Commentary: To cure corruption, the Chicago City Council should ‘remember the ladies’

Nicole Lee at the Zhou B Art Center in Chicago after Mayor Lori Lightfoot nominated Lee to be the next alderman representing the city’s 11th Ward on March 24, 2022. (Terrence Antonio James / Chicago Tribune)

This commentary was originally published by The Chicago Tribune.

Mayor Lori Lightfoot selected Nicole Lee to succeed Patrick Daley Thompson as the 11th Ward’s alderman. Thompson, who was convicted in February of two counts of lying to federal regulators about his loans and five counts of filing false tax returns, is the 37th City Council member to be found guilty of fraud or corruption since the early 1970s.

That’s 37 too many.

As voters and taxpayers in Chicago, we must ask ourselves what we can do to stave off the corruption and financial fraud that have stained our city’s reputation and stymied its growth and prosperity.

An analysis of aldermanic corruption cases points to one possible solution: Elect more women.

Juliet Sorensen

Juliet Sorensen is the executive director at Injustice Watch.

The gender gap on Chicago’s City Council is stark. Between 1971 — the first year in which a woman served on the City Council — and the present day, 80% of aldermen have been men, and 20% have been women. In this time period, 270 aldermen have served on the City Council.

Thirty-seven aldermen — nearly 14% of the total — have been convicted of federal crimes over the years. Of those 37 convicted aldermen, only three were women, or 8%.

Chicago is not alone. A survey published a decade ago of qualitative analyses of gender and corruption — “Gender and Corruption: A Survey of the Experimental Evidence” by economist Ananish Chaudhuri — found that, regardless of the many different methods and disciplines applied, in every analysis, women either behaved in a less corrupt manner than men or there were no significant gender differences. None of the studies found that men were less corrupt.

Specific to the realm of lawmakers, the Global Organization of Parliamentarians Against Corruption conducted research based on a 10-year analysis of trends in the proportion of women elected to national parliaments as correlated to trends in national corruption levels. When the organization examined countries with reasonably robust democratic systems that enforced their anticorruption laws, an increase in the number of women in parliament was correlated with a modest tendency toward a reduction in corruption.

Explanations of the gender difference are many, ranging from the popular sexist belief that women are inherently less corrupt to implicit biases among prosecutors and juries that result in fewer charges and convictions of women. The likeliest explanation, however, is a historical one, based on the tradition — in Chicago and around the world — of male-dominated patronage.

Ald. Patrick Daley Thompson leaves the Dirksen U.S. Courthouse during a break in his federal tax fraud trial on Feb. 11, 2022. (E. Jason Wambsgans / Chicago Tribune)

Homophily, or the notion that “birds of a feather flock together,” is an age-old phenomenon. Patronage, like corruption, is a system of homophily based on trust. According to the “Chicago way,” public officials reward loyalty with jobs and benefits. If members of the patronage network are traditionally men, homophily within the network may also lead to the systematic exclusion of women from careers in the public sector.

Corruption — the abuse of public office for private gain — thrives in relationship-based networks. Mutual loyalty results in mutual rewards. It’s not that one gender is inherently more or less corrupt than the other. Rather, because they are traditionally excluded from ward jobs and patronage appointments, Chicago women also have historically been systematically excluded from opportunities to abuse the public trust.

The gender gap in the City Council has narrowed since 1971 but has yet to close. The high water mark of gender equity on the council remains 2010, with women constituting 38% of its members that year. Since 2020, women have made up 30% of all aldermen.

This patriarchy has no place in today’s Chicago. A patronage network that excludes would-be public servants on the basis of race, gender, or any other identity is antithetical to good governance. Chicago must intentionally set aside patronage systems rooted in the old boys’ clubs that ward organizations used to be. In their place, political networks that are intentionally inclusive, diverse, and based on merit will allow the cream to rise to the top, irrespective of patrons or clout.

In 1776, Abigail Adams famously urged her husband, founding father John Adams: “Remember the ladies. … Do not put such unlimited power into the hands of the husbands.” Too many Chicago aldermen, benefitting from a tradition of patronage and power, have abused the public trust.

Thompson’s future lies with the judge who will impose his sentence, but the opportunity to turn a page in Chicago’s history lies with the voters. Electing more women to the City Council may be part of the solution.

Juliet Sorensen is the executive director of Injustice Watch, a professor at Northwestern University Pritzker School of Law, and co-author of “Public Corruption and the Law: Cases and Materials.”