Lightfoot’s City Council floor leader goes public with his resignation

Ald. Gilbert Villegas’ City Council colleagues say Lightfoot’s propensity to lash out at critics and get even would have made it virtually impossible for even the best of floor leaders to function — and that Villegas was not the best.

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Ald. Gilbert Villegas (36th) chats with other aldermen before the Chicago City Council meeting Tuesday, Nov. 26, 2019.

Ald. Gilbert Villegas (36th), shown before a Chicago City Council meeting in November 2019, has resigned as Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s floor leader.

Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times file

Mayor Lori Lightfoot set the tone for a contentious relationship with aldermen from Day One.

She used her inaugural address to portray the City Council as corrupt, stripping aldermen of their “prerogative” over licensing and permitting and using her first City Council meeting to humiliate now-indicted Ald. Edward Burke (14th).

No wonder her Council floor leader didn’t even make it to mid-term.

Ald. Gilbert Villegas (36th) went public Tuesday to announce the resignation he had told the mayor about six weeks ago. He was promptly replaced by Rules Committee Chairman Michelle Harris (8th), one of the most popular Council members. Ald. George Cardenas (12th) will serve as deputy floor leader.

“Alderman Harris brings years of experience in the City Council, including a long history of working within the Council to bridge divides and craft resident-focused legislation. I look forward to working with her in this new capacity and continuing to move Chicago forward in a more equitable and inclusive way,” Lightfoot was quoted as saying in a statement. 

“Michelle and George are smart, experienced, and respected by their colleagues. They will be a very dynamic team.”

Neither Villegas nor Harris could be reached for comment.

Ald. Michelle Harris (8th) speaks during Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s first Chicago City Council meeting at City Hall, Wednesday, May 29, 2019.

Ald. Michelle Harris (8th) during Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s first Chicago City Council meeting, in May 2019.

Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

The changing of the guard follows a 29-to-21 vote on the mayor’s $12.8 billion “pandemic” budget that was the closest Chicago has seen since the 1980’s power struggle known as “Council Wars.”

The resignation came as no surprise to Villegas’ City Council colleagues.

They say Lightfoot’s thin-skinned propensity to take things personally, lash out at critics and get even would have made it virtually impossible for the best of floor leaders to function.

But, they argued further, Villegas wasn’t the best. He did not have the strong working relationships with colleagues or the open lines of communication with the mayor’s office a floor leader needs to be most effective.

“It wasn’t the best marriage in terms of a chief executive and her floor leader and the things they wanted to get done,” said Ald. Michael Scott Jr. (24th), the mayor’s hand-picked chairman of the City Council’s Education Committee.

Ald. Ray Lopez (15th), one of Lightfoot’s most outspoken City Council critics, noted Villegas had criticized the painfully slow roll-out of Lightfoot’s lead pipe replacement plan, and that several ordinances championed by the mayor have stalled under Villegas’ leadership.

They include Lightfoot’s plan to change zoning laws to create additional regulatory hurdles for industrial polluters, the mayor’s plan to loosen the grip of the city’s ethics ordinance and the creation of a civilian police review board, seen as critical to restoring public trust shattered by the police shooting of Laquan McDonald.

“It’s hard to be a floor leader to a mayor who doesn’t listen. It’s hard to be a floor leader — or chairman, for that matter — to someone who doesn’t value your opinion as something that is beneficial to advancing an agenda,” Lopez said.

“The mayor’s leadership team on the Council are constantly sidelining each other’s ordinances on behalf of the mayor. As floor leader, you have to try to wrangle those cats. It’s a very difficult position when there’s no clear leadership coming from the fifth floor which direction you want to go.”

Last fall, Lightfoot bemoaned the bitter tone of political discourse in Chicago and vowed to “to push myself harder to work with people with whom I do not agree and who do not agree with me.”

Still, her hair-trigger temper continues to alienate aldermen.

During the run-up to the 29-to-21 budget vote, Lightfoot warned members of the Black Caucus who did not support her 2021 budget, “Don’t ask me for s--t for the next three years” when it comes to choosing projects for her five-year, $3.7 billion capital plan.

Just last week, she branded Lopez and Anthony Napolitano (41st) “racist” and “xenophobic” for daring to question whether eliminating “carve-outs” that allowed Chicago Police officers to cooperate with Immigration Control and Enforcement under certain circumstances would lead to, yet another spike in violent crime that’s already spiraling out of control.

Although she has tried to be more collaborative of late, Scott said Lightfoot has never recovered from the confrontational tone she set on inauguration day.

“My mom always told me you start a situation the way you want a situation to end,” Scott said.

“That first day when she turned around and gestured to aldermen, a lot of ’em didn’t take kindly to that. That was the start of the friction in the relationship. If you don’t foster those relationships, it’s hard to right the ship. I don’t know that she’s done that with all of my colleagues.”

In 2018, Villegas introduced an ordinance that would have legalized sweepstakes machines in Chicago after being lobbied by James T. Weiss, a son-in law of former Cook County Assessor and Democratic Party Chairman Joe Berrios. The ordinance went nowhere.

Weiss owns and operates sweepstakes machines. His lobbying efforts are part of the federal criminal case against now indicted former state Rep. Luis Arroyo.

In October 2019, Commonwealth Edison cut ties with a lobbying firm co-owned by Villegas.

Villegas has insisted he never lobbied anybody, did no work for ComEd and started “making moves to divest” himself from Stratagem, the company he formed with Elgin City Council member Baldemar Lopez, when the City Council voted in July 2019 to impose new restrictions on outside employment by aldermen.

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