Chicago aldermen who sought higher positions mostly lost. Why?
They’ve seen themselves walking the halls of Congress, wearing judges’ robes or smiling in portraits at Illinois driver’s license offices.
But with one exception, the six Chicago aldermen who tried to quit their City Council jobs for other elected gigs failed in Tuesday’s primary, leaving them to re-examine their political aspirations while remaining in a job many of whom complaining in private is no longer fun.
While this primary cycle offered new opportunities to climb the political ladder thanks to the decennial redistricting and retirements, city hall insiders could not recall an election in recent history where so many sitting members of the council were running for higher positions. Two aldermen – and possibly more – are also looking to make progress by challenging Mayor Lori Lightfoot in 2023.
The circumstances of each race varied, but Tuesday’s losses and exit attempts raise questions: Are aldermen’s power and parish organization in decline? Are the aldermen part of a post-pandemic reshuffling of professional priorities? Or simply unhappy to work with the administration of Lightfoot? And is the job title more voter-tainted than in the past?
Former 49th Ald Ward. Joe Moore, who in 2000 ran unsuccessfully for clerk of the Circuit Court, can name about a dozen others from his time in politics who were unable to make the leap. This includes Ald. Edward Burke’s bid for Cook County District Attorney in 1980, Anthony Beale’s bid for Congress, and Ameya Pawar’s dropped bid for Governor in the 2018 cycle.
One of the barriers to access to higher office for aldermen is that their constituencies are small and their scope relatively limited.
A neighborhood is “one fiftieth of the city. Then if you’re really, really, really lucky, only about 40% of that base hates your guts,” Moore says. And while the remaining 60% might approve of their own alderman, other voters “generally think aldermen are clowns, incompetent and corrupt”.
Several city hall sources attribute the sprint for outings to the same thing: low job satisfaction. Collegiality between aldermen and between council and mayor has faded, making it more difficult to pass meaningful legislation. Ribbon-cutting for major projects has also slowed since the days of mayors Daley and Emanuel, starving aldermen of a chance for recognition and tangible benefits they can steer voters into Election Day.
And Lightfoot’s frequent criticism of aldermen privilege and personal fights with council members do little to improve their position. Nor is the indictment and sentencing of former aldermen and former aldermen.
The city council is rarely a perch that lends itself to higher office. There are exceptions: Luis Gutierrez, Bill Lipinski, and Bobby Rush all went straight from alderman to the United States House, and Toni Preckwinkle became chairman of the Cook County Council.
Aldus. Gilbert Villegas, 36th, also had his sights set on Washington, but was beaten in the race for the new 3rd congressional district on the northwest side. The winner, State Representative Delia Ramirez, outclassed him by about 40 points, according to unofficial statements.
Villegas blames a number of factors for the loss: low turnout among moderate voters, difficulty campaigning in a much larger district, the influence of outside money, and the Supreme Court ruling on abortion, which has probably increased the participation rate of women who wanted to vote for a woman. .
But he also noted that ward organizations are a shadow of what they once were.
“A city councilor in the 80s or 90s had the ability to have riding captains, the ability to get votes. It’s not like that anymore,” he said. These former precinct captains often got their city jobs — or jobs for their families — with the backing of a city councilor and worked hard on Election Day to keep their jobs. The vaunted operations led by formal or informal political families are becoming rare. Frontline workers today are more frequently members of unions that supported the candidate or are associated with ideological groups.
Ramirez has enjoyed strong progressive support, including from the Chicago Teachers Union and a group of elected officials and activists aligned with U.S. Representative Jesus “Chuy” Garcia.
As head of the city council’s Latino caucus, Villegas recently led an unsuccessful campaign to bring more predominantly Latino neighborhoods onto the city’s new map. When his efforts failed and a majority of the council instead backed a map supported by most Black Caucus members of the council, Villegas was left with an 8-mile-long seesaw-shaped neighborhood.
Villegas plans to run for office next year. “I’m running for alderman because people want me there,” he said.
Aldus. George Cardenas, 12th, was an exception to the rule this year, winning a seat on the Cook County Board of Review, a tax appeals committee. He agrees with Villegas that the nature of field operations has changed and a vacuum of compound workers has been partly filled by labor and activist groups.
“The new power brokers are these organizations instead of the individuals making decisions locally,” Cardenas said.
He has not yet established a timetable for leaving the city council. He is unopposed in November and his exit will give Lightfoot the opportunity to make his third alderman appointment.
Cardenas said the redistricting gave him the opportunity to run in a Latino-leaning district, but he also acknowledged that being on the council wasn’t as much fun as it used to be.
“I will leave it to each alderman to say what he wants about this. For my part, I looked at the opportunity. I served three different mayors. It’s a difficult environment” between the pandemic and recent council debates on police accountability and public safety.
In the race to succeed Rush who is retiring, another board member has failed. Third Ward Ald. Pat Dowell placed second in a crowded Democratic primary field, but was still 9 points behind winner Jonathan Jackson, from one of the remaining local political family dynasties. Dowell began this election cycle as secretary of state for Illinois, but dropped out of that bid in January when Rush announced he was retiring from Congress.
Dowell did not respond to an interview request, but in a statement she said she looked forward to continuing to serve as a councilman and working with Jackson “to make sure we get our fair share of resources”. She has served on the board since 2007 and holds one of her most important positions: that of budget chair.
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Aldus. David Moore, 17th, came in third in the Democrats’ fiery race for secretary of state. Another city official, Clerk Anna Valencia, placed second, but was nearly 20 points behind Alexi Giannoulias, who has previously held statewide offices.
It would have been difficult for anyone to mount a successful statewide campaign against two candidates as well-known, widely supported and well-funded as David Moore’s opponents. But he blames the large sums of money for his loss and notes that it was particularly difficult to campaign in the state while running a neighborhood office, attending committee hearings and holding meetings with constituents and The promoters.
His loss had “nothing to do with the mayor” demonizing the aldermen, he said.
“This sort of thing has been going on since Operation Silver Shovel,” Moore said of the extensive anti-corruption investigation in the 1990s that led to the conviction of several aldermen. “People see who we are individually.”
Moore plans to run for councilor again in 2023.
Despite the Cook County Democratic Party’s stamp of approval, a law career spanning three decades, and positive ratings at all levels of the local bar, 21st Ward Ald. Howard Brookins trailed in his bid for a seat as a Cook County Circuit Court judge behind Lisa Michelle Taylor, an attorney also recommended by local bar associations.
“It’s hard to beat a woman in Cook County in a court race, especially when there’s only one in the race and there are two guys,” he said.
Brookins has not committed to seek another term on the board. “If I don’t win, I’m pretty sure I’ll stay until May when the term is up. But I don’t know.
He is currently battling a city council that found his defense of clients in criminal cases involving the Chicago Police Department violated the city’s ethics ordinance.
“I strongly believe in citizen legislators. When you hear me talk about issues, red light cameras and what administrative hearing officers do, how they treat people, what the police do or don’t do when they stop people – I don’t can’t go along with administration without practicing law. … If it’s a hindrance to the practice of law, it’s a factor” in an eventual exit.
Aldus. Chris Taliaferro, 29th, placed second in a two-man court race for the 11th underrun. A former police officer and lawyer who has mainly worked on divorce, child support and domestic relations cases, Taliaferro was about 1,600 votes behind opponent Aileen Bhandari on Friday, according to unofficial results.
Taliaferro has been classified as unqualified or not recommended by several local bars. According to Injustice Watch, which compiled a guide to judicial candidates, the Chicago Bar Association said Taliaferro is “hard-working and good-natured” but lacks “the depth and breadth legal knowledge and practical experience” to be a judge.
Bhandari has been highly recommended by legal groups – a contrast to Taliaferro whom she has played in campaign direct mail – and has spent most of her career in the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office. Taliaferro has been an alderman since 2015. He did not respond to a request for comment.