Brandon Johnson’s first City Council meeting likely to be tamer than Lightfoot’s debut, observers say

Senior adviser Jason Lee said the mayor has been rehearsing to make sure he’s comfortable with the gavel in his hand and running the meeting.

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Ald. Ed Burke (14th) spars with Mayor Lori Lightfoot at May 2019 City Council meeting.

Ald. Ed Burke (14th) spars with Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s first City Council meeting, in May 2019.

Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

Four years ago, Lori Lightfoot didn’t just survive the first test of her City Council muscle. She managed to humiliate her political arch-rival in the process.

Compared to that made-for-TV moment of political vengeance between Lightfoot and now-indicted and newly retired Ald. Edward Burke, Brandon Johnson’s Council debut is almost certain to be downright tame.

Johnson is expected to take the high road as the Council ratifies his hand-picked leadership team.

Senior adviser Jason Lee said the mayor has been rehearsing to make sure he’s comfortable handling the gavel and running the meeting smoothly. Without a corporation counsel of his own just yet, Johnson is expected to have longtime deputy corporation counsel Jeff Levine at his side on the rostrum to remind him of Roberts Rules of Order and keep him out of parliamentary trouble.

“The mayor’s been in these [situations] before. He’s on the other side of the building. It’s not too dissimilar. Obviously, he’s never chaired a meeting. He’s chaired some committees. But, he’ll be OK. He’ll work his way through it. And he’ll get better every time. We’re looking forward to it,” Lee told the Sun-Times.

“Practice makes perfect, so we’re working on it. … He’s been doing some work on this for sure. We’ve had some run-throughs with some people participating. Going over some different potentialities. He’s getting prepared.”

Lee said there won’t be an ounce of gloating — not even if, as expected, Johnson gets his way and Ald. Scott Waguespack (32nd) is deposed as Finance Committee chair and replaced by Ald. Pat Dowell (3rd). Dowell’s decision to abandon Lightfoot and endorse Johnson was a turning point in the mayoral campaign.

Nor will Johnson rub it in when five Democratic Socialists are rewarded with committee chairmanships, led by newly installed Zoning chair Carlos Ramirez-Rosa (35th), who will double as the new mayor’s floor leader.

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) spoke at the kickoff rally for Brandon Johnson’s successful mayoral campaign.

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

“The mayor has his own style. I don’t know him to be too much of a gloater. He can often bring levity to situations in that way. But not in a kind of aggressive or hostile way. … He’ll try to move the meeting along. Follow Roberts Rules. Whatever the rules are about their ability to speak at that time or not. He’ll follow those rules,” Lee said.

“We want to have a productive and successful Council meeting. … These individuals who sit in the Council are colleagues of the mayor and their success is his success and their collective success is the city’s success. What you should expect to see is a cordial and productive relationship. And that’ll be the baseline. Tempers and other things can rise at different moments. Hopefully not in this first meeting, but we’ll work through it together.”

Ald. Anthony Beale (9th), who has no leadership position in Johnson’s lineup, in spite of his 24 years of seniority, said he, too, does not expect “anything close to resembling” the Burke-Lightfoot confrontation.

“Unfortunately, she had an axe to grind with Burke. I guess she just had to try to show everybody who was the boss. That first meeting and her inauguration was the beginning of her demise,” Beale told the Sun-Times.

“I don’t think Johnson is looking to pick a fight. He’s trying to be more cooperative and workable with the Council. I don’t see anything that’s gonna resemble what happened four years ago. She thought she was laying down the law and coming down hard because that’s what the people wanted, but [she] learned very quickly that she misread the whole election and she misread how to get along and work with people.”

Ald. Ray Lopez announces he is running for mayor of Chicago. He made the announcement on Wednesday, April 6, 2022 at The Plant, 1400 W. 46th St., in his Southwest Side ward.

Ald. Ray Lopez was the first candidate to announce he was running for mayor against incumbent Lori Lightfoot last year. He also was the first to drop out, choosing to run for and win re-election to his 15th Ward seat on the City Council.

Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

Ald. Ray Lopez (15th), whom Lightfoot accused that first day of “carrying the water for Burke,” also expects zero fireworks. He noted that Lightfoot and Johnson are “two different personality types.”

“She came in with much more animosity towards certain individuals than Brandon has. He’s actually been pretty pro-active in reaching out to make human connections with members. So, I would be surprised if he got off on that foot,” Lopez said.

Few at the May 29, 2019 Council meeting dominated by Lightfoot’s confrontation with Burke will ever forget the high drama of that day.

It happened after Burke rose to complain about the wording of the Council rules drafted by the Lightfoot administration.

His problem, he said, was they were not “gender neutral” and that, according to Burke, was rather egregious, considering the fact that Lightfoot was Chicago’s first African-American female and openly gay mayor and only the second woman to serve as chief executive in the city’s history.

As Burke droned on citing examples, Lightfoot lost patience.

“Alderman Burke, you’ve been in the City Council for approximately 50 years. Is that correct?” she said during questioning honed during her days as a federal prosecutor.

“Yes, your honor,” Burke replied.

“And you’re a lawyer. Is that also correct?” Lightfoot said.

“Yes, your honor,” Burke said.

After swatting Burke away like a pesky mosquito, Lightfoot humiliated the Council dean by essentially ordering Burke to sit down and shut up.

Ald. Ed Burke (14th) spars with Mayor Lori Lightfoot during her first Chicago City Council meeting at City Hall, Wednesday, May 29, 2019.

Ald. Ed Burke (14th) spars with Mayor Lori Lightfoot during her first Chicago City Council meeting, in May 2019.

Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

During a news conference after her first meeting, Lightfoot basked in the glow of the beatdown of an alderman she once accused of trying to organize the Council against her.

Burke had pulled his Perry Mason routine before — when she was Police Board president and he was playing prosecutor, putting her under the microscope.

This time, the tables were turned and she was loving every minute of it.

Burke “has an interest in trying to take me on publicly. Every time he’s done it before, he’s got the same result. And he’ll get the same result every other time,” Lightfoot said that day.

“The notion that Ed Burke … is somehow now concerned about gender equity is laughable. That was just a stunt. … Showmanship. Apparently, Alderman Burke has forgotten that I’m a 30-year trial lawyer,” she said.

“He likes to see if there are weaknesses. And he has attempted to do this in the past with me and he’s failed spectacularly. And every time he tries it, he will again fail spectacularly,” she said then.

“I’m not gonna start off my term as mayor with the City Council putting up with somebody who’s just playing games for the sport of it. People in this city expect us to do our jobs. They expect the government to actually work on behalf of the people and not have a Game of Thrones gamesmanship on the floor of the City Council. I’m not having it.”

Mayor Lori Lightfoot speaks with reporters after her first Chicago City Council meeting at City Hall, Wednesday, May 29, 2019.

Mayor Lori Lightfoot speaks with reporters at City Hall in May 2019 after her first Chicago City Council meeting.

Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

Under questioning, Lightfoot also explained why she felt it necessary to punish Beale for daring to oppose her choice of Waguespack as Finance chair.

“It’s important … that we restore trust and integrity. Ald. Beale thought it was appropriate to not be forthright in discussion with me and to invoke my name in trying to carve up the spoils of government for himself. I don’t take kindly to that,” she said.

If Johnson conducts himself with restraint and humility while presiding over his first Council meeting, it could be yet another sign that the contentious relationship between the mayor and the Council that dominated Lightfoot’s one and only term is history. At least for now.

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