Will the new Chicago City Council still be a rubber stamp?

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Incoming 35th Ward alderman Carlos Ramirez-Rosa has vowed not to become a mayoral rubber stamp.
  • Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times Media
  • Incoming 35th Ward alderman Carlos Ramirez-Rosa has vowed not to become a mayoral rubber stamp.
Carlos Ramirez-Rosa says it's clear why he and more than a dozen other newcomers have been elected to the Chicago City Council, and why Mayor Rahm Emanuel had to fight so hard for his own reelection.

"What we've seen was a massive shake-up, especially by Chicago standards," says Ramirez-Rosa, who defeated 35th Ward alderman Rey Colon in February. Voters have decided that "it's important to have a group of folks who say they're 100 percent with the neighborhoods and that they're going to be independent. . . . I don't think Chicago politics can ever be the same."

True, the "shake-up" bar is low around here. At the very least, the City Council might not be quite the same.

When the new council meets for the first time next month after 18 runoffs, 14 aldermen will be sworn in who weren't there four years ago, assuming current vote totals hold up. Gone will be several aldermen who were mayoral loyalists and products of patronage organizations. And Ramirez-Rosa is right—most of the incoming aldermen have vowed to be independent and progressive.

But as he well knows, these aren't exactly promises till death do us part.

A little perspective: for most of the last century, the council has experienced regular, substantial turnover, yet it's largely remained a rubber stamp for whoever held the mayor's office.

As you can see from this chart, since 1935 only four council terms have started with fewer than 14 first-term aldermen, according to the Chicago Board of Elections.

During the 1970s, as some voters began to break away from the Democratic machine, aldermen came and went. There were 24 rookies in 1971, 23 in 1975, and 22 in 1979. Yet the machine maintained control until a court-ordered remap gave supporters of Mayor Harold Washington a majority in 1986.

Washington's death the next year precipitated a return to form for the council. In 1991—as Richard M. Daley was running for his first full term as mayor—18 aldermanic races went into runoffs, and the council convened that May with 20 new aldermen. After showing a few flashes of independence, the council bent to Daley's will for most of the next two decades.

In 2007, SEIU and other labor groups vowed to stir things up. After they poured millions of dollars into ward races, 11 new aldermen were elected. Several of the aldermen eventually formed the progressive caucus, which emerged as the leading opponent of Emanuel's agenda. Others created the more conciliatory Paul Douglas Alliance and became consistent supporters of the mayor's.

Third Ward alderman Pat Dowell, a member of the 2007 class, says it's hard to come in and shake things up as a rookie.

"I tried that, and some of my colleagues kind of slapped me down," she says. Veteran aldermen control the levers of power, and learning how the system works takes time. "The council functions sort of like a machine. There's stuff to do—ordinances to pass, services to be provided. You get into that spin, and all the other stuff is extra except at budget time and certain legislation."

Dowell and the rest of the Douglas Alliance argue that they achieve more by working with the mayor instead of simply defying him.

But the public doesn't see those conversations behind closed doors—only all the "aye" votes for mayoral initiatives. At a time of rising costs and declining services, compliance with Emanuel became a real issue in a number of council races. To distinguish themselves, even supporters of the mayor stressed their independence.

"My message to the progressive caucus has been that 'I don't intend to join your ranks, but you'll be surprised by the number of times I side with you,'" says Brian Hopkins, who won the runoff for alderman of the Second Ward.

Hopkins is hardly an outsider. He formerly worked as a top aide to county commissioner John Daley, who of course is a brother and son of the longest-serving mayors in Chicago history. Hopkins also received financial support from Emanuel's political action committee, Chicago Forward.

But he agrees that the runoffs mean the city is in flux. "It's a reflection of dissatisfaction with the status quo, and I think that's even true for the voters even who reelected Mayor Emanuel. They're aware that the city is on the brink of a crisis, and no one's happy with where we just are."

Emanuel himself tacked to the left in the months before the election and now says he's a new man, more open and collaborative. Most aldermen have already embraced this story line.

Will it end up being true? Saying so doesn't mean it is. Four years ago, Emanuel and aldermen pledged that Chicago was ready for "reform." It was, most of them weren't, and the council largely remained a rubber stamp.

Ramirez-Rosa says he was elected to ensure that resources are going into the city's neighborhoods, and he won't back any other agenda, no matter what it's called.

"That's what my constituents want," he says. "Plus, if I sell out and don't live up to it, I won't be invited to my family's Christmas gathering."

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