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Emanuel could lose steady hand at critical budget hearings

Ald. Carrie M. Austin, chair of the City Council's Budget Committee, has been a steady hand for Mayor Rahm Emanuel at past budget hearings. But as hearings start this year, Austin is ailing. | Sun-Times file photo

With a $500 million property tax increase and a first-ever garbage collection fee as cornerstones, City Council hearings on Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s 2016 budget have the potential to be rather raucous.

More than ever, that requires a strong chairman whom the mayor can rely upon to bang the gavel and cut off the questioning when the debate gets too hot or the testimony veers from the political script Emanuel loves to follow.

For four years, Emanuel has had that strong hand in Budget Committee Chairman Carrie Austin (34th). This time, Austin cannot be counted on.

Sources said Austin has endured two lengthy hospital stays and at least one surgery over the past several months for a serious heart problem.

Austin’s staff has been tight-lipped about the issue, saying only that the alderman, a breast cancer survivor, has been resting and recuperating from “high blood pressure due to the high volume of her schedule.” Sources said Emanuel visited Austin several times in the hospital and has sent her periodic text messages during her long recuperation.

The alderman’s health problems occurred shortly after Austin lashed out at Inspector General Joe Ferguson for what she called the “witch hunt” investigation that forced the resignation of her son.

Kenny Austin resigned from his $72,384-a-year city laborer’s job after an internal investigation concluded he crashed a city vehicle while driving on a suspended license, then had a co-worker cover for him to avoid taking a mandatory drug test.

Ald. Jason Ervin would preside at city budget hearings if Budget Committee Chairman Ald. Carrie Austin is unable to do so. | Sun-Times file photo

Carrie Austin’s summer-long health crisis raises questions about how much time and energy she will be able to spend chairing what could be the most contentious round of budget hearings the City Council has seen in years.

She might be strong enough to bang the gavel in the morning and retreat to her aldermanic office by early afternoon. But after the ordeal she’s been through, it’s highly unlikely Austin will have the stamina to chair marathon hearings that can drag on into the evening. Nor can she be counted on to be the iron-fisted chairman she has been.

If Austin needs to dial it back, the gavel gets passed to her vice chairman. For four years, that was downtown Ald. Brendan Reilly (42nd), one of the primary surrogates for Emanuel’s re-election campaign.

Now the vice chairman is West Side Ald. Jason Ervin (28th).

“Carrie Austin is the budget chair. She’ll be there to execute her duty. I don’t see what would keep her from doing that,” Ervin said.

Ervin is a political wild card if there ever was one. And that creates a political dilemma for the notoriously controlling Emanuel.

Two years ago, Ervin used City Council budget hearings as a stage to engage in a heated exchange with Police Superintendent Garry McCarthy.

Ervin complained then that the number of blacks in the Chicago Police Department’s exempt ranks had declined during McCarthy’s tenure. An angry McCarthy defended his record, saying promotions under his control had involved a larger percentage of African-Americans than the department as a whole.

“I just told you the numbers of who I’m promoting, and they’re disproportionately African-American based on the demographics of this department,” McCarthy said at the time. “So I’m not going to sit here and take that, alderman. You’re wrong.”

Ervin countered: “You can leave if you don’t like what’s being said.”

Ervin, whose father was commander of the Harrison District in the 1990s, groused that McCarthy had installed a white commander in the predominately black district. Ervin subsequently demanded that McCarthy install a black commander in the Harrison District after James O’Grady retired.

When McCarthy filled the job with Glenn Evans, an African-American who was one of the superintendent’s rising stars, Ervin went to the station to invite the new commander to lunch and ended up in a heated exchange with Evans in the parking lot. The alderman was ordered to leave the station.

Evans is now on leave and awaiting trial for placing the barrel of his gun into a suspect’s mouth.

Ervin also has made headlines when he apologized to his constituents for a racy video posted on YouTube of a 2012 bachelor party featuring strippers that was held on another floor of a building that includes his aldermanic office.

The alderman accused someone he once “regarded as a friend” of making the embarrassing party tape public to “extort” him for “personal gain.” He refused to name the friend or define the extortion, but insisted he didn’t use city or campaign funds to pay for the party.

In July 2014, Ervin criticized Emanuel for failing to attend the funeral of 11-year-old Shamiya Adams. The girl from West Garfield Park was gunned down when a bullet fired by an alleged gang member entered the open window of a home where she was having a sleepover with friends.

“He should have been there. The message needs to be sent that this is one city. There are no unimportant parts of Chicago,” Ervin said then.

Earlier this year, Ervin raised eyebrows by setting up a political action committee that accepted contributions from city contractors in excess of the $1,500 limit imposed by Chicago’s ethics ordinance and funneling that money to West Side allies who had been forced into runoffs.

Austin could not be reached for comment about the upcoming budget hearings. Ervin has been at the forefront in recent days during the painstaking and gruesome dredging of the Garfield Park lagoon after the dismembered remains of a toddler were found there.

A mayoral confidante said Emanuel has little choice but to hope for the best with Austin, roll the dice with Ervin and hope that the maverick vice chairman doesn’t get carried away during his turn in the political spotlight.

After allowing Austin to choose her own vice chairman during the City Council reorganization that followed his second inauguration, Emanuel would make a dedicated enemy he can ill afford out of Ervin if he tried to remove him, the mayoral confidante said.