Johnson wins first test of City Council muscle

By a 41-9 vote, Mayor Brandon Johnson reshaped the City Council in his progressive image.

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Mayor Brandon Johnson presides at his first Chicago City Council meeting.

Mayor Brandon Johnson presides at his first Chicago City Council meeting.

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

Mayor Brandon Johnson on Wednesday reshaped the City Council in his progressive image — and aced the first test of his legislative muscle.

Presiding over his first City Council meeting, Johnson easily won passage of the compromise he forged, shrinking the number of committees from 28 to 20 and replacing Finance Committee Chairman Scott Waguespack (32nd) with Ald. Pat Dowell (3rd), whose decision to abandon Mayor Lori Lightfoot and endorse Johnson was a turning point in Johnson’s winning campaign.

The vote was 41-9.

“If you’re keeping score, I believe it was 41 alderpersons voted for it. I mean — I would consider that an ‘A’” grade, Johnson told reporters after the meeting. “I mean — I don’t know what a brother got to do to get a high-five around here, but we made history today.”

Prior to the final vote, Council members Ray Lopez (15th), David Moore (17th) and Jim Gardiner (45th) rose to oppose the new lineup. Their complaints made the same point: The mayor campaigned on a promise of collaboration and inclusion, but chose his leadership team behind closed doors.

Some alderpersons were included. Others were not.

“You can’t cut deals with certain people to get them to say ‘yes’” when 17th Ward residents are “disrespected,” Moore said. “This is not my seat. This is their seat. Every time, they have to have a voice in it. ... It’s not about the chairmanship. It’s about the process.”

Lopez said he doesn’t question Johnson’s right to choose City Council leaders who will “push your agenda forward.” But he said he simply cannot “start a new administration being excluded” and approving a reorganization that “nobody has seen until the last moment.”

He urged Johnson to “learn from” Lightfoot’s mistake of “reaching for the bare minimum” of 26 votes instead of striving for the collaboration that would have gotten her to a unanimous 50 votes.

Ald. David Moore (17th) was among the City Council members speaking against Mayor Brandon Johnson’s proposal to reorganize the Council’s committees.

Ald. David Moore (17th) was among the City Council members speaking against Mayor Brandon Johnson’s proposal to reorganize the Council’s committees.

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

After the vote, Johnson congratulated Dowell for becoming the first woman to chair the Finance Committee, leading the Council in a standing ovation.

Ald. Anthony Beale (9th) then threw cold water on the celebratory moment by rising to announce his resignation from the Zoning Committee in apparent protest over Ald. Carlos Ramirez-Rosa (35th) being picked to run that committee.

“I can’t sit through eight hours of Carlos Rosa,” Beale told reporters, referring to the duration of some marathon Zoning Committee meetings.

The new lineup anoints Ramirez-Rosa, head of the Council’s Democratic Socialists Caucus, as Zoning chair. Ald. Jason Ervin (28th) is the new Budget Committee chair, replacing Dowell. All five members of the old Democratic Socialists Caucus were rewarded with committee chairmanships in the new lineup.

Besides Ramirez-Rosa, who will double as Johnson’s floor leader, the lineup includes Housing Chair Byron Sigcho-Lopez (25th); Education Chair Jeanette Taylor (20th); Pedestrian and Traffic Safety Chair Daniel La Spata (1st) and Health Committee Chair Rossana Rodriguez-Sanchez (33rd).

Ald. Walter Burnett (27th), the 28-year veteran who replaces indicted former Ald. Edward Burke (14th) as Council dean, was stripped of his chairmanship and relegated to the largely ceremonial role of vice mayor. But Burnett will command a nearly $400,000 budget, signaling a change in focus for the vice mayor’s job.

Burnett stuck with Lightfoot in round one of the mayoral sweepstakes, then backed Paul Vallas in the April 4 runoff.

Johnson was asked why the vice mayor needs a $400,000 budget.

“Every single operation in the City Council requires us to commit to investing in people. The work that will be done through that particular position will require us to invest in people,” the mayor said.

Other senior alderpersons — including Waguespack, Beale, Marty Quinn (13th) and Brendan Reilly (42th) — were left out in the cold. All but Waguespack supported Paul Vallas in both rounds of the mayor’s race.

Waguespack rose to deliver a gracious speech congratulating Dowell, who replaced him as Finance chair, and wish her luck as she confronts its many challenges.

Waguespack said he’s proud of the good government reforms he ushered in and the fiscal stability he helped Lightfoot build and looks forward to establishing a “working relationship with the new administration.”

He then joined eight of his colleagues in voting against the reorganization.

Chicago Mayor Brandon Johnson, presiding at his first City Council meeting.

Chicago Mayor Brandon Johnson presides Wednesday at his first City Council meeting.

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

It was the first test of Johnson’s Council muscle and his new floor leader’s ability to whip up votes, and Johnson and Ramirez-Rosa passed that first test with flying colors. Ramirez-Rosa predicted the vote wouldn’t be close, and it wasn’t.

“We have gone through four years of gridlock in the Chicago City Council, and it has not benefited anyone. ... We have to get things done. … People want to see Mayor Brandon Johnson succeed,” Ramirez-Rosa told the Sun-Times last week.

“This unity plan is about avoiding gridlock ... making sure that the diversity of our city is reflected at the table, making decisions,” Ramirez-Rosa said.

The lame-duck Council approved an earlier reorganization with a 28-committee structure on March 30, opting not to wait for the new mayor and Council to be sworn in.

That effort was led by three of Lightfoot’s closest allies — Waguespack, Ervin and Rules Chair Michelle Harris (8th) and increased the number of committees from 19 to guarantee passage.

It was a multimillion-dollar expansion — without a clear-cut funding source — and needed to be ratified by the new Council.

That created an opportunity for Johnson to weigh in — and he took it.

Ramirez-Rosa said the goal was not to punish Johnson’s political adversaries or show who’s boss. The objective, he said, was to ensure the new mayor’s legislative agenda is not sabotaged or slow-walked.

Ald. Scott Waugespack (32nd) speaks to Ald. Michael Rodriguez (22nd) during Mayor Brandon Johnson’s first City Council meeting at City Hall on Wednesday, May 24, 2023.

Ald. Michael Rodriguez (left) chats Wednesday with Scott Waugespack, who lost his chairmanship of the City Council Finance Committee.

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

Interviewed by the Sun-Times last month, Waguespack warned Johnson to “leave this alone” and make no changes to the Council reorganization before the new mayor and Council were sworn in.

Asked whether those remarks sealed Waguespack’s fate, Ramirez-Rosa said: “There are those who wanted to work collaboratively, and there were those that wanted to ice out the mayor. … Ultimately, the vast majority decided that the best way to move forward is to work collaboratively with the mayor.”

Dowell has had her eye on the Finance chair from the get-go, and Johnson chose to reward her. She could be poised to reclaim some of the powers stripped away from the committee under Waguespack.

Instead of increasing the number of Council committees from 19 to 28, what Johnson is calling the “Unity Plan” retains the original 19 and creates just one additional committee: Police and Fire. That’s in addition to the existing Committee on Public Safety.

Police and Fire will handle all issues relating to those two departments. The Committee on Public Safety will help deal with crime in a more holistic way, as Johnson promised during his mayoral campaign.

In addition to the 20 committees, there will be two permanent subcommittees: revenue and youth employment.

The revenue subcommittee will be under Finance and is intended to build support for the $800 million in new or increased taxes needed to bankroll the jobs, education, mental health and social programs that form the cornerstone of Johnson’s anti-violence strategy. It also will try to develop alternatives to revenue ideas that business leaders oppose.

Former Inspector General Joe Ferguson predicted that Johnson’s decision to reward Ramirez-Rosa with the Zoning chair would “be a cause for real concern on the part of the business and development community.”

“It is the clear announcement of a new day. And that new day does not — at least not on the surface — appear to include a business and development community. Coming out of a very, very closely divided and contested race, it is a stark message to proceed with when you don’t have a major electoral mandate,” Ferguson told the Sun-Times.

Although he has pushed for City Council independence, Ferguson condemned the plan as “self-preservational” and a preemptive power move of the status quo “wrapped in a package that includes meaningful reforms.” He said there was no way to justify the 19 existing City Council committees, let alone 28.

Still, Ferguson found it disheartening that Johnson would choose to dictate the lineup of committee chairs instead of allowing the Council to reorganize itself and choose its own leaders. It’s more like, “Meet the new boss. Same as the old boss,” Ferguson said.

“This is anything but independence. It’s just new wine in an old bottle. From the broader perspective of a need for checks and balance between the executive and the legislature, it is still the old Chicago. That’s not a good thing,” Ferguson said.

“By and large, everyone went along with the mayor after an initial period of dust-up and argument,” said Ferguson. “What we need is something that truly constitutes checks and balances, truly constitutes multiple visions and voices from the legislative and executive branch to push us toward the best outcomes. This looks more like the old way of doing things with new people. It’s a new form of machine.”

Ferguson said that Johnson’s decision to leave so much seniority and “so many key players” on the sidelines of his reorganization plan is a “matter of real concern.”

“It almost begs for something like the creation of a common sense caucus that stands in the middle, and maybe holds, really, the balance of power with respect to which way major legislative initiatives go,” the former inspector general said.

“We’ll see, as we move into the budget cycle, where a lot of hard decisions are gonna have to be made,” said Ferguson. “Where we’re gonna have to deal with revenue shortfalls. Where we’re gonna have to make some hard decisions about the police department and alternative forms of response.”

Mayoral allies have made the opposite argument, predicting that Wednesday’s lopsided vote will set the stage for a collaborative relationship between Johnson and the Council.

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