Chicago politics is filled with unwritten rules befitting the city’s clout-drenched history.
One such classic was once directed at a young Abner Mikva, who went on to become a federal judge and presidential adviser. As the story goes, Mikva, then a law student, showed up unannounced to volunteer at a Chicago ward office, and a committeeman asked who sent him. “Nobody,” responded Mikva, to which the incredulous committeeman retorted, “We don’t want nobody nobody sent.”
Then there is the old political chestnut: “Don’t make no waves, don’t back no losers.”
Another unwritten rule came into play Tuesday when Lori Lightfoot, a candidate for mayor, announced her ethics plan — an antidote to the aforementioned clout culture. Apparently, it turns out, a mayoral wannabe with an ethics agenda must have a human prop as proof of good intent. Lightftoot deployed Dick Simpson, a former Chicago alderman, at her ethics press conference. It was a page from the playbook of then-mayoral candidate Rahm Emanuel, who nearly eight years ago produced his own “body” of evidence: David Hoffman, a former city inspector general. Judged purely on the basis of press conference puppets, Emanuel’s edged out Lightfoot’s.
Simpson as alderman was such a reform-minded pest that Mayor Richard J. Daley once ordered the City Council’s sergeant-at-arms to make Simpson sit down and shut up. But Hoffman as IG went after corrupt city inspectors and even attacked the folly of Mayor Richard M. Daley’s disastrous parking meter lease.
READ MORE: Lori Lightfoot’s ethics plan targets side jobs, mayoral term limits and would bolster city watchdog »
Emanuel’s use of Hoffman as a symbol was evidence of candidate Emanuel’s strong political instincts. For many in this ethics-challenged city, IGs serve as living symbols of propriety. Cozying up to an IG can be good politics. Looked at more broadly, a candidate’s attitude toward the IG’s office can say a lot about the proto-mayor’s ethical underpinnings.
It’s no accident that Lightfoot, as part of her ethics plan, would broadly expand the power of the city inspector general. She herself has served as an ethics overseer — twice on behalf of Emanuel, looking into the problem of police misconduct. She knows the potential, and the practical limitations, of so-called independent oversight in Chicago.
For his part, Mayor Emanuel’s IG record has been mixed: He battled Inspector General Joseph Ferguson’s effort to enforce subpoenas and allowed the Streets and Sanitation Department to impede Ferguson’s audit of the claimed savings from the mayor’s much-touted “garbage-grid” policy. But when police misconduct became an existential crisis for Emanuel’s political career, the mayor appointed Ferguson to an independent oversight board.
Treatment of the IG’s office can be a talisman of ethical intent because in all of city politics, the IG is the rare person over whom the mayor has little control. Once appointed and approved by the City Council, the IG can be removed only for cause during his four-year term. Even the budget is protected by ordinance, meaning a mayor can’t even starve an IG into irrelevance — not that any Chicago mayor might ever try such a thing. Right?
To get a sense of the range of an IG’s potential power, consider a City Club of Chicago panel last month, where inspectors general of the city, Cook County and Chicago Public Schools all shared a platform. There was Ferguson, whose office has uncovered fraudulent handling of the city’s red-light camera program; Chicago Public Schools IG Nicholas Schuler, who helped uncover former CPS chief Barbara Byrd-Bennett’s criminal cronyism; and Cook County IG Patrick Blanchard, who hounded Cook County Assessor Joseph Berrios for years, despite all of the shortcomings in Cook County IG authority that hampered Blanchard’s work.
IGs can audit financial records, investigate clout complaints and jump onto a bully-reform pulpit at times that are politically unwelcome for a mayor. Yet, as powerful as IGs can be, their authority is not strong enough.
For example, the city has a minimum floor for funding, but Cook County does not, making that IG vulnerable to whims of the Cook County Board.
The ability of the three IGs to issue and enforce subpoenas has been inconsistent at best. Their right to report publicly on their activities is not always clear. Ferguson sees a vulnerability in the ambiguity about disclosure. “The response to our recommendations actually is tied to the transparency of what it is that we do,” he said.
This isn’t to say the strength of the city inspector general is the be-all and end-all of the ethics issue in Chicago’s mayoral campaign.
Lightfoot has laid out nine big ideas, many of them good. Emanuel will probably have his. It’s also likely Garry McCarthy, Paul Vallas and the other mayoral candidates will also roll out plans.
There will be so many ideas, it will be hard to keep track.
So when in doubt, or confusion about who has the better ethics plan, use the IG question as a litmus test. A candidate willing to empower an IG is signaling a tolerance for oversight beyond his or her control — and a degree of confidence in his or her ability to run an above-board administration. Forget using IGs as props at press conferences. During this mayoral campaign, look to the treatment of the inspector general as a proxy for reform.
David Greising is president and chief executive officer of the Better Government Association.
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