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Saturday, November 26

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After the surprising success of the race-based message he used to split aldermen on the Big Box Living Wage fight (Daley insisted that the unions suddenly wanted to restrict business when jobs were being created in black neighborhoods), the Mayor may have seen a real opportunity to take the early initiative in dealing with a potentially volatile and obnoxiously independent City Council. The manufactured brouhaha over the relocation of the Children's Museum from Navy Pier to the Bicentennial Plaza area of Grant Park has taken on an ugly racial element thanks to Mayor Daley asking if the people who live near that part of the park (no doubt primarily white and universally well-off) are afraid of having black, Latino or poor (or worse, poor Latino and poor black) children coming into their neighborhood. Is he right? I have no doubt that there are some individuals who hold those prejudices. Is it fair to make that accusation generally? Absolutely not, and it stinks of a political calculation.

Alderman Brendan Reilly was handed the relocation crisis after defeating gajillion year incumbent Burton Natarus, who had a deal in place to block it. According to his interview with Sun-Times columnist Mark Brown, Natarus had come to some kind of at least temporary agreement over the matter. Reilly, who seems to have the political sense to see how a non-issue can quickly inflate to a local scandal, held numerous town-hall style meetings about the issue, to get all the possible views on the issue and demonstrate his due diligence. The Mayor has countered by saying he will take the necessary zoning change to the full Council, thereby going against the tradition of "aldermanic prerogative" when it comes to zoning matters.

Oh, our own little nuclear option. "Aldermanic prerogative" is the third rail of our City Council, the tradition that helps the city run well on the one hand, but keeps it under the thumb of the Mayor on the other. The "aldermanic prerogative" primarily applies to land-use issues like zoning and permitting, which are the most obvious ways an alderman "administers" his or her ward. But it also applies to pretty much anything going on in a ward. The rest of the Council defers to the alderman's choice, with the understanding that when the shoe is on the other foot — or the mega-retailer is in the other ward — the first alderman reciprocates. It reinforces a system of 50 "mini-executives" rather than 50 legislators acting as a check to the Mayor. The massive funds controlled by the executive branch via "Special Service Areas" (TIF districts), effectively denying our legislative branch much of their power of the purse, amplify the problem.

So what will Alderman do? Mayor Daley has created a perfect irrelevancy, all by conjuring the race genie. Reilly is one of a crew of new aldermen who may be biding their time to see where power gravitates if the Mayor's power is, truly, on the wane. Not since the Mayor tamed the Council in the early '90s has there been the potential for an independent bloc and truly independent legislature. The ember of opposition has slowly burned primarily among some of the Council's African-American membership, supported in cases by liberal white and Latino colleagues. By injecting race here, can he create an issue to ensure a split?

It can become an even more vile split if indeed it goes after aldermanic prerogative. Will aldermen, so swept up in a racial argument, vote against Reilly, despite the tradition? And what kind of tension will that create? If Daley's gamble is correct and African-American and Latino aldermen are more likely to take his side due to his argument, what will that mean for the chances of an independent bloc coalescing? Here's something else: given the fact that the Mayor has personally appointed no less than a third of the sitting council, and that practically a supermajority of them owe him their jobs, could his threatening of the aldermanic privilege be a warning shot to potential upstarts that he has no qualms about snatching that prerogative away from them, thus leaving their wards open to whatever development or changes the Mayor sees fit?

Progressives — like me and many others — are pinned, too. Surely, opposition to a children's museum for racial or class reasons is deplorable, and we don't want to defend the right of neighborhoods to just lock out anything they deem "un-pretty." (As someone who grew up in Bridgeport, the Mayor has some idea of what attitudes like that can lead to.) At the same time, our good government instincts — you know, "the people must rule," — buck at the idea of a stacked Council making decisions as a proxy for mayoral fiat over the wishes of aldermen, who often have the best idea of what residents want. There's no easy solution, which is kind of the point. In case you didn't glean this at any point over the last 18 years, Richard Michael Daley is very, very smart.

Reilly, for his part, is insisting there is no racial element to it, that it has to do with the tradition of keeping the lakefront free of further development. The residents howl about traffic, like residents always do. The Children's Museum expansion languishes. And the winner is?

I'll let you answer that.

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Eric Allix Rogers / September 30, 2007 1:08 PM

I'd contend that the winner is the park. It's not merely tradition that is opposed to construction in the park - it's the law!

Your broader framing of the question is interesting all by itself, though. It's difficult to see exactly where power lies at the moment. The 2007 aldermanic elections, which I've been studying, make it evident that support from Daley doesn't go very far in helping incumbents win re-election, though. Perhaps he is trying to assert a new power by killing off the aldermanic prerogative arrangement. But if he does that, there is some chance that the council, rather than roll over, might ultimately start to put up all the roadblocks to executive wishes that a normal legislature would.


About the Author(s)

Ramsin Canon studies and works in politics in Chicago. If you have a tip, a borderline illegal leak, or a story that needs to be told, contact him at

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