Lightfoot advised to tread softly with new, emboldened City Council

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Mayor-elect Lori Lightfoot has some big changes in mind for the Chicago City Council once she takes office. | Ashlee Rezin/Chicago Sun-Times

Mayor-elect Lori Lightfoot was advised Wednesday to tread softly with the new, emboldened and more progressive City Council or risk derailing her ambitious legislative agenda.

Weigh in, but let the Council choose its own committee chairmen.

Play the long game on ethics reform. Pick your battles, just like parents need to do with their kids.

Choose a politically savvy City Council liaison who knows how to get along with aldermen.

Ignore the small, but vocal Socialist council members at your peril.

And whatever you do, keep a close eye on Ald. Edward Burke (14th) — almost like a spy in football — to prevent a 50-year council veteran who knows where the bodies are buried from making mischief.

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“This is sport for him,” said a veteran political strategist who asked to remain anonymous.

“There cannot be a week that goes by where someone’s not communicating with him and getting a sense of what he’s up to.”

Aldermen interviewed Wednesday urged Lightfoot to “strike a balance” between identifying Council leaders she can trust and committee chairmen aldermen can swallow.

That might require “taking risks” and rolling the dice with veteran aldermen who supported Preckwinkle, like Traffic Committee Chairman Ald. Walter Burnett (27th) or Budget Chairman Carrie Austin (34th) — aldermen who could become Lightfoot loyalists over time.

If it’s “all top-down” and Lightfoot recommends people who “rub aldermen the wrong way, I don’t see Council folding and just giving her what she wants,” one alderman said.

“You’re gonna see the Council pick its own chairmen and its own members of committees as it was designed to be done years ago,” said Transportation Committee Chairman Anthony Beale (9th), one of Lightfoot’s late supporters.

“No different than what they do in Springfield and what they do in Washington.”

Austin added: “We’re the ones who have to vote on the reorganization — either from her direction or our own. Her desires should be met, just like ours should be met.”

The biggest test, of course, is what happens with the Finance Committee chairmanship Burke was forced to relinquish after being charged with attempted extortion.

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Had Ald. Pat O’Connor (40th), Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s City Council floor leader, been re-elected, the Council likely would have stuck with him, Beale said.

But O’Connor lost Tuesday to Andre Vasquez, a former rapper endorsed by United Working Families and the Chicago Democratic Socialists of America. The 39-year-old Vasquez is one of five and possibly six members of a possible new Socialist Caucus.

“Pat is a huge loss. You’re talking about a guy who has the right temperament to collaborate and bring them together,” Beale said. “I’ve admired him for years and how he operated.”

Without O’Connor, Beale suggested himself or Ald. Tom Tunney (44th), a Lightfoot supporter, as possibilities for Finance chair. Austin also mentioned Tunney, but added downtown Ald. Brendan Reilly (42nd).

Ald. Scott Waguespack (32nd) on Wednesday renewed his interest in the job, even as he denied again that Lighftoot promised it to him in exchange for his early endorsement.

That could be problematic, several veteran aldermen said.

“Can he bring the Council together for 26 votes? I don’t think so, “Austin said.

Yet another alderman said, “Here’s this guy who hasn’t worked with us, who’s been a thorn in our side and a contrarian for his own political purposes. We’re not gonna say, ‘Great. We’ll all work with him to be Finance chair, one of the most important committees. It’s not gonna happen,” one alderman said.

Ald. Gilbert Villegas (36th), chairman of the City Council’s Hispanic Caucus, said he’s already talked to Lightfoot about designating a “speaker” charged with reorganizing the Council and working with the administration, but operating independently from the mayor.

“I did talk to her about having a more independent Council that would allow for selection of its own chairmanships. She was open to that,” he said.

“It’s the Council’s responsibility right now to do that. It’s unfortunate that over all these years, the Council hasn’t done that.”

On ethics reform, Lightfoot’s hand is certain to be strengthened by the burgeoning corruption scandal, the May 3 deadline for the feds to indict Burke and the wave of indictments expected to follow those charges.

But, she’ll still need to play the long game.

Lightfoot has promised to end aldermanic prerogative, the unwritten rule that gives a local alderman iron-fisted control over zoning and licensing in his or her ward. She also wants to give the City Council its own attorney, televise committee meetings, impose term limits for committee chairmen and limit the outside jobs aldermen can hold.

Beale and Austin are dead-set against term limits for committee chairmen, banning outside income and ending aldermanic prerogative.

“If you take me out of the equation, you take my community out of the equation. Any development that I have, I bring it before my community. I don’t dictate to them. If they say they don’t want something, it doesn’t happen,” Austin said.

“Why would everybody assume that everybody’s a crook? I don’t understand that. Just because Alderman Burke mishandled his ward, you’re saying that all of us do that?”

Beale added:

“If you’re saying she’s labeling all of us as doing the same corruption? I would beg to differ with her if that’s what she said. I don’t do that at all. … I don’t want anybody from downtown telling me what’s in the best interest of my community. What good am I if I cannot do what’s in the best interest of my community. Then who’s held accountable when things go bad?”

Waguespack countered that a two-term limit for committee chairman could get 26 votes, so long as Lightfoot is willing to impose that same two-term limit on herself.

“Everybody will vote for those reforms. But they have to be shared … both for the aldermen and the mayor,” Waguespack said.

Referring to Lightfoot’s 74 percent mandate, Waguespack said, “The city population … has said this is the direction they want to see the Council and the mayor go. People who are holding out for the old way of doing things — they’re not gonna have a choice.”

Aviation Committee Chairman Matt O’Shea (19th), whose pivotal endorsement of Lightfoot produced an 84 percent vote for the mayor-elect in his ward, couldn’t agree more.

“We’ve got to keep pushing ethics reform. That’s something this election showed us. People are sick and tired. They’re fed up,” he said.

As if all of that and the upcoming battle over a new ward map isn’t enough of a headache, Ald. Carlos Ramirez-Rosa (35th) put another log on the fire: a possible new Socialist Caucus that could grow to six members if Rossana Rodrquez-Sanchez defeats incumbent Ald. Deb Mell (33rd). After election night, Mell trailed by 64 votes.

“If Rosanna maintains her lead, we’ll be 12 percent of the City Council and we’re gonna move the conversation to the left,” Ramirez-Rosa said.

“We’re going to fight for those things we were elected upon: removing the carve-outs from the Welcoming City ordinance. Making sure that we’re erasing the gang database, that we’re fighting to lift the ban on rent control. That we’re fighting to get to a $15 minimum wage now, not by the time that Springfield will get us there.”

But Ramirez-Rosa was an outspoken supporter of Preckwinkle. Won’t that put his demands on the back-burner politically?

“I certainly hope that after eight years of Rahm Emanuel that we wouldn’t continue to see that type of temperament and divisiveness,” Ramirez-Rosa said.

Lightfoot has said repeatedly she’s not afraid of an independent City Council. She welcomes it.

“If she makes good on that promise, then a block of six, if you work together, can actually be very powerful in terms of moving forward legislation or moving compromises,” Ramirez-Rosa said.

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