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Lightfoot spars with Hispanic Caucus over hiring record

“It was unnecessarily combative. … It showed that she takes things very personally. I don’t think those are good attributes for a leader to have. … The mayor is approaching government the wrong way,” said Ald. Carlos Ramirez-Rosa.

Ald. Carlos Ramirez-Rosa (35th) speaks during a press conference at City Hall in the Loop, Tuesday morning, Feb. 23, 2021, where Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot signed the Welcoming City Ordinance.
Ald. Carlos Ramirez-Rosa (35th) is shown in February with Mayor Lori Lightfoot at a City Hall press conference when the mayor signed the Welcoming City Ordinance, which offers more protection to undocumented immigrants.
Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

A defensive Mayor Lori Lightfoot held a stormy meeting with the City Council’s Hispanic Caucus this week, pushing back hard against complaints about a shortage of Hispanics in leadership positions and demands that she roll back part of her property tax increase.

Last year, Lightfoot famously warned members of the Black Caucus who dared to vote against her 2021 budget, “Don’t ask me for s--- for the next three years” when it comes to choosing capital projects.

Monday’s hourlong meeting with the Hispanic Caucus was similarly contentious, with one Council member saying it proved again how defensive Lightfoot can be and how unwilling she is to entertain proposals that are not her own.

“It was unnecessarily combative. … It showed that she takes things very personally. I don’t think those are good attributes for a leader to have. … The mayor is approaching government the wrong way,” said Ald. Carlos Ramirez-Rosa (35th).

“In that meeting, the mayor said over and over again that she didn’t need to change. That she was doing everything correct. That she was the best in Latino hiring. That she was the best in investing in the Black community. I don’t think the data supports that. And I just don’t think that’s the way anyone should approach leadership. You have to be open to hearing other peoples’ suggestions, open to compromise and open to criticism.”

Ramirez-Rosa said he was particularly “shocked and taken aback” when Lightfoot talked about getting heat for her $31.5 million plan to launch a yearlong test of guaranteed minimum income in Chicago.

The idea, championed by her former floor leader and current Hispanic Caucus Chairman Gilbert Villegas (36th), would send $500 checks, no strings attached, to 5,000 needy Chicago families.

“She said she was being attacked by Black leaders as if guaranteed basic income was a handout for Latinos and that it didn’t include reparations,” Ramirez-Rosa said.

“She said she’s ‘poured a f---ton of money into Black communities,’” and that no mayor — not even Harold Washington — had done more for the African American community.

Ald. Andre Vasquez (40th) said he was the one who challenged Lightfoot’s claim by mentioning Washington, Chicago’s first Black mayor.

“Harold Washington is someone who worked really hard to build coalitions. There’s an opportunity for that to occur in this administration. But it has yet to manifest” itself, Vasquez said.

Mayor Lori Lightfoot discussed details of the Chicago Works program on Monday, April 26, 2021 at Dawes Park, 8052 S. Damen Ave.
Mayor Lori Lightfoot at an April event where she discussed details of the Chicago Works program at Dawes Park, 8052 S. Damen Ave.
Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

The stage for Monday’s meeting was set when the Hispanic Caucus sent Lightfoot a letter criticizing her hiring record and issued a “report card” on the mayor’s performance on Hispanic representation: an “F” for her cabinet and a “D” for city government overall.

No longer Lightfoot’s floor leader, Villegas has been particularly outspoken about the paucity of Hispanics in the mayor’s cabinet and the fact that only one Latino was among Chicago Police Supt. David Brown’s nine promotions to the rank of lieutenant.

More recently, Villegas accused the mayor of blocking his own universal basic income proposal. She commandeered that plan, he said, to use it to boost support for her 2022 budget.

Lightfoot told Hispanic alderpersons she was “offended” by their letter. Villegas told the mayor that he, too, was “offended” — by the fact that Hispanics are underrepresented in a city where they are one-third of the population.

“She said the reason why there aren’t more Hispanics in government is the fact that a majority of the Latino population is below the age of 18,” another Council member said.

Lightfoot also highlighted her most recent appointment of Pedro Martinez, the first Hispanic to serve as permanent CEO of Chicago Public Schools. She also mentioned Corporation Counsel Celia Meza and Chief Procurement Officer Aileen Velazquez.

Three days later, newly retired Business Affairs and Consumer Protection Commissioner Rosa Escareno was appointed interim CEO of the Chicago Park District.

“To make appointments during Hispanic Heritage Month is great. But we’re Hispanic 11 other months, too,” said one Council member, who asked to remain anonymous.

Hispanic hiring wasn’t the only item on the agenda.

So was a proposal from the Hispanic Caucus to declare an additional $100 million tax increment financing (TIF) surplus — enough money for the city’s budget to cancel a $25 million property tax increase tied to the Consumer Price Index.

“That would allow us to hold up the CPI for one year while we’re trying to get out of this pandemic,” one alderperson said.

“Another revenue idea had to do with technology savings. Those were ideas that saved real money that were not entertained.”

An empty sidewalk near the intersection of North Hoyne and West Fargo Avenues in Rogers Park, Friday afternoon, March 27, 2020.
One member of the Hispanic Caucus said Mayor Lori Lightfoot rejected a suggestion that surplus TIF money be used to put off a property tax increase tied to the Consumer Price Index.
Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

Sources said Lightfoot summarily rejected the idea of a TIF surplus any larger than the $271.6 million already in her budget. She said the automatic escalator will cost the owner of a home valued at $250,000 just $1.53 a month.

The mayor also turned thumbs-down to a request by Ald. Silvana Tabares (23rd) to separate the vote on guaranteed minimum income from the budget itself.

After an hour of back-and-forth, sources said the meeting ended with Lightfoot and Hispanic alderpersons agreeing to disagree.

Mayoral press secretary Cesar Rodriguez refused a request from the Sun-Times to discuss Monday’s “private” meeting.