Sweeping the floor: Why Johnson had no choice in removing key Council ally from top leadership posts

Not even six months into the Brandon Johnson administration, his Council floor leader, Ald. Carlos Ramirez-Rosa, had become a liability the mayor simply could not afford.

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Ald. Carlos Ramirez-Rosa (35th) speaks to reporters at City Hall on Oct. 11, 2023.

Ald. Carlos Ramirez-Rosa (35th) is shown in August speaking to reporters after Mayor Brandon Johnson presented his 2024 budget recommendations.

Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

At a time when historic political tensions between Black and Hispanic Chicagoans have been exacerbated by the migrant crisis, Mayor Brandon Johnson had no choice but to cut loose his most powerful City Council ally.

Not even six months into the Johnson administration, Ald. Carlos Ramirez-Rosa (35th) had become a liability the mayor could not afford — not with his $16.6 billion budget pending and the migrant crisis still threatening to blow a $200 million-plus hole in it.

Ramirez-Rosa announced Monday he was stepping down as both Council floor leader and as powerful chairman of the Zoning Committee. The move came ahead of Tuesday’s pivotal votes on paid leave and on putting a binding referendum on the March ballot asking voters to authorize the Council to raise Chicago’s real estate transfer tax on high-end property sales to generate $100 million a year to combat homelessness.

Analysis bug

Analysis

But the long-term damage from Ramirez-Rosa’s alleged “manhandling” of Ald. Emma Mitts (37th), the Council’s longest-serving Black woman, depends on how effective Johnson’s choices to replace Ramirez-Rosa are at marshaling support for the mayor’s progressive agenda.

If Johnson wants someone more likable and less confrontational, speculation could center around Vice Mayor Walter Burnett (27th), the Council dean, or Ethics Chairman Matt Martin (47th), one of the Council’s most up-and-coming stars.

Veteran Ald. Greg Mitchell (7th), Workforce Development Chairman Mike Rodriguez (22nd) and Ald. Andre Vasquez (40th) are also possibilities. Ald. Pat Dowell (3rd) isn’t interested, saying she has her hands full as chairwoman of the Finance Committee.

Johnson isn’t tipping his hand. But in a statement confirming he had forced Ramirez-Rosa’s resignation, the mayor made clear the migrant crisis made the decision an easy one.

“It is not lost on me that Thursday’s events occurred during a time of heightened tension at City Hall. In recent months, the forces of division have preyed on our city, pitting us against each other in the most destructive ways,” the mayor was quoted as saying.

Mayor Brandon Johnson meets migrants staying at the 12th Police District station, 1412 S. Blue Island Ave., in May.

Mayor Brandon Johnson meets migrants staying at the 12th Police District station, 1412 S. Blue Island Ave., in May.

Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

Senior mayoral adviser Jason Lee added: “This isn’t just about the City Council. The entire city is in unprecedented turmoil right now because of external forces who wanted to cause this. ... We’ve had an increase in all kinds of activity that is really contrary to our functioning discourse — and, frankly, our democracy. In the community, in the corridors of City Hall, tensions have boiled over. We all need a reset. And that’s what we will have.”

Despite controversy, budget moves along

If the Ramirez-Rosa situation was going to stymie Johnson’s progressive agenda, it wasn’t immediately evident Monday. Johnson’s budget and all of its companion ordinances, including the city’s $1.8 billion property tax levy, breezed through the Budget and Finance committees.

The budget includes a fourth full-time staffer for each of the 50 alderpersons instead of having staffers paid through aldermanic expense accounts. It will be deferred and published on Tuesday, setting the stage for a final vote next week.

Johnson’s now ill-fated decision to empower Ramirez-Rosa, chair of the Council’s Socialist Caucus, had been a high-risk, high-reward political gamble from the outset.

If Ramirez-Rosa had turned out to be more pragmatic and collaborative than some of his more conservative colleagues expected, forging relationships with them and with the real estate community, it could have been a big step forward for progressive politics in Chicago.

But it all unraveled at Thursday’s special Council meeting, called to consider an advisory referendum asking voters if Chicago should remain a sanctuary city.

Ramirez-Rosa was frantically trying to persuade alderpersons not to enter the Council chambers, in hopes of preventing Ald. Anthony Beale (9th) and Ald. Ray Lopez (15th) from reaching the 26-vote quorum they needed to continue the meeting.

“Tensions were high at a chaotic meeting, and I let that get the best of me, leading me to act in a way unbecoming of a leader. … I feel awful about everything that happened. I have reached out to my colleagues to apologize directly and seek to make amends. ... I take full responsibility for what I’ve done,” Ramirez-Rosa said in his statement.

“Because the position of Floor Leader especially requires the confidence of our colleagues, and because through my actions I lost that confidence, I have informed the mayor that I will be stepping down.”

Mayor confronted with chaos upon return from D.C.

Johnson had been in Washington, D.C., Thursday, seeking more federal funding for a migrant crisis now costing Chicago more than $30 million a month.

When he returned, Johnson talked to Ramirez-Rosa, who claimed he attempted to block Mitts from entering Thursday’s meeting and, at one point, “came in contact” with both Mitts and Lopez before “quickly” moving “out of the way.”

After days of trying, Johnson also reached Mitts, who told the mayor and her pastor that Ramirez-Rosa did not “put his hands” on her while trying to keep her out of the chambers.

Ald. Emma Mitts (37th) speaks about how important it was to bring the Public Safety Training Center to her West Side ward.

Ald. Emma Mitts (37th) speaks in January at the ribbon-cutting for the new Public Safety Training Center, at 701 N. Kilbourn Ave. in her West Side ward.

Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

But Mitts offered a different version to her Black Caucus colleagues Sunday night, sources said, essentially backing Black Caucus Chairwoman Stephanie Coleman (16th), who led the charge to use the incident to get rid of Ramirez-Rosa.

“That just further inflamed people, and it’s become a racial thing,” a test of whether Johnson would stand with the Black community, said a source familiar with the behind-the-scenes maneuvering.

“People were saying, ‘Mr. Mayor, are you really going to protect this Brown man who assaulted a Black woman?’”

Lopez was not satisfied with the Johnson administration’s attempts at damage control. Allowing Ramirez-Rosa to continue as Zoning chairman until Dec. 1, Lopez said, allows him to withhold zoning approval of projects to get even with colleagues he blames for engineering his ouster.

Besides the allegation involving Mitts, Ramirez-Rosa is accused of threatening several committee chairs, including Ald. Chris Taliaferro (29th), who also attended the special meeting.

Taliaferro, Police and Fire Committee chairman, said he was threatened after Ramirez-Rosa said, “I need you to leave” and Taliaferro refused.

“He said, ‘Well, don’t expect anything from me in my [Zoning] Committee,’” Taliaferro told the Sun-Times.

Ald. Carlos Ramirez-Rosa (35th) speaks at an Oct. 27 news conference where Cook County Commissioner Brandon Johnson announced he was running for mayor of Chicago.

Ald. Carlos Ramirez-Rosa (35th) speaks at the October 2022 news conference at which Brandon Johnson announced he was running for mayor.

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

Ramirez-Rosa denies zoning threats

Ramirez-Rosa has denied making such a threat. He claims he told various chairs they were “part of a team” and he needed that “team” to unite against the resolution.

Ald. Nicole Lee (11th), however, said Monday she filed a complaint with the city’s inspector general after a similar threat from Ramirez-Rosa at that meeting.

“He threatened zoning for my ward if I didn’t do as he asked, which was to leave the room,” Lee said Monday. “To be honest, it was a very scary moment.”

Later Monday, Ramirez-Rosa issued another statement calling claims about zoning threats “inaccurate,” adding: “I said out of frustration to some of my colleagues that I couldn’t work with them if they were not going to work with me, but that’s as far as it went.”

Ald. Scott Waguespack (32nd) said he prepared a letter of censure over the weekend and plans to move to suspend the rules at Tuesday’s Council meeting to discuss the situation, “so it’s not something that just gets brushed aside with a resignation.”

Former Mayor Richard M. Daley was forced to dump his floor leader, then-Ald. Patrick Huels (11th), eight years into his 22-year administration after Huels became embroiled in a corruption scandal.

Former Mayor Lori Lightfoot replaced Ald. Gilbert Villegas (36th) with Michelle Harris (8th) after two years, but her contentious relationship with the Council continued.

Johnson was forced to make a change before the six-month benchmark.

But Jason Lee believes Johnson’s swift handling of the controversy will minimize the political damage.

“It’s a different city than it was under Mayor Daley. We’re dealing with unprecedented issues that have put an unprecedented strain on the entire city. We know that. But we’ll be OK. We believe the Council will be stronger. They will come together.”

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