Mayor takes casino path of least resistance, but is it a winning hand?

Just because Ald. Walter Burnett is willing to put up with the inconvenience of a casino doesn’t mean Mayor Lori Lightfoot will easily round up the other 25 City Council votes she needs to ratify Bally’s River West site.

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An artist’s rendering of the proposed Bally’s casino in River West.

An artist’s rendering of the proposed Bally’s casino in River West.


Mayor Lori Lightfoot has chosen the political path of least resistance by putting her chips on Bally’s River West bid for a Chicago casino.

But that doesn’t mean she’ll have an easy time parlaying that pick into a winning hand in the City Council. That takes 26 votes, and local Ald. Walter Burnett (27th) can cast only one.

Burnett may be willing to swallow the inconvenience of a casino in his ward, but he sure sounded this week like he’s in no mood to help the mayor round up those votes.

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“As far as I’m concerned, this is the mayor’s game. This is her thing. It didn’t come from the aldermen. It’s not aldermanic prerogative. This is coming from the top down to us,” he told the Sun-Times this week.

The legislative battle that lies ahead was foreshadowed by the backdrop the mayor chose for Thursday’s announcement: the Mid-America headquarters of the Carpenters Regional Council, whose members will help build the casino/entertainment complex.

Now that Bally’s has nailed down a labor agreement, including a promise to pay its unionized workforce a “living wage,” Lightfoot is counting on organized labor to help her muscle the site through the council.

Mayor Lori Lightfoot, speaking at Thursday’s announcement about Bally’s proposal for a casino in River West.

Mayor Lori Lightfoot, speaking at Thursday’s announcement that Bally’s proposal for a casino in River West was her pick for a new city gaming site.

Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

Union leaders will undoubtedly attempt to portray any alderperson daring to oppose Bally’s plan as anti-union and anti-jobs.

They will further frame the argument as Lightfoot and Burnett have: as a choice between Bally’s and a post-election property tax increase to save police and fire pensions.

“Who wants to pay more property taxes? I know I don’t. Mine increased substantially,” Burnett said during Thursday’s celebratory news conference.

Noting he was “not afraid” to support demolishing the Cabrini Green high-rises where he grew up, Burnett said, “I’m not afraid to have this casino built in my ward to help our police and firemen. ... They put their lives on the line for us every day.”

Ald. George Cardenas (12th), Lightfoot’s deputy floor leader, was asked to weigh the odds that downtown alderpersons Brian Hopkins (2nd) and Brendan Reilly (42nd) can persuade colleagues to reject the mayor’s choice.

“I wouldn’t say ‘no chance.’ I just think the Council will see it — not as aldermanic prerogative, but as city prerogative,” Cardenas said.

“It’s one of the biggest decisions we’ve made probably in 50 years. I think we’ll have the support of the council because we’re talking about budgetary issues that affect the entire city — not just one ward.”

Hopkins admits he and Reilly face an “uphill fight” — but a “fight worth having.”

The Chicago Tribune printing plant in the River West neighborhood.

The Chicago Tribune printing plant, 777 W. Chicago Ave. in River West, would be replaced with a massive casino and hotel project proposed by Bally’s.

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

“The mayor does seem to manage to get 26 votes when she needs to. But this may be the time she doesn’t,” Hopkins said.

The likely wild cards will be “City Council members who feel disrespected and dismissed after having their aldermanic authority undermined once again combined with the merits of the argument that seem to favor” the South Loop site known as the 78.

Lightfoot’s decision to go around the City Council committee she packed with her leadership team and supposedly empowered to make all decisions related to a Chicago casino is not sitting well, even with some close allies.

That panel, led by Zoning Committee Chairman Tom Tunney (44th), has met only once.

“I know that we need to get it done. I just don’t like the way it’s getting done. You tell us to bake the cake, then you give us a cake already baked,” said Education Committee Chairman Michael Scott Jr. (24th), a mayoral ally.

“That doesn’t make sense. You ask for a transparent process. You create a committee. The committee asks valid questions. Then you give us one option without answering these questions and without us vetting them? How can I vote ‘yes’ on that? I can’t.”

In an email to the Sun-Times moments before the mayor’s announcement, Reilly said he was “incredibly disappointed” at Lightfoot’s decision to “short-circuit the deliberations” of the council’s casino committee.

He noted “dozens of excellent questions were raised about the process and each of the potential sites” at the one hearing that was held and that answers to “most” but not all of those questions were sent to alderpersons late Wednesday.

“Now, less than 24 hours after receiving some of their answers to our questions, we are told the Administration has selected a casino finalist? Last week Chairman Tunney promised Casino Committee members there would be more hearings, more testimony and more opportunities to ask questions about each of the competing bids and locations. This selection runs afoul of those promises and flies in the face of transparency,” he wrote.

River West residents listen during a public meeting on April 6, 2022 on the proposed Bally’s casino near Chicago Avenue and Halsted Street.

River West residents listen during a public meeting on April 6, 2022 on the proposed Bally’s casino near Chicago Avenue and Halsted Street.

Mitchell Armentrout/Sun-Times

Reilly accused Lightfoot of offering the City Council a “false choice”: Bally’s River West, or a pre-election property tax increase.

“This isn’t a debate over whether or not there will be Chicago casino revenue for our pensions. ... The real questions before the City Council are: 1) Is this a good deal for Chicago and 2) is this the right location for this once in a lifetime opportunity?” Reilly wrote.

“There are many Council skeptics due to concerns about how the process has been run, appearances of preferential treatment, and unsatisfactory locations that we were left to consider.”

It’s not the first time Lightfoot has created a committee then ignored its recommendations — or even circumvented a legally-mandated selection process.

Lightfoot had her sights set on retired Dallas Police Chief David Brown from the moment she fired Police Supt. Eddie Johnson for “lying to me and lying to the public” about the circumstances surrounding the 2019 drinking and driving incident that left him slumped over the wheel of his police SUV near his Bridgeport home.

Lightfoot, as Police Board president, had complained when its recommendations were ignored by Mayor Rahm Emanuel. The process “only has legitimacy if you follow it,” she said then.

But she ignored her own advice and chose Brown one day after the Police Board named three finalists, including Brown. Lightfoot ensured the other two had nowhere near Brown’s experience, making him the obvious choice.

And just this week, the mayor hinted strongly she will ignore a controversial recommendation from her own monuments commission to permanently sideline statues of Christopher Columbus in Grant and Arrigo parks and remove the Balbo Monument from Burnham Park.

Hopkins’ argument against Bally’s is two-fold: inexperience and logistics.

He argues the company has never built a big-city casino from the ground up, and traffic nightmares at Chicago and Halsted cannot be overcome.

“It’s already a traffic bottleneck under the best of conditions. To add a casino at that location — it just won’t work. Traffic engineers are not miracle workers,” he said.

The Chicago Tribune printing plant site that is the location of a proposed Bally’s casino project.

Railroad tracks running along one side of the site of a proposed Chicago casino will restrict efforts to improve the intersection and ease traffic concerns, one City Council members says.

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

Hopkins hopes to strengthen his argument with a full-throated endorsement of the 78.

While that site also has local opposition and traffic challenges, Hopkins believes they are more easily overcome, and that the South Loop needs the economic boost more.

Hopkins can only hope that when he says, “Charge!” Reilly and the River North Association will follow, handing Lightfoot what would be a stunning political defeat.

“If Reilly does stay with me on this, it increases the chances that we can get to 26 for an alternative to the mayor’s recommendation,” said Hopkins, mulling his own race for mayor against Lightfoot.

“If it’s gonna happen, this is the time. Her popularity has never been lower citywide. I don’t know that you really want to keep having your wagon hitched to her horse at this time. There’s some real doubt in peoples’ minds as to whether she can win a second term or not. So you might not want to go down with the ship.”

Lightfoot said Thursday she is “more than confident” she will have a “good solid majority” for her choice.

“There are gonna be some that vote ‘no.’ And that’s how the world turns,” she said.

“In every process, there are winners and losers. And this one’s no different. And some of what you’re hearing is people who staked their allegiance with proposals that didn’t make it through to the finalists. It’s typical of folks who weren’t successful to attack the process.”

The mayor pushed back hard against those who have branded the casino committee a “sham.” Although that committee met only once, Lightfoot said there have been scores of briefings and public hearings on the Chicago casino.

“Anyone who tells you differently has been asleep for the past few months,” she said.

“In this administration ... the process matters. Transparency, engagement, inclusion matter. They’re not just window dressing for us. There’s been ample opportunity for any member who wanted to to be engaged and understand the permutations of this process.”  

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