SPRINGFIELD — The winds of change gusted through the Windy City on Tuesday night with Cook County Commissioner Brandon Johnson’s election as the next mayor of Chicago.
Johnson, a progressive firebrand who ran with the strong backing of public sector unions, defeated former Chicago Public Schools CEO Paul Vallas, a right-leaning centrist supported by the business community and trade unions.
The victory is perhaps the largest sea change for the nation’s third-largest city since the election of Harold Washington as the city’s first Black mayor in 1983.
But how Johnson’s victory will impact the larger ecosystem that is Illinois government and politics is a more complicated question to answer.
The simple answer is, yes, there is an impact.
The mayor of Chicago, whoever it is, will always have an outsized influence compared to other municipal leaders due to the city’s sheer size — 1 in 5 Illinoisans live in Chicago — and status as a major global financial hub.
But the days where Chicago’s mayor alone could dictate major political and policy outcomes in Springfield have long been over.
“Looking at it historically, the mayor of Chicago has about maybe 10% of the influence now, the impact in Springfield now, than when I started as a reporter 50 some years ago,” said Charlie Wheeler, retired director of the public affairs reporting program at the University of Illinois Springfield.
Wheeler, a longtime statehouse reporter for the Chicago Sun-Times, started writing for the paper when Richard J. Daley was mayor of Chicago and chair of the Cook County Democratic Party.
At the time, the party was the dominant force in state Democratic politics, meaning Daley had significant influence on which candidates were slated for statewide office and who represented the city in the state legislature.
The patronage system — the doling out of government jobs, money and contracts in exchange for supporting the party — served as the machine’s lifeblood. It served to further engender loyalty to Daley among lawmakers who needed access to those jobs and to the army of precinct captains that those jobs sustained.
This allowed Daley to throw his weight around in Springfield.
For example, when Republican Gov. Richard Ogilvie proposed the state’s first income tax in 1969, he had to team up with Daley to secure the votes of Cook County Democrats. Daley provided the necessary votes once he had secured a provision ensuring a slice of the new tax would be distributed to cities.
Politically, he also flexed some muscle. In 1976, Daley backed Secretary of State Michael Howlett for governor against incumbent Dan Walker in the Democratic primary. Walker had been a critic of Daley’s and he paid for it by losing the election.
But the system began to unravel after Daley died, as a series of federal court rulings known as the Shakman Decrees barring political patronage in Chicago were issued.
Decades later, the Democratic Party began to branch out of Cook County and into the suburban collar counties, where elected officials were not shackled to the city’s political organization or its leader.
“It’s a combination of the old patronage system kind of going out of fashion because of court rulings, and the evolution of the Democratic Party as becoming more rooted in the suburbs than it was historically,” Wheeler said. “Those folks don’t really have to worry about the mayor of Chicago.”
Over the past four decades, Democratic legislative leaders have often protected the Chicago mayor’s office as an institution.
Former House Speaker Michael Madigan, D-Chicago, for instance, blocked any attempts to weaken the powers of the mayor during the period in the mid-1980s known as “Council Wars,” which pitted Mayor Washington against white ethnic aldermen in a highly-racialized conflict.
But this also served to remind Chicago mayors that the statehouse was the domain of Madigan, who would be considered the most powerful Democratic politician in the state.
In the years since, it’s been a mixed bag for Chicago mayors.
In 1995, state lawmakers gave Mayor Richard M. Daley control over Chicago Public Schools. Yet on another major issue, construction of a third airport for the Chicago region, Daley clashed with Republican Gov. Jim Edgar and it was never built.
More recently, Mayor Lori Lightfoot got from Springfield what several mayors before her could not: authority to build a brick-and-mortar casino in city limits.
Yet two years later, Chicago legislators ignored her wishes and pushed through legislation that would phase out mayoral control of the city’s school system and gradually return it to an elected school board.
Long story short, Chicago’s mayor in recent years has won some and lost some in Springfield. Johnson’s track record will likely be similar.
But, Wheeler noted that Johnson would likely have “a much more favorable reception” among the legislature’s progressive members and the Black Caucus, who are pushing a lot of the initiatives that Johnson has proposed in Chicago.
However, unlike the days of Daley, one thing is clear: “(Gov.) J.B. Pritzker is still the top dog Democrat in the state,” Wheeler said.
Winds of change elsewhere
Chicago wasn’t the only city to elect a new mayor.
Voters in Springfield ousted two-term incumbent Jim Langfelder in favor of city treasurer Misty Buscher. Langfelder meets the same fate as his father, former Mayor Ossie Langfelder, in being denied a third term.
Mayor-elect Buscher will be the capital city’s second female mayor.
Wine about election night
On the other hand, it was a much more relaxed election night for Decatur Mayor Julie Moore Wolfe.
Moore Wolfe, appointed in 2015 and elected in closely-contested races in 2017 and 2019, ran unopposed for reelection this time.
Instead of watch returns at an election night party, Moore Wolfe and her daughter, Hannah, attended a cooking class at a downtown Decatur business.
While enjoying a glass of wine, Moore Wolfe insisted she scheduled it not knowing it was on election night. Perhaps it was an indicator of the afterthought the race had become with no serious opposition.
Deering elected to school board
In November, Republican congressional candidate Regan Deering lost to Democratic Rep. Nikki Budzinski, D-Springfield, in the central and southern Illinois-based 13th Congressional District.
On Tuesday, she declared victory on a smaller scale. Deering was elected to serve on the Mt. Zion School Board.
Deering, a philanthropist and community activist, had her political awakening in 2021 when she spoke against mask mandates in schools at a board meeting.
Contact Brenden Moore at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter: @brendenmoore13
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April 5, 2023 at 11:13PM