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Black Lawmakers Block Chicago Gun Bill

Rahm Emanuel

The city of Chicago had a setback in Springfield Thursday.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel has been pushing to increase prison sentences for people convicted of gun crimes. But on the last day of the Illinois legislature's fall veto session, a group of African-American legislators used a parliamentary maneuver to block him.

Such tactics are not uncommon in politics — but this was a rare example of Illinois Democrats pulling a fast one on members of their own party.

The problem of violence that plagues parts of Chicago is national news.

[Montage of stories about shootings in Chicago.]

It's against this dire backdrop that Mayor Emanuel is pushing for longer prison sentences for certain gun crimes — what're known as "mandatory minimum" sentences. The law is meant to get at gang members and people with previous felony convictions.

The mayor has worked hard for this. Along with the legislation’s sponsor, Democratic Rep. Mike Zalewski, from Riverside, they negotiated a deal with the National Rifle Association. That’s almost unheard of for a Chicago bill dealing with guns.

Mike Zalewski
Credit ILGA.gov
Rep. Mike Zalewski is a Democrat from Riverside.

With the NRA on his side, Zalewski (pronounced zuh-LESS-key) begins the day projecting confidence. He acknowledges there are members of the Black Caucus opposed to his plan. But "I just feel like I've done everything I can to make people happy on this bill," Zalewski says.

That was just after 9 a.m. Within an hour, his legislation is up in the House. Zalewski runs through the routine things you have to do to start debate. Then, suddenly, Speaker of the House Mike Madigan hits the breaks.

"The clerk advises there are outstanding notes on the bill, so the bill shall be taken out of the record," Madigan says.

Two seconds pass. "The chair is prepared to adjourn," Madigan says, and he does.

The reaction among the sponsors can best be described as “You’ve got to be kidding.”

One minute, they're about to debate the mayor's gun bill. The next, Speaker Madigan points out some paperwork is missing, then abruptly adjourns the last scheduled session day of the year.

Herein lies the intrigue.

The "notes" the speaker referred to are requests for information that can only be provided by the administration of Gov. Pat Quinn. Things like how much the new, longer prison sentences would cost the Department of Corrections.

The notes were requested by Rep. Ken Dunkin, a Chicago Democrat and chairman of the Black Caucus.

Ken Dunkin
Credit ILGA.gov
Rep. Ken Dunkin is Democrat from Chicago.

He, with what appears to be the cooperation of the Quinn administration, put a brick on the mayor's bill.

Zalewski, the sponsor, says he negotiated extensively with his colleagues, including members of the Black Caucus. But, he says, "no is always going to be the answer for some people."

"I mean, you saw it today," Zalewski says. "You saw an unwillingness to have a debate about public policy, public safety. And we resorted to tricks. Because the votes were there."

Dunkin says the opposite is true, that the legislation would have failed.

“That was not a parliamentary trick. It was a parliamentary procedure that we have in the Illinois House rule book," he says. "Where is this word trick coming from?"

Dunkin says the mandatory minimum bill would ensnare too many innocent citizens. He says locking more people up will not end the violence on the south and west sides of Chicago. And he has a message for Emanuel.

“The mayor of the city of Chicago needs to work with all of us. He needs to work with the largest constituency in his city, as well as us down here,” Dunkin says.

Whether you call it a political trick or a parliamentary procedure, all it does is buy a little time.

Emanuel remains committed to his approach, even as experts say there’s scant evidence longer sentences actually deter crime — certainly not as much as hiring more police officers would.

The legislature is scheduled to be back at the end of January, and there’s talk of a special session in December to deal with state employee pensions.

That should give the Quinn administration plenty of time to file those notes.

Brian Mackey formerly reported on state government and politics for NPR Illinois and a dozen other public radio stations across the state. Before that, he was A&E editor at The State Journal-Register and Statehouse bureau chief for the Chicago Daily Law Bulletin.
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