CITY HALL — On the day she was inaugurated as Chicago’s 56th mayor, Lori Lightfoot was focused like a laser beam on putting aldermen on notice that she would not flinch from her campaign promise to strip them of the final say on ward-level issues.
During her inaugural address, Lightfoot brought the crowd to their feet when she vowed to put an end to the sense that putting Chicago government and integrity in the same sentence is an oxymoron at best or a joke at worst.
“These practices have gone on here for decades,” Lightfoot said. “This practice breeds corruption. Stopping it isn’t just in the city’s interest. It’s in the City Council’s own interest.”
As the cheers shook the floor at the Wintrust Arena, Lightfoot turned to look at the aldermen, a slight smile on her face, and gestured that they should applaud, too.
Less than two hours later, Lightfoot signed her first an executive order, one that declared an end to aldermanic prerogative. But the basis for the largely unwritten, decades-old practice giving aldermen a veto over ward issues was woven throughout the hundreds of pages of the municipal code that would take much more than a few strokes of a pen to undo.
Precisely six months after Lightfoot took office and became Chicago’s first black and openly gay female mayor, progress on her central campaign promises to root out aldermanic prerogative has advanced only in fits and starts, pushed to the back burner by three massive crises: the city’s gargantuan budget shortfall, a teachers’ strike that lasted 11 days and the resignation of Chicago Police Supt. Eddie Johnson, who is under investigation.
In an interview with The Daily Line about her signature campaign promise, Lightfoot said she was confident her push was already paying dividends despite what she called a “concerted” but so far unsuccessful effort to thwart her efforts.
“We are still on a point where there is a lot of resistance to change,” Lightfoot said. “But I relish the challenge.”
Dismissing questions about her turbulent first months in office, Lightfoot said she had always planned to make incremental changes and move slowly to allow aldermen to adjust to what Lightfoot said was a “dramatic” change.
But changes must be made to the zoning code, Lightfoot said.
The zoning code is the ultimately authority on what can be built on each street in Chicago. The code, which runs to hundreds of pages, is designed to set rules for developers and builders — while allowing city officials to reject requests for changes that they decide are a bad fit for neighborhoods or could hurt property values.
“We cannot have 50 sets of rules,” Lightfoot said, adding that she hears complaints from the business community on a daily basis.
Aldermen exercise their prerogative at every committee meeting and at every council meeting on items ranging from sign permits to liquor licenses. But most of aldermen’s historic clout comes from the fact that they alone have had the power to approve — or veto — proposals such as the one set to be approved Wednesday to allow 100 units of affordable housing to be built on a now-vacant lot in Logan Square. That unwritten code also calls on other aldermen to mind their own business, and vote along with the alderman whose ward includes the project.
Lightfoot said she would “strike the right balance and continue to have dialogue with the aldermen to demonstrate to them that this is not about making them irrelevant, but bringing other voices to the table.”
It is unclear precisely what proposal could strike that delicate balance — and win at least 26 votes from the members of the City Council.
Swirling corruption investigations
Lightfoot’s campaign for mayor was mired in the single-digits on Nov. 29, 2018, when reporters arrived at City Hall to find federal agents ensconced behind the covered windows of Finance Committee Chairman Ald. Ed Burke’s suite of offices.
The raid was the first outward sign of the corruption investigations that would result in a 14-count indictment lodged against Burke. Burke has pleaded not guilty, and is due back in court in January.
Lightfoot wasted no time is shifting her campaign to focus on her promises to clean up city government and root out corruption. Her promise to end aldermanic prerogative was front and center as her poll numbers rose.
Lightfoot finished first in the first round of voting Feb. 26 — and demolished Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle in the runoff, taking nearly 75 percent of the vote and winning every ward.
Burke is charged with repeatedly — and brazenly — using his powerful position at City Hall to force those doing business with the city to hire his private law firm by exercising his aldermanic veto over a host of issues, including a city subsidy for the redevelopment of the Old Post Office and a permit for the renovation of a Burger King in his Southwest Side ward.
But most of the recent activity by federal agents has been focused on state lawmakers, shifting the media’s spotlight from City Hall to the Illinois Capitol — and taking the pressure off the City Council to make more substantive changes, Lightfoot said.
“There are those who think the angel of death is passing them by, but I don’t believe that to be true,” Lightfoot said. “I think that the depths of the investigation are not well known yet. I think it will come back and hit City Council. My sense is that we have not seen the bottom or even the middle of the iceberg. We’ve only seen the tip.”
First licenses and permits, then zoning
The biggest impact of Lightfoot’s executive order was felt in the city’s Planning and Development and Housing departments, which issue the lion’s share of city permits, according to a report from the mayor’s office detailing the results of an “exhaustive investigation” timed for the mayor’s 60th day in office.
But the mayor’s office acknowledged that the executive order did not come close to striking at the heart of aldermanic power — the city’s Zoning Code. Six months into her term, detailed changes to the way the city permits — or rejects — new developments have yet to materialize.
Lightfoot had been in office for less than a month when consternation over her effort to end aldermanic prerogative hijacked what would be the first in a series of unrelated committee hearings and delayed several initiatives and appointments by the mayor.
Ald. Patrick Daley Thompson, the 11th Ward alderman whose grandfather and uncle presided over a City Hall and used aldermanic prerogative to build a loyal City Council that marched in lock step with their priorities, set the tone June 11 for months of complaints.
“My residents do not want some bureaucrat to make a decision about their community that they don’t know anything about,” Daley Thompson said. “It has to be two-way.”
With a few notable exceptions, aldermanic opposition to Lightfoot’s effort to roll back aldermanic prerogative has steadily thrummed behind the scenes at City Hall — flaring into public view only occasionally as the big fight looms on the horizon.
Those fights delayed an appointment of an alternate member of the city’s Zoning Board of Appeals as well as a proposal to preserve affordable housing in rapidly gentrifying neighborhoods by 30 days, among other ward-level issues. However, a dispute in September over whether aldermen had approved the sale of dozens of properties as part of city’s Large Lots programs has kept that proposal in limbo.
“Eventually we are going to get to the 800-pound gorilla, which is zoning,” said Ald. Brian Hopkins (2nd). “I actually thought that the City Council would’ve put up more resistance to the mayor’s executive order. We all seem to have accepted that.”
Ald. Raymond Lopez (15th) — who has emerged as the mayor’s most outspoken critic, said the mayor had been smart to put off a “full-on assault” that would have triggered the “rebellion that everyone has been waiting for.”
While aldermanic prerogative might seem like an esoteric aspect of city government of interest to only the most devoted of political junkies, its implications have had real world impacts, Lightfoot has said repeatedly since taking office.
During the mayor’s Nov. 5 speech to the Better Government Association, Lightfoot earned her biggest applause when she denounced the practice.
Aldermanic prerogative has been “a tool that for generations had been used by the powerful to build a system that excludes, disinvests and isolates working people,” Lightfoot said.
In fact, the city’s tradition of giving aldermen the final say over housing developments in their wards has created a hyper-segregated city rife with racism and gentrification, according to a federal civil rights complaint filed against the city.
The lawsuit was prompted by the City Council’s decision to defer to Ald. Anthony Napolitano (41st) and reject plans for a seven-story, 297-unit luxury apartment complex near the Cumberland CTA Blue Line station that would have included 30 units set aside for low- and moderate-income Chicagoans.
The complaint asks the city to craft a plan to build affordable housing throughout the city — not just in Black and Latino wards — and to end aldermen’s veto power over developments that include affordable housing.
To bolster their request, an 11-member coalition of community groups released a report in September documenting the impact of aldermanic prerogative on Chicago’s 77 community areas.
“The unchecked and unwritten code of aldermanic prerogative has served as the sentry of Chicago’s color lines and has detrimentally shaped the city’s neighborhoods over time resulting in: a reduction of land area available for multifamily development, the consequential rising rents and loss of population, and vast disparities in community investment by race,” according to the report.
The nonpartisan budget watchdog Civic Federation has also praised Lightfoot’s push to end aldermanic prerogative, saying reforms will increase public trust in government.
The city needs a “rational” comprehensive economic development plan and a comprehensive land use plan that ensures all wards can take advantage of resources now targeted at Downtown neighborhoods, Lightfoot said.
Under the current system, aldermen are left on their own to try to navigate the system regardless of their areas of expertise, Lightfoot said.
However, supporters of aldermanic prerogative tout it as the best way to ensure that Chicago residents live in neighborhoods governed by one of their own: someone who lives near them, understands their issues and is not only accessible — but also accountable to them on Election Day.
Ald. Brendan Reilly (42nd) summed up the defense of aldermanic prerogative amid a debate over a proposal from Lightfoot that would no longer require the City Council to pass an ordinance issuing a permit for a sign in the public way. Instead, Lightfoot said the Department of Business Affairs and Consumer Protection should have authority to issue the permit after consulting with the alderman of the ward.
That could lead to an electronic message sign shining directly into a home, Reilly said, noting that aldermen will be the ones to field the complaints.
“There is no guarantee that a nameless, faceless bureaucrat won’t make a bad decision,” Reilly said.
Lightfoot said those remarks were an example of the “overdramatization” of opposition to her effort to roll back aldermanic prerogative.
The mayor said her team held several briefings for aldermen to ensure they knew about the change and how it would work, and scoffed at the expressions of surprise from several aldermen about the proposal.
“Nothing gets to committee under my administration that hasn’t been vetted 20 ways from Sunday with all the relevant stakeholders, including the aldermen,” Lightfoot said. “It is their right and prerogative — pun intended — to disagree but it is not for lack of engagement from our part.”
Lightfoot said that level of consultation is very different than how past mayoral administrations dealt with aldermen.
“I don’t give people marching orders,” Lightfoot said.
Budget fight exposes tension
For months, City Hall observers had expected this fight to climax during the effort to close the $838 million budget shortfall. With no easy solutions on the horizon, many thought Lightfoot would have no choice to ask aldermen to take difficult — and potentially career-threatening — votes to raise a host of taxes and fees after having spent months scaling back their power.
But the City Council is set to take the first of two votes on the $11.65 billion spending plan crafted by Lightfoot on Wednesday, and the mayor is confident that it will pass comfortably. An initial vote is set for Wednesday, and final approval is set for Tuesday.
“Given the enormity of the deficit, it is a pretty easy budget for people to vote on,” Lightfoot said. “They don’t have any hard property taxes or other votes that they will have to defend in an election.”
Lightfoot said her plan was “intentionally” designed not to put aldermen in an “untenable” position, and crafted with their feedback in mind.
That, Lightfoot said, should demonstrate that she and her administration have “exerted themselves” to incorporate feedback from aldermen and work toward solutions that benefit the entire city.
“Has that process been perfect? Probably not,” Lightfoot said. “Are there things that we could do better? For sure. But it is not for lack of trying and effort to engage with them.”
This story was produced as part of the “Lens On Lightfoot” multi-newsroom collaboration between Block Club Chicago, the Better Government Association, The Daily Line, Chalkbeat Chicago, the Chicago Reporter, The Triibe and La Raza. The project is managed by the Institute for Nonprofit News.