In theory, Chicago’s City Council should represent the interests of the locals who elected them. In practice, though, prominent community leaders say the Council is more like a dog on a leash — and Mayor Rahm Emanuel holds the other end.
“Our city is sold piece-by-piece to private interests. Our communities, they don’t get parks, playgrounds, services or the jobs we need. Because all the money is flowing to greedy downtown corporations. And people don’t even know it’s happening.”
So say Rousemary Vega, a well-known parent activist from the Humboldt Park neighborhood, and Brandon Johnson, an organizer with the Chicago Teachers Union, in a short video that launched the project and website Take Back Chicago in July. In their narration, trading phrases back and forth like quick punches, Vega and Johnson take the mayor and the City Council to task for prioritizing big business over average communities — and for slashing funding to libraries, mental health clinics and other city services in the process.
The video, which depicts Chicago’s City Council as Mayor Emanuel’s loyal canine companion — literally — was just the first step in the advocacy group Grassroots Illinois Action (GIA)’s new campaign to challenge aldermen on their politics. As the campaign season leading up to the February 2015 mayoral and City Council elections heats up, GIA is beseeching locals to become better educated about the records and loyalties of their aldermen — Chicago’s term for members of City Council — and to contribute to the Take Back Chicago project that will help them do so.
GIA is a 501©4 organization, meaning it can do lobbying and partisan work; it formed in 2011 as a sister organization to the Grassroots Collaborative, a long-standing coalition of labor unions, faith and community groups that, as a 501©3, cannot lobby.
Chicago aldermen often pay lip service to popular ideas — whether reining in corporate tax subsidies or cracking down on polluters — while not actually voting or taking any action to promote these policies. Unfortunately, such a dynamic is hardly new in Chicago, notorious for its “Rubber Stamp” City Council with aldermen who very rarely vote against the mayor’s wishes. Former Mayor Richard M. Daley was famous for keeping City Council in line, and as University of Illinois Chicago political scientist Dick Simpson documented, the council has become even more passive under Mayor Rahm Emanuel.
“Rahm Emanuel is clearly not a friend of labor,” GIA communications organizer Nathan Ryan tells In These Times. “But there are a bunch of aldermen who claim to be a friend of labor but you dig in and look at their voting record and see they consistently vote against the interests of workers in their ward.”
And this has a real effect on everyday Chicagoans, particularly city employees. For example, as GIA’s video points out, in FY2012, the City Council approved a budget that directly led to layoffs of public workers. That’s why, the community and labor leaders behind the Take Back Chicago campaign say, information on the inner workings of City Council must be made more accessible to the general public.
The plan, according to GIA organizers, is for the Take Back Chicago website to serve as a repository for constantly updated information on different aldermen’s campaign contributions, voting records and public statements. With the aforementioned video, which was animated by Chris Koelsch and features music by Dez Yancy, as the hook, an Indiegogo campaign for Take Back Chicago aims to raise $10,000 to build an interactive database and maintain community forums where locals can voice their concerns. The campaign launched on July 15; as of July 31, it had raised $2,710, with the page slated to close August 9. GIA is also offering merchandise, including a screen print by GIA Executive Director Amisha Patel featuring legendary former Chicago Mayor Harold Washington, with the tag WWHD — “What Would Harold Do?”
If the Take Back Chicago database is launched quickly enough, it could help voters in the 2015 election decide whether their incumbent aldermen deserve their votes — whether they’ve lived up to promises or acted in line with constituents’ interests. In the end, though, GIA Field Organizer Abbie Illenberger says that the idea is to create a portal that lasts and grows for many years and election cycles to come.
“The level of expectation among Chicago residents of what their alderman does is pretty low,” Illenberger tells In These Times. “Especially when we look at the function of legislating — if you ask the average voter about what their alderman does, they would probably talk about city services, filling potholes, garbage pickup. What we think is missing is the expectation that aldermen are supposed to legislate — and they create policy that absolutely determines the future of our communities and our children and our neighborhoods.”
One such policy has been accountability and reform around the city’s use of Tax Increment Financing (TIF)s, a program meant to spur development in “blighted” areas that is instead often used to funnel property tax dollars to developers in well-off neighborhoods.
The Take Back Chicago video highlights a City Council vote in 2008 to give “$30 million for a corporate downtown park” — that would be TIF money for River Point. In years past the Grassroots Collaborative, GIA’s non-lobbying sister organization, has highlighted it as a symbol of corporate welfare. It was, after all, given new life by a real estate giant around the same time City Council agreed unanimously to close half the city’s public mental health clinics and cut services — thereby laying off hundreds of workers—in Emanuel’s inaugural FY2012 budget. The video notes that the budget vote was 50-0 in favor; the vote on the plan to shunt TIF money to the plaza was 48-1.
Meanwhile, the closing of nearly 50 public schools has also incensed thousands of Chicago parents, progressives, union members and other residents, including video narrators Johnson and Vega, who have been prominent in the fight against drastic public education reform.
Ryan notes that 32 aldermen publicly offered support for a proposed ordinance that would have sent TIF money designated as surplus back to public school improvements — “but the reason they signed on is they knew it wasn’t going to move out of the Rules Committee.” Before moving to a vote before the full Council, ordinances are assigned to a committee where a majority of members must approve it, known by many activists as “committee where ordinances go to die.”
After the TIF surplus ordinance predictably languished in the Rules Committee, a city law was invoked allowing the full council to vote on whether to rescue it. Despite the original roster of 32 supporters, only 11 aldermen voted to move the ordinance forward, including members of the small progressive caucus which sometimes challenges Emanuel. With so few votes, the ordinance remained in the Rules Committee, seemingly “dead.”
“We consistently see things like that,” said Ryan. “Aldermen ask community groups to support them, but when it comes to actually fighting for something, if it’s not something the mayor wants, it’s not something they actually push for.”
As intransigent as the “rubber stamp” City Council system may seem, activists and labor leaders hope that growing discontent with Emanuel’s administration, paired with an increasingly digital-savvy movement, could make real political shifts.
The Chicago Sun-Times, after all, predicted potentially notable gains from the Left, including Take Back Chicago, and noted that GIA leaders have been meeting with the Working Families Party, which helped push New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio into office. With rumors swirling that Chicago Teachers Union president Karen Lewis may run against Emanuel, Grassroots Illinois Action and other community groups are thrilled by the prospect of potentially ousting Mayor 1%.
But with a campaign war chest of more than $7 million, many consider Emanuel nearly unbeatable in the election. Hence a major aim of the Take Back Chicago project is to foster a more accountable and responsive City Council, regardless of who is mayor. Ultimately, the campaign calls for reclaiming the city with “a people’s platform where we can come together, learn what’s really going on and fight for change.”
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Kari Lydersen is a Chicago-based journalist, author and assistant professor at Northwestern University, where she leads the investigative specialization at the Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications. Her books include Mayor 1%: Rahm Emanuel and the Rise of Chicago’s 99%.