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Office of Ald. Michael Zalewski (23rd)

Mayor-elect Rahm Emanuel and Ald. Michael Zalewski (23rd) during the Chicago Blackhawks 2-0 loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning last Sunday at the United Center. If the mayor dies unexpectedly, the vice mayor takes over temporarily.

If the mayor dies in office, who fills the void?

by Thomas Gaudio
April 12, 2011


Thomas Gaudio/Medill

Ald. Bernard Stone (50th) at his ward office in northern Chicago. A new council member will replace Stone, who lost to Debra Silverstein in an aldermanic runoff election last Tuesday, as vice-mayor.

Twice in recent memory, a Chicago mayor has been killed by a heart attack. Two other mayors were assassinated.

So there’s reason to ask: What would happen if incoming mayor Rahm Emanuel were to die in office? He’s relatively young, and he has every indication of being healthy. But what if the unthinkable occurs?

Have no fear, Chicago, there’s a system in place. Just as the nation has a vice president, the city has a vice-mayor, whose main job is to be ready if the mayor drops dead or is otherwise incapacitated.

Ald. Bernard Stone (50th) has been vice-mayor for 13 years. He lost his re-election bid last week, so the incoming council will select his replacement.

But Stone still stands ready to sit in the hot seat. He joked that if Mayor Richard M. Daley were to die before his term ends next month, “I’d become the first Jewish mayor. I’d beat Rahm to it. I’d like that.” Emanuel backed winner Debra Silverstein in the aldermanic runoff.

The next vice-mayor, a position that comes with two staff members, will likely be chosen at the new city council’s first meeting in May, said Kristine Williams, spokeswoman for the city clerk’s office. Although the choice is technically up to the council’s committee on committees, rules and ethics, that’s “not to say the mayor’s office doesn’t have a hand in it,” she said.

If the mayor dies out of the blue, the vice-mayor takes over as interim mayor until the council elects an acting mayor, who either finishes the term of the deceased mayor or serves until a special election is held.

Four mayors have died in office, most recently when Harold Washington succumbed to a heart attack while sitting at his City Hall desk in 1987. 

Mayor Daley’s father, Richard J. Daley, was mayor from 1955 until 1976, when he died of a heart attack in his doctor’s office during his sixth term.

“In 1976 there was no orderly legal pattern of succession to replace a mayor who died in office,” said Dick Simpson, who was on the council when Daley died and who now heads the political science department at the University of Illinois at Chicago. He chronicled the event in his 2001 book “Rogues, Rebels, and Rubber Stamps: The Politics of the Chicago City Council from 1863 to the Present.”

“Chicago had faced a similar crisis in 1933 when it replaced Mayor [Anton] Cermak after his assassination with Mayor [Edward] Kelly.

Yet adequate laws governing succession had not been passed in the 40 years since that crisis. The only firm rule in place in 1976 was that an acting mayor would be elected by the city council from among its own members,” Simpson said.

After several chaotic days of backroom deals, the council chose Ald. Michael Bilandic as Daley’s replacement, Simpson said. Bilandic represented Daley’s 11th Ward.

While council members jockeyed for power during the vacuum left by the death of Daley, who hadn’t groomed a successor, Simpson said, a post of vice-mayor was created.

The new position, he noted, would be used to solve succession problems after Mayor Harold Washington’s death in 1987. “At the time,” Simpson said, “it was given to the Polish bloc, which accepted it as recognition of their ethnic group’s importance in the machine.”

Of the five vice-mayors who have held the post, only one, Ald. David Orr, hasn’t been of Polish descent Stone said, adding, “It’s sort of a tradition.”

After Washington died, Orr became interim mayor, and then the council elected Ald. Eugene Sawyer as acting mayor. But uncertainty and lawsuits reigned, Stone said. The source of the confusion was uncertainty about whether and when a special election should be held, he said. Mayor Richard M. Daley won the special mayoral election in 1989, and has served since.
Still, no one is expecting Emanuel to fall ill.

“I was sitting next to him at the Blackhawks game [last] Sunday night,” Ald. Michael Zalewski (23rd), said, “and he’s fit as a fiddle. I don’t think health is going to be a concern with Rahm Emanuel.”

Zalewski is president pro tempore of the council, which requires him to act as presiding officer when the mayor is temporarily absent or asks him to step in. If the president pro tempore can’t fulfill that duty, the vice mayor is third in line.

The vice-mayor’s office comes with a few unofficial duties as well, Stone said.

In 2007 he traveled to China for a mayor’s conference because Daley was hosting his own mayor’s conference at the same time in Chicago, he said. And immediately after 9/11, Simpson said he sat in on emergency meetings with local, state and federal officials as they prepared for another potential terrorist attack.