CHICAGO -- Reform is not a concept usually embraced by Chicago politicians known for their patronage, but after corruption charges were filed against a powerful alderman and a court got involved in overseeing the city's troubled police department, the word is now on the lips of the 14 candidates running for mayor.
Those looking to succeed retiring Mayor Rahm Emanuel include veteran politicians— some with legacy ties — businessmen, former prosecutors and community activists. The Feb. 26 election will almost certainly lead to a runoff: If none of the candidates receives more than 50 percent of the vote, the top two vote-getters will face off April 2. Although a nonpartisan election, most of the candidates have links to the Democratic Party. The Republican Party has virtually disappeared from the city.
The variety of candidates reflects the many issues facing Chicago's next mayor: poor neighborhoods in need of investment, overwhelming pension debt, low-performing public schools and a crime rate that is often pointed to as among the nation's worst.
But the issue taking center stage is the need to change how business is conducted at City Hall. For some that means an end to pay-to-play, paying off influential politicians in order to do business in the city.
Former Chicago Public Schools CEO Paul Vallas has taken to showing up at events with a broom, saying it's part of his mission of "sweeping corruption out of City Hall."
"There's nothing Chicago politicians fear more than this broom," Vallas says in a campaign ad that shows him sweeping cash off the floor of City Hall.
Nothing crystalized the reform issue like the federal fraud charges filed last month against powerful Democratic alderman Edward Burke, a 50-year veteran and former chairman of the City Council's Finance Committee. Authorities say a wiretap on Burke's cellphone captured him pressuring executives of a fast-food chain to hire his law firm in exchange for help with permits to renovate a restaurant.
The corruption charges roiled the mayor's race. Four early favorites have ties to Burke and have since tried to distance themselves.
Burke raised $116,000 for Toni Preckwinkle for her re-election as Cook County Board president in 2018. Burke also contributed nearly $13,000 to Preckwinkle's mayoral campaign, which she has since donated to charity. Burke's son, in the Chicago tradition, was placed in a $100,000 county job, which he has since quit.
Illinois Comptroller Susana Mendoza had Burke's backing in her climb through Democratic Party ranks. She is also close to Alderman Danny Solis, who wore a wire to help federal investigators build their cases against Burke.
Burke also is a longtime supporter of former Chicago Public Schools CEO Gery Chico. Burke once said of Chico that there is "probably nobody more qualified than he is."
William Daley has admitted, without being specific, to having "a political relationship with Ed for years."
Daley is the son of the legendary Mayor Richard J. Daley. It was the 1955 election of the elder Daley that prompted saloonkeeper and Alderman Mathias "Paddy" Bauler to blurt, "Chicago ain't ready for reform yet."
The effort by William Daley and the others to distance themselves from Burke has aroused the ire of candidate and former Assistant U.S. Attorney Lori Lightfoot.
"It's like cockroaches — there's a light that's shined on them. They scramble. Initially, they're silent. Then, they try to say, 'Not me. Not me.' Then, when they get caught, they finally stand up and do something," Lightfoot said.
Despite his family's history, Daley, whose older brother, Richard M. Daley, held the office from 1989 to 2011, isn't deterred from proclaiming himself a reformer. He proposes reducing the size of the 50-member City Council by more than half. His media commercials note he served, like Emanuel, as former President Barack Obama's chief of staff.
"Some can make the claim of being a reformer and others are blowing smoke in the face of the people," DePaul University political scientist Larry Bennett, who supports Lightfoot, said of the Democratic Party stalwarts running in the race.
Reforming the city's police department is a job the winning candidate can't dodge. A consent decree approved last month by U.S. District Judge Robert Dow Jr. is aimed at tightening supervision, improving training and fixing the department's disciplinary system.
The decree is the most consequential aftereffect of the 2014 fatal shooting of black teenager Laquan McDonald by former officer Jason Van Dyke. A video of the shooting sparked demonstrations and resulted in Van Dyke's murder conviction. Illinois' attorney general sued the city to force the court's involvement after years of inaction by the City Council, which dealt with systemic police misconduct in recent years by approving millions of dollars in lawsuit settlements.
Finances are also a major issue the next mayor will have to tackle. The city has seen increasing debt and budget shortfalls — and must double the city's contribution to four city employee pension funds over the next five years, to $1 billion.
Politicians who have run for mayor with reform as their platform have failed in the past because many voters still believe the city needs someone who, with a whisper here and a handshake there, can get streets fixed, a library built or a development approved, notes political consultant Delmarie Cobb.
"Each of the candidates has baggage, some more than others," she said. "It's going to require us as voters to look at the candidates and ... where they stood on the issues. The voters have to ... determine when did this (belief in reform) happen."