In Chicago’s City Council, is Deb Mell really more powerful than, say, Ameya Pawar?
If you read the Chicago Sun-Times’ new “Early and Often” political site, you could be forgiven for thinking so. After all, it’s right there in black and white in the new Chicago Clout Meter: Deb Mell (33) has a “Clout Rank” of 15, while Alderman Pewar (47) is all the way down at number 32.
Forget that Mell has been in office for less than a year and came to the City Council only because of a backroom deal with Rahm Emanuel to replace her father, long-time 33rd Ward alderman Dick Mell.
Forget, too, that according to the City Clerk’s database, Mell has so far sponsored few, if any, pieces of legislation more groundbreaking than grants of privilege in pubic ways, handicapped parking permits and awnings for local businesses.
For his part, Pawar has helped lead the way on a resolution calling on the Illinois General Assembly to increase the minimum wage, pushed for the creation of a public database for Tax Increment Financing (TIF) districts and was a driving force in creating the City Council Office of Financial Analysis, which some folks have called one of the most important City Council reforms to come along in years.
Not much of that must matter when it comes to clout, however. Or, at least how the Chicago Sun-Times defines it.
Which is interesting, because while the Sun-Times introduced the Chicago Clout Meter with some fanfare on Tuesday, it failed to mention exactly how its rankings were created.
“The Sun-Times combined a number of factors and criteria to develop an algorithm for measuring the clout of Chicago aldermen,” the new site says. “This tool is built to help you gauge where the power lies in Chicago - from the City Council floor to the back chambers where deals are done.”
All fine and good. To me, it looks like tenure in City Council and the size of an alderman’s political war chest were two of the biggest criteria the Sun-Times used. How else do you explain Ray Suarez (31) and Joe Moore (49) as the third and fourth most powerful alderman in Chicago?
The bigger problem lies when a major media outlet like the Sun-Times “ranks” political power in Chicago according to a formula it doesn't disclose, and ends up simply reinforcing political stereotypes about what that power means without creating any context for a reader.
For example, let’s take Ed Burke (14), who, naturally, is listed at Clout Rank 1.
Sure, Burke’s powerful—he’s Chairman of the Finance Committee, after all. He’s also lead partner in a powerful Loop law firm, Klafter and Burke, which serves a wealth of big clients, including AT&T, Commonwealth Edison and Walgreens, to name a few. As well, he gets a big say in who serves as a judge in this town as chairman of the judicial slating committee of the Cook County Democratic Party.
But how, exactly, does Burke use his Clout Rank of number one? According the Sun-Times’ own reporting last year, he used that clout to win $18.1 million in property tax refunds for his wealthy clients during the past decade, resulting in $3.6 million less in revenues for the taxpayers of Chicago.
Part of that success was due to a 2002 law he helped pass that that sharply limited City Hall’s ability to respond when clients go before an obscure state agency appealing for refunds of property taxes they thought were too high.
And while the Sun-Times’ reporting broke open a story of a sitting alderman blatantly working against the best interest of the citizens of Chicago, the story got worse a day or two later when Mayor Emanuel refused to condemn Burke’s actions and the rest of the city’s political system basically shrugged their shoulders and moved on.
After all, that’s real clout.
You won’t see any of that information in the Sun-Times shiny new “Clout Ranking” site, however. Instead, all you get is a nice, new page that shows Ed Burke is the most powerful alderman in City Council.
In the back chambers. Where the deals are done.
Now that I think about it, maybe I was wrong.
If I was Alderman Pawar, I’d probably be glad I was number 32 on the list.