Manifolds, Manolos and Manure
For many of us, Chicago has always consisted of 50 wards and 50 aldermen. I also only remember three mayors: Richard M. Daley, Rahm Emanuel, and Lori Lightfoot.
Recently, I had a little driving to do so I was also catching up on my podcast listening. A little Unsolved Mysteries. A little Daily Punch. And a little CloutCast, a Chicago centered podcast by the Chicago Daily Line. During an episode of the latter, Bill Cameron, a longtime City Hall reporter for WLS, discussed the current Chicago map process and how it stacks up to prior map making.
A quick refresher, after every federal census, legislators are tasked with drawing new boundaries of their legislative districts. The idea is that during the 10 years preceding the federal census, population shifts. People move into an area. People leave. The ethnic and cultural demographics of the area change. New legislative boundaries are designed to reflect these changes. In theory. In practice, legislative boundaries are designed to get people elected. Keep people in office. And maintain a political party’s control.
Cameron’s overview of the council’s once-a-decade map process also examined a time when the city council operated as a community council with six wards, two members each. A time prior to 1923. Chicago’s 50 wards and 50 aldermen is unusual even among large US cities. The theory behind more wards and more aldermen was to promote diversity and representation.
On the other hand, that many people in power may also create a hotbed for corruption. The first conviction of a Chicago aldermen and Cook County Commissioner was in 1869 for accepting bribes to rig a contract. From 1973 to 2012, 31 aldermen were convicted of corruption. During that same time about 100 aldermen served, which equates to a conviction rate of about one-third.
Chicago observers may contend that perhaps part of the prevalence of corruption is due to the expectation of “aldermanic prerogative” or nearly unilateral control over the decisions and services within an alderman’s ward. This unwritten rule gives alderman control over zoning, licensing, contracts, patronage jobs, and even garbage disposal in their ward. You want a city job? See your alderman. Need a liquor license? See your aldermen. Garbage strewn across your yard? See your alderman.
Critics also argue that Chicago’s old school patronage practices of doling out jobs, money, and insider contracts have also led to corruption. Machine politics dictated that job applicants and contractors sought a letter of recommendation from a local party official before they were even considered. With that letter also came a promise of political work and financial support for the party. For the politician and party this process resulted in easy campaign funds and workers. For the public the process led to expensive contracts, a blotted government payroll, and questionable services.
Under previous mayors, both aldermanic prerogative and city jobs were used as tools to move a map forward to approval. Additional items often on the bargaining table include committee appointments, office space, and even big-ticket legislation. An agreement is needed to avoid a citywide referendum where the voters actually get to decide on the ward boundaries. The last referendum was in 1992. According to Alderman Harris that referendum cost taxpayers $20 million, and estimates she’s received from the Budget Office place the cost of a referendum in 2021 double that amount. Candidly, there’s no cost outside of staff and aldermanic time to place a question on the ballot. The only real cost is voter education. Remember that handy blue brochure that landed in your mailbox before the November 2020 election and the progressive income tax? There’s also advertising cost, but this isn’t a taxpayer burden. Coalitions on all sides will raise funds and purchase advertising.
Call me a dreamer but I like the idea of voters approving ward boundaries.