By Cate Plys
Everyone wants to get rid of the aldermen. Many Chicagoans have less decorous or legal methods in mind, but reducing the council's size has been studied and debated for decades.
There are arguments against it. "May I say this to you?" asks Alderman Bernard Stone. "Anybody who's ever served in this council for a day who says it's a good idea has either been a bad alderman or a stupid idiot." Like most of his colleagues, Stone thinks it's nearly impossible to serve each ward's 60,000 or so constituents, much less double that number.
Others say fewer aldermen would mean fewer minorities and independents. "The larger the districts, the more multiracial, the more multiethnic they're likely to be, the harder it is for black and Hispanic aldermen to get elected," says one alderman who didn't want to be named. Told that Edward Burke has advocated a smaller council in the past, the alderman responds, "Alderman Burke has a million dollars in his campaign fund. He can get elected--provided he doesn't go to jail--from anywhere he wants."
A modest proposal: If the council is reduced, it's imperative that we keep the few aldermen who make City Council meetings fun. Here are nine picks from the current council. Future aldermen can audition for the part as vacancies occur.
1. Edward Burke
Burke hasn't been indicted for any of the alleged conflicts of interest or ghost-payrolling charges swirling around him. But if he were indicted and convicted, they'd have to pass an ordinance allowing incarcerated felons to serve in the council via closed-circuit television. Otherwise, the council might as well shut down. His many specialties include smirking happily in his front-row seat while being attacked by fellow aldermen or booed viciously by a hostile council audience. In December '95, protesters suddenly erupted during a meeting, shouting at Alderman Billy Ocasio. "And Merry Christmas to you too," Burke called as the protesters were led out by security guards.
Burke is the only alderman who has imitated Peter Sellers on the council floor. During a 1995 debate on an ordinance to control vicious dogs, Alderman John Steele objected to cutting an amendment that would have required owners of dangerous dogs to take out $100,000 insurance policies. Steele said gang members terrorized his community with dogs, and insurance would provide extra protection for people who were bit.
"In response to Alderman Steele's observations," Burke said, "I doubt that any of the gangbangers are going to go out and buy insurance for their dog anyway. But I must say I'm reminded of that old Inspector Clouseau movie, where Inspector Clouseau walks up to the hotel counter and there's a man standing there with a dog, and Clouseau says, 'Does your dog bit?' And the man says no. Clouseau reaches down to pet the dog, and suddenly the dog bites him right on the hand. And Clouseau turns to the man and he says, 'I thought you said your dog does not bit!' The man says, 'That is not my dog!'" He waited for the laughter to die down, then added, "Not that it has anything to do with this ordinance."
2. William Beavers
A voice deeper than God's, or even James Earl Jones's. Plays politics the old-fashioned way, sees nothing wrong with it, makes no apologies. Last year, for instance, Alderman Joseph Moore criticized lucrative no-bid concession contracts at O'Hare Airport going to friends of Daley and his wife and other "powers that be." Beavers spoke right up: "You know, I'm glad to know that I'm one of the powers that be, you know, because, uh, those are some of my friends that got those contracts, and I didn't know I was so heavy, you know? But these are some of my friends, some of the people that I know that live in my community that's gonna have an opportunity to do business at the airport, and I'm glad."
3. John Buchanan
This short, paunchy, white-haired alderman has the look of a straight party man, but Buchanan spices things up now and then by opposing Daley. At a recent Rules Committee meeting on the current ethics ordinance, Buchanan yelled at committee chairman Richard Mell: "Jam your amendment, and jam your whole ordinance!"
4. Brian Doherty
Doherty has to stay because he's the only Republican, the instigator or foil for any bipartisan humor. At the first meeting after Republicans swept Congress in '94, Daley called on Doherty: "Chair recognizes Alderman Doherty as the only person who's happy today in the council." Doherty's especially good at speeches thanking retiring colleagues for help when he was a council freshman. Here he's honoring now-indicted former alderman John Madrzyk in 1994: "John Madrzyk was a good friend of mine when I was a freshman. First year in the council, John came to my office and said, 'Kid, anything I can do to help you, let me know.' He also one time, I lost my temper with someone that I thought had done me wrong. John knocked on my door and he came in. He says, 'Hey kid.' He goes, 'This ain't for real. You gotta take the time to relax or you'll never last.' And that was probably the best advice I got from anyone down here."
5. Joseph Moore
Moore's earnest rather than personally amusing, as befits an independent. But no City Council can function without at least one independent for the others to gang up on. Moore is especially valuable as a target for Burke. In 1995, Moore proposed cutting $500,000 from the city budget for lawyers representing Burke and other aldermen as defendants in the city ward remap case. That included Jerold Solovy, a partner at Jenner & Block. Moore said the city's law department should take over the case, "rather than flushing more city taxpayers' dollars down the drain and lining the pockets of very big and powerful law firms in the city." Burke sneered in response, "First of all, Mr. President, I'm sure that Mr. Solovy will be delighted to hear about Alderman Moore's comments about lining his pockets, so that the next time Alderman Moore calls him asking him for a campaign contribution he'll keep that in mind."
"Oh, un-line his pockets," Daley quipped.
Asked later whether Solovy was a campaign contributor, Moore said, "Well, he was. He hasn't contributed to me lately. Let me put it that way."
6. Burton Natarus
Natarus is so long-winded he's threatened to withhold his vote if he isn't allowed to keep talking. Still, he's the only alderman who will talk about dog feces. And he once challenged Alderman Dorothy Tillman to a fight. Natarus, a stickler for council rules, was peeved that Tillman kept missing roll-call votes and then asking to have her vote recorded anyway. Tillman laughed loudly at Natarus's complaint, waving her arms at him in mock protest. "Oh c'mon," said Natarus. "This is a legislative body, and everything we do here has to do with legality and the law. I know you don't believe that. Outside the law is OK with you."
"I beg your pardon!" Tillman cried quickly.
"Chair recognizes Alderman Tillman," said Mayor Daley wearily.
"Mr. President, thank you," said Tillman. "I wanna say that I resent that statement comin' from Alderman Natarus very much."
"Well I'll repeat it," said Natarus belligerently.
"Well you better watch it--" shouted Tillman before Daley cut her off.
"No, let's not repeat it," said Daley.
"You wanna step outside after this?" challenged Natarus.
"Yeah!" yelled Tillman, now waving her arms in a come-and-get-me gesture.
"Why don't we all go outside and come back in, heh-heh?" Daley suggested.
7. Robert Shaw
The only alderman who wears electric green double-breasted suits. He's like a Tourette's syndrome victim--you never know what he'll say next. When the council was debating whether to relocate the Maxwell Street market in 1994, Shaw offered this tidbit: "Many times after that I purchased items in the Maxwell Street area, and one of the things I purchased recently was a hot dog...not a hot dog--a pork chop. I think it was a kosher pork chop."
8. Bernard Stone
Stone is best when he's reminiscing. Often it's about colleagues who have gone to prison. When former alderman John Madrzyk retired in '94, he said, "I can recall vividly during the snowstorm of 1979, where John Madrzyk and Fred Roti insisted that, when I said I wouldn't shave until the streets of my ward were clear of snow, they held me down and used an electric razor and shaved me. They said, 'You look terrible, you even look worse than your streets.'"
Roti went to jail in 1993. Madrzyk is under indictment.
9. Dorothy Tillman
Tillman rarely makes good flaming speeches anymore because she's a Daley ally in all but name, counting on the mayor's support for her upcoming run against U.S. representative Danny Davis.
She's still amusing, though, for her exchanges with Burke. When Burke tried introducing a resolution congratulating Newt Gingrich in January '95, objections from Shaw forced him to send it back to committee. "Over the lone Republican Alderman Doherty's strong objections," Burke kidded.
"Aren't you a Republican?" shot back Tillman, who was passing by Burke's chair.
"Only a closet one, Alderman," said Burke.
"I thought you was!" Tillman snickered.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos of aldermen in form of baseball cards.