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Mayor Lightfoot struggles to find votes for property tax increase, and has herself to blame

The chickens are coming home to roost for a political newcomer who failed to cultivate relationships of trust with aldermen but now is asking them to walk the tax plank.

Mayor Lori Lightfoot makes her inaugural address during the city of Chicago’s inauguration ceremony at Wintrust Arena, Monday morning, May 20, 2019.
Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s contentious relationship with aldermen started during her inaugural address at Wintrust Arena in May 2019.
Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times file photo

Mayor Rahm Emanuel convinced 35 aldermen to approve a $588 million property tax increase — the largest in Chicago history — for police and fire pensions and school construction.

Why, then, is Mayor Lori Lightfoot struggling so mightily to find 26 votes for a property tax increase one-sixth that size followed by annual increases tied to the cost of living?

Partly, the coronavirus pandemic and the incredible financial hardship it has caused.

Chicagoans who still have jobs have seen hours and paychecks shrink. They’re struggling to pay their property taxes and bracing for the double whammy of an upcoming reassessment of city property.

That is hardly the time to saddle them with an even greater burden.

But part of it is the chickens coming home to roost for Lightfoot.

The bank of good will is running on empty for a mayor who used her inaugural address to portray the City Council as corrupt, raced back to City Hall to issue an executive order stripping aldermen of control over licensing and permitting in their wards and used her first council meeting to humiliate indicted Ald. Edward Burke (14th).

“She has not developed the kind of relationships that a mayor needs to develop … to see a budget through in difficult times,” said former Ald. Joe Moore (49th), who turned out to be one of Emanuel’s closest council allies.

“When you’re asking legislators to make politically tough decisions, it’s always helpful to have built relationships of mutual respect and trust. One of the things that made Rahm so effective … is that most of the aldermen felt he had their backs.”

Ald. Jason Ervin (28th), chairman of the Council’s Black Caucus, attributed Lightfoot’s current troubles to her being “new to the political arena.” She’s a former federal prosecutor who has never before held public office.

“The previous mayor had relationships built up over years. She’s honestly been the only person that has come into this situation without having really any relationships with anyone. It takes time to get there to build that type of relationship,” Ervin said.

Ald. Roderick Sawyer (6th), son of former Mayor Eugene Sawyer, agreed politics and government is a “relationship business.”

“She’s picking that up and understanding that more and more every day. Once she gets hold of that, she will probably be in a much better space,” Sawyer said.

“She’s making adjustments, adding more of a personal touch to her appeal. ... I’ve had some positive conversations with her recently. There are some things she still needs to work on budget-wise and maybe relationship-wise. But, she’s still got a couple days to deal with it.”

The budget confrontation has been building since that infamous inauguration day confrontation at Wintrust Arena.

It wasn’t just a bad start for a newcomer to a business built on trust. The pattern continued.

Council members who pushed back against Lightfoot’s request for expanded spending and contracting authority for the duration of the pandemic were denounced as “shameful,” “selfish” grandstanders willing to put politics over public health.

Lightfoot got her way after a 29-to-21 vote not seen since the 1980’s power struggle known as “Council Wars,” when 29 aldermen, most of them white, thwarted Mayor Harold Washington’s every move.

But the close vote signaled the trouble she is now in.

Just last week, Lightfoot warned members of the Black Caucus who do not support her 2021 budget, “Don’t ask me for s--t for the next three years,” referring to choosing projects for her five-year, $3.7 billion capital plan.

That’s even after Lightfoot bemoaned the bitter tone of political discourse in Chicago and vowed to “push myself harder to work with people with whom I do not agree.”

Already, Lightfoot has been forced to make concessions. She canceled the 350 layoffs, added another $10 million for violence prevention, beefed up an alternate response pilot program for emergency calls related to mental health and nixed plans to link eliminating “carve-outs” in the city’s Welcoming City ordinance to the budget.

The 20-member Black Caucus is holding out for even more money for violence prevention and mental health and for specifics on South and West side capital projects.

The uphill battle Lightfoot faces was on display Tuesday at a hearing that was a prelude to Wednesday’s Finance Committee vote on the mayor’s revenue package, which includes the $94 million property tax increase and annual inflationary hike.

It was a coming-out party of sorts for Burke, who has been largely silent since his indictment.

Burke led the charge in interrogating Chief Financial Officer Jennie Huang Bennett and Budget Director Susie Park on alternatives to the property tax increase, including eliminating funding for all vacant positions or increasing the city’s 7-cent bag tax.

“The property tax in Chicago has historically been toxic. And I’m sure that the other members are hearing what I’m hearing when I go to church and people walk up to me and voice their concern,” said Burke, a 51-year veteran who knows the city budget like the back of his hand.

“We know there’s gonna be some federal money coming. Why not anticipate that, make some adjustments here and refrain from this increase in the levy?”

Ald. Tom Tunney (44th), Lightfoot’s handpicked Zoning Committee chairman, questioned why the mayor chose to freeze property taxes in her first budget instead of confronting the city’s $30 billion pension crisis.

“We all clapped our hands last year, saying there was no property tax increase. And yet, you knew these ramp-ups were coming. So now, you’re doing the CPI where we should have been doing it before and making the tough vote in our first year of the administration, rather than this fear-mongering about the tax bill will come when the voters are trying to decide who their next alderman is. I find it a little disingenuous,” Tunney said.

Ald. Patrick Daley Thompson (11th) asked what it would cost to cancel the property tax increase in favor of a line of credit. Huang Bennett pegged the cost at $2 million to $4 million and advised against it.

Ald. Susan Sadlowski-Garza (10th), chairwoman of the Committee on Workforce Development, pushed for the $16-a-month employee head tax on Amazon and other “logistics operators” with more than 50 employees.

The tax was introduced this week and promptly referred to the Rules Committee, where legislation opposed by the mayor goes to die.

“As far as I’m concerned, $1.25 on a package coming to my door that I’m paying — I don’t think the consumer is gonna see it,” Garza said.

On the anniversary of Lightfoot’ first year in office, Moore warned the day of reckoning was coming for Lightfoot, with “a lot more socialists and uber-left progressives” on the Council “who are gonna vote against her no matter what” because of her “pragmatic governing style.”

Moore likened Lightfoot to Bruce Rauner, a my-way-or-the-highway outsider who became a one-term governor in part because he was at constant war with the legislature.

Moore said Lightfoot “might be able to cobble together” the 26 votes she needs to pass the budget. But he wouldn’t bet on it.

“When you’re a week away from a budget vote and you’re 11 solid votes behind, that’s not a good sign,” Moore said.

“In the Daley and Rahm days, they were all about running up the table. They weren’t just fighting and clawing for 26 votes, they were fighting and clawing for 46 votes — or 50.”

Ald. Gilbert Villegas (36th), Lightfoot’s floor leader, said Tuesday he’s “feeling good” about the final council vote, but even he acknowledged: “In politics you have to form relationships. This is Politics 101. You want to build relationships with people before you have to ask them for anything.”