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Some Aldermen Don’t Need Your Vote

Alderman Ed Burke
Alderman Edward Burke: Image by chicagopublicmedia via Flickr

Not every voter will have the opportunity to elect the candidate of his or her choice this election cycle—some simply won’t have a choice.

Out of the city’s 50 wards, seven candidates will run unopposed, leaving hundreds of thousands of Chicagoans with only one ballot option when they go to the polls Tuesday.

Some of the reasons candidates go unchallenged include petition challenges and big campaign war chests that scare away would-be challengers.

“Frequently, the aldermen [who run unopposed] are pretty powerful aldermen like [Alderman Richard] Mell and [Edward] Burke,” said Dick Simpson, head of the political science department at the University of Illinois at Chicago. “That really perpetuates a power structure in the City Council as well as in the neighborhoods.”

Ald. Richard Mell (33rd Ward) and Ald. Ed Burke (14th Ward), two of the longest-serving members of the City Council, face no opposition, along with Marty Quinn (13th Ward), Patrick O’Connor (40th Ward), Brendan Reilly (42nd Ward), Tom Tunney (44th Ward) and Ray Suarez (31st Ward).

Suarez said he’s running unopposed because the residents of his Northwest ward are pleased with the work he’s been doing since he was first elected in 1991.

Initially, there were four other candidates in the race for Suarez’s ward, which includes the Hermosa neighborhood. He challenged all of them through various means, including the validity of the candidacy signatures they had collected and revealing debt owed by one candidate to the municipal government.

“I eliminated them all,” Suarez said.

Hearings for candidacy objections are decided by the Chicago Board of Elections Commissioners. The board has the initial power to decide which petitions are valid, with the losing candidates then having the option of pressing their case in the courts.

Jim Allen, spokesman for the Chicago Board of Commissioners, said there were 425 objections filed this election cycle for a wide variety of reasons, ranging from the candidates’ failure to submit proper paperwork to candidate felony convictions.

“It was a rather dense docket,” Allen said. “It was a record.”

Even the numbering and binding of paperwork can come into play when an objection is filed.

“If you’re going to be an alderman and you’re going to be responsible for making and setting policy and passing legislation, you have to follow all the rules of the business,” Suarez said.

But, according to Simpson, a former alderman himself, it’s not that simple. He said Candidates running unopposed can be bad for residents of a particular ward and the city as a whole by undermining democracy.

“There will be a lower turnout of residents,” Simpson said. “Turnout is only high when the outcome is in doubt and the vote actually matters.”

Mell ran unopposed in the 2007 municipal election, just as Burke ran unopposed in 2003. In both cases, citizen turn-out was among the lowest city-wide. Mell’s ward had the fourth lowest number of total ballots cast in 2007, likewise, Burke’s ward had the fourth lowest in 2003, according to the Chicago Board of Elections.

Both wards experienced a higher turn-out when the incumbent alderman was challenged.

In cases where an alderman is particularly powerful, such as Burke, who is chairman of the City Council Committee on Finance, money can be an influential factor.

That’s not necessarily a bad thing, said Paul Green, director of the Institute for Politics at Roosevelt University, adding that candidates are well within their rights to amass as much money as possible for campaigns.

“Who’s to say what’s good or bad for democracy,” Green said.

Burke recorded a total of nearly $5 million in available campaign funds as of Dec. 31, as well as $2.5 million in investments, according to the Illinois State Board of Elections.

But Simpson said this can prevent opposition. In many cases, the unchallenged candidate will have a large organization and/or significant funding—leaving many residents unable to go dollar-for-dollar in a prolonged campaign.

“They have way too much money and they have a ward organization of precinct workers that opposition candidates don’t think they can beat,” Simpson said.

The history of non-opposition in Chicago goes back to the days of former Mayor Richard J. Daley, when as much as 20 percent of the council ran unopposed and were often rubber-stamps for the “machine,” Simpson said.

These days, several candidates running unopposed is fairly typical, said Chicago Election Spokesman Jim Allen.

Though the city’s political structure has changed some since Richard J. Daley was mayor, the effect of candidates running unopposed may remain the same for residents—a loss of political control.

“There’s going to be a bigger turnover in the council with up to 20 new aldermen coming in—so it’s not quite the same,” Simpson said. “But it’s still the same if you live in the ward.”

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