How Chicago Politics Works (and why it doesn’t)

Sam Bowman

Of all the problems with the Chicago political system, one of the most damaging is something all of us can help to change: we don’t know how it works.

Next Tuesday, February 22nd, Chicagoans will vote to elect the city’s first new mayor in twenty-three years. The boss will change, many of the aldermen too, but Chicago and its residents will still be here, asking the same questions. The real change might come less in who sits in political office, than in what we understand and expect of political office.

This issue is about raising expectations–as much for ourselves as for the people we elect.

Here you’ll find a rundown of the city system, including a history of mayoral power, a glossary of key city officials, and our best explanations of some of the most pressing and complex questions that will define Chicago politics long after the votes are counted and the suits are sworn in. The issues are dense, but the keys to the city are buried here: in tax increment financing districts and charter school reforms, in green initiatives and CTA expansions and public housing transformations.

Expect no small change.

Maggie Sivit


If your neighborhood has seen the tell-tale signs of redevelopment–anything from repaved alleys to a complete overhaul in the style of the University Village at UIC–it’s likely those were bankrolled by a subsidizing method called tax increment financing, or TIF. One of the most prevalent financing procedures used to revitalize Chicago’s blighted areas since the 1980s, TIF has also become one of the most expensive and contentious issues in Chicago politics.

In the 1970s, federal funds for urban redevelopment began to wane. Chicago, like other American cities with depressed neighborhoods, enacted TIF districts as a result. TIF was created to break the vicious circle of blighted neighborhoods: you need capital to attract businesses and homeowners, but they won’t show up without the capital. When a TIF district is created, the amount of property tax that schools, police, and other social services in that district receive from the taxpayer is frozen at a set amount. Since property taxes are tied to property values, which tend to rise from year to year, the difference between the frozen tax rate received by the district and the newer, higher tax rate paid by residents produces what is called a tax increment. That tax increment is money that can be used by the TIF district to either undertake redevelopment efforts (like paving streets, beautifying storefronts, etc.) or to subsidize construction of housing or retail. In theory, the redevelopment of a neighborhood ends up being financed by borrowing against future tax revenues.

The use of TIF districting and spending has become a quarrelsome issue in the Daley mayorship for a few reasons. One of the most important centers on what the precise meaning of “blighted” is. Certain neighborhoods, like Englewood or Kenwood, would fit the bill, with a paucity of retail options and a rundown housing stock. On the other hand, the South Loop, coming of off a construction boom that saw new high-rise apartments and condos as well as retail attracted to the area, probably shouldn’t. Yet both neighborhoods contain TIF districts, partly because of the 23-year duration of a TIF district designation, and partly because of the Daley administration’s push in Springfield to extend the life of well-performing, unnecessary TIF districts.

Another problem is that TIF is often ineffective at ensuring the revitalization of those neighborhoods that have the most dire need for it. Unlike some cities and states, Chicago doesn’t redistribute TIF funds from richer areas to poorer ones; rather, TIF funds can only be spent in the district that generated them, or in an adjacent district. The result: the rich get more money out of the deal than the poor do.

According to the TIF Projection Reports available on the Department of Housing and Economic Development’s (HED) website, the Near West TIF district, the thriving area immediately west of the Loop, can expect a yearly tax increment of almost $10 million, while Englewood can expect to get back just a little under $500,000. In a blockbuster article for the Chicago Reader, Ben Joravsky and Mick Dumke showed that “[a]bout a quarter of all TIF spending, or $358 million, went to a single ward, the Second, which includes much of the Loop and gentrified areas on the near south and west sides. That’s more than the bottom 35 wards got altogether.” TIF funds are supposed to go towards projects that would not be able to get off the ground without subsidies; this has not been the case so far.

Underscoring all these concerns is the fact that HED, which administers TIF funds, is under the purview of the mayor. City council votes to designate TIF districts, but the mayor can encourage (or depending on your political predilections, pressure) the Council to create certain TIF districts. Critics accuse Mayor Daley of obscuring the process by which TIF is implemented and understating the amount that TIF costs taxpayers. Mayor Daley says TIF doesn’t increase property taxes; Joravsky argues it does, since social services, which continue to need funding despite a frozen property tax rate, end up requiring more tax dollars and raising tax rates anyway. Mayor Daley touts the opening of new “L” lines; critics point to a lack of transparency for $500 million in TIF funds placed in a discretionary fund under control of a City Hall office instead of in the city budget.

Each of the four major candidates in this year’s mayoral race has called for greater transparency for the TIF budget, including steps to make it part of the city’s annual budget and place it on a more convenient site online, as well as establishing an audit process. The similarities stop about there. Rahm Emanuel has called for setting up an expert panel to determine best practices and to investigate paying new police officers with TIF funds. Further, he would shut down overperforming TIF districts (thus reclaiming tax revenues) and underperforming ones (more problematic response, since other solutions would need to be found). Miguel del Valle has suggested agglomerating TIF districts under one budget and pinpointing green energy, health, and technology industries as targets for TIF-funded subsidies; he’s also pressed business to pay back some of their subsidies in well-developed TIF districts. Gery Chico and Carol Moseley Braun have instead called for moratoriums of varying severity for new TIF districts. What’s clear is this: TIF as we know it is unsustainable and opaque, and was key to Mayor Daley’s adroit control over the city’s development. The question for the future mayor: will transparency will be too high a price to pay for control over what Chicago’s neighborhoods become? (Ruben Montiel)


Since January 2009, the Chicago Police Department has recorded a consistent decrease in total index crime. Reported by the Chicago Police News Desk, the crime index tracks what CPD classifies as the eight “most serious” crimes. Despite this good news, every mayoral candidate has pledged to increase vigilance in regards to public safety and crime in Chicago. Candidates universally express the belief that violence aggravates other problems within the city, and that addressing public safety can have positive effects well beyond crime statistics.

Mayoral candidates agree that a major issue is the chronically understaffed police force. Both Carol Moseley Braun and Gery Chico have vowed to add 2,000 police officers to the current force. This would bring the total up to the 13,000 Moseley Braun cites as the number of officers necessary to staff Chicago. This promise comes in spite of the incredibly high budget deficits. In 2007, the CPD lured recruits with a starting salary of $43,104; at these wages, it would cost the city roughly $86 million. Moseley Braun recognizes such expense, but argues, “The budget for the city cannot be balanced at the expense of public safety.” Emanuel is less ambitious, promising 1,000 new recruits to the police force, while Miguel Del Valle doesn’t give a specific number. Patricia Van Pelt Watkins’ campaign stresses filling vacant police positions without declaring the need for expansion. William “Dock” Walls seems to be the only candidate not calling for new hires. Rather, his platform includes declaring a “State of Emergency” to stop violent crimes and putting civilians in charge of administrative duties currently performed by police in order to increase the number of officers on patrol.

Other security issues that hold prominent places of interest in the race include gun control, gang violence, and the successful reintegration of former prisoners into society. The city’s Chicago Alternative Policing Strategy program is a popular talking point. The community-policing program that began in 1993 emphasizes empowering community members to identify and solve neighborhood issues with the support of the police force. Four of the five leading candidates (excluding Mr. Walls) have also called attention to the importance of providing resources and opportunities for the youth of Chicago in order to ensure a safe environment and discourage future violence. (Rebecca Kilberg)

Public Housing

When confronted with the issue of public housing, most mayoral candidates respond ambiguously–if they choose to respond at all. In 2000, the Chicago Housing Authority began a transition from public housing–where money is allotted by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development for low-income only families–to mixed-income housing, which can be sponsored by public or private organizations and theoretically includes a mix of homeowners and renters of varying incomes. A Chicago Housing Authority (CHA) video, complete with computer-generated diagrams of idyllic mixed-income housing communities, boasts: “residents of public housing are getting new homes…and a new lease on life as well.”

Promotional slogans aside, the effectiveness of mixed-income housing initiatives–the main component of the CHA’s “Plan for Transformation” — continues to be debated amongst academics and politicians. But because the city has already gotten the ball rolling, candidates have thus far avoided taking particularly strong positions against it–they have also refrained from appearing completely behind it, as well, given the mixed results the plan has already seen.

On January 11th, an open forum for the mayoral candidates took place at the future home of the National Public Housing Museum, with only three out of six candidates in attendance. The missing candidates–Moseley Braun, Chico, and Emanuel–don’t address the issue on their websites, either. Meanwhile, the “Plan for Transformation”, the Chicago Housing Authority’s ongoing attempt to replace all the public housing high rises with mixed-income housing, continues to change lives and uproot families. When the Chicago Tribune questioned Emanuel, who tends to omit his status as former member of the Chicago Housing Authority Board from his bios, he, too, gave vague answers, referring to it as a “bold plan” with aims of achieving “economic self-sufficiency for residents” that could be achieved with “private sector investment”. Although he acknowledged the plan’s challenges, he didn’t present any concrete solutions–or explain how the city would pay for the rest of it. The candidates who were present at the forum were not much more explicit. Walls criticized the Plan for Transformation and described his desire to build a city so prosperous that it has no need for public housing. Del Valle responded that “there will always be a need for public housing” and that he still believes in the potential of mixed-income communities. Pelt-Watkins spoke about her childhood in Cabrini Green, and emphasized that there should be “one-one-one housing replacement” and “housing assistance programs” for the displaced.

The last residents of the infamous Cabrini Green high rises moved out at the beginning of December in preparation for the buildings’ demolition. Some residents were able to move into the brand new housing nearby, but not all of the moves have been success stories. Ronit Bezalel, who has made one film about Cabrini Green and is in the process of completing another, describes the difficulties some residents have in finding new homes among the new options available to them: “there is quite a high bar for public housing residents to return to the mixed-income housing developments” with requirements such as “drug testing and a criminal background check.” She describes one example of a “former Cabrini resident whose daughter had a misdemeanor for fighting at school. As a consequence, her daughter wasn’t allowed to live with her mother in the new mixed-income community.” Problems such as this are not being acknowledged by candidates, perhaps for fear of upsetting potential voters–so it seems we’ll have to wait until the mayor is elected to find out his or her plan. (Rachel Lazar)


Few who have stepped into a Chicago public school would suggest that the system doesn’t need work. The darling remedy of the moment is the charter school: publicly funded schools that are granted special exemptions from state regulations on the condition that they demonstrate measurably higher levels of achievement.

Just last month the school board approved new campuses and new charter schools that will serve almost 6,000 students. This comes as welcome news for many parents in the city, as the Chicago Tribune reports that 12,000 students in the CPS system are on a charter school waiting list, but not everyone is thrilled about the partial privatization of the school system.

Both Gery Chico and Rahm Emanuel have demonstrated their commitment to expanding the charter system. As President of the Board of Trustees of CPS during the late 90’s, it was Chico who set up the city’s first charter schools. Supporting charters cost both candidates the endorsement of the Chicago Teacher’s Union (CTU), which criticizes charters as a privatization of education. Charter schools are not required to hire union members and many teachers see them as a threat to their union. CTU president Karen Lewis went so far as to tell the Chicago Tribune, “The fact is Rahm Emanuel does not seem to support publicly funded public education as we know it.” The CTU has not endorsed a candidate, because votes were too evenly split between Carol Moseley Braun and Miguel del Valle.

The other major education question facing the next mayor is whether he or she will hold the reins. Mayor Daley took direct control of Chicago public schools in 1995. He chooses the seven members of the school board and other education officials, including the CEO of CPS. The next mayor faces pressure from the CTU to return to a 13-member elected school board. Gery Chico derides the creation of 13 new political posts, while Miguel del Valle supports elections as long as strict control is held over campaign financing.

Chicago’s choice of mayor will have a profound effect on the structure of its school system, and thus on the lives of students and their families. (Cecilia Donnelly)

The Environment

Mayor Daley wanted Chicago to become America’s greenest city. It isn’t. Last month, seventeen environmental groups in Chicago worked together to create a “Green Growth Platform” to influence the next mayor’s agenda, and they asked each of the current candidates twenty questions about environmental problems and opportunities in the city. The survey neatly outlines Chicago’s major environmental concerns: getting rid of the nearly century-old coal plants, making curbside pick-up of blue cart recycling a reality and not just an ordinance, and conserving lake and river environments.

Chicago is home to two functioning coal plants that contribute several megawatts of power to the national grid, though not to Chicago specifically, and that have been accused of costing the public nearly $1 billion in public health costs. The plants are located in Little Village, a neighborhood just five miles southwest of the loop with the highest rate of asthma in the city, according to the Little Village Environmental Justice Organization (LVEJO). The closure of these plants is the goal of the Clean Power Ordinance, an initiative that has been introduced to the City Council but remains unaddressed. All the candidates except Rahm Emmanuel told the Green Growth Platform that they would support the Clean Power Ordinance and shut down the coal plants.

Many Chicago residents don’t know that there are coal plants in the city, but everyone needs their trash picked up, and some of it should be recycled. The Chicago Recycling Coalition notes, “By Chicago law (which is honored more in the breach than in the observance) [multi-unit building owners are] required to offer [their] tenants an effective recycling plan.” The South Side is home to 15 drop-off locations where residents can bring their recycling, but for those without cars or a seriously high degree of motivation, these are inconvenient to say the least. There is no plan for finishing the roll-out of blue carts in the city.

As the controversy over the University of Chicago’s removal of a community garden at 61st and Dorchester illustrated last year, locally grown food is also a hot-button issue, especially on the South Side, which is often characterized as a “food desert” because of its lack of supermarkets and other sources of fresh produce. As urban farms crop up all over the city, environmental groups are pushing the next mayor to offer more support for local food, which would translate into more farms and farmer’s markets.

Ongoing concerns about carp and other invasive species in Lake Michigan and the Chicago River will also need to be addressed by the city’s next mayor. Lakefront habitat has been gradually returned to its natural state with projects like the dune restoration at 63rd St. Beach, and the prairie restoration at 47th St and Lake Shore Drive. All the mayoral candidates except Patricia Van Pelt Watkins told the Green Growth Platform that they would preserve the Calumet region and complete the lakefront park system. The Calumet region, which wraps around the southern tip of Lake Michigan, is one of the largest natural wetlands in the United States. It’s increasingly being recognized as a crucial habitat for migratory birds, and a critical frontline for improving water quality in the Chicago and the Midwest as a whole.

While all the candidates assured the Green Growth Platform that they would move forward on environmental issues, political expediency is hard to come by, and environmental reform might prove limited by that other kind of green. (Cecilia Donnelly)


Only two of the four leading candidates even have a webpage devoted to the issue, but come February 22, public transportation could turn out to be a game-changer for some voters.

Chicago Transit Authority (CTA) was established in 1947 as an independent governmental agency after years of private ownership of transportation services that couldn’t turn a profit. Today, the legacy of fiscal hardship remains. A little over a year ago, the CTA cut back heavily on bus and train services in an attempt to slash $95 million from the city’s budget, eliminating 18 percent of bus and 9 percent of train services, the Chicago Tribune reported. Of the remaining tracks and facilities, a reported $7 billion is still needed to repair the transportation system. Many are beginning to fear that the candidates’ reticence to address public transit issues–Moseley Braun announced her plans less than a month ago–is a sign that the next mayor will look to axe services and jobs once again to keep the city’s budget from collapsing.

But people will still have to get where they’re going. The next mayor will have to address issues like Metra/Pace/CTA coordination and the “slow zones” on the Orange, Red, and Purple Lines. Most relevant to those on the South Side will be the renovation of deteriorating Red Line segments, and the proposed extension of service down to 130th Street, adding four new stops and relieving congestion at 95th. With the exception of Gery Chico, all of the leading candidates support this proposal on their websites, but its success or failure will again hinge on available funding. Like the stubborn O’Hare Modernization Plan that refuses to fix itself, the extension is another Daley initiative beleaguered by shaky funding and legal roadblocks.

The leading candidates promise to make Chicago–recently named the 10th most bike-friendly city in the U.S. by Bicycling Magazine–even friendlier to sustainable transportation options. In addition to increasing the number of safe bike lanes and providing more places to lock up, Rahm says he will push for an ordinance requiring bike storage in office buildings with more than 200 tenants.

No matter what proposals the candidates put forth, the first question is where the money will come from. Miguel del Valle has stressed the need to take advantage of all available federal funding, an implicit reference to the city’s failure in 2008 to meet deadlines for a $153 billion grant to improve bus service.

Transportation may not be the sexiest issue of this mayoral race, but for all of Rahm’s “L” stop cameos throughout the city, you’d imagine that the subject would come up a little more frequently. If Chicago hopes to follow through on its green ambitions and improve access to jobs and services, revamping public transit will be, ahem, clutch. Until then, at least we have bike lanes. (Mitchell Kohles)

Jobs & Business

Chicago’s transition to a service-based city has been bumpy, but when assessing the current state of our economy, it’s important to remember that things are not as shabby as they are sometimes portrayed. For all the alleged cronyism of the Daley imperium, there is a reason that our outbound mayor was reelected five times, most recently with over 70 percent of the vote. According to the New Yorker, in the years spanning 1993 and 2010, Chicago added more jobs than the metropolises of Los Angeles and Boston combined. City Hall’s focus on attracting tourism through large-scale investments like Millennium Park and Navy Pier has led to a 50 percent uptick in tourism revenue in the past seven years and our average income per-capita of $27,000 a year hovers just above the national average; twenty years ago it was more than ten percent beneath it. The metropolis’s status as an American city whose star keeps rising despite a global recession has prompted national media to refer to the last decade as the new “Chicago Renaissance.” All in all, Chicago has largely escaped the economic wreckage experienced by the rest of the rust belt.

But as the Chicago News Cooperative has recently lamented, that resilient image of the city has been undermined by the fact that neighborhoods have shared unequally in the regrowth. Though things could be worse for the metro area as a whole, the city is as segregated and stratified as ever before, with African American households earning on average 44% less than their Caucasian counterparts. Mayoral candidates have recognized this disparity, but other than disdain for current distribution of TIF funds and calls for more strategic investment, plans to address blighted areas lack specificity.

Moreover, many of the trends that have sustained Chicago’s recent upward swing are beginning to stagnate as the city is beset by a mammoth budget crisis for which few, mayoral candidates included, seem to a have a solution. Adding insult to injury to a city renowned for its architecture, real estate prices are down 22 percent, according to Bloomberg; more than 10,000 buildings stand vacant; and plans for the Chicago Spire, intended to be the country’s tallest building and our skyline’s crowning corkscrew, have been indefinitely shelved.

The city’s budgetary woes stem largely from a pension system for municipal employees that is grossly underfunded. Chicago currently has a $650 million budget deficit, meaning that one in every ten dollars the city spends is effectively borrowed. All the easy stopgaps, like the privatization of parking meters and the skyway, have been used up. Mayor Daley has predicted that in order to immediately fill in the budgetary shortfall, property taxes would eventually have to be raised by a whopping 90 percent. That prospect combined with the city’s already staggering sales tax would mean almost certain departure for some of the businesses that Daley has so successfully courted. The mayoral candidates have shied away from this toxic option but are equally unwilling to state what, if any, significant alterations they would make to the pension plan. All are in favor of some kind of budget surgery, but none are willing to publicly mull over which municipal organ they plan to trim. All four leading candidates are counting heavily on being able to mount a blitzkrieg on the municipal bureaucracy in order to eliminate tens of millions of dollars in ‘waste’ and ‘redundancies.’ While important, the specific savings articulated amount to only a small dent in the total deficit. Making clear and accountable statements about the budget crisis is politically treacherous, but in the end finances alone will determine whether a candidate can translate rhetoric into reality. Strides have been made in Daley’s decades, but unless the new force in city hall can find a way to grapple with two systemic crises at once, all of it is likely to decay. (Christopher Riehle)

Maggie Sivit


Elected Officials

Every resident of the City of Chicago who has registered to vote has a say in these four positions, which together are responsible, either directly through legislation and policy, or indirectly via appointments and hirings, for every aspect of city government.

Mayor: As the city’s chief executive, the Mayor directs all city agencies and departments. While initially conceived as a low-profile official with limited authority, this particular office has become famous for the political power it wields.

Alderman: The city is comprised of 50 wards, each of which elects an alderman to serve on the Chicago City Council for a four-year term. Presided over by the mayor, the City Council votes on issues spanning taxation to historical landmarks.

City Clerk: The City Clerk is the city’s second most senior position. The office oversees the city government’s legislative records, vehicle stickers, and even dog registration, thus keeping the nuts and bolts of the city intact.

City Treasurer: This official manages the city’s finances while also helping in the oversight of pensions. The City Treasurer also helps spearhead economic development programs throughout the city.

Appointed Officials

These civil servants oversee the creation and implementation of policy pertaining to their specific domain throughout the city. Each of these officials is appointed by the Mayor, and must be confirmed by the city council before assuming office. There are a vast number of elected officials — these are a few of the most influential positions within the city’s executive branch.

Chicago Board of Education: Made up of seven individuals, the school board oversees personnel, real estate, and legal affairs for the Chicago Public School System.

Chicago Public Schools Chief Executive Officer: Head of Chicago Public Schools, the chief executive officer manages all operations of public schools throughout the city and has significant sway in educational policy.

Police Superintendent: Overseeing Chicago’s four police bureaus, each of which is led by its own deputy superintendent, the police superintendent is the absolute authority over city police force. He or she regulates the department, submits budgets to the city council, and disciplines officers.

Commissioner of the Chicago Dept. of Cultural Affairs & Special Events: This department and its commissioner have been behind everything from the public art exhibit “Cows on Parade” to the Taste of Chicago to the programs of the Chicago Cultural Center.

Commissioner of the Department of Housing and Economic Development: This position has oversight over housing, economic development, zoning, and other urban planning initiatives in the city. The HED commisioner also has significant influence on determining Tax Increment Financing (TIF) districts.

City Colleges of Chicago Board: The City Colleges of Chicago Board is made up of seven voting members serving three-year terms, including one student representative chosen by college-wide election. It is responsible for the management and government of the city’s seven community colleges.

Cook County Positions

The City of Chicago resides fully within the confines of Cook County, and so falls under the jurisdiction of the county’s elected officials as well. While the elections for these positions fall with the national election cycle, and their range of authority includes suburban Cook County, these individuals and their decisions influence the lives of city residents every day.

County Board of Commissioners: The board is a county-wide legislative body made up of seventeen members independently elected from districts of approximately 300,000 people each. The board has the final say on all county policies and finances.

President of the County Board: The President serves a four-year term, presides over meetings of the board, and is charged with direct supervision of all county departments.

Cook County Sheriff: The Sheriff, elected every four years, is tasked with providing security to all county court rooms, administrating the cook county jail, and policing all unincorporated portions of Cook County.

Cook County Treasurer: The county is in charge of collecting, mailing, investing, and distributing all real estate taxes for all its residents. This makes the treasurer the manager of the County’s annual revenue of over nine billion dollars.­