O-Issue 2012: Chicago Politics

By Sam Levine

Notoriously rife with corruption, the Chicago political system is one of the most hard-nosed institutions in the nation. Chicagoans elect a mayor and a city council every four years. The City Council, responsible for making the city’s laws, is comprised of 50 aldermen elected from 50 different wards across the city. Chicago sits in Cook County, the second most populous county in the nation. Below are some of the major players on the Chicago political scene.

Rahm Emanuel: Since taking office last year, Mayor Rahm Emanuel has worked to raise Chicago’s profile but has also faced significant challenges in improving the city’s schools, curtailing an enormous budget deficit, and reducing crime. In May, Emanuel and Chicago had a chance to shine as the city hosted the first NATO summit in the United States outside of Washington D.C. The Mayor has worked to revitalize parts of the city, announcing a $7 billion public-private partnership earlier this year to improve the city’s infrastructure, and also got the U of C to agree to pledge $1.7 million last year in an agreement to help create jobs on the South Side. While Emanuel often touts Chicago as a “world-class city,” the Mayor has struggled to control the city’s crime, as police reported a 38 percent increase in homicides from the previous year between June 2011 and June 2012. Emanuel has also tried to close an inherited budget deficit by cutting city services, including six of the city’s 12 mental health clinics, which resulted in student and community protests around the U of C. In Chicago’s public schools, the Mayor reached an agreement with the Chicago Teachers Union to extend the school day, but could not agree to a new contract with the city’s teachers. Disagreements over teacher evaluations, compensation, and job security led teachers to strike for seven days earlier this month, the first time that they have done so in 25 years.

Richard M. Daley: Chicagoans elected Daley mayor in 1989, and for the next 22 years no one else ran the city. Chicago’s longest serving mayor, Daley comes from a family that pumps the blood of Chicago’s political life. His father Richard J. Daley served as mayor from 1955 to 1976, and his brother William M. Daley served as President Obama’s chief of staff and ran Al Gore’s 2000 presidential campaign. While Daley has cemented his legacy on the city, he was criticized during his later years in office for city contracts with the Hired Truck Program that benefited those close to Daley, as well as his privatization of the city’s parking meters, a move that caused parking rates to go up and the city to lose an estimated $11.6 billion in revenue over the span of a 75-year contract.

Pat Quinn: Quinn served as Rod Blagojevich’s Lieutenant Governor but became the 41st Governor of Illinois in 2009 after Blagojevich was removed from office. Elected to his own full term in 2010, Quinn has outlawed the death penalty in the state, legalized civil unions for gay and lesbian couples, and this year publicly said that he will push to legalize gay marriage in the state.

Will Burns: A young face in Chicago politics, Burns, A.B. ’95, A.M. ’98, represents portions of Hyde Park mostly south of East 55th Street as well as parts of Kenwood and Bronzeville in Chicago’s Fourth Aldermanic Ward. Last year, Burns supported a zoning change that would help bring businesses to 53rd Street and voted against giving the mayor additional power to grant security contracts before the NATO summit. Before he was elected alderman in May 2011, Burns served one term in the Illinois General Assembly. Burns also served as an aide on Barack Obama’s failed congressional bid in 2000.

Leslie Hairston: A Hyde Park native and Lab School graduate, Hairston has represented portions of Hyde Park north of East 53rd Street in the Fifth Ward since 1999. Hairston opposed a University plan to extend a zoning agreement with the city along South Woodlawn Avenue between East 57th and 58th Streets last year, and helped broker a compromise with the community to preserve certain historic buildings along the corridor.

Willie Cochran: Cochran’s 20th Aldermanic Ward includes portions of Hyde Park. A former organizer of the Woodlawn New Communities Program, Cochran served as a police officer in the 20th Ward for 12 years before running for office. As violence continued to increase on the South Side this summer, Cochran publicly called on the mayor and Chicago Police Superintendent Gary McCarthy to use more aggressive policing techniques, including the controversial stop-and-frisk tactic.

Toni Preckwinkle: Preckwinkle, A.B. ’69, M.A.T. ’77, serves as the President of the Cook County Board of Commissioners, a 17-member body that sets property, public health, and safety policy for the entire county. Preckwinkle has pushed for the decriminalization of small amounts of marijuana, proposing that individuals caught with small amounts of the drug receive tickets instead of getting arrested. A similar plan has already been embraced in Chicago, where this summer the city approved a plan to issue tickets for between $250 and $500 for those caught with 15 grams or less of marijuana. Preckwinkle, a former history teacher, drew criticism this summer for saying that President Ronald Reagan deserved a “special place in hell” for his role in the War on Drugs, a remark she later apologized for. Prior to serving as President of the Cook County Board of Commissioners, Preckwinkle represented the Fourth Ward in the City Council.

Barbara Flynn Currie: Currie, A.B ’68, M.A. ’73, serves as the Democratic Majority Leader in the Illinois General Assembly. Currie, who has served in the Assembly for 32 years, is the first woman to hold the position of majority leader, and is one of the most powerful members of the Assembly. Currie was married to David P. Currie, a professor at the Law School who died in 2007, and has maintained a close relationship with the University since graduating. She represents portions of Hyde Park, Kenwood, Woodlawn, and South Chicago.

Kwame Raoul: After Barack Obama was elected to the U.S. Senate in 2004, Raoul was tapped to fill Obama’s State Senate seat. Since taking office, Raoul has firmly cemented his own identity in Illinois politics. Raoul supported the legislation to abolish the death penalty in Illinois signed into law by Governor Pat Quinn last year, and supported stricter gun regulations after the murder of U of C graduate student Amadou Cisse in 2007.

Bobby Rush: Rush has represented the Hyde Park community in the U.S. House of Representatives since 1993. Rush criticized the University’s decision to continue investments in Darfur, and called for a congressional investigation into the University of Chicago Medical Center’s treatment of minority patients. The 10-term Congressman has also pushed for level-one adult trauma care to return to the South Side after his son was killed by a gunshot wound across the street from a hospital. Earlier this year, Rush drew national attention when he was kicked off the House floor for wearing a hoodie following the killing of Trayvon Martin. Rush also held onto his seat against challenger Barack Obama in 2000, a moment that has been called Obama’s “political education” and a turning point in the President’s career.

Jesse Jackson, Jr.: The son of civil rights leader Jesse Jackson, Sr., Jackson represents eastern portions of Hyde Park and other South Side neighborhoods in the U.S. House of Representatives. Jackson, who is running for re-election, is currently being treated at the Mayo Clinic for depression after a sudden disappearance from Capitol Hill earlier this year. While Jackson’s office has continued to offer legislative services, the nine-term congressman’s future is uncertain.

Rod Blagojevich: The former governor and Celebrity Apprentice star is currently serving a 14-year sentence in jail after being convicted on 18 counts of corruption and misconduct for trying to sell Barack Obama’s vacated U.S. Senate seat.  The 43rd Governor was initially acquitted on all counts, and then convicted in a re-trial. Blagojevich is in good company; his predecessor, George Ryan, was also convicted on federal corruption charges.

Barack Obama: Hyde Park’s most famous resident used to eat his breakfast at Valois Cafeteria and first kissed Michelle on the corner of East 53rd Street and South Dorchester Avenue. Obama represented Hyde Park in the Illinois State Senate from 1997-2004, and Illinois in the United States Senate from 2005-2009. He also taught constitutional law at the Law School and sent his children to the Lab School. His rise to the presidency has allowed him to cross paths with some of the most important Hyde Park elected officials who still continue to serve the neighborhood.