Mayor Lori Lightfoot “empowered people to have freedoms” by saying she didn’t want a rubber-stamp City Council and aldermen are taking her up on it, the mayor’s floor leader said Thursday.
“I don’t see it as a rebellion. … I see aldermen being much more aggressive about what they want, how they want it and when they can get it,” said Ald. Michelle Harris (8th).
“Plain and simple, the mayor is on the record as saying that she doesn’t want a rubber-stamp City Council. When you give people the freedom to take their rights and use their rights to get what they need for their community, they are going to do that. The mayor has empowered people to have freedoms.”
Tension between the mayor and Council has been building ever since Lightfoot used her inaugural address to denounce the Council as corrupt, shamed aldermen into joining her and the Wintrust Arena crowd in a standing ovation for reform, and then that same day signed an executive order stripping aldermen of their “prerogative” over licensing and permitting in their wards.
She has promised to do the same for their unbridled control over zoning. But that would require a Council vote — one she is destined to lose.
That outcome was never more clear than it was last week, when Lightfoot suffered her first Council defeat.
By a 25-24 vote, Ald. Brendan Reilly (42nd) succeeded in blocking part of the mayor’s pandemic relief package that invaded aldermanic turf. It would have ended the requirement for a separate ordinance for every sign over the public way.
Lightfoot has not given up that fight. But she may have no choice, Harris said.
“I strongly agree that aldermen know their wards best. Strongly. I’m in that space fightin’, too. … I’m sitting in that space with everybody fighting to protect the integrity of my community because, at the end of the day, I’m held responsible for what happens here in the 8th Ward,” Harris said of aldermanic prerogative over zoning.
“When my colleagues — 25 of them — say they don’t like a sign ordinance, then you scrap it, you start all over and you come up with a document that everybody else can agree on. And if everybody can’t agree on it, we’ll continue to do it the way we did it yesterday.”
As for last week’s now infamous finger-pointing confrontation between Lightfoot and Ald. Jeanette Taylor (20th), Harris attributed the clash to the similarities between two “very strong Black women.”
Taylor “knows what she wants and she is not afraid to speak up. We call her the warrior because if she believes in something, she’s gonna fight for it. Wrong or right. The mayor [is also] very strong-willed. Sometimes when you put two of the same personalities in the room, it takes a minute for them to figure out the middle road,” Harris said.
“I’m confident — strongly confident — that these two strong African American women are gonna get in a room and work through whatever issues perceived and unperceived” there are.
Taylor has accused Harris of carrying the water for the mayor in a failed, eleventh-hour bid to convince the Illinois General Assembly to reduce the threshold for Council approval of a new ward map to make it easier to redraw the wards of her most outspoken critics.
Harris, who will preside over the map-making process as Rules Committee chairman, insisted she was acting alone and simply trying to protect Chicago’s 18 majority-Black wards, despite a precipitous loss in Black population over the last 10 years.
“I’m surrounded by African Americans. There’s no way that I don’t get an African American ward. I’m fighting for other people — not for Michelle — because I’ll be OK,” Harris said.
“And while I’m fightin’ for it, I’m getting my hands and my feet cut off and chopped off. It’s disheartening.”
Lightfoot campaigned on a promise to create an independent commission to draw new ward boundaries to coincide with the 2020 Census.
Harris said that is another area where the mayor will need to back off.
“This is a process about 50 aldermen. This is our process. We’re gonna sit in a room — the 50 aldermen — and we’re going to draw a map that we can live with,” she said.
Harris’ 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.
On Thursday, Harris talked about the invaluable political and life lesson she learned from Dixon that might help Lightfoot improve her strained relationship with the Council.
“She took the high road in life. The lesson for all of us is, take the high road. To call in a great phrase that I love, Michelle Obama said, ‘When they go low, you go high,’” Harris said.
“You’ve got to have the ability to let stuff roll off your back and move on so you can live to get through the next series of tragedies, good things and bad things coming along.”