Lori Lightfoot Begins Dismantling Chicago’s Corrupt Aldermanic System Her First Day in Office

Illustration for article titled Lori Lightfoot Begins Dismantling Chicago’s Corrupt Aldermanic System Her First Day in Office
Photo: Scott Olson/Getty Images

It’s a new dawn, it’s a new day, and Lori Lightfoot did not come here to play. On day one of her new position as mayor of Chicago—making her the first black woman to lead the cityLightfoot is working to overhaul Chicago’s tradition of “aldermanic privilege” that grants the 50 members of the City Council, known as aldermen, sweeping authority over local decisions pertaining to zoning, licensing and permits.


According to HuffPost, Lightfoot signed her first executive order on Monday to end what she described in a tweet as “the worst abuses of the so-called Aldermanic privilege.” She was referring to the power, also known as aldermanic prerogative, that the aldermen wield in their individual wards. It’s a privilege bestowed on the council members through long-standing tradition rather than actual statute.

With Lightfoot’s executive order, all city departments must submit a report to Lightfoot within 60 days explaining “[a]ny and all historical decision-making practices … in which the department has deferred to aldermanic prerogative as a matter of custom or practice, but which deference is not otherwise required by the Municipal Code of Chicago.” Each report must also lay out the steps the department is taking to be in compliance with Lightfoot’s order moving forward.


The mayor stressed that the executive order does not remove aldermen’s role in the decision-making process: “The Order preserves the critical ability and responsibility of aldermen in their official representative capacity to provide meaningful input and information when relevant to the decision-making practices of City departments.”

Aldermanic privilege has long been controversial. In January, Edward Burke, the city’s longest-serving alderman, was charged in federal court with attempted extortion of a local Burger King that went to him for a permit. He is alleged to have tried to get his law firm business as part of the approval process. These types of illegal kickbacks have run rampant in aldermanic dealings. As HuffPost notes, Burke was still reelected shortly after the indictment.

At her inauguration, Lightfoot said, “These practices have gone on here for decades. This practice breeds corruption.” HuffPost notes that she was looking at some of the aldermen as she said it. “Stopping it isn’t just in the city’s interest; it’s in the City Council’s own interest.”


At least one alderman, Anthony Beale, isn’t going out without a fight. Beale claims the mayor’s executive order “means absolutely nothing” and that there is “no such rule as aldermanic prerogative,” according to the Chicago Tribune.

“It’s not worth the paper it’s written on.”

But Lightfoot, who is also making history as the city’s first openly lesbian mayor, has some advice for naysayers, HuffPost reports: “For years they’ve said, ‘Chicago ain’t ready for reform.’ Well, get ready, because reform is here.”


Correction: Sept. 16, 2019, 11:45 a.m. ET: This story has been edited to remove unattributed text and add fuller sourcing.

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Old white guy

Burke denied wrongdoing and still won reelection as alderman shortly after.

I can’t figure out what is worse. That the system allows for such abuses and misuse of power, or that the people cared so little (or believe in the system so much) that they re elected him.