City Council ‘not a good place to work these days,’ Tunney says of mass exodus
Five-term Ald. Tom Tunney, chairman of the Zoning Committee, told the Sun-Times he plans to take time during the council’s August recess before deciding whether to call it quits — or even run for mayor.
There’s a parade of resignations and retirements from the Chicago City Council because it’s “not a good place to work these days,” a key member of Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s leadership team — who may join the exodus — said Thursday.
Zoning Committee Chairman Tom Tunney (44th) told the Sun-Times he plans to take some time off during the council’s August recess before deciding whether to call it quits after five terms to focus on the Ann Sather restaurants he owns — or run for mayor himself.
“Property taxes. Less police. It’s not a healthy platform to run on. … I am seriously considering running, and I’m also seriously considering not running,” Tunney said.
“There’s a lot of alderpersons who feel they haven’t been paid much attention to in regards to their needs of their individual wards. There’s a lot of acrimony in the council. … People need to work together. We all need to compromise. ... It’s got to happen in the mayor’s office. It’s also got to happen in the aldermanic offices. And I just think that a lot of people feel that it’s not a good place to work these days.”
Tunney would be at least the eighth current member who isn’t running again.
He was appointed In 2002 by then-Mayor Richard M. Daley to fill the vacancy created by the pre-election resignation of Ald. Bernard Hansen.
It was a groundbreaking moment in Chicago politics. At the time, Tunney was Chicago’s first openly gay alderperson.
Now, Tunney chairs a five-member Gay Caucus. He’s an elder statesman at a political crossroads.
He must decide whether to walk away from Chicago politics or embark on a new chapter — by challenging the mayor who chose him as a committee chair.
“I never thought I would be an alderman this long. I’m a person who wants to come in, make a difference and move on. A lot of the work that I’ve done has taken more than one term or two terms — i.e., the AIDS Garden, the Center on Halsted, some of our legislative priorities. But I’m comfortable — not only in the restaurant business, but in my aldermanic career. I could leave on a high note,” he said.
“I don’t want to over-stay also. You’ve seen some of our colleagues over the years who probably have been there too long. … We’ve got to bring new leadership in.”
Over the years, Tunney has flirted with running for mayor repeatedly. This time, he said he hasn’t “completely ruled it out” and it “could be exciting for me” as a “young, 60-ish kind of guy” with plenty of “energy and initiative left” and a history of “bringing people together.”
“People want a unifier. People want somebody [who] can bring people together. Her personality is strong and can be somewhat divisive. She’s vulnerable. She knows that. A lot of people are looking for an alternative,” he said.
Lightfoot blames her contentious relationship with council members on the fact that “I don’t buy votes.”
Tunney believes it’s deeper than that.
“Her background as a prosecutor has some influence on the way she operates her office. ... It’s more like, ‘I’ve got all the answers, and we’re going my way.’ ... Her style is that of a prosecutor — you’re guilty until proven innocent,” he said.
“As a chief executive, she’s got to work more behind the scenes and be more collegial and respectful.”
No matter what he does, Tunney hinted strongly he would not support Lightfoot’s bid for a second term.
He was prepared to endorse his longtime friend and political ally, U.S. Rep. Mike Quigley, D-Ill., before Quigley opted not to run. Quigley joined former U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan in taking a pass on what polls showed was a winnable race.
Tunney also warned that North lakefront voters who propelled Lightfoot to a first-place finish in the first round of voting in 2019 have soured on the mayor and are “searching for an alternative.”
“It’s safety No. 1. She got good marks for the COVID. But some of the school policies and her friction with [the Chicago Teachers Union] and having kids in school really hurt her in the North lakefront wards,” Tunney said.
“A number of our young parents really want to be in public schools. We spent a lot of time on improving neighborhood public high schools — Lake View and Amundsen — to give more choices for our parents. But we’ve seen the enrollment declines. ... We’ve got to get them back into our public schools. We’ve got to get them in our high schools. Not just the selective enrollment [schools] but our neighborhood high schools. … Those are the people that any mayor has got to keep in the city.”
Tunney is the third member of Lightfoot’s leadership team to signal a break with the mayor that could undermine her re-election bid. The others are Workforce Development Committee Chair Susan Sadlowski Garza (10th) and Aviation Committee Chair Matt O’Shea (19th).
The council exodus includes another member of that team, George Cardenas (12th), Lightfoot’s deputy floor leader, who will leave after winning a seat on the Cook County Board of Review.
Also departing the council:
• Michele Smith (43rd), who will resign effective Aug. 12.
• James Cappleman (46th), Harry Osterman (48th) and Carrie Austin (34th) have said they are not seeking reelection.
• Roderick Sawyer (6th) and Ray Lopez (15th) are giving up their seats to run for mayor.
Three other current city council members tried for other jobs, but failed: Chris Taliaferro (29th) and Howard Brookins (21st) ran for judge, and Gilbert Villegas (36th) lost a primary bid for the U.S. House.