O-Issue 2013: Chicago Politics

The big names in the Windy City, and what you need to know about them.

By Sam Levine

Chicago politics has many levels of VIPs, and despite the city’s corrupt history, these people-to-know can actually get things done. Chicagoans elect a mayor and a City Council every four years. The City Council, responsible for making the city’s laws, comprises 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 in 2011, 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 June, Emanuel oversaw the launch of Divvy, the city’s first bike sharing program, which will eventually distribute 4,000 bikes to 400 stations across the city. In 2012, Emanuel and Chicago had a chance to shine as his “world-class city” hosted the first NATO summit in the United States outside of Washington D.C. However, Emanuel has struggled to control the city’s crime as Chicago gained national attention for a sharp increase in homicides—its 506 murders last year were a 16 percent increase from the previous year. This year, police say the city’s homicide rate is the lowest it’s been since 1965, but gang-related crime has remained, particularly on the south and west sides of the city. The city’s finances continue to plague Emanuel, who has also tried to close a portion of the $339 million hole in the city’s budget in 2014 by laying off more than 1,000 teachers and closing 50 public schools. The cuts have been questioned in light of Emanuel’s quest for millions in public funding for a new DePaul University basketball arena, and did not sit well with the Chicago Teacher’s Union and its president Karen Lewis, causing them to go on strike last September for the first time in 25 years during negotiations for a new teachers’ contract.

Richard M. Daley: Chicagoans elected Daley mayor in 1989, and for the next 22 years no one else ran the city, making him the longest-serving mayor in Chicago’s history. To achieve this feat, he surpassed his father Richard J. Daley, who served as mayor from 1955 to 1976. While the younger 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 the mayor, as well as his privatization of the city’s parking meters, a move that raised parking rates and lost the city an estimated $11.6 billion in revenue over the span of a 75-year contract. The former mayor also serves as a Senior Fellow at the Harris School of Public Policy.

Pat Quinn: Quinn served as Lieutenant Governor under Rod Blagojevich but became governor of Illinois in 2009 after Blagojevich was removed from office. Elected to his full term in 2010, Quinn has legalized the use of medicinal marijuana, outlawed the death penalty, and legalized civil unions for same-sex couples. The 41st governor, who will run for re-election next year, has not yet been able to solve the problem of the state’s $97 billion in pension liabilities, and withholding the pay of state lawmakers until they can resolve the issue.

Will Burns: Alderman 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 that make up Chicago’s Fourth Ward. Earlier this year, Burns did not oppose Emanuel’s proposal to close Canter Middle School in Kenwood, and in 2011 supported a zoning change that would help bring businesses to 53rd Street. Burns previously served one term in the Illinois General Assembly and as an aide on Barack Obama’s failed congressional bid in 2000.

Leslie Hairston: A Hyde Parker and Lab School graduate, Hairston has represented portions of Hyde Park north of East 53rd Street as Fifth Ward alderman since 1999. This year, Hairston was one of four aldermen who let residents decide how to spend $1 million of city money in their ward. Hairston also opposed a University plan to extend a zoning agreement with the city along South Woodlawn Avenue between East 57th and 58th Streets in 2011, and helped broker a compromise with the community to preserve certain historic buildings there.

Willie Cochran: Cochran’s 20th Aldermanic Ward includes Washington Park, parts of Woodlawn, Englewood, and Back of the Yards. A former organizer of the Woodlawn New Communities Program, Cochran served 12 of his 26 years as a police officer in his ward before running for office. Cochran has publicly called on the mayor and Chicago Police Superintendent Garry McCarthy to use more aggressive policing techniques, including the controversial stop-and-frisk tactic.

Toni Preckwinkle: Former history teacher Toni 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 county-wide property, public health, and safety policy. Preckwinkle, a Democrat who served as Fourth Ward alderman until her election in 2010, drew attention this summer for firing MaryNic Foster, the executive director of the Cook County Board of Ethics. Foster had been pushing for fines against Cook County Assessor Joseph Berrios—also the county’s Democratic Party leader—for firing members of his office and then filling the positions with relatives. Preckwinkle can sometimes be spotted at Hyde Park Produce.

Barbara Flynn Currie: Currie (A.B ’68, M.A. ’73) serves as the Democratic Majority Leader in the Illinois General Assembly. Now in the Assembly for her 34th year, she is the first woman to hold the position of Majority Leader. 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, he has firmly cemented his own identity in Illinois politics and this summer toyed with the idea of running for governor, but ultimately decided not to. Raoul also supported stricter gun regulations after the 2007 murder of University graduate student Amadou Cisse.

Bobby Rush: Rush has represented the Hyde Park community in the U.S. House of Representatives since 1993. The 11-term Representative has called for a congressional investigation into the University of Chicago Medical Center’s treatment of minority patients. He has also pushed for Level 1 adult trauma care to return to the South Side after his son was killed by a gunshot wound across the street from a hospital, and this summer introduced legislation that would provide $100 million in federal funds to create trauma centers in underserved areas. 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 Barack Obama in 2000, a moment that has been called Obama’s “political education.”

Jesse Jackson, Jr.: The son of the famed civil rights leader, Jackson represented eastern portions of Hyde Park and other South Side neighborhoods in the U.S. House of Representatives for 17 years until he resigned his seat last year after spending $750,000 in campaign funds on personal luxury items. Jackson pleaded guilty to charges in February and was sentenced this summer to 30 months in federal prison. His wife, Sandi, also pleaded guilty to failing to report about $600,000 of income on the couple’s tax returns and was also sentenced to a year in jail. The district is now represented by Robin Kelly, who won a special election for the seat in April.

Michael Madigan: Madigan has served as Speaker of the Illinois House of Representatives for 28 years and is chairman of the Illinois Democratic Party. His daughter Lisa Madigan has been the Illinois Attorney General since 2003, and this summer decided against running for governor in 2014, citing a potential conflict of interest with her father if elected. The elder Madigan, one of the state’s most powerful politicians, faced significant criticism throughout the summer after he allegedly pushed Metra administrators to give a raise to a political ally working for the agency.

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 serve the neighborhood.