Ald. Leslie Hairston to retire from the City Council after 24 years

Her retirement is part of a mass exodus that promises to change the face of the Chicago City Council. Hairston is the ninth Chicago alderperson to either resign or announce a decision not to seek reelection. Several others, including indicted Ald. Edward Burke (14th) and Zoning Chair Tom Tunney (44th), are considering political retirement.

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Ald. Leslie Hairston (5th) attends a Chicago City Council meeting at City Hall last year.

Ald. Leslie Hairston (5th), shown at a Chicago City Council meeting at City Hall last year, has announced she will not seek reelection.

Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times file

After 23 years, South Side Ald. Leslie Hairston (5th) announced her retirement Friday, part of a mass exodus that promises to change the face of the City Council.

“For more than 30 years, I have held jobs serving the public and it’s time for me to look at the next chapter of my life,” Hairston, 61, was quoted as saying in a statement issued late on a summer Friday afternoon, the traditional burial ground for bad or surprising news.

“While I haven’t made any decisions yet, rest assured that it will be active, engaged and committed to making my community better. It just will not be as alderperson. ... It has been an honor for me to represent one of the most independent wards in the city of Chicago. ... I hope the next alderperson will continue the same 5th Ward tradition and serve with integrity, independence and perseverance.” 

Hairston could not be reached for comment. In the statement, she went on to say that “nothing has come easy” during her more than two decades in the City Council.

But she nevertheless listed 19 accomplishments that range from work involving the Obama Presidential Library, the South Shore Summer Festival and the Chosen Few Picnic to improving access to the lakefront renovation, Metra station improvements, the Greater Grand Crossing Library and a new fire station.

Ald. Leslie Hairston (5th) attends a Chicago City Council meeting last month.

Ald. Leslie Hairston (5th) attends a Chicago City Council meeting last month.

Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times file

Hairston’s list also includes the Aldi, Trader Joe’s and Local Market grocery stores, the Gary Comer Education Campus, Revere Community Housing, Starbucks, Revere Community Housing and the Sophy Hotel.

Her impending exit speeds the transition to a Chicago City Council that will look dramatically different in the next term.

Ald. Michele Smith (43rd) resigned, effective Aug. 12, giving Mayor Lori Lightfoot the rare chance to make a third Council appointment.

The mayor already has replaced convicted Ald. Patrick Daley Thompson (11th) with Nicole Lee, the Council’s first Chinese American, and Ald. Michael Scott Jr. (24th) with his sister, Monique.

Scott resigned his City Council seat to take a job with Cinespace Film Studio in his West Side ward.

Uptown Ald. James Cappleman (46th) is not seeking reelection. Neither is Ald. Harry Osterman (48th) nor indicted Ald. Carrie Austin (34th).

Alderperson Howard Brookins (21st) is awaiting an Ethics Board ruling on conflicts posed by his law practice before deciding whether to seek reelection after losing a judicial race.

Alderpersons Sophia King (4th), Roderick Sawyer (6th) and Ray Lopez (15th) are giving up their seats to run for mayor. Ald. Tom Tunney (44th) may do the same. Ald. George Cardenas (12th), Lightfoot’s deputy floor leader, is leaving after winning a seat on the Cook County Board of Review.

A handful of veteran alderpersons may join the exodus, including indicted Ald. Edward Burke (14th), dean of the Council.

Earlier this month, Tunney was blunt with the Sun-Times about why there is so much turnover in the City Council.

“Property taxes. Less police. It’s not a healthy platform to run on. … I am seriously considering running, and I’m also seriously considering not running,” Tunney said.

“There are a lot of alderpersons who feel they haven’t been paid much attention to in regard to their needs of their individual wards. There’s a lot of acrimony in the council. … People need to work together. We all need to compromise. ... It’s got to happen in the mayor’s office. It’s also got to happen in the aldermanic offices. And I just think that a lot of people feel that it’s not a good place to work these days.”

Since 1999, Hairston has served a fiercely independent Hyde Park ward that was once represented by widely acclaimed independent Ald. Leon Despres.

Leslie A. Hairston, center, celebrates winning her first term representing the 5th Ward in 1999 with her mother, Reva J. Hairston, left, and Martha Brummit Peters, right, who first encouraged Hairston to run for the seat.

Leslie Hairston (center) celebrates winning her first term representing the 5th Ward in 1999 with her mother, Reva J. Hairston (left), and Martha Brummit Peters, who first encouraged Hairston to run for the seat.

Bob Black/Sun-Times file

Hairston carried on in that same tradition — and with a better ending than one of her convicted predecessors, Larry Bloom. She was one of only five alderpersons to oppose the parking meter deal that Chicagoans love to hate.

When Dominick’s closed and left behind a vacant store, Hairston waged a six-year campaign to get a new grocery store for her South Shore constituents.

“It’s very difficult for the mayor to say he’s doing enough when he’s announcing grocery stores all over everywhere except in the place that needs it the most,” Hairston said of then-Mayor Rahm Emanuel in 2014.

“He knows people. He could do more. I need him to do more. ... It is a black mark on him. Absolutely. It says that he doesn’t care.”

When Emanuel unveiled plans to build a new Mariano’s store in Bronzeville while the South Shore site remained vacant, Hairston was so incensed by what she called Emanuel’s North Side-centric development efforts that she threatened to run for mayor.

“I feel like I’m living in a part of the city that’s been cordoned off. Every day, I drive by the vacant Dominick’s in Jeffrey Plaza, and I’m wondering if we’re ever going to get a place to shop,” Hairston, who endorsed County Board President Toni Preckwinkle over Lightfoot, said then.

Ald. Leslie Hairston (5th) attends a Chicago City Council meeting in December.

Ald. Leslie Hairston (5th) attends a Chicago City Council meeting in December.

Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times file

Even after Emanuel announced that Shop & Save had signed a purchase agreement to build a new grocery store in Jeffery Plaza in up to 60,000 vacant square feet that Dominick’s left behind, she demanded that Emanuel sweeten the deal by increasing a $10 million tax increment-financing subsidy.

When the city upped the ante and sealed the deal, Emanuel likened Hairston and her South Shore residents to “a dog with a bone” who wouldn’t let go.

Hairston’s last hurrah is likely to be the $5 million loan fund she pressured the city to create to help condominium and co-op owners defray the cost of maintenance and repairs.

Last month, her decadeslong crusade finally hit pay dirt in a way that could be a model for preserving vulnerable aging buildings citywide.

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