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Recall of Chicago mayor up for consideration

The furor over recent Chicago police shootings has legislators considering whether voters should be allowed to recall Mayor Rahm Emanuel or future officials who hold his post.

Illinois state law currently addresses only the recall of a governor, a provision voters approved in 2010 after former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich was arrested and impeached. Now, state Rep. La Shawn Ford, a Chicago Democrat, wants voters to also have the power to remove the mayor of the country’s third-largest city.

In light of the unrest in the city, Ford said, “It’s clearly the right thing to have on the books.”

But what about mayors in other Illinois cities? What about state lawmakers? How does Illinois compare to other states when it comes to recalls? Here’s a closer look at those questions and the particulars of Ford’s measure.


Ford introduced his bill on Dec. 9, the day Emanuel addressed the Chicago City Council and apologized for the death of Laquan McDonald, a black teenager who was shot 16 times by a white police officer in October 2014. Emanuel’s apology came a couple of weeks after the release of police dashcam video that appeared to show McDonald walking away from officers when he was shot. The video triggered protests and calls for Emanuel’s resignation.

Emanuel has said he won’t step down.

“We understand there’s a desire by some to insert politics into this discussion, but the mayor’s focus is not on his own personal politics,” Emanuel spokesman Adam Collins said in a statement. “His focus is on taking the action necessary to finally and fully address an issue that has challenged Chicago for decades, and reform the system and culture of policing in Chicago.”

Under Ford’s proposal, two city aldermen would have to sign an affidavit agreeing with a recall petition and organizers must collect more than 88,000 signatures from registered voters in the city. At least 50 signatures must come from each of 50 wards.

The proposal would pre-empt local law, so it needs approval from two-thirds of each chamber of the Illinois Legislature to pass during the session that starts this month. The bill would be effective immediately if signed into law, a scenario that can pose legal questions because it would target someone currently in office, said David Melton, executive director of the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform.


Ford said in the coming weeks he’ll be holding town hall meetings in his district to get constituents’ thoughts about the bill and whether it should be expanded to include recall provisions for other officeholders, including other mayors. He said he’s willing to consider also including lawmakers but said he didn’t do so initially because legislators don’t wield the same authority as statewide officeholders or the Chicago mayor.

Nineteen states and the District of Columbia allow recalls of state and local officials, according to Joshua Spivak, a recall expert at the Hugh L. Carey Institute for Government Reform at Wagner College in New York City.

Illinois is included in that count but is unique in that its constitution has guidelines for the recall of only the governor.

“There’s no jurisdiction I know of that have just one guy (open to recall),” Spivak said.


Despite the recall limits in Illinois law, municipalities can adopt their own ordinances. Still, it’s a power that’s been rarely used. Recall efforts are expensive and time-consuming endeavors.

The last time one happened in Illinois was 2010 in Buffalo Grove, a suburb of Chicago. That’s where voters recalled village trustee Lisa Stone.

Jennifer Maltas, Buffalo Grove’s deputy village manager, said it’s believed to be the only recall ever held in the state, and Spivak couldn’t find any other cases.

Across the country in 2015, there were at least 434 attempts to recall local and state officeholders, according to Spivak’s research. Of those, only 93 made it to a recall vote.

Only two U.S. governors have ever been recalled – North Carolina’s Lynn Frazier in 1921, and California’s Gray Davis in 2003.

In Wisconsin, Gov. Scott Walker survived a recall election in 2012, becoming the first governor in U.S. history to do so. The recall came after Walker stripped most public employees of their collective bargaining rights.

Chicago mayor may appoint lesbian Deb Mell to dad’s city council seat

The last time Dick Mell helped a relative climb Illinois’ political ladder, son-in-law Rod Blagojevich ascended to governor before being sent to prison for corruption. Now the longtime Chicago alderman, who is admittedly nostalgic for the old days of patronage politics, is talking up his daughter to fill his City Council seat when he retires this month.

It’s creating a sticky situation for Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who ultimately will decide who fills the vacancy. The former White House chief of staff touts his efforts to change the way business has always been done at City Hall, by hiring based on merits rather than who’s related to whom and who’s owed a favor.

But what if the daughter of a Chicago patronage champion also happens to be the most qualified candidate?

While Dick Mell is most famous for once standing on his council desk to command attention as an opponent of Chicago’s first black mayor, his daughter, Deborah Mell, is a progressive state representative whose views align closely with the Democratic mayor’s and who would become the council’s first openly lesbian member.

Well aware of Chicago’s tradition of politics as family business, in which seats are handed down from one generation to the next, Emanuel said on July 9 he’ll use an open application process and consider candidates based on their resumes and what they would bring to the job.

He also made clear he’s a fan of Deborah Mell and that he won’t hold her lineage against her.

“State Rep. Deb Mell is not guaranteed the job because her last name is Deb Mell,” Emanuel said. “And State Rep. Deb Mell is not excluded from the job because her last name is Mell.”

Whatever he decides, there is political risk for Emanuel, who left a job as a top aide to President Barack Obama to replace Mayor Richard M. Daley, the son of another longtime mayor and a member of one of Chicago’s many political family dynasties.

Chicago attorney Michael Shakman, whose landmark lawsuit more than 40 years ago led to a federal court order that bans political patronage, said choosing Deb Mell would be perceived by many as nepotism – whether or not she’s the best candidate.

“It does not look very good, and justifiably so,” Shakman said.

Not choosing her also could bring repercussions. Emanuel has already said he plans to run for a second turn, and Mell’s father, who announced his resignation last week after nearly 40 years on the council, is still the powerful Democratic committeeman for his ward. That post allows the elder Mell to wield influence by turning out campaign workers and voters on Election Day.

Dick Mell made clear in an interview days after he resigned that he sees no problem with patronage, part of the old Chicago machine that rewarded voting loyalty with jobs and other spoils. Waxing poetic about earlier days on the council, Mell said being able to hand out jobs to supporters helped build community in Chicago’s neighborhoods. He spoke warmly of getting rid of parking tickets for people and said his best precinct captains got jobs tending bridges, where they could sleep or do homework and get paid for it.

One of his few regrets, Mell said, was supporting Blagojevich, who was ultimately sentenced to 14 years in prison for trying to sell Obama’s former seat in the U.S. Senate. Mell raised money for Blagojevich’s campaigns for congressman and governor, but now says his son-in-law should never have risen beyond state representative.

To pick Mell’s replacement, the mayor is using the same process that he earlier this year to find a replacement for Sandi Jackson, who resigned as she and her husband, former U.S. Rep. Jesse Jackson, were under federal investigation that eventually led to charges against them. The process was widely applauded for being open and leading to the selection of a fresh political face.

Emanuel is expected to make a decision regarding Mell’s seat by July 24.

Deb Mell said Tuesday she’s getting her application together and that she thinks the job of alderman would be a good fit for her “hands-on, neighborhoody type” style. As far as her father’s support, she thinks he’s watched what she’s done as a state representative the last four years and has liked what he’s seen.

“I think he believes, and I do too, that I would be a great alderman,” she said.