In a rare show of force, the City Council’s Black, Hispanic and Progressive caucuses joined forces Friday to block Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s plan to issue $3.5 billion in bonds to bankroll O’Hare Airport projects amid concerns about minority participation.
Concerns about a dearth of blacks and Hispanics riding the gravy train of airport contracts and pinstripe patronage tied to city bond deals are nothing new at City Hall.
Those same probing questions are raised every time there’s a massive city borrowing and every time the city’s aviation commissioner appears before a City Council committee.
Former Aviation Commissioner Rosemarie Andolino was once raked over the coals so badly for the shortage of black contractors at O’Hare, she was literally moved to tears.
What was different about Friday’s Finance Committee meeting was the decision to do something tangible about those perennial concerns.
By a vote of 14 to 11, a coalition of black, Hispanic and progressive white aldermen voted to hold up massive borrowing that Emanuel had hoped to use to bankroll a new runway and taxiways at O’Hare, a long-awaited overhaul at the international terminal and a host of other projects and cost-saving refinancings.
The 14 votes to throw up the roadblock were cast by the following aldermen: Pat Dowell (3rd), Leslie Hairston (5th), Roderick Sawyer (6th), Greg Mitchell (7th), Toni Foulkes (16th), Derrick Curtis (18th), Willie Cochran (20th), Ricardo Munoz (22nd), Roberto Maldonado (26th), Jason Ervin (28th), Scott Waguespack (32nd), Emma Mitts (37th), John Arena (45th) and Harry Osterman (48th).
Aldermen Michelle Harris (8th) and Walter Burnett (27th) abstained. Aldermen Anthony Beale (9th), Danny Solis (25th) and Ariel Reboyras (30th) did not join their colleagues, voting against the delay.
The delay is the latest sign of aldermanic pushback against Emanuel. But it’s almost certain to be temporary. The Finance Committee is scheduled to meet again next week to reconsider the massive borrowing for an O’Hare makeover that is one of Emanuel’s showcase projects.
Still, the message was delivered to Aviation Commissioner Ginger Evans, Chief Financial Officer Carole Brown and to the banks and law firms that benefit so much from city borrowings and airport construction.
“Old, white, gray-haired guys like to hire old, white, gray-haired guys. People hire folks they feel comfortable with,” Burnett said.
“You have to consciously reflect the city if you want city business.”
Dowell called the Aviation Department’s contracting and hiring numbers “appalling.”
The “snapshot” of nearly $1 billion in airport contracts issued in the year ending on Aug. 31 shows 35 percent participation by minorities and women. That’s 10 percent higher than the set-aside goal.
But only 13 percent of those contracts were awarded to companies owned by African-Americans and only 9 percent went to Hispanic firms.
The aviation management team is 60 percent white, 20 percent black and 12 percent Hispanic.
Evans stressed that minorities make up 78 percent of the hirings she has made this year.
“We have improved the number of African-Amercians on the team. We have improved the number of Hispanics on the team. I completely acknowledge the concern. It’s a very, very important issue, and there is more work to be done,” Evans said.
In order to “change the trajectory” of minority contracting, the city needs to “change the way we do contracts” going forward, the commissioner said.
Construction management contracts — an “area of strength” for blacks and Hispanics — will be “Target Market” contracts where minorities compete, only against each other, Evans said.
“By contracting, rather than low-bid construction, we will get higher levels of participation,” she said.
But Evans warned that progress will take time. Contracts in the pipeline for months need to “play themselves out,” she said.
“Those teams have been set. Those subcontracts have been executed. We really aren’t in a position to influence those, except to make sure people get paid on time,” Evans said.
“But going forward in the future, we intend to contract differently. And only then will we see a different result.”
Evans wasn’t the only one on the City Council hot seat. So was William Corbin Jr., practice group leader at the law firm of Chapman and Cutler, which is the pension disclosure counsel on O’Hare bond deals.
Under questioning, Corbin said the firm has 337 employees and 45 African-American attorneys. But only one black lawyer is working on the O’Hare bond deal and that attorney is not a partner.
“It’s not for lack of effort,” Corbin said, noting that the firm “aggressively recruits” minorities.
He added, “We hear your message.”
Burnett branded the now familiar pattern “unconscious racism.”