Lori Lightfoot made national headlines as becoming the first Black and openly gay mayor of Chicago. After she took office, Lightfoot wasted no time in tackling one of the city’s biggest issues and sources of corruption – the aldermen.
The 50 aldermen who make up the Chicago City Council enjoyed unwritten “aldermanic privilege,” which Lightfoot said led to “the worst abuses.”
Their privileges gave them veto power over zoning and permits in their own wards. Their presence came under more intense scrutiny after Alderman Edward Burke, the city’s longest-serving council member ever, was charged with attempted extortion earlier this year for allegedly threatening to slow the approval of remodeling plans for a Burger King in his ward unless his law firm was hired for the tax work.
While aldermen will still keep some of their privileges, they will no longer have their veto power.
Aldermen have also used their considerable power to reject affordable housing development, confining the city’s low-income residents, who are mostly Black, to a few areas of the city, according to a 2018 report.
According to the report by the Chicago Area Fair Housing Alliance, aldermen in majority-white, wealthier parts of the city have been rejecting the development of dense and affordable housing for 80 years. Aldermen of more than half of Chicago’s wards did not accept a single multifamily home funded through a city loan program meant for such housing from 1992 to 2017. These abuses of power have made a huge impact on the city’s minority population, as 36 of Chicago’s 50 words are majority Hispanic or Black.
Historically, the 50 aldermen have been majority white and male – combined with their power in a city with a large Black and Hispanic population, this obviously has created problems. But Lightfoot being elected is only the beginning of the tides of change for Chicago.
The new City Council for 2019 has the greatest number of Hispanic aldermen ever and the fewest white aldermen since the ward system was adopted – it’s the most diverse and progressive in history. However, neither African Americans nor women appeared likely to break any records for their numbers on the City Council.