Story URL:
Story Retrieval Date: 4/17/2015 12:12:08 PM CST

Top Stories

Diana Novak/Medill

Ald. Dick Mell (33rd) has been in office for 36 years. He is running unopposed.

Incumbent advantages crown aldermen, make elections predictable

by Diana Novak
Jan 25, 2011

The upcoming municipal election has 42 aldermen that are in office on the ballot, a powerful predictor of what the next City Council may look like.

The council currently in office originally had just nine new members, or an 82 percent retention rate. And that 2007 municipal election boasted the biggest turnover for the 50-member council since 1991.

Eric Oliver, a professor of political science at the University of Chicago, said the power of being an incumbent is nothing new.

“Obviously, it confers a lot of advantages in terms of being able to have a long-standing relationship with constituencies, being able to buy favors for the district, having greater name recognition among voters,” Oliver said.

In response to the power held by incumbents, many challengers advocate setting term limits for aldermen.

Nicole Kazee, a professor of political science at the University of Illinois at Chicago, said voting records can work both for and against an incumbent. “They … have the chance to make policy choices that really benefit people, and they can really highlight those in a campaign,” Kazee said.

“The one way that it can come back to bite them is because they have a policy record; if they have a strong opponent they do risk being punished by voters for some decision they’ve made along the way,” she said.

An established popularity with voters makes it easier to recruit new ones, said David Morrison, deputy director of the Illinois Campaign for Election Reform.

“You have to have resources to run a campaign and to get your message out, and donors tend to follow the same cues that voters do,” he said.

According to data recently released by the Federal Election Commission and collected by the Center for Responsive Politics, incumbents have a tremendous financial advantage over their less-experienced counterparts. In the U.S. Senate, the 30 incumbent candidates raised roughly three times the amount of money raised by their 152 challengers.

The Center for Responsive Politics has linked this data to the Senate re-election rates, which in 2008 were at 83 percent.

Similarly, Chicago’s longest-serving (and currently unopposed) alderman, Ed Burke (14th), has more than $8 million in his campaign account—more than any other candidate. As the Sun-Times reported Monday, in 43 of the other aldermanic races, 235 candidates have raised just $5.6 million cumulatively.

Five other incumbents are running unopposed, which Kazee said is representative of the power behind incumbent advantage.

“One problem can be when you have a long-term incumbent where they’ve been there for a really long time, it can be hard to recruit strong opponents in elections,” Kazee said. “The whole point of a democracy is that voters have choices and they can voice what they really want based on the choices they’re given.”

Kazee said setting term limits are a way to give more choices to Chicago’s voters.

“It would certainly mean there were far more elections where there was no incumbent on the ballot, which does create sort of a more level playing field for candidates who are looking to get into politics,” she said. “So certainly, term limits would increase democratic representation in that sense.”