On January 6, 2018, Robert Peters was sworn in as Hyde Park’s new state senator, replacing Kwame Raoul, who was elected as Illinois’s next Attorney General in November. Peters was elected—if that’s even the right term—by only eight people. While the Fourth Ward Democratic Organization office may not literally be a smoke-filled room, it was a handful of Democratic committeemen who chose our next state senator, not the voters of the district.
Peters is not the only locally elected official to jumpstart his career with an appointment. Fourth Ward Alderman Sophia King was initially appointed by Mayor Rahm Emanuel in 2016, before successfully retaining her seat in a 2017 special election. State Representative Christian Mitchell of the 26th District, who is resigning to take a position as one of J.B. Pritzker’s deputy governors, will also soon be replaced by an appointed representative. For voters living in the Fourth Ward, 13th state senate district, and 26th state house district—amounting to over half of Kenwood—all of their locally “elected” officials will soon be appointees.
While appointed incumbents have been defeated on occasion, conventional wisdom holds that an appointment confers a significant advantage. Along with the immediate visibility boost that comes with the office, incumbent aldermen—elected and appointed—tend to have a significant fundraising advantage over their challengers. In King’s 2017 special election, for example, she was able to raise more than twice as much money as all of her challengers combined. In other words, candidates like King, Peters, and Mitchell’s replacement have a significant advantage in their next elections, one conferred not by voters but by a small handful of influential Democrats. Appointment has thus become a way for candidates to earn an edge in political races in a way that’s disturbingly divorced from actual voter opinion.
Party officials have defended this process, with Alderman Leslie Hairston telling the Hyde Park Herald that appointment is simply “the process.” Hairston is technically right, but the appointment’s compliance with state procedure does nothing to change the basic fact that voters of the 13th district had little input in selecting their elected representative. While the ward committeemen are elected officials whom are theoretically responsive to their constituents, the nature of this vote stymied any meaningful public input. The process was only announced in the Herald on January 4, with the application deadline on January 5, and the decision made the day after. While the initial Q&A session was open to the public, the final decision on Raoul’s replacement was made in a closed session. It’s also worth noting that the decision took place on a Sunday afternoon, shortly before the Bears were scheduled to take on the Eagles in Chicago’s first playoff appearance since 2010—not a time when most residents were inclined to pay attention to anything else.
None of this is meant to criticize Peters, who has all the makings of a great state senator. Currently the political director of Reclaim Chicago, an organization focused on electing progressive politicians, Peters has almost a decade of experience in organizing—notably serving as the political director of Daniel Biss’s campaign for governor. His political credentials are impeccable, and his early promises—expanding bail reform and legalizing marijuana, among others—suggest he plans to aggressively pursue the progressive policies that Illinois needs. Indeed, it’s difficult to imagine a better choice to fill the vacancy.
But, Peters’s progressive ideals stand in stark contrast to the undemocratic process through which he actually took office. In a video introducing himself to residents, Peters says he “want[s] to be a state senator…who says we can do this in a different way.” The way in which he was elected, however, hearkens back to the old Chicago way of doing business—where machine bosses got their way, with little input from the people.
A special election—not an appointment—would have been the best option, offering all residents a chance to vote on their representative. This, however, would’ve required a change to the Illinois Constitution. In the meantime, an open and clearly-communicated appointment process, with ample opportunity for public input, would go a long way toward breaking down the traditional perception of Chicago as a place where these decisions are made behind closed doors.
Peters won’t face the voters until 2020, but he has promised “radical transparency” during his time in office. Here’s hoping he keeps his word. Progressive governance, after all, means more than just supporting the right policies. It means building a political system where everyone’s voice counts.
Sam Joyce is a third-year in the College.