Ald. Michelle Harris (8th) knows how to clean up somebody else’s mess from the three years she spent as sanitation superintendent in her ward.
Now she’ll try to do the same for Mayor Lori Lightfoot — by cleaning up the mess the mayor made of her relationship with the City Council.
Harris was chosen this week as Lightfoot’s new floor leader, replacing Ald. Gilbert Villegas (36th) after a no-fault political divorce that appears to be by mutual agreement.
Villegas struggled to round up votes for the mayor’s initiatives because he lacked the strong working relationships with colleagues and open lines of communication with the mayor’s office a floor leader needs.
He was further hampered by a thin-skinned mayor with a hair-trigger temper who set the tone for her confrontational relationship with the Council on inauguration day and has made it worse ever since by lashing out at critics.
Harris, who turns 60 in December, is the antithesis of the combative mayor she serves.
She’s one of the Council’s most genuine and likable members.
But picking up garbage and removing snow is a whole lot easier than cleaning up somebody else’s political mess.
“People’s personalities are what they are. It’s my job to keep everybody in the room talking to each other. That’s as much as I’m gonna be able to do. To move the conversations forward on both sides,” Harris told the Sun-Times on Wednesday.
“I’m going to help her to move her agenda forward. That’s what I’m here for. She’s going to help me move her agenda forward. It’s a two-way street. … It’s all in the mayor’s lap now. The relationship is all in the mayor’s lap. … I don’t feel like I can solve the world’s problems and I’m not trying to. I’m just trying to work with all my colleagues.”
Former Ald. Pat O’Connor (40th) spent eight years delivering lopsided majorities for then-Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s ambitious legislative agenda because he was a floor leader who could talk to anybody and deliver for aldermen.
When O’Connor gave an alderman his word, it was almost like getting it straight from Emanuel. He had the mayor’s ear.
Lightfoot has proudly proclaimed the Council isn’t a rubber stamp for her because “I don’t buy votes.”
“I’m not saying to somebody, ‘Hey, if I get your vote, I’ll give you this project’ or ‘You’ll get this money.’ That’s not the way I’m gonna operate. That kind of transactional way of governing is not something that I will ever embrace,” the mayor told an interviewer last year.
How can a floor leader be effective without the currency of politics needed to round up votes?
Harris said only that she would do her best to “solve peoples’ problems” — even when it comes to the six-member Socialist Caucus whose left-wing views could not be more different than her own.
“Whether the Socialists want to work with me or not, I want to work with them. … They get to sit down at the table. They get to say, ‘Put my food on the plate,’” Harris said.
What if Socialist demands are unrealistic or unaffordable? Harris says she will simply tell them: “I heard you out. But this doesn’t work for the city of Chicago.”
She added: “Everybody deserves the right to be heard. We don’t have to agree. But they have the right for somebody to hear them out,” she said.
In many ways, Harris has been preparing for the floor leader’s role her whole life.
Her political mentor was longtime County Board President John Stroger, whom she served as board secretary. Stroger was a legendary ward boss and one of the most popular African-American politicians in Chicago history.
Her aunt and role model was the Council’s beloved former Budget Committee Chairman Lorraine Dixon (8th), who died of breast cancer in 2001 at age 51.
“Lorraine Dixon was the epitome of class and refinement. … I fought being like Lorraine my whole life. We grew up in the same house together. As a kid, you want to make your own way. But the older I get, the more I’m like her,” said Harris, who was diagnosed with a less aggressive form of breast cancer in October 2019.
“It’s in our family’s disposition and the way we were raised to compromise. To get things done. Understanding that you’re never gonna get everything you want. That has made me … kind of be able to be like a duck and just keep moving forward. It’s like water over my back.”
Lightfoot campaigned on a promise to create an independent commission to draw new ward boundaries to coincide with the 2020 U.S. Census.
Harris disagreed in a way that is likely to make her even more popular with her colleagues.
“I believe that state law says that the aldermen have the right to draw a map that they agree on,” she said.