By Mari Cohen
On May 20, Lori Lightfoot was the first Black woman to be sworn in as Chicago’s mayor, and, for the first time in eight years, someone other than Rahm Emanuel holds the city’s executive seat. Much of what Lightfoot will be able to do in that seat will be determined in a key City Council meeting that’s planned for May 29. That’s when the new City Council sets the rules of order and approves committee appointments that will last for their four-year terms.
The mayor’s official duties, as set out by the City Clerk, include presiding over City Council meetings; submitting legislative proposals and recommendations to the City Council; submitting the city’s annual budget; appointing people to various city positions, including department commissioners, officers, and members of boards and commissions; vetoing legislation; and casting tie-breaking votes in City Council.
In terms of official structure, Chicago is considered a “weak mayor” city when compared to other cities, says Larry Bennett, emeritus professor of political science at DePaul University. That’s because the City Council has certain powers, including voting on the budget that Chicago is required to pass each year and approving certain administrative appointments, that it can use as leverage against the mayor. But despite what’s on paper, Chicago mayors have historically exercised significant authority in practice by working the political system.
“Structure makes the mayor weak, politics make the mayor strong,” says Bennett.
Politicians’ balance of power
Under the strongman administrations of Richard J. Daley, Richard M. Daley and Emanuel, the mayor controlled the content of the resolution laying out the Council’s structure, according to Dick Simpson, a former alderman and University of Illinois Chicago professor of political science. (Simpson endorsed Lightfoot in the mayoral battle.) This includes appointments of members and chairmen to the City Council’s 16 standing committees on various topics, where legislation is referred after it’s introduced. These chairmanships are attractive to aldermen because they come with funding to hire committee staff, who sometimes also work on an alderman's ward-specific matters unrelated to committee activities.
This allows mayors to cut deals with aldermen in return for giving them prestigious appointments. Noah Moskowitz, a community organizer on housing issues for progressive group ONE Northside, says Emanuel’s significant power made it hard to advocate for ONE Northside’s issues on the City Council, since Emanuel usually opposed the group’s agenda. In one specific example, Joe Moore—the recently ousted longtime 49th Ward alderman—initially cosponsored the Keeping the Promise ordinance, a plan to better hold the Chicago Housing Authority accountable to using its surplus funds for building more public housing; the plan was supported by ONE Northside and other housing advocates. But once Emanuel appointed Moore as chair of the Housing and Real Estate Committee in 2015, Moore switched to opposing the bill, holding up its progress.
Furthermore, while aldermen and the mayor have the power to introduce legislation, a ProPublica Illinois analysis earlier this year found that, under Emanuel, aldermen overwhelmingly tended to introduce legislation only related to issues in their own wards, such as building permits or parking meter hours. The mayor, meanwhile, introduced the majority of citywide legislation.
Moskowitz says his group is now feeling “optimistic” with a new mayor in office who has pledged to increase affordable housing, including through amending the city’s Affordability Requirements Ordinance.
The Sun-Times reported last week on Lightfoot’s choices for committee chairmen and other council positions, including Progressive Caucus Chair Scott Waguespack to lead the finance committee and Gilbert Villegas as floor leader. She needs 26 votes to pass the legislation. Because Lightfoot campaigned as a political outsider angling to disrupt what she described as the corrupt status quo, she might have some more trouble wrangling the City Council than mayors past. Veteran aldermen who lost committee leader slots, like Anthony Beale, have previously threatened to rally votes to organize their own committee structure if Lightfoot elevates outsiders like Waguespack.
Lightfoot’s clashes with the old guard of the City Council illustrate a particular irony: She campaigned on the promise to usher in a different type of government than her predecessors, but to get anything done, she may have to act like them.
“One of the problems with city government was that the mayor dominated the City Council,” says Bennett, the DePaul political science professor. “We have a new mayor coming in attempting to restructure the city order, and in order to do that she has to behave like a power political figure.”
The last time that City Council members defied the mayor and organized themselves was during the Council Wars of the 1980s, when a group of 29 aldermen opposed to the administration of Harold Washington (the city’s first Black mayor). According to Bennett, Washington’s administration is the only time in recent history when the City Council used its full power, including threatening to block budgets and appointments, to push back against the mayor.
“My general sense is that neither the aldermen, the mayor or the city have the appetite to go through that again,” says Simpson.
How your voice is heard in government
Beyond what happens with the Council, Lightfoot will have opportunities to appoint members to over 100 city boards and commissions, from the Animal Care and Control Commission to the Board of Education to the Zoning Board of Appeals. She’ll also be able to fire or hire heads of city departments like the Chicago Police Department, Chicago Park District and Chicago Public Schools. In some cases, the municipal code or relevant state law doesn’t give the mayor explicit power over appointing a new head and requires approval of the relevant city board or the City Council. But since the mayor appoints people to the boards, the mayor has a lot of power over who is chosen and who is terminated.
The leader of each board and commission can set the tone for how the public can interact with policies under consideration or influence decisions. For example, Steve Berlin, executive director of the Chicago Board of Ethics encourages residents to attend meetings, posts documents on Twitter for public discussion and enforces transparency rules. Other leaders have been known to cut public comment time short, neglect to post meeting agendas and minutes and hold meetings without a quorum.
While some agency and department heads will undoubtedly change under Lightfoot, others may stay on. “There is not a tradition of moving everybody out when a new administration comes in,” says Bennett. But, he adds, “We haven’t had many changes in administration.” So far, Lightfoot has announced she plans to keep several of Emanuel’s agency heads, including his police superintendent, Chicago Public Schools CEO, Chicago Housing Authority CEO and Park District commissioner.
Commissioners serve set terms as laid out in the city’s municipal code, and the mayor can reappoint or replace them when the term is up. Some positions require City Council approval. Some Emanuel appointments have expiration dates in late 2023 or 2024 beyond Lightfoot’s first term, but many will expire during her tenure. At the end of May, for example, all 11 members of the Community Development Advisory Committee will see their terms expire. Yet even when terms haven’t yet expired, mayors can often exert their influence to get board members to step down, paving the way for new appointees. On Wednesday, the seven members of the Board of Education announced they would resign, even though three of them have terms that don’t expire until 2022. Lightfoot has pushed for at least a partially elected school board, but until state law makes that a reality, she’ll have the power to appoint the board’s new members.
Richard J. Daley exerted control over his appointed commissioners—usually people with Democratic Party positions or civic notables—by marshaling the power of the political machine in its heyday. “If it was one of these people was part of the Democratic organization, if he or she ran afoul of mayor Daley they were going to suffer some consequences, cuts to spending in their ward, something like that. Or if it was one of these civic figures, these people didn’t have much capacity to push back against Daley,” Bennett says. Now that the city no longer operates as a machine akin to Daley’s, mayors have to use different tools to keep officials in line.
“People who got appointed to those boards, they might get an angry phone call from Rahm Emanuel, but he couldn’t really pull the rug out from under them,” Bennett says. “It’s a subtle shift from authoritarian to something that’s more like strong influence and persuasion.”
Policies that affect you
The board members appointed by the mayor have significant power to shape city policy. For example, last year, the Board of Education approved the closing of four Englewood high schools amid significant opposition from Englewood activists and the Chicago Teachers Union. The plan was created and modified by CPS staff (also headed by a mayor-appointed CEO), but required ultimate approval by the board. Emanuel’s appointed Board of Education also approved his 2013 plan to close 50 neighborhood schools.
In addition to voting on school closings, the Board of Education has a number of other powers granted by state law, including setting the district’s budget, purchasing and selling school buildings, approving collective bargaining agreements with district employees, issuing bonds and much more.
The Police Board, on the other hand, has a narrower range of duties, but is still powerful when it comes to Chicago police accountability. The board’s main responsibility is deciding disciplinary cases when the police superintendent proposes firing an officer or suspending an officer for more than a month. The Emanuel-appointed board is currently considering disciplinary charges against four officers involved in the alleged cover-up of the Laquan McDonald shooting. (Lightfoot herself is a former police board president.) In August 2019, three board members’ terms will expire, and Lightfoot can make appointments.
The Police Board is also responsible for selecting new police superintendent candidates for the mayor to pick from. But in practice, there’s latitude for the mayor to bend these rules. In 2016, after firing Garry McCarthy, Emanuel chose to reject the Police Board’s options and pick his own candidate, Eddie Johnson. He got it done by having the City Council vote to temporarily change the rules governing the police superintendent selection process.
After he announced he would not run for another term, Emanuel came under fire for enshrining “golden parachutes”—or generous severance payouts if they are fired—in the contracts of several of his agency chiefs. This means that if Lightfoot chooses to fire and replace the City Colleges Chancellor, Chicago Housing Authority CEO or Chicago Public Schools CEO, it could be costly to the city, which would be liable for giving the departed officials six months to a year’s pay under their contracts, as the Sun-Times reported in January.
One read on Emanuel’s maneuver is that it’s a way to keep the outgoing mayor’s appointees in power even after he’s left office, says Simpson, the former alderman. That strategy, however, isn’t failure-proof: Michael P. Kelly, the Park District commissioner Emanuel appointed in 2011, started his tenure without a contract. When the Park District board ultimately drew one up for Kelly that included a “golden parachute” provision in the months before Emanuel left office, it reportedly drew the mayor’s ire for not clearing it with him in advance, according to the Sun-Times. The Park District board and Kelly ultimately decided to terminate the contract.
Although the Chicago Democratic machine’s old way of organizing people to create “a fair degree of unanimity” is mostly gone, Bennett says, Lightfoot’s administration will still contend with the residual influences from decades of strong-mayor rule.
“The degree to which City Council members have tended to accede to mayors is definitely a byproduct of an old method,” Bennett says. “But what Lori Lightfoot is dealing [with] is much more fluid.”