Calling it quits after 20 years on City Council, Brookins says he could write a book — about betrayal

“I never wanted to be one to overstay my welcome. I just believe, after 20 years, it’s the appropriate time to get out — especially with all that I accomplished the last 19 years,” said Ald. Howard Brookins, 58, wrapping up his fifth term on the Council.

SHARE Calling it quits after 20 years on City Council, Brookins says he could write a book — about betrayal
Ald. Howard Brookins (21st) at a Chicago City Council meeting on July 20, 2022.

Ald. Howard Brookins (21st) speaks during a Chicago City Council meeting in July.

Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

Ald. Howard Brookins (21st) says he could “write a whole book called ‘The Backstabbers’” about Chicago politics. That’s how often he said he’s been double-crossed and turned on by colleagues and allies whose support he had counted on.

“People who were my friends in office and fraternity brothers subsequently ran against me. A ward superintendent who was off helping another alderman in another ward for reelection, understanding that, if I didn’t win, he would probably not be the ward superintendent,” Brookins told the Sun-Times.

“I’ve had people making a run on trying to wrestle the committeemanship away from me. It’s been a lot. … Including a former chief of staff who took a bribe, spent the money and tried to ensnare me in his bull----.”

On Wednesday, Brookins, who turns 59 next month, announced plans to walk away from the backstabbing, one-way street of a world that is Chicago politics. He will serve out the remainder of his fifth term and leave when the new — and undoubtedly more independent — City Council is sworn in next May.

“Ed Burke always joked about it. That few people get out of this job, and when they do, it’s by the ballot box, the jury box or the pine box,” Brookins said, referring to indicted Ald. Edward Burke (14th), the former Finance Committee chairman now awaiting trial on federal corruption charges.

“I never wanted to be one to overstay my welcome. I just believe, after 20 years, it’s the appropriate time to get out — especially with all that I accomplished the last 19 years.”

Brookins said his decision has nothing to do with maxing out on his aldermanic pension.

Nor is it related to his lawsuit against the Chicago Board of Ethics challenging the $5,000 fine levied against him for allegedly violating the ethics ordinance by defending clients, including Former Ald. Proco “Joe” Moreno (1st) in criminal cases involving the Chicago Police Department.

“It’s a $5,000 fine, like a speeding ticket,” he said. 

“Their ruling would limit anybody from doing anything when any [city] employee was potentially involved. They said I couldn’t represent Joe Moreno when Joe plead guilty. No police officer was called. Nobody testified. What’s the city’s interest in this case at all?”

Ald. Howard Brookins at a Chicago City Council meeting in 2015.

Ald. Howard Brookins at a Chicago City Council meeting in 2015.

Sun-Times file photo

Fought for Chatham Walmart

If Brookins ever writes that book about Chicago politics, it will have a chapter about his marathon quest for a Walmart supercenter at 83rd Street and Stewart Avenue in Chatham.

In 2004, a bitterly divided City Council gave Walmart zoning approval to build its first Chicago store in Austin — but handed the retailer a one-vote defeat in Chatham.

After asking colleagues to vote for the Walmart in his ward, Brookins naturally was angered to see some Council members “vote for one and not the other for no logical reason.”

The controversy gave birth to the big-box minimum-wage ordinance aborted by then-Mayor Richard M. Daley’s 2006 veto. Organized labor subsequently spent millions to elect a more union-friendly City Council.

The political donnybrook did not end until 2010, when the City Council approved a second Walmart in the Far South Side’s Pullman Park community, paving the way for a $1 billion Walmart expansion that changed the face of retailing in Chicago.

It happened after Walmart and organized labor cut an unprecedented deal that called for the world’s largest retailer to pay its starting Chicago employees at least $8.75 an hour — 50 cents above what was then Illinois’ minimum wage.

The Chatham store did not open until January 2012. 

“It clearly defined me as someone who was not gonna back down in the face of tremendous adversity. In the face of what would be natural allies to any Democrat, [that] being the unions. To have them come after me so hard and, essentially in that next election, give my opponent more than half a million dollars to attempt to defeat me,” Brookins recalled.

“But after the Walmart was built, the community saw my vision and the reason why I fought so hard to have it. And even those who had come after me — the unions like SEIU — came back to me to support me for subsequent elections. It was a tough fight and a fight worth waging when I go in there and I see the hundreds of young people with jobs. When I see people who don’t have to drive miles away to get household items in their community.”

Ald. Howard Brookins at the opening of a Walmart at 83rd Street and Stewart Avenue in January 2012.

Ald. Howard Brookins was there on opening day at the new Walmart in Chatham in January 2012.

Sun-Times file photo

Pace of police reform not ‘fast enough for me’

Brookins was also instrumental in securing $5.5 million in reparations for 57 torture victims of disgraced and convicted former Area 2 Chicago Police Cmdr. Jon Burge.

The retiring alderperson acknowledged the behavior of CPD officers “hasn’t changed fast enough for me” in the seven years since then — though the department has been implementing federally mandated reforms outlined in a consent decree and overseen by a court-appointed monitor.

“Now, there are more eyes on it, and more people willing to admit that this thing goes on. While I was [once] one of the few people crying about how we are giving away too much of our tax dollars for police misconduct cases … more people are [now] seeing this. … Hopefully, we will be able to rein in the behavior.”

Brookins has tried for years to get out of the City Council, running unsuccessfully for state’s attorney in 2008, Congress in 2016, and judge earlier this year.

He is the son and namesake of Howard Brookins Sr., a mortician, former state representative and state senator who chaired the Illinois Senate’s Transportation Committee.

Two of the elder Brookins’ signature achievements were championing legislation that allowed voters to register anywhere in Illinois and creating judicial subcircuits. 

“That bugged party leadership and Mike Madigan. They got him back by remapping him into a district with Emil Jones, and he lost,” Brookins Jr. recalled.

On Wednesday, the younger Brookins said he knows his dad is “proud of me for standing up for what I believe is right.”

Former Illinois state Sen. Howard Brookins Sr. standing in the back during a Chicago City Council meeting in October 2015.

Former Illinois state Sen. Howard Brookins Sr. standing in the back during a Chicago City Council meeting in October 2015.

Sun-Times file photo

His only regret is the decision he made on an unseasonably warm day in November 2016. 

That’s when he chose to ride his bike along the Cal-Sag trail — and was sent flying over the handlebars by a squirrel that got caught in his spokes.

“I am still undergoing surgery to repair my nose and breathing based on that accident. What a freak occurrence,” said Brookins, who fractured his face and lost 11 teeth.

“The choices that day were to ride the bike, go to the show with my wife and kids or sit in the backyard and smoke a cigar. Had I done anything but decide to get some exercise, I would not be in the predicament that I am in today,” Brookins said.

“The lesson I learned is to always smoke a cigar. It’ll kill you slower.”

City Council exit parade

Brookins’ decision guarantees the City Council sworn in next May will include at least 14 members who were not there four years ago. That would be the most since 2011, when the Council welcomed 18 newly elected or appointed members.

Here’s the current list of Council members who have left in recent months or announced they will not seek reelection:

City Council members not seeking reelection: Leslie Hairston (5th); Susan Sadlowski Garza (10th); Howard Brookins (21st); Carrie Austin (34th); Tom Tunney (44th); James Cappleman (46th); Harry Osterman (48th).

Already resigned: Convicted Ald. Patrick Daley Thompson (11th); Michael Scott Jr. (24th); Michele Smith (43rd).

Giving up Council seats to run for mayor: Sophia King (4th); Roderick Sawyer (6th) and Ray Lopez (15th).

Also, George Cardenas (12th), is all but assured of winning a seat on the Cook County Board of Review after winning the Democratic Party nomination for that seat.

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