News & Politics » Ben Joravsky on Politics

Forget separation of powers: In Chicago, the mayor effectively appoints City Council committee chairs

But for aldermen, the appointments are a mixed blessing.


Howard Brookins Jr. is the latest alderman stuck with the thankless job of education committee chair. - BRIAN JACKSON/SUN-TIMES MEDIA
  • Brian Jackson/Sun-Times Media
  • Howard Brookins Jr. is the latest alderman stuck with the thankless job of education committee chair.

Over the years I've grown accustomed to all sorts of fantastical press releases coming from the mayor's office as Mayor Emanuel takes credit for things he had nothing to do with—like new businesses moving to Chicago.

But the mayor hit a new high—or low—with last week's claim that he'd effectively overturned the Founding Fathers on the central underpinning of our democracy: the separation of powers.

"On Monday, Mayor Emanuel named three aldermen to committee chairmanships," the press release read. "Alderman Howard Brookins will become education chairman, while Alderman Joe Moreno will take over as Economic and Technology chairman. Finally, Alderman Pat Dowell will chair the Human Relations committee."

OK, Mr. Mayor. Clearly you weren't paying attention to your social studies teachers back at good ol' New Trier high.

You may get to give nicknames to your school appointees—remember JC and B3? But the mayor doesn't have statutory power to appoint committee chairs. That's the council's job.

Of course, I can understand the mayor's confusion. In Chicago democracy doesn't really work like the Founding Fathers envisioned it—as this latest game of musical committee chairs shows.

This all started in February, when Fourth Ward alderman Will Burns took a job as director of midwest policy for Airbnb.

Before leaving the council, Burns chaired its education committee. That's a rather thankless task for many reasons, starting with the fact that the committee has no real power—it's the Board of Education, not the City Council, that approves school matters.

The education committee does hold symbolic significance, because it can be used as a venue for hearings on the three most pressing educational issues of the day: Can the city afford more charter schools? Should the mayor dip into his billion-dollar tax increment financing slush fund to help bail out CPS? And should we move from a mayoralty appointed school board to an elected one?

The public, by and large, would answer these questions: No, yes, and yes.

Whereas Mayor Emanuel answers them: Yes, no, no.

Burns's chief task as committee chair was to bury any attempt to hold a hearing on these issues, one that would show the mayor doesn't give a hoot about what most Chicagoans think.

In February, Burns effectively said the hell with this BS and took the gig with Airbnb. (The general consensus of many of his old councilmates is that Burns will make so much money in his new job that eventually he'll be telling Mayor Rahm what to do, and not the other way around.)

If this were Congress, Burns's education committee chair vacancy would be filled after much wheeling and dealing among D.C.'s political powerhouses.

This being Chicago, it means that the mayor doles out the chairs as rewards to his favorite aldermen—like TIFs to developers.

Independent aldermen—like, say, Scott Waguespack—never get to be committee chairs. No matter how smart or savvy they may be.

There are several advantages to chairing a council committee. This does not include being a legislative gatekeeper, as you might expect. But you do get to hire a staffer or two. Plus, you get to hold the gavel at committee meetings and pretend you're the mayor.

Hey, a lot of aldermen would sell their souls for less.

In Chicago, democracy doesn’t work the way the Founding Fathers envisioned it.


On the other hand, you run the risk of looking like a flunky as you bow to the mayor's every command, putting forward or holding back key pieces of legislation.

The education committee chair had fallen into such low esteem that Emanuel had a hard time convincing anyone to take it after Burns left—especially after he made it clear that he would not, under any circumstances, tolerate hearings on charters, an elected school board, or TIF slush.

Alderman Brookins says he accepted the gig after several aldermen practically begged him to take it.

Brookins had been chair of the economic and technology committee. By moving to education, he gave the mayor another vacancy to fill.

Among aldermen, the tech chair is viewed as an easy gig. It's low profile, and if you play it right you can get the hookup with rich, high-tech companies.

So if push comes to shove, an alderman in that seat can make a Burns-like escape to greener pastures.

With Moreno replacing Brookins at tech, that left a vacancy for chair of the human relations committee, which Moreno used to head.

OK, stay with me, readers—things are going to get a little complicated.

In 2012, the human relations committee had its brush with fame when its previous chairman, Alderman Joe Moore, agreed to hold hearings on, yes, a citywide referendum on an elected school board.

School activists had turned to Moore because 17th Ward alderman Latasha Thomas, who then chaired the education committee, refused to hold the hearings herself.

Thomas didn't run for reelection last year, in part because residents were upset with her for burying the hearings.

Moore agreed to hold the elected school board hearings and then backed off under heavy pressure from the mayor.

Don't cry for Moore—he landed on his feet.

He now chairs the housing committee, which approves every land transaction the city makes. For the housing chair, that means a potential gold mine of campaign contributions from developers and real estate lawyers.

Not that these contributions did much good for Alderman Ray Suarez, who chaired housing before Moore. Last year, Suarez was defeated, largely for being too close to the mayor.

So you might say that committee chairmen are stuck between a rock and Rahm.

Or as one aldermen put it: "You either piss off the public or piss off the mayor."

Brookins predicts Emanuel will drop his opposition to an elected school board—probably after the mayor devises a face-saving way to make it look like it was his idea all along.

"I believe there will be a time when we have an elected board," Brookins says.

Hey, alderman: Do everyone a favor and schedule a hearing real soon. If nothing else, it'll be entertaining to watch Mayor Rahm blow his stack. v

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