Chicago, a city with an economy larger than that of countries like Thailand and Belgium, has won the title of the most corrupt city in America, with a total of 1,750 public corruption convictions between 1976 and 2018. (Los Angeles came in second with 1,547 convictions, while New York City (Manhattan) had 1,360.) There are numerous reasons why corruption is so pervasive in Chicago, many of which have roots in the city’s complicated history. But one particular institutional feature of Chicago city government appears to play a particularly important role: the system of so-called “aldermanic privilege” that allows local municipal representatives, known as aldermen, to operate their districts like discrete fiefdoms.
Chicago is divided into 50 political wards, each of which elects an alderman to represent the ward in City Council. Chicago differs from most other cities because an alderman can control virtually every aspect of zoning, licenses, and permitting within his or her ward. If, for example, a business needs a permit to hang a sign over its store or wants a license to sell liquor, the local alderman has to approve it. The aldermen also have broad authority to determine if a city block should be zoned as residential, commercial, or manufacturing, and to change zoning designations about how big a house can be, how many patrons a restaurant can serve, and what types of commercial properties are permitted. These powers, known collectively as aldermanic privilege, are not written anywhere in the city’s charter or ordinances. Rather, aldermanic privilege is a byproduct of Chicago’s longstanding political culture of deference and reciprocity: aldermen tacitly agree not to interfere with each other’s decisions, and the mayor cedes control of local wards to aldermen in exchange for the aldermen giving the mayor a wide berth on city-wide decisions. Some defend this system on the grounds that each alderman knows what is best for his or her own ward. And to be sure, aldermanic privilege can be used for good. But this system also fosters corruption, with alderman frequently using their power to extort bribes from local businesses. A particularly egregious illustration of such abuses came to light last year, when federal prosecutors charged Edward Burke, one of Chicago’s longest serving and most powerful alderman, with extortion and related offenses in connection with Burke’s alleged shakedown of local businesses in exchange for licensing and building permits. But Burke is hardly unique.
What can the city do about this problem? Last year, in part in reaction to the Burke Scandal, Mayor Lori Lightfoot successfully ran for mayor on a campaign that called for fighting corruption and ending aldermanic privilege. Mayor Lightfoot followed through shortly after her inauguration, issuing an executive order that stripped aldermen of their authority over permits and licensing decisions, and instructing city departments to stop deferring to aldermen’s wishes. The City Council also passed Mayor Lightfoot’s ethics package, which, among other things, gave Chicago’s inspector general greater powers to investigate aldermen, and banned alderman from having any outside employment that poses a conflict of interest.
This is a good start, but it’s insufficient to root out aldermanic corruption. Succeeding in that endeavor requires more fundamental reforms to Chicago city government. Two such reforms, individually or in combination, might help achieve this end: