Will Ramirez-Rosa’s new Council leadership roles be ‘big step forward’ for progressives — or kick in the pants to developers?

If the new zoning chair and Council floor leader is more pragmatic than some of his critics expect, it could be a positive step for progressive politics in Chicago and developers.

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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 spoke at last year at Brandon Johnson’s announcement that he was running for mayor of Chicago.

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

Mayor-elect Brandon Johnson’s plan to empower Democratic Socialist Ald. Carlos Ramirez-Rosa as both his City Council floor leader and Zoning Committee chairman is a “high-risk, high-reward” political gamble.

If Ramirez-Rosa turns out to be more pragmatic and collaborative than some of his more conservative colleagues expect, by forging relationships with the real estate community, then it could be a “big step forward” for progressive politics in Chicago — a golden opportunity to broaden their appeal.

But if Ramirez-Rosa stymies projects by making unreasonable demands on affordability and taxes, it could have a chilling effect on the development any mayor needs to create jobs and grow the tax base.

Analysis bug

Analysis

Further, if Ramirez-Rosa alienates fellow Council members by trying to take away control over zoning in their wards, the resulting infighting might even set the stage for a modern-day version of Council Wars.

Former Inspector General Joe Ferguson predicted 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.

Inspector General Joe Ferguson, who has since left that job, speaks to members of the City Council during budget hearings in 2021.

Inspector General Joe Ferguson, who has since left that job, speaks to members of the City Council during budget hearings in 2021.

Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times file

Chicagoland Chamber of Commerce CEO Jack Lavin said business leaders “like stability.”

“Zoning is an area that can be really helpful to attract businesses to come to Chicago. ... We want to work together. We want to collaborate. We want to find ways we can make zoning more efficient — whether it’s through the city bureaucracy or the City Council,” Lavin said.

Ramirez-Rosa said developers should not be scared off by his role as the Council’s leading Socialist. He wants development to move forward “in a way that is equitable and in a way that ensures that we see investment in every neighborhood of this city,” he said.

“My message is, ‘Let’s collaborate. I want to hear from you: What are the issues that you’re seeing in the community. Already, I’m hearing that it’s taking far too long for inspections to be carried out. That there is too much uncertainty with permitting processes. We’re already finding spaces where we can work together,” Ramirez-Rosa said.

“I’ve worked closely with many different developers to move forward good land use and zoning policy in our community. We’ve seen record investment in the 35th Ward. We’ve accomplished a lot of big projects. That has all been accomplished by bringing together community stakeholders and developers to make sure we have win-win situations,” said Ramirez-Rosa.

Two years ago, Ramirez-Rosa championed a plan to penalize developers who tear down single-family homes or multi-units buildings in Logan Square and other fast-gentrifying neighborhoods along the 606 Trail. At the time, Ramirez-Rosa warned that the fees — $15,000 per home, $5,000 per unit — probably needed to be even higher, and he said experts agree.

Ald. Carlos Ramirez-Rosa (35th) speaks at a rally for striking Chicago Teachers Union and SEIU Local 73 members in 2019. 

Ald. Carlos Ramirez-Rosa (35th) speaks at a rally for striking Chicago Teachers Union and SEIU Local 73 members in 2019.

Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times file

Now, he’s in a position to make that happen.

“We’re gonna continue to work on that issue with community stakeholders in Logan Square in the impacted communities because protecting two-to-four-flats is critically important,” said Ramirez-Rosa.

But Ramirez-Rosa said his Council colleagues can breathe easy about what’s known as their zoning “prerogative” — the veto power they hold on projects in their wards.

“I’m an alderman. I believe that alderpeople are elected to be the voice of their community, particularly when it comes to zoning and land-use decisions in communities. Mayor-elect Johnson has made that clear as well,” he said.

“I will continue to respect my colleagues and the critical input that they bring to the table as it relates to the zoning and land-use decisions that are being made in their wards. That’s a long way of saying, ‘no’” change,” Ramirez-Rosa said.

Ramirez-Rosa’s star status was part of a revised Council reorganization that shrinks the number of City Council committees from 28 to 20 and replaces Finance Committee Chairman Scott Waguespack (32nd) with 3rd Ward Ald. Pat Dowell, who abandoned Mayor Lori Lightfoot to endorse Johnson.

All five members of the Democratic Socialists Caucus received committee chairmanships in the new lineup.

In addition to Ramirez-Rosa, who will double as Zoning chair and floor leader, the lineup includes Housing Chair Byron Sigcho-Lopez (25th); Education Chair Jeanette Taylor (20th); Pedestrian and Traffic Safety Chair Daniel LaSpata (1st); and Health Committee Chair Rossana Rodriguez-Sanchez (33rd).

Ald. Jeanette Taylor (20th) speaks during a Chicago City Council meeting in March.

Ald. Jeanette Taylor (20th) speaks during a Chicago City Council meeting in March.

Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times file

Ald. Walter Burnett (27th), the 28-year veteran who replaces indicted and retiring 14th Ward Ald. Edward Burke as Council dean, was stripped of his chairmanship and relegated to the largely ceremonial role of vice mayor. After backing Lightfoot in the first round of voting, then supporting Paul Vallas in the runoff, he told the Sun-Times: “To get anything, I’m happy and humbled.”

“Those of us that are seniors — we respect the old way, which is, ‘To the victor goes the spoils.’ That happens all the time. It’s why [Edward] Burke didn’t have Finance last time. Waguespack got it. Carrie [Austin] lost Budget. Pat Dowell got it.”

Other senior alderpersons — including Waguespack, 9th Ward Ald. Anthony Beale, 13th Ward Ald. Marty Quinn and 42nd Ward Ald. Brendan Reilly — were left out in the cold. All but Waguespack supported Vallas in both rounds of the mayor’s race. Waguespack did not return repeated phone calls or text messages.

In an email, Reilly said he was “disappointed the City Council is abandoning its opportunity to operate independently of the executive branch for the first time in many decades.”

Ferguson had been highly critical of the 28-committee plan championed by Waguespack and approved by the City Council on March 30, before the new mayor and City Council had a chance to weigh in.

Ald. Scott Waguespack (32nd) speaks during a press conference at City Hall in March.

Ald. Scott Waguespack (32nd) speaks during a press conference at City Hall in March.

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times file.

AlthoughFerguson has pushed for Council independence and said Waguespack’s plan had meaningful reforms, he also calledthe reorganization a move intended to preserve the Council status quo, and said there was no way to justify even 19 committees, let alone 28.

Still, Ferguson found it disheartening that Johnson chose to dictate the lineup of committee chairs instead of allowing the Council to reorganize itself.

“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.

Ferguson said 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,” he said. “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.”


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