More incumbent aldermen have bowed out of the 2023 election than any other election one expert can remember, opening a window of possibility for voters to band together and build a City Council that is more responsive to the needs of all residents.
This possibility, however; can only be fully realized with a level of voter engagement and coalition-building among Black and brown voters that hasn’t been seen since the 1983 election of Harold Washington, Chicago’s first Black mayor, longtime political consultant Delmarie Cobb said.
“There should be so much energy around the fact that you’ve got all of these people stepping down,” Cobb said. “Yes, we’ve had significant numbers of people in terms of (incumbents leaving), but never like this, not in my lifetime.”
“Being someone who looks at the world and politics from a progressive lens, I think it’s the best thing that could have happened,” Cobb said. “It should have been happening all along through the election process, but since it hasn’t, it’s given us an opportunity that could really change the look and trajectory of the City Council.”
The growing list of aldermen who have left or plan to leave at the end of the term has now reached 15 members, and not everyone sees this as an inherently positive thing. University of Chicago Professor John Mark Hansen, who specializes in Chicago politics, said that what some are now calling “the Great Resignation” represents a loss of decades of invaluable political experience.
“I don’t think that you could have the kind of experience that is represented by the people who are leaving the City Council to walk out the door and it doesn’t have any effect,” Hansen said. “It’s an enormous amount of experience.”
The list of aldermen who have announced that they are resigning, retiring or running for mayor includes: Ald. Sophia King (4th), Ald. Leslie Hairston (5th), Ald. Roderick Sawyer (6th), Ald. Susan Sadlowski Garza (10th), former Ald. Patrick Daley Thompson (11th), Ald. George Cardenas (12th), Ald. Raymond Lopez (15th Ward), Ald. Howard Brookins (21st), former Ald. Michael Scott Jr. (24th), Ald. Ariel Reboyras (30th), Ald. Carrie Austin (34th), Ald. Michele Smith (43rd), Ald. Tom Tunney (44th), Ald. James Cappleman (46th) and Ald. Harry Osterman (48th).
“I think people just feel it’s a perfect storm for them and this job is so encompassing…” Ald. Michelle Harris (8th) said. “The public gets more time with you than you get at home with your family.”
“While I’m sad about them leaving, I’m happy that they made the decision to leave and to allow fresh ideas and fresh people to come in with fresh feet and legs and minds,” she added.
King, Sawyer and Lopez have thrown their hat in the increasingly crowded ring to run against Mayor Lori Lightfoot in the Feb. 28 municipal election. Also up for election in February are the city clerk, city treasurer and all 50 City Council seats.
“The opportunity that’s presented by an open seat is much greater than an opportunity that is created even with a damaged incumbent. So, there will be very high levels of competition and chances are that many of these will go into a run-off,” Hansen said.
This was the case in Ald. Jeanette Taylor’s race to represent the 20th Ward in 2019, when former Alderman Willie Cochran resigned after pleading guilty to wire fraud. Taylor earned 29% of the vote in a crowded field of nine candidates in the February election and then beat out her opponent, Nicole Johnson, in a run-off election with 60% of the vote to Johnson’s 40%.
Former Executive Director of the Hyde Park Chamber of Commerce Wallace Goode launched his run for alderman in the 5th Ward well before Hairston announced plans to retire at the end of her term, but Goode said the news changed how he is thinking about the race.
“My campaign originally was going to be David and Goliath, fighting the system because she’d been there 20-some years,” Goode said. “It’s no longer David and Goliath, it’s a bunch of David’s now, so that’s going to be very interesting.”
All alderperson candidates must collect a minimum of 473 signatures to make it onto the official ballot this election cycle. Petitions are due by Nov. 28 and the Chicago Board of Elections is anticipating an elevated number of ballot challenges this year, according to Director of Public Information Max Bever.
The majority of the outgoing aldermen chaired committees or held other positions of power within the City Council, creating a vacuum for new officials to step up to the plate.
The list of outgoing aldermen who hold or recently held positions of power includes: Sawyer (chair of the Health and Human Relations Committee), Brookins (chair of the Transportation and Public Way committee), Osterman (chair of the Housing and Real Estate Committee), King (head of the Progressive Caucus), Cardenas (City Council Deputy Floor Leader and Environmental Protection and Energy Committee Chair), Scott Jr. (Education Committee Chair), Smith (ethics committee chair), Garza (head of the labor committee), Austin (vice chair of the Committee on Committees and Rules) and Cappleman (vice chair of the Human Relations and Health Committee.
Cobb said that she sees this as another opportunity for change.
“Chairmanships have been used as rewards for people who either vote with the mayor or are perceived to vote with the mayor,” Cobb said. “Chairmanships should be rewarded in the same way they are in Congress – through attrition and seniority. That would be the fair way to do it.”
The Better Government Association released a policy statement last month calling upon the City Council to assert its authority in appointing its own leadership without involvement from the mayor, saying this would be “a major step forward for the body and a benefit to the public.”
Hansen emphasized the importance of new committee chairs’ ability to hit the ground running when it comes to relationship-building.
“When you get people who are bringing in fresh perspectives, they often come in saying, ‘I want to do things completely differently,’” Hansen said. “What many of them will discover is that there’s actually a reason why things are done the way they are and that’s because it hasn’t been a matter of what a (chairperson) or an alderman has wanted to accomplish, it’s been a matter of what a (chairperson) could persuade other people to do.”
Newly elected aldermen will benefit from the tutelage of their more veteran colleagues, just as Harris did when she chaired the Committee on Police and Fire as a freshman alderman, she said. Today, she serves as chair of the city’s Committee on Committees and Rules.
However, Harris acknowledged that “when you get a new alderman, power is not transferable. They are going to walk in the door with a gap, whether we like it or not.”
Residents in wards where outgoing aldermen resigned mid-term or are otherwise unable to assist in the transition process are more likely to experience gaps in services, Harris said.
There was a significant wave of departing incumbents when Harris was first elected to the City Council 16 years ago as well, she said, adding that the City Council went on working then and they will do so again.
Understanding the evolution of Chicago politics is crucial to contextualizing this moment, Hansen and Cobb said.
“Chicago was unusual, I would say, in having a Democratic Party machine or a party machine that really structured politics for a period of about 40 years in the mid-20th Century when it was at its heyday from the time of (former Mayor) Anton Cermak through the (former Mayor Richard J. Daley),” Hansen said.
Cobb, who covered Chicago politics as a journalist before starting her political consulting company The Publicity Works, said that the success of Chicago’s “political machine” in pushing out new progressive candidates has been directly informed by the level of turnout among Black voters.
“Specifically in the Black community, we know we have the power and there was a period when the white power structure in this city was afraid of us,” she said.
Politicians were first awakened to the power of Black and brown Chicagoans as a voting block when Harold Washington was elected as mayor in 1983, Cobb said.
“That coalition that (Washington) built of Black, brown and white ‘Lakefront Liberals’ – that was the coalition that everybody has tried to recapture and nobody has, that was the coalition that got Harold Washington in,” she said.
Washington’s four years in office marked “the pinnacle of Black political and economic success in Chicago,” Cobb said. “We were a success story for the world.”
Black-owned banks, newspapers, hair care companies, advertising agencies and other businesses popped up across the city. Washington’s policies uplifted marginalized people across races, she said.
“We have lost all of that in 30 years… To see the level of devastation that has taken place in the Black community over 30 years is mind boggling,” Cobb said. “Most people don’t even realize what we’ve lost in that short period of time and add to that the exodus of 250,000 Black people since 2000 – that is major.”
Chicago’s Black population has declined from nearly 1.54 million people in 2000 to 787,394, according to 2021 population estimates from the U.S. Census Bureau. This represents a loss of over 266,300 Black residents, or 25.3% of the Black population, in just over 20 years.
After Washington’s death, the City Council appointed Eugene Sawyer, another Black man, as acting mayor. At the time, many Black voters rejected Sawyer as a figurehead for the “white Democratic machine” and, ultimately, pushed for a special election to replace him, Cobb said.
“That’s how (former Mayor Richard M. Daley) got in, because we couldn’t stomach the idea that Eugene Sawyer had been picked by (Washington’s) enemies,” Cobb said. “But the truth is that Eugene Sawyer was carrying on all of Harold Washington’s policies. …He knew how to work the machine and he knew how to be successful, but we couldn’t see it because of the optics.”
When former Mayor Richard M. Daley came to power in 1989, he made sure that Black and Latino voters would remain divided through his creation of the Hispanic Democratic Organization, which Cobb said took jobs from the Black community and gave them to Latino residents in exchange for votes.
The loss of stable, government jobs previously held by Black people contributed to the downward economic spiral of South Side communities like East Chatham/Grand Crossing (6th Ward), Chatham (8th Ward), Englewood (16th Ward) and Auburn Gresham (17th Ward), she said.
The impact of this can be seen in the drop-off in voter turnout during the second Daley administration, Cobb said. Just over 1,066,500 people voted in the 1989 run-off election for a turnout rate of 68%. In 2007, Daley’s last election, about 465,700 people pulled ballots for a turnout rate of 33%.
“That laid the groundwork for where we are now. People walked away from the process because their feelings were that nothing is going to change,” Cobb said. “…Along the way, we have watched the deterioration of the city because people are not engaged and we have allowed the elected officials to do whatever they want with very little pushback.”
Recently, though, the city’s ward organizations have been growing weaker, which Hansen said makes this election ripe for potential change.
“There are fewer and fewer ward organizations that can really protect incumbent aldermen in office, keep them in office time after time after time for a long time,” he said.
“You’ve had these new ethnic groups that have gained in numbers and gained in influence and are not willing to continue to be subordinate players in someone else’s ward organization,” Hansen said, referencing Asian voters in the 11th Ward as one example of this.
Chicago’s 2019 municipal election ushered in “a good number of progressives,” Cobb said, listing Taylor as one of them.
While Cobb supported Taylor’s opponent Nicole Johnson, Cobb said Johnson “couldn’t have lost to a better candidate.” Ald. Maria Hadden (49th), who beat out incumbent candidate Joe Moore, is another example of a 2019 win for progressives, Cobb said.
Taylor said she would like to keep the momentum of this change moving forward.
“Progressive is not about Democrat or Republican or liberal or conservative. Progressive is about values,” Cobb said. “It’s about supporting public policy that lifts everyone up, that means progress for all, and that’s very simple.”
Closing schools and grocery stores in low-income neighborhoods or dealing with companies that refuse to pay their employees a living wage are examples of actions Chicago politicians have taken that directly contradict progressive values, Cobb said.
The typical way of doing business in Chicago politics “keeps the haves and have nots (and) allows people to make sure that certain people stay wealthy and they get opportunity and other people don’t,” Taylor said.
“We need a City Council that can meet after 6 o’clock to accommodate the people who work who want to participate. We need to not decide how to spend any dollars without the people in the community – and that’s all stakeholders, not the cliques, not the crews – to be able to have everybody at the table to make these decisions,” she continued. “…We need something different.”
If Black, brown and white voters can band together as they did to elect Washington back in ‘83, they can elect candidates of their choosing to have a 26-vote majority to take control of the City Council, Cobb said.
“If people actually do their homework and advocate for progressive candidates, we might have the City Council go back to what it was originally intended to be, which was a weak mayor-strong council, and it hasn’t been that in decades,” she said.
Being a well-informed voter is not as difficult as it may seem and the impact of giving up the opportunity to get involved can be felt for generations, Cobb said.
“I can’t tell you how many young people say, ‘Well, I don’t know anything about politics.’ There’s nothing to know,” she said. “Politics is common sense. Do you have common sense? Then you can figure out politics because all you have to do is look at where have people been? What have people done before they wanted to run for office? And then once they get in office, how did they vote?”
The 1983 election outcome was not just about Harold Washington, who only got a meager 40,000 votes when he first ran for mayor in 1977, Cobb said. It was much bigger than him.
“It was the confluence of things that propelled Harold in ‘83. So, unless you have that kind of synergy that’s taking place that people can rally around, that’s what I’m not seeing (this election cycle). And that’s the part that gives me pause,” Cobb said. “But what gives me hope is the art of possibility.”