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How aldermanic privilege shaped Chicago

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‘Council courtesies,’ which Mayor Lightfoot wants to curtail, have created a city with 50 mini-mayors

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Chicago’s new Mayor Lori Lightfoot wasted no time advancing her plans to bring more transparency and trust into city politics. On her first day in office, the mayor signed an order scaling back aldermanic privilege, the time-honored Chicago tradition of letting aldermen effectively veto projects and control development in their ward. It proved very timely; later that same week, a blockbuster indictment against Aldermen Ed Burke alleged that the powerful pol shook down developers across the city.

“The Chicago way is a deep cultural phenomenon,” Lightfoot added at a news conference during which she asked Burke to resign.

Depending on whom you ask, aldermanic privilege, or aldermanic prerogative, represents a powerful tool city council members have to protect the interests of the neighborhoods they represent, or symbolizes the corruption and rot that has long plagued city politics and the Chicago Machine. Burke currently faces federal charges for abusing this power, one of the many aldermen in the past few decades charged with taking bribes for zoning changes.

But perhaps what’s most intriguing about the ability of city council members to control zoning and permitting decisions in their ward is that, at least according to former city lawyers, this power doesn’t actually exist at all. Aldermanic privilege doesn’t appear in the city’s founding documents or current code. It’s simply an unwritten law of Chicago political power, an unspoken privilege long abused by power brokers, and an impediment to the “city of fairness and hope and prosperity for the many” Mayor Lightfoot spoke about during her inauguration.

“Aldermanic privilege has divided the city into 50 communities,” a 1956 Chicago Tribune article noted, “in which local convenience and prejudices will always be given priority over the needs of the city as a whole.” It’s one of the reasons Alderman Joe Moore of the 49th Ward once compared the city’s political system to a feudal system. “The mayor is sort of a de facto king, and each alderman is the lord,” he told WBEZ’s Curious City.

Chicago Aldermen photographed in 1922.
Library of Congress

The origins of Chicago’s mini-mayors

The extraordinary powers exercised by members of the City Council, called the Common Council when it was formed in 1837, have long been a part of city politics, as have corruption scandals. According to the Encyclopedia of Chicago, by the 1890s, aldermen already had the power to “dry up” liquor sales in their wards, not a small amount of clout in the pre-Prohibition era. That was just one of the so-called “council courtesies” extended to the city’s aldermen.

This privilege was a product of its time, the era of machine politics, where local party organizations and ward bosses seized control of local government. Chicago’s rapid growth in the early 20th century, fueled by a booming population, new skyscrapers, and a host of technological and societal shifts, also expanded the reach and power of municipal government

At this time, aldermanic privilege included powers over city government functions like tree-cutting, alley cleaning, permits for driveways, and building conversions. Aldermen usually deferred to the ward committeemen and leaders of their party, creating incentives to favor political allies, as well as engage in corruption and backroom dealing. An 1892 Chicago Tribune article, which also spoke of evidence dead men had voted in a recent election, noted the common wisdom of the time that money paid to an alderman was likely to be pocketed.

A gold, bejeweled (one-carat diamond on each point and large, four-carat diamond in the center) alderman badge that belonged to Michael Kenna, one of the most notoriously corrupt Chicago aldermen of the 20th century.
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The case of “Bathhouse” John Coughlin and Michael “Hinky Dink” Kenna, who concurrently represented the First Ward—each ward elected two members to the council before 1932—offers an infamous example of the spoils of aldermanic power.

At the time, the First Ward covered the Levee District near the Chicago River, a neighborhood just east of today’s Chinatown that was a center of drinking and vice. Coughlin and Kenna, both elected in the 1890s, brazenly engaged in shakedowns of local brothel and saloon owners, and exercised aldermanic prerogative over zoning decisions.

They were part of a contingent of aldermen nicknamed the Grey Wolves for their habit of preying on the defenseless public. At a time when private companies bid to provide services such as gas and transit, these representatives found plentiful opportunity for self-enrichment. In 1895, franchise rights were awarded to Ogden Gas Company, which was a business that only existed on paper.

In 1923, the council was expanded to 50 wards, with a single representative each. In theory, the extremely low ratio of residents-to-representatives on Chicago’s City Council promotes diversity, and allows for greater responsiveness to local neighborhood needs. Chicago aldermen represent roughly 54,000 residents each, where as representatives in New York (one for every 166,600 residents) and Los Angeles (one for every 264,600 residents) have much greater constituencies. Today, aldermen have a say over powerful tools to shape development in their ward, including zoning changes, the sale of city-controlled property, and even access to some city funds.

In practice, it appeared to merely give more politicians veto power, and more opportunity for corruption. More than 30 Chicago aldermen have been convicted of crimes since 1972, many around zoning issues. Among the many examples of pay-for-play is the history of the 28th Ward. Alderman William Carothers was arrested and convicted of extortion and conspiracy in 1983, and his son Issac “Ike” Carothers, who would take his seat decades later, was arrested in 2009 for taking bribes from a real estate developer.

The Ida B. Wells Housing Project in 1942.
Jack Delano, Library of Congress

Shaping Chicago’s legacy of segregation

One of the most insidious impacts of aldermanic power is in how it has been used to reinforce the city’s legacy of segregation. Throughout the 20th century, white aldermen have repeatedly used their power to block the creation of public housing in their wards, pushing back against projects large and small.

In the decade after World War II, concerns that integrated public housing would “be the end of their neighborhoods” led white residents to push their aldermen to reject the expansion of new housing by the Chicago Housing Authority (CHA), according to a report from the Chicago Area Fair Housing Alliance. Then-alderman of the 19th Ward, John Duffy went so far as to accuse the CHA and its supporters of wanting to “stir up trouble and keep the pot boiling—never let it stop.”

In response to pushback from Duffy and other aldermen, the CHA kept smaller projects nearly entirely white, and limited black residents to larger housing developments, traditionally in majority-black parts of the city. From that point on, the CHA concentrated new public housing in majority-black areas of the city.

Alvin Rose, who would lead the CHA beginning in 1958, would work closely with alderman on the siting of public housing, making sure there was no attempt at integration. According to American Pharaoh, a history of Mayor Richard Daley, Rose would consult aldermen about every potential housing site, making sure plans “had no chance of getting through” if a councilmember disapproved.

His attitude can be summed up in a remark he made during a 1958 meeting of the City Club of Chicago, that there would be no way for him to guarantee black Chicagoans wouldn’t move into a potential public housing project in a majority-white area of the North Side. It was a blunt warning about the supposed dangers of integration.

This dynamic, and fealty to aldermanic power, resulted in a great geographic disparity in public housing. During the ’50s and ’60s, a period when the CHA built more than 20,000 units of housing, aldermen representing primarily white constituencies rejected such projects, while those representing majority black districts welcomed them, responding to their constituents’ desire for more affordable housing.

Advocates for affordable housing took action in court to fight such segregated siting decisions, leading to the 1969 Gautreaux v. Chicago Housing Authority decision, which imposed a series of rules on the CHA to force them to stop concentrating housing in select parts of the city without building homes elsewhere (a settlement order lifting the restrictions was just signed in January). In response, in the early 1970s, the CHA attempted to build a series of scattered sites, low-rise public housing in predominantly white areas.

After then-Mayor Richard J. Daley said the buildings shouldn’t go where they weren’t “accepted,” aldermen again exercised their power to block this new construction. A district judge, ruling on a discrimination case resulting from the rejection of such housing, noted that, “no criterion, other than race, can plausibly explain the veto of over 99.5 percent of the housing units located on the white sites…and the same time the rejection of only 10 percent of the units on Negro sites.”

How Chicago continues to be shaped by these policies

While most blatantly racist policies of the past have been eliminated, aldermen have found other ways to continue to shape development in their wards. According to Chicago Area Fair Housing Alliance research, from 1970 to 2016, downzoning and landmarking have been used extensively to restrict the housing supply in many wards. Fourteen majority-white wards in the north and northwest sides of Chicago account for 55 percent of the areas downzoned or landmarked between 1970 to 2016.

The report also found that aldermen representing more than half of Chicago’s wards didn’t accept a single multifamily home funded through the city’s Multifamily Loan program between 1992 to 2017. Of the 3,394 units built with that program, 90 percent were located outside of predominantly white and low-poverty areas, while just 5 wards ended up accepting 59 percent of such city-funded multifamily projects.

Modern aldermen have used their privilege to impact all manner of development projects in their wards. Alderman Burton Natarus, a proponent of property rights who represented the 42nd Ward and the Magnificent Mile, fought against historic landmarking if it was in the interest of building owners, arguing that it would impede economic development. Alderman Helen Shiller of the 46th Ward fought against a mall development in Uptown, rejecting community groups, who argued it was needed in the neighborhood, countering that more affordable housing was required.

There have been efforts over time to rein in aldermanic privilege. In 1955, Mayor Daley centralized the application of certain zoning variations, taking actions like driveway permitting out of the hands of alderman and into the city bureaucracy. In 1997, an ethics ordinance, prompted by Silver Shovel, an FBI investigation into city-wide corruption that led to six aldermen being indicted, required more transparency in the council, but didn’t really take away much power.

In a 1997 Chicago Reader story, “Council Whores,” that examined the city’s failed efforts at reform, reporter Cate Plys recounts a litany of misdeeds, including an indicted alderman showing up for votes, another effectively changing his voting record after the fact, and numerous instances of friends and family landing lucrative city contracts, with little to no consequences.

The entrenched culture of control, council apathy, and the ability to dole out contracts has placed a burden on the city. Austin Berg, a writer at the Illinois Policy Institute and author of “The New Chicago Way: Lessons from Other Big Cities,” says aldermanic privilege is “getting in the way of residents being able to build a better future for the city.”

In addition to previously cited examples of corruption and the impact on housing and equality, aldermanic control also impacts small businesses, who need permits to operate and succeed. Vox’s Matthew Yglesias wrote that starting a professional-services business in Chicago, which takes weeks longer than other cities, can be a “dystopian nightmare.”

Berg also believes that stripping aldermen of their power would create a better governmental cultural overall, not just in the city council. He believes that traditionally, the mayor gives the alderman ward control, while aldermen give the Mayor wide berth when it comes to big city-wide policy decisions. It encourages both sides to look the other way. Eliminating this privilege, he says, would make everyone pay better attention, and be more accountable, to how Chicago functions. Lightfoot’s directive wants to ensure that aldermen “have a voice, but not a veto.” It may end up giving residents a bigger voice, as well.