How Chicago Aldermen Spend Election Season When They’re The Only Ones On The Ballot

Portraits of Brian Hopkins, Scott Waguespack, Gilbert Villegas and Brendan Reilly
Photo illustration: Paula Friedrich, Images courtesy of City Clerk’s office
Portraits of Brian Hopkins, Scott Waguespack, Gilbert Villegas and Brendan Reilly
Photo illustration: Paula Friedrich, Images courtesy of City Clerk’s office

How Chicago Aldermen Spend Election Season When They’re The Only Ones On The Ballot

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There are 160 people running for one of 50 seats on Chicago’s City Council.

But a handful of incumbent aldermen managed to escape a challenger. There are always some, and this year, four didn’t even have a single person file to run against them: Alds. Brian Hopkins (2nd Ward), Scott Waguespack (32nd Ward), Gilbert Villegas (36th Ward), and Brendan Reilly (42nd Ward).

If you ask them, the aldermen will say they’re running unopposed because they’re great at their jobs. But challengers could’ve also been deterred by how much money some have in their campaign coffers. Or maybe the gerrymandered nature of one ward (the 2nd) prevented hopefuls from stepping forward.Whatever the reason, what does a politician do during election season when he or she has no opponents? WBEZ found out.

Take a vacation

In Chicago, candidates must file petitions with the Board of Election Commissioners by late November. Some declare well before that and make a big show of the stacks of paper they’ve collected on the filing deadline. Others sneak in at the last minute. Incumbents often submit their paperwork unceremoniously.

“When that Monday comes at 5:00, I have somebody down at the Board of Elections and I’m like, ‘Hey, did anyone file?’ And they’re like, ‘No, no one filed. You’re running unopposed,’” Villegas said about this year’s filing deadline.

Villegas said his wife booked them a vacation almost immediately.

“She went right online, secured some tickets, and I went to Puerto Rico for six days,” he said. “During that time I was there, I was constantly on the phone looking at what’s going on because it just didn’t feel right. It’s political season, and I can’t stop.”

Use that campaign cash to beef up city services

All four unchallenged aldermen said that their No. 1 priority, election season or no, is to take care of the people they represent. In Chicago, that means running point on the often-mundane tasks of local government.

“If you drop the ball on those neighborhood services, and the streets don’t get plowed and the alleys don’t get cleaned and the trees don’t get trimmed, the people blame you for that and they are not forgiving,” Hopkins said.

Both he and Reilly represent downtown wards, which they say come with additional demands that the standard staff provided in the city budget doesn’t cover. And so instead of spending on TV ads or campaign mailers, both use campaign cash for government services.

“They’re doing city work, but not on the taxpayer’s dime,” Reilly said.

Watchdog legislation

Ald. Waguespack is unchallenged for the first time since he was elected in 2007. He leads the City Council’s Progressive Reform Caucus and has pushed back on proposals from the mayor many times, particularly on financial deals.

With an outgoing mayor and dozens of aldermen distracted by their own re-election races, Waguespack said somebody has to keep an eye on what he characterized as “sweetheart deals” the mayor is cooking up before he leaves office. He pointed to the $6 billion mega-development known as Lincoln Yards.

Watchdogging could be a tall order in a City Council that’s long had a reputation for being the mayor’s legislative rubber stamp. But Hopkins, who’s supporting the Lincoln Yards project in his ward, insists it’s on his agenda, too.

“Nobody ever wants to be in another parking meter deal where, at the last minute, something is thrown at you and you don’t have time to digest it, and yet we’re at risk of something like that right now,” Hopkins said, referencing the 2008 vote to approve Richard M. Daley’s controversial plan to lease the city’s parking meters to a private company.

Help friends and allies

Waguespack often finds himself as the lone “no” vote or one of just a handful. But in Chicago’s City Council, it’s impossible to influence legislation without allies.

And so, with no challengers to worry about, Waguespack and the others are helping out their friends.

“I’m also going to try to get involved in some of the races as well that I think are important both for Progressive Caucus members — like Toni Foulkes (16th Ward) and John Arena (45th Ward) — to make sure those people are back at the table because they’ve been important pieces of pushing back on the corruption and the waste,” Waguespack said.

After his short Puerto Rican vacation, Villegas has channelled some of his political energy into growing the Latino Caucus he leads.

Villegas says he has his eye on races where non-Latinos are representing majority Latino wards, as well as the mostly white, wealthy 47th Ward on the North Side. He sent one of his staffers to help candidate Michael Negron.

“I had a campaign manager that was working for me and I saw him at the office, he wasn’t doing much. I said, guess what, you’re going to 47,” Villegas said.

Villegas, Waguespack, and Reilly all said they are still waiting to weigh in on the mayor’s race. Hopkins, on the other hand, hedged his bets by putting some resources toward two different campaigns.

“I assembled all my campaign volunteers and during the nomination process, I gave half of them petitions for (former White House chief of staff) Bill Daley and half of them for (Democratic Illinois Comptroller) Susana Mendoza and I sent them out there,” Hopkins said.

Get a jump start on the next term

Many of the things keeping these unchallenged politicians busy during election season have to do with strengthening their position — both with constituents and their colleagues — for the next term. And all four of these incumbents have things they want to get done.

Reilly wants to pass an ordinance that would require live-streaming all City Council committee meetings, which are sparsely attended by the public and aldermen. Hopkins is not just working on Lincoln Yards, but also trying to reduce car jackings and burglaries in his ward. Waguespack wants to slow down or block a generous tax deal for Lincoln Yards. And Villegas is pushing an ordinance to overhaul the city’s parking-related fees and fines.

Villegas said he hasn’t gone completely silent with election-related work in his own ward. Far from it. He’s got get-out-the-vote efforts going, in part so he can deliver better services in the future — and get the new mayor’s attention.

“We need you to exercise (the right to vote) because in turn that makes our ward more powerful,” Villegas said. “It has the ability to hold these elected officials more accountable in saying, ‘Hey, we’re able to turn out 50 percent, 60 percent, 70 percent of the vote either for you or against you.’”

Becky Vevea covers city politics for WBEZ. Follow her @beckyvevea.