Tearful Ald. Carrie Austin on health crisis that nearly killed her

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After soldiering through two weeks of City Council budget hearings, an emotional Budget Committee Chairman Carrie Austin (34th) wrapped up the show Friday with what sounded like a political swan song.

Through tears of joy, Austin talked in surprising detail about the health crisis that nearly killed her. It was stunning in an era when federal health privacy laws allow public officials to conceal the true nature of their health issues.

“I tore my aorta. I almost wasn’t here. But I’m grateful that God allowed me to be here. I was in the hospital 29 days. For the first two weeks, I was unconscious. I was in a coma. Blood pressure went up over 300. The bottom number was 205. They couldn’t bring it down. But I’m grateful for the God that I serve because I’m sitting here today,” Austin said as her colleagues applauded.

“When I came home, I was home a week. The rest of it was tearing… I went to the hospital at Northwestern. I got three stents. So, I’m doing pretty good unless it decide to go the other way. Then, it’ll be instant death. But if it happens, I’m ready to see the Lord because I have served him all of my life.”

Austin, who is deeply religious, then talked about the power of prayer.

“The prayers that you all sent up is why I sit here. Maybe God didn’t hear me. But he truly heard you all. And for that, I could never, ever thank you enough,” Austin said.

“The other day when I was particularly ticked with the [police] superintendent and my vice-chair came back and said, `Are you alright?’ it did my heart so well. Then, for the rest of you all to come up and see was I okay, that’s the care you all had for me. I could never thank you enough. Never. When I leave this Council chambers, my family and I will be forever grateful to all of you. Because whether you like me, love me, can’t stand me or whatever, you prayed that I would be back here.”

Choking back tears, Austin talked openly about how difficult it was to make it through the last two weeks.

“Some days were bad. Some days were real hard. But he allowed me to carry out the duties `cause that’s what I prayed for: `Lord, just give me the strength so that I can do my duty—even if it’s for the last time.’ And he allowed me to do my duty,” Austin said.

“Even though I laugh and joke with you all, that’s to make the day go better. If I’ve offended anybody, I’m sorry. Charge it to my head and never to my heart `cause I love each and every one of you even though you make me sick and get on my nerves.”

Rookie Ald. David Moore (17th) touched off Austin’s emotional siloloquy by presenting the chairman with a bouquet of flowers.

Moore was celebrating the tenacity and determination that allowed Austin to show up every day and spend far more time with her hand on the gavel than anybody thought she would.

Austin did dial it back a little, sometimes arriving late or leaving the chair a little early while passing the gavel to her vice-chairman, Ald. Jason Ervin (28th).

But she was in command when it counted, including Police Superintendent Garry McCarthy’s hours-long testimony one day after 14 of the City Council’s 18 black aldermen, including Austin, demanded that Mayor Rahm Emanuel fire McCarthy.

“She could have made many excuses not to come here and be here. As colleagues, we would have understood,” Moore told Austin.

“On behalf of all of us, I just want to thank you for your commitment and for coming here each and every day. That’s what we call, `Chicago’s good and faithful servant.’ I appreciate you so much.”

Austin cried when she returned to City Hall on the day Emanuel delivered his budget address. She said she would “try not to cry this time.”

“Yes, Ald. Moore, it has been a struggle. But I am glad to say that . . . I’ve gotten a good bill of health. So, I’m grateful for that,” she said.

Although she joined the call for McCarthy’s ouster before playing a more diplomatic role during the Police Department’s budget hearing, Austin is Emanuel’s most powerful African-American supporter.

During the mayoral campaign, she inadvertently put pressure on Emanuel by claiming that a post-election property tax increase was inevitable, no matter who won the April 7 runoff.

The mayor tried to wiggle out of it at the time. But Austin turned out to be right.

Emanuel’s budget includes a $588 million property tax increase for police and fire pensions and school construction, along with a first-ever garbage collection fee of $9.50 a month per household that amounts to a back-door property tax increase.

On Friday, Austin thanked Moore for the bouquet of flowers, which is the last thing she needs.

“I’ve gotten enough flowers at home. I’ve got flowers in my office. Good Lord. They think I’m dead. But flowers for a person while they yet live — while they can smell them — thank you. We made it through. And this meeting stands adjourned,” she said.

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