Friday, July 28, 2006

Emboldened aldermen challenge Daley's leash on council

Emboldened aldermen challenge Daley's leash on council
July 28, 2006
Copyright by The Chicago Sun Times

Most pundits have decided that they no longer want Mayor Daley's political machine running things, but almost no thought has been given to what could happen if the "enemy" is ever vanquished.

It's a little bit like the debate over enforcing democracy in the Middle East. Is the end result worth the chaos?

Unlike Iraq, there won't be gun battles in Chicago's streets if the Machine finally falls, but there will be plenty of political chaos.

On paper, Chicago has a "weak mayor" form of government. The City Council has the real power. Daley has gotten around the law by taking complete control of the city's political process and using that to force his way on City Council members.

Until recently, aldermen were deathly afraid to cross Daley. The fact that the mayor has never once had to veto an ordinance passed by the City Council since he was elected in 1989 gives you a good idea of how he governs.

But the devastating federal investigations into Daley's government have emboldened the city's aldermen.

Their newfound "independence" reached a fever pitch this week when the council passed a "living wage" ordinance by a veto-proof majority -- even though Daley forcefully opposed the plan.

Is this really the dawning of the "Age of the Aldermen," as some have predicted? Nobody can really know that until we see where the federal investigation goes, and how high up the U.S. attorney decides to reach. But a line has obviously been crossed.

Daley is a pro-big business, moderate Democrat. Chicago doesn't have some of the wackier liberal laws on its books that other large cities do mainly because of Daley's influence.

But now, things are starting to change. The once ultratight leash has been loosened.

"They want to put microchips on dogs," Daley complained this week about the council. "We've got [the ban on] foie gras. We've got pay raises. They've got all of these things going."

One alderman previously thought to have been a voice of moderation has turned way-out California liberal.

Ald. Ed Burke (14th) wants to ban drivers from smoking in their cars if any of their passengers are under the age of 8. Burke also introduced a ban on restaurants serving any food containing trans fats.

One restaurant owner told the Sun-Times that Burke is becoming "the next Burt Natarus."

Ah, yes. Ald. Burt Natarus.

Natarus is probably best known for making extremely goofy public comments and introducing ordinances like forcing horses that pull the Loop tourist carriages to wear diapers.

The guy really doesn't like horses.

"The neighing of horses in a city where people are not used to such noises can be more piercing than a car alarm," Natarus once told the council.

These are the people who will be setting the agenda if Daley's power is completely breached. Without a strong leader to contain their zanier impulses, they'll probably go off in a zillion different directions, each one more bizarre than the others. I'm sure it will be quite the show. Reporters and columnists will love the fresh material. Citizens and business leaders might not.

Am I saying that Chicago should keep the Machine in place to prevent a messy democracy from sprouting? Heck no. What I am saying is that it's not enough to change the man at the top or diminish his awesome powers. Voters and reporters have to get more involved as well. The past few months have made it clear that everyone needs to start paying much closer attention to aldermanic elections, or the "City that works" could become a national laughingstock.

Rich Miller publishes Capitol Fax, a daily political newsletter. He can be reached at


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