Number of women in City Council declining


I remember meeting Eugenia Chapman in Springfield, back around 1979. I was a part-time legislative aide to Peter Peters, a Northwest Side state representative, and just finishing law school. We were standing outside the House chamber, and Chapman, a state representative from Arlington Heights, swept past with a coterie of about 20 serious young people, mostly female, about my age, dressed professionally, looking suspiciously like law students.

Chapman made a beeline to Peters: "Are you guys (meaning Republicans) going to block my bills?" she angrily barked. So much for niceties. "We’re with you," retorted Peters, with a big smile on his face. The Chapman group stomped away, looking righteous.

Asked what that was about, Peters said, "She’s de-sexing state government," explaining that the state’s legal code, then called the Illinois Revised Statutes, dating back to 1873, was replete with lots of references to men, with none to women. Probably 50,000 laws had been enacted in the prior century, and Chapman and her volunteers were scouring every one of them to eliminate any vestige of sexism and make every statute gender neutral.

"She just buried us with bills, probably two thousand," Peters said later — and they all passed.

While sitting with Peters and a couple Republican members, Chapman and her entourage glided by. "It’s Representative Chap-person," one Downstater snidely yelled. Her look was venomous. The Downstater was on a roll. "Maybe we should change everybody’s surnames based on gender. How about surname equality? There should be Johnsons and Johndaughters, Williamsons and Williamdaughters, Harrison and Harrisdaughters, Goodman and Goodwoman." Everybody laughed. Those Downstaters were a stitch.

The Illinois General Assembly, once dominated by men who saw it as part-time job with money-making opportunities, who were anointed by the Richard Daley machine in Chicago or the local county Republican machines Downstate, is now approaching gender equality, as nearly a third of legislators are women. Fifteen of the 59 state senators and 41 of the 118 state representatives are women.

Which brings us to the subject of this article: the Chicago City Council. There is no Chap-person lurking around City Hall. Under city ordinance, an elected council member is officially an "alderman," regardless of gender. Not alderperson, or aldermember or alderwoman. I sort of liked alderservant. Likewise for an alderman’s corollary, ward committeeman. An alderman deems it imperative that he or she be the Democratic committeeman to forestall anyone else from building a power base.

Six of the 12 female aldermen are from black-majority wards, one is from a Hispanic-majority ward and five are from white-majority wards.

A recent Chicago Sun-Times piece lamented the council’s "gender gap" because only 12 of the 50 aldermen elected this year are women. "It’s a men’s club," Alderman Deb Mell (33rd) was quoted as saying. Six wards with a female alderman flipped to a man and two held by a man flipped to a woman. In 2007 there were 18 women in the council. The number will decline further in 2019.

33rd Ward: A political paleontologist would pinpoint three eras: Pre-Mell, Mell and post- Mell. As a retail politician, Dick Mell was rivaled only by Bill Clinton. He could look you in the eye, promise you a job or promotion, and forget about you 30 seconds later. His insincerity was legendary, and it helped make his son-in-law Rod Blagojevich governor in 2002. When the promisee called for an update, the Mell would say that he’s still working on it but that the promisee needed to work some precincts or buy some $100 dinner tickets. Until he retired, Mell could deploy 200 precinct workers and attract 1,000 people to his fund-raisers.

To start the post- Mell era, Deb Mell was gifted her seat in 2013 when her father, who was and alderman for 38 years, resigned but remained as committeeman. Deb Mell managed to avoid a runoff by 17 votes and win a full term. Politically, philosophically and personally, she isn’t her gregarious and glad-handing daddy. In an increasingly Hispanic ward, being gay, pro-Rahm Emanuel, distant, devoid of retail political skills and Dick Mell’s almost got her defeated. Her father discovered that not being an alderman was like sticking a needle in a balloon, as his ability to promise just whooshed away.

In the ward’s 28 precincts, with a turnout of 8,171, Deb Mell got 4,103 votes (50.2 percent of the total). Teacher Tim Meegan finished second with 34.0 percent of the vote. Meegan had heavy support from the Chicago Teachers Union. Mell got a majority of the vote in just 13 precincts. Dick Mell controlled the City Council’s 2011 remap as chairman of the Rules Committee, and he added 10 precincts from Albany Park formerly in the 39th Ward, which included a lot of apartment dwellers and Hispanics. Mell won the old 33rd Ward precincts, where Dick Mell had workers, but she fared poorly in the new precincts.

The Mell machine has collapsed. If Dick Mell retires as committeeman in 2016, it’s over. Deb Mell is in her first and last term. Meegan starts with an edge for 2019, but some Hispanic candidate will emerge.

39th Ward: A Laurino has been the alderman of the ward for 50 years. The "Next Laurino" is groomed and waiting his turn in 2019 — state Representative John D’Amico (D-15), the grandson of the late Tony Laurino, who was the ward’s alderman from 1965 to 1994, and the nephew of current Alderman Marge Laurino, who was appointed to replace her father in 1994 and re-elected six times. Marge Laurino won with an unimpressive 53.2 percent of the vote on Feb. 24, winning by her lowest margin ever. She is the council’s mayor pro tem, which means that she presides when Emanuel is not present, and she is a loyal foot soldier for the mayor.

Laurino romped to a victory in 2011 with 76.4 percent of the vote, amassing 7,781 votes in a turnout of 10,189. The remap chopped Albany Park (south of Lawrence Avenue, east of Pulaski Road) out of the ward and added Forest Glen from the 45th Ward, stretching the ward to Devon and Milwaukee avenues. D’Amico’s Edgebrook precinct was moved back in. A myriad of issues, including airplane noise, red light cameras, flooding, potholes, Laurino’s fealty to Emanuel and general Laurino fatigue, created an anti-Laurino groundswell. The remap was not helpful.

Laurino didn’t romp in this year’s election. Against Robert Murphy, who had a base in Forest Glen, and Joe Laiacona, Laurino managed 5,981 votes, a decline of 1,800 votes from 2011. The turnout was 11,242, up 1,053 from 2011, and the non- or anti-Laurino vote was 5,261, up 2,853 from 2011.

50th Ward: The only North Side woman who got a bigger majority than in 2011 was Debra Silverstein. She won her West Rogers Park ward with 64.4 percent of the vote, up from 61.4 percent in 2011, when she beat Berny Stone in a runoff. Her raw vote declined from 5,952 to 5,024, and her opposition’s declined from 3,746 for Stone to 2,781

She is part of "Team Silverstein." Her husband Ira Silverstein is the area’s state senator and ward Democratic committeeman. In an ethnically diverse ward, filled with immigrants, where Jews are a 40 percent population minority but a 55 percent voting majority, Silverstein has been a competent and visible alderman, and supporting Emanuel was no liability in her ward. She will stay in office until her base Jewish vote falls under 45 percent.

So what’s happening? In Chicago, 21 of the 63 state senators and representatives with Chicago-centric district. Why the discrepancy? Why are women elected to the General Assembly but not to the City Council?

The reason can be summarized succinctly: Military-like discipline overcomes community consciousness, and Mike Madigan overcomes all. In legislative races, in Chicago as well as the suburbs and Downstate, House Speaker Madigan recruits, funds and dispatches manpower to nominate and elect his candidates, who vote as they’re told when they get to Springfield. Madigan has a simple criterion — do they "fit" the district — and in more suburbanized, independent-minded areas, women are great candidates, especially if Madigan dumps $500,000 into a race. Throughout the North Shore, east Lake County, the Joliet, Elgin and Schaumburg areas, and the south Cook County suburbs, more than half the Democratic legislators are women, and so are 10 of the black legislators.

In the suburbs, a female Democrat who is a local municipal official almost always beats a male Republican businessman, and in black areas a single black woman almost always triumphs in a primary with numerous black men. Once elected, a state legislator is nearly impossible to defeat.

A Chicago alderman, conversely, has to provide services and take stances on zoning and funding issues which affect constituents’ neighborhood and quality of life. A legislator just has to be visible, likable and unindicted, and Madigan protects him or her from having to vote on tough issues like tax hikes and makes sure the incumbent has plenty of money and staff.

An alderman is a do-it-your-selfer. He or she has to create an infrastructure before election, meaning an apparatus for both fund-raising and precinct working. There is no Madigan. The elections are nonpartisan. Unless a woman self-funds (for something like $200,000), is a part of the ward’s Democratic organization, or spends a year knocking on doors, she loses.

When it comes to running for alderman in Chicago, men do it better.

Send e-mail to russ@russstewart. com or visit his Web site at www.