The South Loop has historically been a neighborhood without a political identity. In other parts of the city, neighborhoods are closely identified with their political geography. Rogers Park has long been part of the independent-minded 49th Ward on the far north side. On the far south side, Beverly is known as the heart of the 19th, the base of the South Side Irish. And Bridgeport, the home of mayors and the center of Chicago clout, is always, always, always in the 11th.
The South Loop, though, has typically been dominated by power players from afar—when it hasn't been a total afterthought. Chicago's political mapmakers have regularly rejiggered borders, passing the South Loop from ward to ward as expediency demanded, and as a result it's never had much of an influence on city politics.
But that's changing. In last year's runoff election for Second Ward alderman, South Loop voters gave Robert Fioretti the boost he needed to topple the Daley-backed incumbent, Madeline Haithcock. "The South Loop was big for me, but it's still an emerging political community," says Fioretti. "It doesn't have a complete identity. Put up a high-rise and that's a new community in one block that wasn't there a year ago."
The South Loop's great wave of residential development didn't start until the 1980s. At that time, it was part of the notorious mob-run First Ward, whose alderman, Fred Roti, eventually went to jail for taking bribes.
But every ten years the City Council redraws the city's 50 wards, ostensibly to guarantee they each have roughly the same number of residents. Generally the mayoral operatives who oversee the redistricting allow aldermen a say in shaping their wards to help them keep their seats. In some cases, the mayor has maneuvered to keep developing areas in the hands of allies.
Roti left the council in 1991, and in the next remap the South Loop was swallowed up by the 42nd Ward, represented by the avuncular, bombastic, developer-friendly Burt Natarus. But in the 2001 redistricting it was placed in the Second Ward, mainly to protect Haithcock, a loyal, prodevelopment Daley ally. Gentrification was attacking her base in black south-side communities like Bronzeville, so, working on the assumption that black voters anywhere would vote for Haithcock because she's a black woman, the city council's mapmakers added a long swath of the west side to the Second Ward. The South Loop became a bridge between the ward's south and west side halves.
As a result, the ward map looks like the dog chewed on it—it's a jagged, asymmetrical collection of neighborhoods running along South Michigan Avenue from 31st to Jackson and cutting west all the way to Sacramento. It may be one of the most schizophrenic wards in the city: west of Ashland it's poor and working-class blacks; to the east it's filled with white professionals.
Haithcock could never convince enough of her South Loop constituents that she was looking out for them. After she skipped out of several community meetings early or altogether she developed a reputation for inaccessibility, and occasional bouts of foot-in-mouth disease also damaged her credibility. But the issue that really did her in was development. Her constituents, many of whom thought the ward was being overdeveloped, accused her of never seeing a high-rise plan she didn't like.
A turning point came in 2005, when Haithcock got into an extended fight with residents over Burnham Pointe, a 298-unit, 34-story high-rise at Polk and Clark. Residents pressed her to force the developer to scale back his plans, but Haithcock infuriated them by seeming indifferent to their concerns. In the end she said there was nothing she could do to keep the developer from building whatever he wanted. Burnham Pointe is now halfway completed.
Over the next couple of years her popularity continued to evaporate. In 2006, attempting to nail down the west-side vote, she proposed installing an honorary street sign for Fred Hampton, the Black Panther leader who was killed in his sleep by Chicago police in 1969. But that move backfired and left her looking ineffectual when, at the urging of the police union, her white council colleagues voted against it.
By the 2007 aldermanic campaign, the Second Ward was ripe for the taking, and Fioretti knew it. A trial lawyer who lives in the West Loop, he became a fixture at area condo association meetings, assuring residents that as alderman he would be tough on developers—he'd force them to get approval for their projects from an advisory zoning board before he'd sign off.
In the six-person race in February 2007, Haithcock won her old south-side precincts, and the west-side vote was split. But Fioretti won about half the South Loop votes, forcing Haithcock into a runoff. In their head-to-head contest two months later, Fioretti thumped her, winning about 65 percent of the total vote and well over 70 percent in the South Loop. In the precinct where Burnham Pointe is located he won 87 percent of the vote.
Fioretti has quickly become one of the City Council's more interesting characters. He's been in office for less than a year but he acts as if he owns the place, strutting around council chambers, patting his colleagues on the back, and looking dapper and confident in his tailored suits and year-round tan.
He's outspoken but astute enough to choose causes that will enhance his image as a maverick. He infuriated one group of developers—and delighted some residents—by trying to reverse a zoning change Haithcock had approved. He voted against the mayor's property tax hike last November and gave him fits by opposing the increase to the real estate transfer tax meant to bail out the CTA. "Part of the problem with the transfer tax is that it hits the Second Ward hard," Fioretti says. "Because of all those development deals that got approved we have a lot of units that aren't moving. It's going to be that much harder for people to sell them with this tax."
Being one of Daley's least favorite aldermen doesn't seem to faze him—in fact, he seems to relish the tussles. Having solidified his power by winning election as ward committeeman last month, Fioretti doesn't have any good reason to fear that Daley could successfully run someone against him.
As for the South Loop, its political future is less certain. Aldermen will draw a new ward map in 2011, and it's a good bet that the community will be freed from its western appendage. It could become part of a larger downtown ward, or it might be connected to the booming south lakefront. In either of these scenarios, Fioretti's west side home would probably be in a different ward, and if he still lived there the South Loop would again get a new alderman.
Whoever winds up representing the area is well advised to take a lesson from Madeline Haithcock: pay attention to South Loop voters. They're not at all reluctant to throw the bums out.v
For more on politics, see our blog Clout City at chicagoreader.com.