The Role of an Alderman in Chicago
With just six months until the next City Council elections, several aldermen have already decided they won’t run again. They include Ed Burke, whose corruption trial is set to begin this fall; George Cardenas, who’s moving up to county office; and Carrie Austin, who faces federal indictment.
But many new candidates are running, including some of Chicago’s youngest residents. They’re campaigning on platforms focused on violence prevention, affordable housing and equitable representation.
What is an Alderman?
The role of an alderman is a high-profile position that requires dedication, excellent communication skills and a deep understanding of the community you represent. As a member of City Council, you will create and amend legislation and vote on the city budget. Additionally, you will likely serve on various committees that deal with a variety of projects and issues.
Each alderman represents a small geographic area, called a ward, in the city of Chicago. There are 50 aldermen in the city, and each one has a surprising amount of power over what happens in his or her own neighborhood.
If you are interested in becoming an alderman, start by attending city council meetings and getting involved in community organizations. It is also important to develop relationships with residents in your ward so that you can communicate their needs and concerns to the mayor and other aldermen. Additional requirements include excellent writing and communication skills, as well as financial acumen and the ability to work collaboratively.
The city is divided into fifty legislative districts or wards, each represented by an alderman. Aldermen are elected to four-year terms.
The wards are intended to be roughly equal in size and population, but that doesn’t always happen, especially when ethnic identity or political clout play a role in remapping. And it’s not uncommon for a council member to have “aldermanic privilege,” which gives them the power to block or delay city government action on behalf of their ward constituents.
Aldermen’s ward offices are responsible for a number of services including addressing resident service requests, community events and outreach, foreclosure counseling and employment assistance. The office also acts as a direct liaison with city departments. Aldermen also work on various City Council committees which deal with a broad range of issues. This includes the Finance and Audit Committee, the Judiciary Committee and the Pensions and Retirement Committee.
In addition to zoning, aldermen have enormous power to approve or block city council and City government actions regarding their own wards. This is known as aldermanic privilege and has been criticized for promoting racial and economic segregation and worsening the City’s affordability crisis.
Powers grew up in the Irish immigrant community and gained political control of the 19th Ward through backroom dealing, bribery, and cronyism. His ties to the Catholic Church sparked Jane Addams’ opposition to him. She fought his attempts to appoint her ward garbage collectors on the basis of politics rather than merit.
Some newer aldermen like Ameya Pawar of the diverse 47th ward support dismantling aldermanic privilege, arguing that it breeds corruption and keeps politicians out of touch with their constituents. But others argue that it is essential to their ability to manage the complexities of Chicago’s neighborhoods and address residents’ concerns. They say that only they understand the minutiae of zoning and have an insider’s knowledge of how developers and businesses operate in their districts.
The City of Chicago has fifty legislative districts or wards that are represented by aldermen. These elected officials make up the City Council and act as a legislative branch of government. Aldermen are charged with representing the interests of their ward constituents as well as the larger City of Chicago.
Reilly is known for his work bringing fiscal accountability to City Hall and reforms to inequitable development processes that left too many Chicagoans out of the economic boom in downtown Chicago. He also serves on several City Council committees and is a member of the board for the Energy Foundry, an early-stage sustainability venture capital fund.
While the city is trying to shake off its reputation for corruption, there are still concerns about how easy it is for City Hall employees to access information that could be used to influence decisions. Some longtime aldermen are leaving office because of political scandals and exhaustion with the demands of their jobs.