This story is part of the Re-Imagine Chicago project, a collaboration between the University of Chicago’s Center for Effective Government and WBEZ’s “Reset,” investigating how city government, community investment, public safety and schools could work better.
When considering how best to illustrate the longstanding dynamic between the Chicago mayor and City Council — the legislative body made up of the city’s 50 aldermen — the conversation often comes back to one notorious, sweeping deal struck by Mayor Richard M. Daley back in 2008: the infamous parking meter contract.
The ordinance proposed to lease Chicago’s 36,000 parking meters to private investors for 75 years. In exchange, the city would get a chunk of change — $1.15 billion. Daley pushed the bill through the City Council with little dispute. And now, over a decade later, investors have already made that money back while the price of metered parking continues to go up across the city.
In the years since the bill was first passed, the parking meter scandal has stood as an example of what political experts often call Chicago’s “rubber stamp” City Council. Or, put another way, a City Council of “yes men.”
By charter, Chicago has a “weak mayor” system wherein most of the power lives within the City Council – at least, that’s how it is on paper. But in practice, throughout the city’s history, Chicago’s mayors have had enormous power and political sway — making city government function in essence as if it were a “strong mayor” system.
“I often liken the city of Chicago [to] a feudal system, where the mayor is sort of a de facto king,” former Ald. Joe Moore told WBEZ in 2013. “And each alderman is the lord — I guess, lady, for female aldermen — of their individual fiefdom.”
But is that the best system for our city?
How strong is the mayor?
In Chicago, the mayor operates as the chief executive officer of city government.
This means the mayor directs how the government runs, which includes appointing — and removing — department heads (think: Park or Police Department), running Council meetings, submitting city-level laws (like raising the minimum wage) and holding veto power.
Still, in Chicago, the final say often rests with the City Council, which has to approve proposed budgets and mayoral appointees, and can override the mayor’s veto on an ordinance. But traditionally, Chicago’s mayor has used political influence to push their city-wide agendas through, leaving the aldermen to focus on their own wards.
This is different from how, for example, Phoenix works, with a true “weak” mayor. There is a mayor, but the smaller City Council of eight hires a city manager, who is in charge of managing the day-to-day operations of the city.
The City Council as legislators
Chicago’s City Council, by contrast, is made up of 50 elected city aldermen, each of whom represent a city ward. These wards don’t line up with the same boundaries as ZIP codes, community areas or neighborhoods, but more on that later.
If that number seems high, it is, at least compared to many other big North American cities. For example, in Toronto, Canada, the city’s 3 million residents are represented by 25 city counselors (the Canadian term for aldermen). That means each counselor represents 120,000 people — compared to an average 50,000 residents in Chicago.
The Council is a legislative body, and its duties include introducing and passing laws, approving budgets and key mayoral appointments, and redrawing Chicago’s ward map every decade. An alderman’s first duty is often seen as representing and introducing ordinances that support their wards, not the city as a whole. In theory, the City Council, not unlike the U.S. Congress, is meant to serve a check to the city’s executive branch.
But in practice, the Council functions less like a watchdog body and more like a bunch of individual ward administrators. For example, the Better Government Association found that of more than 75,000 proposed ordinances that went through City Council between 2011 and 2018, less than 10% were focused on the city as a whole.
Aldermen as “mini mayors”
By the nature of this system, which emphasizes local influence over citywide initiatives, aldermen are also tasked with delivering city services to the residents and controlling development in their wards.
For example, if you want to complain that a new drive-thru coffee shop will create too much car traffic, or that the trash isn’t being picked up regularly, you probably call your alderman.
That’s due to the longstanding practice that gives aldermen the final say over zoning, land use and other ordinances that affect their wards — also known as aldermanic privilege. Even though the full City Council must vote to approve zoning changes, in practice, aldermen have traditionally not voted against the wishes of their colleague who represents the ward in question. To some, this system allows members of City Council to respond to communities they serve.
For others, however, it helps drive deep-seated corruption, such as taking bribes in exchange for city contracts or doling out zoning permits to developers who offer campaign contributions. (More than 30 aldermen have been indicted for corruption since 1973.)
Mayor Lori Lightfoot is among the critics, and she talked about it extensively during her campaign. One of her first moves in office was eliminating the need for aldermanic approval of certain city permits — what she called a first step towards limiting aldermanic power. Yet zoning applications — a frequent tool aldermen use to control or limit development they don’t want — unofficially remain under aldermen’s purview. Ultimately, the mayor doesn’t really have the power to change what is essentially a practice fueled by tradition.
How were ward boundaries decided?
The ward system was founded alongside the city of Chicago in 1837. Back then, the city was divided into three districts — North, South and West — with each district having two wards. Over the years, as the city expanded, so did the number of wards and councilmen. By 1923, the number of councilmen reached 50, where it has remained ever since.
Though the number of wards has not changed in nearly 100 years, the shape of the map changes every ten years when new census data is released. This has created a legacy of gerrymandering, or wards being redrawn to serve the political interests of city aldermen.
Take the 14th Ward, where a long, finger shape ensured Ald. Ed Burke would secure enough votes to serve for his 13th consecutive term. Four precincts at the edge of the finger overwhelmingly supported white mayoral candidates and 70% voted for Burke in an otherwise majority-Latino ward.
Another example is the 2nd Ward, which Time Out compared the shape to a lobster and named it “far and away the most gerrymandered in the city.”
The pros of a “strong” mayor
“When we say that ours is a city that works, that’s in no small part due to the fact that we have a strong mayor who then can push forward on initiatives,” says Will Howell, a professor at the University of Chicago’s Harris School of Public Policy.
Take, for example, when former Mayor Rahm Emanuel raised the minimum wage to $12 in 2018. Or, more recently, Lightfoot’s deconversion ordinance, a measure meant to delay further gentrification and displacement in Humboldt Park and Pilsen by charging developers upwards of $15,000 for demolishing residential buildings in the area.
Both were citywide initiatives, pushed through by the mayor’s office, supported by key aldermen — and could’ve taken much longer to pass if not approved by a pliant City Council.
But, there’s a downside to that consolidated power, too.
The political strength of Chicago’s mayors has historically meant that aldermen turn their focus toward the neighborhoods they represent while leaving the mayor to control the citywide agenda, said Dick Simpson, a former alderman and political science professor at University of Illinois-Chicago.
And while that local focus can be positive, it can also create a more balkanized style of governing where aldermen fight for resources rather than work together toward the greater, citywide good. Simpson puts it this way: “The weakness of a strong mayor system is it becomes dictatorial and autocratic.”
This dynamic played out throughout the tenures of Richard M. Daley and Rahm Emanuel, as both men were known to reward aldermen who voted in their favor with development projects, campaign contributions and tapping them to chair Council committees.
Current Mayor Lori Lightfoot has also come under similar criticism, most recently for threatening to cut off Black aldermen who “dared to oppose” her most recent budget proposal.
WBEZ metro reporter Claudia Morell and politics editor Alex Keefe contributed.
Elly Fishman is a freelance writer. Her book “Refugee High: Coming of Age in America” comes out August 10. You can follow her @elly33.