Make filling official vacancies more democratic

Mayors and outgoing incumbents have too much power to appoint successors.

Crain’s Chicago Business

While we’re in the midst of state election season and hurtling toward city election season next year, let’s also consider improving what happens when officials are not chosen by voters.

It happens more than we might realize.

In the current City Council, 10 of the 50 members initially were appointed to their seats—soon to be 11, given the resignation announcement of Ald. Michele Smith. They are: Alds. Sophia King, Michelle Harris, Nicole Lee, Silvana Tabares, Monique Scott, Roberto Maldonado, Jason Ervin, Carrie Austin, Emma Mitts and Tom Tunney.

Eight of the 10 since have been elected after being given the advantage of incumbency. Still, that’s a full 20% of the body who were not chosen by constituents at the start. They’re literally representing 550,000 people in a city of 2.7 million and they were selected by mayors. Austin and the recently appointed Scott both succeeded family members who held the job before them. Austin is not seeking re-election as she faces federal corruption charges.

Despite a just-approved attempt to curb nepotism in some city government dealings, the practice of mayors appointing family members has a long history in Chicago. Deb Mell was appointed to replace her father, Dick Mell. Darcel Beavers was named to succeed her father, William. Margaret Laurino replaced her father, Anthony.

Mayor Lori Lightfoot made a point of saying she would use community-based search committees to vet candidates who apply and recommend finalists. She’s done that with her appointments of Lee and Scott, though the recent Scott appointment still raised questions and criticisms.

Would special ward elections be better than mayoral appointments? Those cost money and turnout probably would not be high. After his own appointment to a state Senate seat by Democratic party committee officials, state Sen. Mike Simmons noted some people believe special elections still benefit insiders because they can more efficiently mobilize and raise funds for a short campaign.

After some criticism and claims of backroom dealing surrounding the appointment he vied for along with state Rep. Kelly Cassidy and four others, Simmons, Cassidy and other lawmakers introduced legislation to improve transparency in the appointment process. A year-old state law requires party officials to publicize how to apply for a legislative vacancy and to hold an open meeting to fill it.

Even better would be a provision to allow for those party officials controlling the appointment to consider the comments and views of district constituents during at least one meeting before using their weighted votes to fill the vacancy at a separate meeting. That sort of public participation and deliberative transparency also could be used by the search committees mayors use and considered by the mayors themselves. Or, even better, mayors could cede this power and allow community committee members they name to listen to residents and appoint people to fill vacancies directly. Wouldn’t that more resemble a democratic, people-powered process?

Of course, despite that new state law governing state legislative vacancies, creative state senators still managed to find new ways to game the system and control who succeeds them. State Sens. Steve Landek and Antonio Munoz both filed to run for re-election. Munoz’s son-in-law, Javier Loera Cervantes, also filed to run in his father-in-law’s district. In Landek’s district, his former chief of staff, Mike Porfirio, also filed to run. In both instances, Landek and Munoz withdrew from the races after the candidate filing period, leaving Cervantes and Porfirio wide open lanes to win their Democratic nominations with no other candidates in the primaries.

Variations on this scheme have occurred before with another state Senate seat in a prior cycle vacated by Peoria Republican Chuck Weaver. And former Congressman Bill Lipinski resigned after the primary and had his son, Dan, appointed to succeed him.

Do we need city and state laws that say relatives and former employees simply cannot be appointed or elected to succeed their predecessors? That move might not withstand a legal challenge, but the appointment and election trickery never seems to end, does it?

When any elected official resigns or retires, the process for finding a replacement ought to be as open, community-focused and equitable as possible. That, after all, is what honors our democratic ideals.

This article originally appeared in Crain’s Chicago Business.