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Even many longtime observers of Chicago politics were taken aback by what happened at the end of last Wednesday's City Council meeting--when the mayor and his aldermanic allies ran roughshod over council precedent in repealing the two-year-old ban on foie gras. Observers of all political dispositions have since said that it may very well set a new tone in the council--one that ends up with the mayor having even more control over the agenda and even less tolerance of dissent than ever before. Skeptics say that it would be all but impossible for the council to be a bigger rubber stamp than it has been under Richard M. Daley.
For an admittedly pointed view of these things, we turned to 49th Ward alderman Joe Moore, who sponsored the foie gras ban and was essentially muzzled during the legislative twists and turns that lead to the ban's repeal.
When did you find out the repeal of the foie gras ban was going to come up Wednesday?
I was always concerned that [44th Ward alderman Tom] Tunney’s ordinance and [50th Ward alderman Berny] Stone’s ordinance were sitting in committee and they could have been brought up for a hearing at any time. And then I’d hear rumors that Alderman Tunney might bring it up on a motion to discharge [a maneuver that would allow a full council vote on it without going to a committee hearing first]. So I asked him for a meeting with [Illinois Restaurant Association president] Sheila O’Grady, since he’s kind of viewed as the association’s guy in the City Council. He said he’d get back to me and never did. So I called him again and he said she didn’t want to meet with me.
They obviously were bent on taking no prisoners. This had very little to do with foie gras. It was about the mayor reasserting his power.
Did you think there was any chance of keeping the ban in place? Did you try to lobby other aldermen about it?
Members of the City Council had been victims of a concerted campaign by special interests to ridicule the ban and insult the council. I could see the writing on the wall—I knew the chances of keeping the ban were minimal. But I was concerned about the process, so I tried to appeal to my colleagues for a hearing on the matter. Except in extraordinary circumstances, there’s a process in place, and things are brought before a committee for a hearing. That’s a fair thing to ask—especially for an ordinance that’s been on the books for two years and originally passed by a 48-1 vote. So my appeal to my colleagues was to at least have a hearing in the committee. I argued to them that they should at least not set a precedent by allowing a member of the council to circumvent [standard] procedure.
What did you hear back?
There was a range of responses. There were some shrugs of the shoulders. Especially among the new members of the council, there wasn’t the realization that this is breaking precedent. Among a lot of them there was a feeling that they just wanted to be done with this issue—and believe me, I understand that.
So what actually happened on the council floor?
The rules of the City Council were completely ignored. First of all, when they brought this up on a motion to discharge, I stood up to be recognized to speak to the motion, and they ruled me out of order, claiming that this was not a motion subject to debate. I am not convinced that I shouldn’t have had the opportunity to make my case that there was no reason not to have a hearing—it would have allowed the public to have the right to weigh in on this and for us to debate the matter.
After that I moved to defer and publish. It’s a matter of right under Illinois law that when a matter is brought before the City Council for the first time, any two aldermen have the right to move to defer it until the next meeting. But I was told I couldn’t do that in this case. I did not have an opportunity to appeal that ruling and we just pushed ahead.
Then came the most egregious part of this. There is no dispute that when something comes up for a vote, we should have the opportunity for debate. The failure of the mayor to give me the opportunity to speak was not only disrespectful to me but to the whole body.
So what were you thinking as this was going on?
The word I would use was that I was shocked. I had grown up watching, on TV, the mayor’s father cut off the mike of independent aldermen who dared to speak out against mayor-supported ordinances. But up until Wednesday this mayor had at least allowed debate. He would occasionally make rude or snide comments from the rostrum, but he would always allow you to talk. I was absolutely surprised that he wouldn’t recognize me. At first I thought he didn’t hear me—then I started shouting at the top of my lungs and he still didn’t recognize me. It became clear that he was going to ram it through, rules be damned.
You’ve disagreed with the mayor before but always taken pains to note that you also work with him on many issues—more than some Daley critics would like, in fact. What does this incident mean for your relationship with him?
Over the years I’ve agreed with him on far more issues than I’ve disagreed with him on. I think what has changed in the last couple of years was the fact that on a couple of issues—the living wage ordinance and this ordinance, for example—my allies and I had scored some legislative victories. And that’s apparently something the mayor takes very personally. And so he has been more demeaning, not just to me but to the entire City Council. And what I find shocking is that most of my colleagues just take it. They may grumble about it privately, but they do nothing to comment on it.
I am going to continue to work with the mayor. I think he has still done some tremendous things for the city. But I don’t think anyone should allow themselves to be treated the way I was the other day, and by extension the way the entire City Council and the people they represent were treated.
The mayor also struck a defiant pose last week at the onetime site of Meigs Field, which of course he ordered destroyed in violation of federal rules. Where do you think this extraconfrontational attitude has come from?
I think it probably has been building for awhile, and I think this week the mayor wanted to make very clear who was in charge, and that he wasn’t going to brook any dissent. I think he wanted to make it clear that we’re supporting actors. I don’t think he needed to do that. Despite some of the political setbacks he’s suffered, he’s still the most powerful big-city mayor in the United States, but it seems to me that’s just not good enough for him.
Is the City Council always going to be a mayoral rubber stamp?
Well, I’m an eternal optimist. And with the new aldermen elected last year I was extremely hopeful that we would have more debate in the City Council, more aldermen willing to challenge the administration from time to time. But I must say that what happened this week has tempered that optimism tremendously. I think this does not bode well for Alderman Reilly and his battle with the Children’s Museum. The last real power that aldermen give themselves is aldermanic prerogative [to allow fellow aldermen the right to decide whether to approve zoning and development plans in their own wards]. And while I understand that this particular issue involves a development in the downtown area, nonetheless the mayor’s willingness to completely disregard the views and sentiments of the local alderman and the people he represents is not a good sign.
To me, this upcoming City Council vote [on the museum’s plans] represents who gets to make decisions in this city. Is it a joint effort between the mayor and the representatives in the city council, or is it just one man? I fear the vote coming up will confirm once again that we in the City Council will be willing to surrender what power we have to the mayor—and at great public cost. One-man rule may be easier in the short run, and democracy may be messy, but ultimately you get better policy and government through checks and balances.
It’s widely known that a lot of the mayor’s priorities right now orient around getting the Olympics here. How much of this is about him making sure his Olympics plans get the go-ahead from the City Council?
Quite frankly, I don’t think he’s even looking that far. I believe he felt embarrassed, especially on the living wage ordinance, and wanted to get back at us.
But you won that, as it turned out—Wal-Mart’s not coming.
I don’t know about that. The living wage ordinance is about more than Wal-Mart. The other day the City Council spent some time protecting the interests of restaurants to serve $40 appetizers, yet they haven’t worked one bit on getting living wages in this city.
Why don’t aldermen, and the voters who elect them, try to stop “one-man rule” if it’s so dangerous?
It is ingrained in the culture of this city—a culture that has existed my entire life. Most of my life has been spent with a Mayor Daley on the fifth floor of City Hall. And there has been this deference accorded to whoever was mayor—even Harold Washington in his final year or two in office was winning votes by incredibly lopsided margins in the City Council. I think there’s a particular comfort people have in strong, autocratic leaders.
I think this mayor benefited coming after the tumultuous period of Harold Washington’s administration. And you have to hand it to him—he’s one of the most skilled politicians I’ve ever witnessed. He and his team are very skilled at marketing themselves, they’re very skilled at getting their message out, and they’re very skilled at their relationships with individual members of the City Council. And he also has accomplished a lot of good things.
Old habits are very hard to break. We’re just extremely accustomed to deferring to the mayor on all citywide matters, and unfortunately it appears as though many of the fresh faces we have in the City Council are starting to accept this too.
You’re a big Cubs fan. Is the drought going to end after a century? Maybe that’s a way you could get back at the mayor, who’s a Sox guy.
Didn’t I say earlier I was an eternal optimist setting myself up to be disappointed again? So yeah, I feel really good about this season.