Mayor Lori Lrightfoot’s determination to reform the political culture in Chicago may have some effect on the way business is conducted in the 50th Ward.
Lightfoot was elected because voters are disgusted with politics as usual. Voters want an end to cronyism, autocracy, boss politics, insider deals, secrecy, big money, and pay-to-play politics–all the things that characterize the 50th Ward, still the only ward in the City where religious affiliation is a prerequisite for election. Under the Silversteins, civic participation is at an all-time low, just the way they like it. It makes things so much easier when residents have been trained to mind their own business and not ask questions.
The April 2 runoff brought out only 27.64% of the ward’s eligible voters; citywide participation was nearly 32%. This downhill slide in civic engagement began when the Silversteins acquired all the political power in the ward. In the 2011 municipal elections, more than 45% of the ward’s voters went to the polls, a better turnout than the City as a whole (42%). By the 2015 elections, only 32.5% of the ward voted, less than the City total (34%). Barely one-third (33.5%) of 50th Ward voters took part in the February 2019 elections, as opposed to 35% of voters citywide.
The City Council has changed since February 26. The Progressive Caucus and its allies now hold 16 of the City Council’s 50 seats. Ald. Burke is expected to be indicted soon, and rumors are that he’ll be taking others down with him, which could give Mayor Lightfoot the opportunity to appoint even more reformers to the Council. Scott Waugespack–for my money the most honest member of the Council–will be named Finance Chair, replacing Burke, unless the Old Guard aldermen decide to put up a fight. Mayor Lightfoot plans to name reformers and supporters to committee chairmanships. She has also advised the incoming firebrand aldermen to calm down. She wants reform, not chaos.
Debra Silverstein is far from a reformer. She lied repeatedly, openly, and shamelessly throughout the recent campaign. She admitted to forming yet more secret committees, this time to develop economic policy. She has yet to reveal the names of the members of the secret committee that advised her on the construction of the new library. She continues to use a private email server and a private website to conduct public business. Her obsessive need for secrecy and her determination not to tell residents what she’s doing are troublesome and quite possibly illegal. She is now adrift, having left no mark on the City Council in the previous eight years. She has no allies. Without Rahm, she has no protector.
The photo with Lori Lightfoot in Silverstein’s recent newsletter is intended to convey the idea that she’s a player at City Hall. She isn’t. Silverstein is opposed to everything that Lori Lightfoot stands for, everything that got Lori Lightfoot elected:
- Lightfoot promises transparency. Silverstein is obsessed with secrecy.
- Lightfoot wants an end to aldermanic privilege. Silverstein is a ward boss
- Lightfoot wants aldermen to remember their responsibilities to the City as a whole. Silverstein has only a 56% attendance rate for Council and committee meetings
- Lightfoot wants results. Silverstein relies on photo-ops and outright lying to provide the illusion of achievement
- Lightfoot believes in power through democracy. Silverstein is an autocrat who operates through shadowy unknown advisors accountable to no one
The election did not settle the many issues facing the 50th Ward. A reform mayor and a more progressive City Council might well benefit 50th Ward residents who believe in participatory democracy. For example:
- Silverstein opposes participatory budgeting because she says she “has concerns” that residents taking part in such efforts might not fully represent the ward. Yet she herself was elected by only 8% of the ward’s residents. The 50th Ward is home to 72,211 residents, and only 6,014 of them voted for Silverstein. What’s especially laughable about Silverstein’s “concerns” is that she presumes that she and her staff–6 people–are more reliable judges of what the ward needs than 2,000 PB voters. Only a ward boss would dare make such a claim.
- The new mayor supports term limits, as do many of the incoming reform members of the City Council. Silverstein echoed her husband’s 2016 comments opposing term limits, claiming that “…elections are term limits.” But elections aren’t term limits for Silverstein. The majority of registered voters in the 50th Ward–50 to 60%—are Orthodox Jews who will not consider voting for any candidate who is not Jewish. There shouldn’t be a religious test for public office. In fact, it’s illegal. And, no, it’s not anti-Semitic to criticize political behavior based on religious bigotry.
- Lightfoot famously stated that no one should have to “kiss the alderman’s ring” to receive proper City services, licenses, permits, or zoning changes. Yet it’s an open secret that many new and existing businesses in the 50th Ward make generous contributions to Silverstein’s political fund, as do many of her appointees to our local Special Services Area #43, a taxing body that exists ostensibly to promote Devon Avenue as a business destination but fails spectacularly at that job (more on that soon).
- Lightfoot wants to end aldermanic privilege with regard to zoning, a long-overdue reform. Silverstein has shut down businesses that wanted to open in the 50th Ward (a microbrewery and a medical marijuana clinic, for example) 4 reason she could not articulate and engages in stealth zoning changes, never letting the community know what she plans to do. There is no 50th Ward Zoning Advisory Committee, unless there’s yet another secret group that Silverstein won’t discuss.
I intend to take the Lightfoot administration at its word. The new mayor has already signed one executive order prohibiting City agencies from deferring to the aldermen unless required to do so by the Municipal Code. Lightfoot has pledged herself and her Administration to transparency in government. Silverstein is a City employee. Will Silverstein comply with the new rules?
I expect Silverstein’s newsletter on Friday to be filled with pictures of herself and the new mayor. But don’t be fooled. Silverstein is not a player in this game. She sold her vote to Rahm Emanuel in exchange for free reign over the ward. That won’t happen with Lightfoot.
We will know on May 29 whether Silverstein will support reform or join the obstructionist forces. Her votes at this first City Council meeting of the Lightfoot Administration will tell us. There will be no more hiding in the middle of the pack, no more ducking for cover.
I wish the new mayor and the new Council all the best. They will need all the strength and support they can muster to bring even the most basic reforms to City government.
And it’s already time to prepare for the next elections, in 2020. The March primary will elect committeemen, an unpaid but important post. As we learned recently, it took only two committeemen to appoint our new state representative. The electorate was not consulted.
The process of reform in Illinois is going to be long and difficult. It’s time to get to work.