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There’s a Word for the Way Chicago is Run: Stupidity

It's the last major city with an all-powerful mayor. Comparisons with the others show just how much damage the outdated system does.

Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot speaks at the McCormick Place alternate care facility in Chicago on Friday, April 10, 2020. (Zbigniew Bzdak/Chicago Tribune/Tribune News Service via Getty Images)

Stupidity is not ignorance. Instead, it is the non-thought of received ideas.

Most of you who do not live in Chicago are ignorant of what goes on here. Maybe you’ve had a nice stay here once or twice but now you just read an occasional blurb about Chicago in the news. And, being news, it is probably bad.

For those who live in Chicago we cannot avoid the daily deluge of bad news. It’s been another especially deadly summer. The pandemic took a heavy toll on disadvantaged black and brown communities. The fiscal condition, already in deep trouble before, is in shambles now. Most Chicago leaders, while aware of these facts, don’t appreciate that the city is an outlier when it comes to many measures of municipal performance. They also don’t realize how freakish the city’s governance structure is. This is stupidity. 

Our book, The New Chicago Way: Lessons from Other Big Cities, from which this essay is adapted, looks at Chicago through this informed lens. We start with the 15 largest U.S. cities and look at outcomes in a number of areas. Then we look at some of the key decisions that Chicago’s city government has made that led to such poor outcomes. Our research showed that consistently poor decisions are the result of a governance structure that gives the mayor total control over every aspect of government. This is an outdated structure that other cities have outgrown in the 120 years since the progressive movement at the turn of the previous century started cleaning up city government across the United States. This movement skipped over Chicago. 

To get an idea of how we studied these differences, look at today’s hot topic of policing. The following table tells the story of Chicago.

Population 2016Total officersOfficers per 10k pop.Murder rate per 100k
New York8,537,67336,22842.33.4
Los Angeles3,976,322 9,85024.67.1
Chicago2,704,95811,95443.923.8
Houston2,303,4825,18222.213.3
Philadelphia1,567,872 6,31340.217.9
Phoenix1,615,0172,76217.47.2
San Antonio1,492,510 2,15214.46.4
San Diego1,406,6301,81512.82.6
Dallas1,317,929 3,27924.810.4
San Jose1,025,350 93992.9
Austin947,8901,80718.92.5
Jacksonville880,6191,7582011.2
San Francisco870,8872,29626.46.1
Indianapolis855,164 1,61218.617.1
Columbus860,0901,84822.19.1

While these numbers are slightly dated, more recent figures are even worse. Chicago is headed for a repeat of 2016’s homicides but now has 13,000 sworn officers. So, Chicago has the highest homicide rate per capita of any major city and it is five times the combined rate of New York and Los Angeles. It also has the highest number of police officers per capita of any other major city. 

This simple comparison reveals a stunning truth about Chicago. And it’s not just true for policing. 

Across all aspects of Chicago governance: the council-mayor relationship, elections, schools, budgets, pensions, policing, corruption, and the entity that runs the city’s convention center, decades of poor decisions by all-powerful mayors have led to poor results. 

Our book begins with the story of a midnight raid by Mayor Richard M. Daley in 2003 to destroy Meigs Field, the city’s lakefront airport. With no advance warning or approval from anyone in city, state, or federal government, the mayor was able to take such drastic action and get away with it.

We also tell the story of the 2008 deal that sold the rights to receive all parking revenue in the city for 75 years. The deal was done at a giveaway price and was rushed through the city council with 48 hours notice and no supporting detail. The result is an impairment that will last generations and cost taxpayers billions of dollars. 

This happened because of how government is structured in Chicago. The council is composed of 50 aldermen, each of whom represent parochial ward interests and wholly depend on the mayor. Chicago is one of only two of America’s big cities where the mayor presides in the council meetings. 

Another tool for mayoral control is the city’s municipal election, which discourages democracy. It takes place on the last Tuesday of February in years when there is no other state or national election. Ever been to Chicago in February? Predictably, turnout averages half of that for presidential elections. Among the top 15 cities no other has elections in February, and 10 of them are in November, several during presidential elections. 

When it comes to finances, there are no controls on the decisions made by the mayor. As a result, Chicago has the highest debt per person of the top 15 cities and carries a junk bond rating. The debt level and rating are even worse for the Chicago Public Schools. A big part of this is pension debt, which totals $42 billion for the city and the agencies it controls . To pay off this debt will require payments of $170 billion over the next 40 years, $100 billion of which will be in the last half of that amortization period. 

Our work is not a lament of all the problems with no solutions. Likewise, it is not an ad hominem screed lambasting this mayor or that. Our position is that it is the structure of governance that allows that mayor such a free hand in making unopposed decisions. The city could elect Pericles or Mother Teresa and they would still make the same mistakes. 

Further, the book is not an ideological polemic. Many of the best practices we discovered were from heavily union and Democratic cities. 

What these cities had in common was that, through reforms undertaken over decades, power had been distributed intelligently within the city so that the checks and balances and conflict made for wiser decisions. In Los Angeles, the police commission provided the professional oversight that insulated decisions from the political arena and allowed them to go from one of the worst police forces in the nation to one of the best in 20 years. Many cities keep their fiscal affairs in order because they require voter approval before they can borrow money or raise taxes. Big cities with elected school boards educated students at an average cost of $11,000 per pupil whereas in the four districts where the mayor controlled the schools, including Chicago, the average cost was $18,000. 

Winston Churchill once said that “Men occasionally stumble over the truth, but most of them pick themselves up and hurry off as if nothing had happened.” 

In our research we found a book reporting the results of a 1953 Chicago blue ribbon commission on home rule. It called the governance structure of 50 ward aldermen an “anachronism.” Nothing has changed since then. 

Perhaps the most startling finding we stumbled over was the idea of a city charter. If there is any single tool that citizens can use to change the governance of their cities, this is it. A charter is a written constitution that spells out how the city government is to run. It is developed and changed by a charter commission that is made up of civic leaders but no public officials. And then, to be legitimate, it must be approved by voters. 

Of the top 15 cities all but two, Chicago and Indianapolis, had a charter and a robust process of revising it. A charter could be the way to make all the structural change Chicago so desperately needs. In our research we learned of the crucial charter revision in New York in 1989, when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the city’s governance structure was unconstitutional. There was also the dramatic 1999 charter revision in Los Angeles, prompted by a movement by communities in the San Fernando Valley to secede from the city. 

The 1953 study recommended that Chicago make changes via a charter. The Illinois Constitution does not provide for a charter. But it also doesn’t prohibit one. 

If Chicago’s leaders would think about how other city governments are structured—and how those structures lead to better outcomes—they might change and turn the city around. 

If they don’t think about them, what do you call that?  

Ed Bachrach and Austin Berg are the authors of The New Chicago Way: Lessons from Other Big Cities published by the Southern Illinois University Press in 2019.

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