Chicago’s next city election is coming up on February 26. The most exciting thing on the ballot this time around is the chance to pick Chicago’s next mayor. But all of Chicago’s 50 alderpeople — the folks who represent each Chicago ward — are also up for re-election.
What do aldermen do?
Aldermen represent Chicago residents on the issues that hit closest to home in the most literal sense of the phrase. Parking permits, building permits, liquor licenses, permission to close down the street for your next neighborhood block party. The alderman signs off on all of that.
I’m not an expert on alderman, but I’ve done a little research and here’s what else appears to be in the job description:
- Act as your neighborhood’s advocate in the City Council, which is made up of all 50 aldermen across the city’s wards. They can use their power to advocate for better transit services, more economic development, and cleaner streets, among other things.
- Should be your local sounding board for problems like noise complaints, parking issues, blighted buildings, etc.
- Meet once a month to vote on the mayor’s agenda and push their own proposals.
Chance the Rapper also put together a delightful video (with puppets! and Hannibal Buress!) explaining Chicago’s Aldermanic system:
So how do you learn more about your alderman?
First thing’s first! Figure out who they are. Live in Chicago and don’t know who your alderman is? You can look up yours here.
Before you vote in any election, regardless of location or political affiliation, you should be using BallotReady:
Your ballot explained
Every candidate and measure, explained! Know what you're voting for by researching every race and referendum on the…
BallotReady will tell you what candidates or measures are on the ballot, and any information they’ve been able to piece together that might help you make a decision on that candidate.
Below is a sample of Amara Enyia’s BallotReady page. They have a lot of info on Amara, so it’s easy to click through and look at her experience and stances on different issues and compare them with other candidates.
In most races, BallotReady is going to have you covered.
But my page on my local alderman started off a little sparse:
The Voter’s Journey: Trying to Find Some Clear Information on My Alderman
Since I didn’t find the info I was looking for on BallotReady, I did a little more Googling to see what I could learn about him.
One thing I was interested in learning is how often he voted in line with the mayor. There’s a lot of talk in Chicago about City Council being a “rubber stamp” for the mayor, meaning they basically just sign off on whatever Rahm wants without applying a critical eye for their constituents’ best interests. You want an alderman who’s willing to say nuh uh honey to the mayor when they want to pass legislation that’s not actually good for your community.
I found this enticing DNAinfo article from 2017 (RIP) that looked like it might have answers to my questions:
How Often Does Your Alderman Side With Rahm? Study Details Voting Records
CITY HALL - An "obviously weaker" Mayor Rahm Emanuel has emboldened dissent in the City Council, according to a study…
But, alas, it appears that this helpful bit of journalism has been scrapped when the Ricketts shut down one of Chicago’s most-beloved hyper-local news sites:
But that’s okay! I thought. I can go straight to the source!
So I went to the City Clerk’s Legislative Information Center website to dig deeper into my alderman:
Doesn’t look so intimidating, right? Nice tabs that lead me to more information about specific things I might like to know like what legislation he has voted on and what meetings he’s attending.
BUT HOLY PORTILLO’S! Look at all the results that come up when I click on the legislation tab! Most of this means absolutely nothing to me aside from the few resolutions that were passed as statements against abusive policies from Trump. I’m happy to see those, but by and large, I have no idea what this information is telling me about my alderman or my ward.
It was about this time that I began to lament the dissolution of a vibrant free press. Scrolling through this data and clicking through many of the ordinances, I just kept thinking, “I appreciate having all of this information but I wish there was someone to put it into context and explain it to me.” And then I thought, “Dang the people who used to scrape through dense information and then put it into context and explain it are called journalists.”
So then I decided to look up my alderman’s website. I didn’t start here because #TrustNoMan. I work in marketing and I know that this is essentially a marketing website, meaning its been carefully curated to present information that will make you like this person more.
Carefully curated may have been a bit of a hyperbole for the Ward 32 website, since its look is severely outdated, not mobile friendly, and many of the “issue” pages hadn’t been updated in over 8 years:
That being said, this site did lead me to helpful information about where my alderman stands on issues that matter to me, like making sure that the new Lincoln Yards development is being done with plenty of community input.
The most helpful collection of information I came across in my own search is probably the ward newsletter, which highlighted the most critical issues for the neighborhood and put them into context:
They even had segmented lists and everything (marketing swoon) — special lists for each neighborhood, a list just for business owners, one for Ward 32 Democrats. I signed up for three different lists! Perhaps next election I will not have a problem trying to find out what my alderman is doing because I will be getting a shitton of email from his office on a regular basis! (Editor’s Note: I have already gotten a shitton of email from his office since I first drafted this post two weeks ago!)
Vigilante Journalism: In Search of Unbiased Answers
The info I could find on my alderman’s website is all fine and good, but I’d prefer some unbiased info on the candidate to go with it. Particularly since he’s been in office for 12 years and is currently running unopposed. I just want an unbiased opinion that will tell me more about what this dude has been up to for the past decade and change!
I decided it was time for some vigilante journalism. I have been listening to an excellent true crime podcast and an extremely detailed country music history podcast, so I had abundant inspiration for some truth sleuthing.
Here are the questions I sought to answer at the beginning of my search:
- What kind of questions should people be asking about their alderman?
- What are the best resources people can use to research their aldermen?
Fortunately, my time in Chicago has brought me across an actual dream team to help answer these questions. The line-up:
Aviva Rossman, COO & Co-Founder of BallotReady
BallotReady is the site I mentioned above that makes election data easier to navigate so people can vote informed in every election. Aviva knows what a BallotReady stan I am and we have talked a few times about marketing and community engagement around the platform. She graciously offered some more background on how they pull information together for the candidates on their ballots.
Eric Michael Vasquez, CTO, Office of the Chicago City Clerk
Eric leads the team in charge of all technology for the Chicago City Clerk’s office — including that Legislative Information Center I was looking at earlier. My company has done a few design sprints with the City Clerk’s team, and I think Eric has a really admirable an inspirational focus on using human-centered design to make the Clerk’s office more relevant and accessible to city residents.
Stay tuned for part two of this blog post, where I’ll share tips from Aviva and Eric on digging into your alderman. Now stick around for a word from our sponsor, ZipRecruiter. (This is a podcast joke, non-podcast people.)