to a total 12 aldermen elected in 2019 who are not seeking re-election in 2023.
With still six months to go before members of the Chicago City Council face voters again, nearly a fifth of its 50 incumbents have already decided for themselves that it’s time to leave.
“It’s 100% personal,” Ald. Michele Smith said of her decision to resign effective Friday. “I’m the youngest in my family group and I’m 67 … And I think if there’s something that pandemic taught all of us is that seeing your friends and family is really important.”
Smith is one of at least 10 aldermen who have either resigned before the end of their term, said they won’t seek reelection next year or are running for mayor instead. Many insist that it’s not part of a larger trend — “it’s not you, City Hall, it’s me.” But while some departures are part of the natural turnover of the council, some have been open about wanting to leave due to the grueling nature of being an elected official during a pandemic, and the current functioning of the City Council itself.
The turnover rate is poised to make Chicago’s city council — a place historically known for the longevity of its aldermen or handing the position over to a family member or political ally — look a lot different in 2023. Candidates can begin collecting signatures to earn a spot on the February ballot later this month, prompting the announcements of new campaigns in what feels like every week.
And major players — such as the Chicago Teachers Union, which helped elect a wave of progressives to the 2019 council — are eying the vacancies as an opportunity to pick up even more power.
“CTU is hopeful that we can have a slate of candidates,” said CTU President Stacy Davis Gates. “We also have members who won’t just want to participate, but who want to be elected to office … so I think it’s quite possible that we’ll see members running in many of the different wards.”
Pandemic, acrimony and democracy
In his initial resignation letter, former Ald. Michael Scott Jr. cited the toll the pandemic took on his family as his reason for stepping away. Scott left in June for a job in the private sector and was later appointed to serve on the Chicago Board of Education.
In an interview with WBEZ, he reiterated the job is oftentimes thankless, like when he tried to give away free turkeys to his constituents.
“If you give away 500 turkeys — which I’ve done — ultimately you have 100 people who come to your office and say, ‘Where are my 100 turkeys?’ and ‘We’re not going to vote for you’ because you didn’t give them a turkey,” he said. “You can’t get everybody’s street repaired, you can’t get everybody’s lights turned on. You can’t get everybody new garbage cans.”
The difficulty of keeping voters happy through constituent services — a core function of a Chicago alderman — worsened during the pandemic due to closures, staffing shortages and transitions to virtual meetings, said UIC political science professor Dick Simpson, who has served on and studied the Chicago City Council.
“It’s been a very stressful time to try and perform the duties of an alderman,” Simpson said. “In addition, some of the aldermen are probably feeling frustrated that they don’t have goals that are being accomplished, or can’t get things done the way they had in mind.”
Some former Chicago aldermen watching the trend from the outside are convinced that’s because of the changing nature of the City Council itself, reminiscing on the days when the body was so-called “rubber-stamped” and you could trade political support for favors in the administration.
“What Mayor Richard J. Daley did was surround himself with 50 aldermen, and he’s in the circle,” said former nine-term alderman Dick Mell. “And all the arrows and slings would hit the aldermen so he could do the big things he wanted to do as the mayor. Now the aldermen all think they’re these great legislators and they’re spending all this time deciding whether Lake Shore Drive should be DuSable Drive.”
Part of the Daley-era council model included Chicago’s infamous practice of patronage hiring, where officials would hand out government jobs in exchange for political work, allowing them to later call on those they hired for favors. Mell proudly said he had a board on election day ranking the top 10 vote-getters, who knew they’d get promotions in exchange for their work.
Take, for instance, the time Mell said he was able to expedite a permit in a single day when a former Chicago Bear walked into his office asking for help.
“I called my good friend down at the housing department and told him the problem that we had and he said, ‘Tell him to come down. Tell him to bring some hats, some balls, that they can autograph. Tell him to come down to city hall and bring his architect.’ ”
The practice of patronage hiring is illegal, and until 2014, Chicago was under a federal consent decree to help root out the corruption it can lead to.
Unlike Mell, though, current aldermen largely hail the fact that the council isn’t a rubber-stamp machine anymore, and has moved toward pushing and debating citywide legislation, saying it makes the body more democratic.
But that shift is not without its problems, particularly under the administration of Mayor Lori Lightfoot, who has proven to be strong-willed but who some blame for what is at times a divisive and chaotic council.
“You have some aldermen that want to make sure they have the ability to legislate, but you have an administration that sometimes blocks legislation and won’t even let it have an up or down vote. And I think they’re frustrated with that, because it is frustrating,” said Ald. Gilbert Villegas, who is running for reelection but only after losing a battle for Congress in June.
Scott, who was one of Lightfoot’s closest allies on the council, points to the fact that 2019 saw a sweeping of seats by newcomers who were elected on the promise of citywide policy reform, but who’ve had a tough time with the Lightfoot administration.
“Right now that there is a hankering by the folks that are leaning left, and because of the relationship that this administration has postured with a lot of aldermen, there’s a desire among aldermen to stand up and be a little bit more independent and less rubber-stamped,” Scott said.
Lightfoot, who ran her 2019 mayoral campaign on curbing unwritten rules that give aldermen unilateral power over their wards, has long defended her tough style and is even making it a cornerstone of her reelection message. When asked about a recent resignation, Lightfoot said she isn’t surprised at the parade of departures during a pandemic.
“This is a moment where I think people are really thinking about ‘how do I want to spend my time?’ ” Lightfoot said last month at an unrelated press conference. “I think we’ll see some others who may also say, ‘It’s time for me to move in a different direction.’ ”
The growing list of departures
In 2023, at least 10 wards will be open to candidates who won’t need to compete against the 2019-elected incumbent.
Three aldermen resigned before their term ended — Patrick Daley Thompson, who was forced to resign after being convicted of federal tax fraud, Scott and Smith.
Lightfoot has replaced or is replacing those aldermen with her appointees — built-in allies that would likely have a leg up if they decide to run for reelection.
Others have announced they’ll forgo the aldermanic election and run for mayor against Lightfoot instead: Alds. Raymond Lopez, 15th Ward; Roderick Sawyer, 6th Ward; and Sophia King, 4th Ward.
Alds. Harry Osterman, 48th Ward, James Cappleman, 46th Ward, and Carrie Austin, 34th Ward — who has been indicted by federal prosecutors — have said they won’t run for reelection. And Ald. George Cardenas, 12th Ward, will likely leave to serve on the Cook County Board of Review. He won June’s primary election for the seat without a Republican challenger. A slew of other aldermen tried to run for higher office but lost their June races.
The number of open seats will be in addition to any incumbents who may lose reelection and any additional resignations in the coming months.
“You think now that the council was kind of wild and things are kind of flipped on their head?” Scott said. “I think it becomes exacerbated in the next term.”
Mariah Woelfel covers Chicago city government at WBEZ. You can follow her at @MariahWoelfel.