PILSEN — Aldermen brimming with fresh ideas set to take office May 20 with Mayor-elect Lori Lightfoot filled conference tables at SEIU Healthcare Illinois Indiana Friday morning for an early lesson in governing.
“There’s not a handbook — which is shocking to me — on becoming a new alderman, but you do get calls from everybody,” Ald.-elect Jeanette Taylor (20th) said, adding that she had heard from caucus chairs as well as representatives of the Department of Streets and Sanitation.
This group, elected with help from United Working Families, various SEIU locals or the Chicago Teachers Union, included Aldermen-elect Daniel LaSpata (1st), Mike Rodriguez (22nd), Byron Sigcho-Lopez (25th), Andre Vasquez (40th), Matt Martin (47th) and Maria Hadden (49th).
“Part of it is coalition building, making sure to the greatest extent possible on the same page as progressive incoming aldermen, but also learning from folks like John Arena, Scott Waguespack, Sue Garza… to hit the ground running,” Martin said.
Many said the group became close during months of campaigning, and “we were out closing down La Salle Street the other day and it showed a lot of solidarity amongst the new incoming aldermen-elect,” Rodriguez said, referring to protests against the subsidies for Lincoln Yards and The 78 from two newly created tax-increment financing districts.
Some of Chicago’s newest aldermen were united Friday by a vision to redirect investment to neighborhoods — and disappointment that the TIF agreements passed City Council Wednesday instead of after May 20.
While the new crop has garnered significant press for their ability to swing the council leftward and force Lightfoot to the table more often than Mayor Rahm Emanuel, no members were crowing Friday.
“If I remember high school correctly, the freshmen don’t really call the shots, right? I’m not under any illusion of what that is going in,” Ald.-elect Andre Vasquez (40th) said. “If you don’t build a relationship with the 50 you don’t get nowhere.”
“All signs point towards coalition building. All signs point towards unity,” Ald.-elect Mike Rodriguez (22nd) said. “To get to 26, you’re going to have to bring together various caucuses… I could see an interesting alignment between the Progressive, Latino and Black Caucus to move stuff, and that’s where my hope is.”
Ald. Marty Quinn (13th) — who will likely be on the other side of many fights the group plans on picking — also spoke to the group, describing his practice of going door-to-door in his Southwest Side ward for four hours each weekday afternoon and using his aldermanic expense budget to buy garbage carts.
The group learned about how to draft ordinances, how to get on committees and a bit about Robert’s Rules of Order, which governs the operations of the City Council.
Veteran aldermen passed out copies of the rules and shared ward office “horror stories,” phones “blowing up with requests,” and zoning debates.
There were “a lot of folks coming into this with big visions for what’s going to happen at City Hall, for me it was a very correct reminder of what it means to be a good alderman has a very specific definition for most folks in Chicago, and it’s not about ordinances,” UWF Executive Director Emma Tai said, adding that residents care about ward services.
“There’s a steep learning curve. Today was a good first step, there’s a lot to do and not a lot of time and money and staff to do it. There were 11 aldermen who came through [Friday]. We’re still 15 short of 26. It’s an ongoing strategic puzzle to figure out how you get there.”
Vasquez and others are working on finding ward offices, hiring staff and connecting with neighboring aldermen. Both Vasquez and Taylor hired their campaign managers to serve as chiefs of staff. Vasquez’ is Jessica Peters, Taylor’s is Candis Castillo. Anthony Driver, a fellow 20th Ward candidate, will also be on Taylor’s staff. Ald.-elect Matt Martin (47) said he’s likely to move into outgoing Ald. Ameya Pawar’s (47) ward office.
The group is still constructing their vision, but took little time comparing it to Lightfoot’s on Friday, Tai said.
“We did not talk about the changes that are happening at the mayoral level much at all beyond what we’re expecting to change in Council as a result with different committees and leadership. In terms of Lightfoot’s governing agenda, I feel like I don’t know enough about that,” to triangulate with it or against it, Tai said.
The groups that helped form UWF — SEIU and CTU — backed Toni Preckwinkle, who finished a distant second to Lightfoot.
Nevertheless, Lightfoot will start her term as mayor after being elected by “a coalition in conflict with itself,” Tai said.
“The Republican pro-FOP Trump-y parts of the city voted with her, along with all the parts of the city aren’t like that,” Tai said. “She has Rahm Emanuel folks, [Democratic U.S.] Rep. Chuy Garcia folks. I can only imagine it’s going to be a conflict of interest in that space. It’s an opportunity for us to break through the fuzziness of that and set out a clearer and stronger proactive vision which that’s what we’re going to be working towards.”
Despite their common vision, each alderman-elect plans to focus on different priorities on day one.
Martin described “some of the lower-hanging fruit” as community oversight of the Chicago Police Department, ethics reform, “and then also setting the stage for more progressive sorts of revenue, so that not just in this next budget but over the next several budgets, reducing our reliance on property taxes and not increasing fees as well as parking tickets as a way to continue funding our city.”
“I think we’ll probably pick up the Fair Workweek ordinance, there’s some stuff around the gang database,” Rodriguez said. “We haven’t caucused yet so I don’t want to get ahead of myself.”
“Of course it’s the CBA ordinance,” Taylor said, of a community benefits agreement for residents surrounding the Obama Presidential Center and building a model for future large developments that utilize tax dollars. Countering displacement is key, she added. More pressing, though, is “figuring out constituent services, because the 20th Ward is without an alderman or constituent services right now,” said Taylor, who will take office two months after former Ald. Willie Cochran pleaded guilty to one charge of wire fraud and was removed from the City Council.
“There’s things that we campaigned on that we want to move that are large — a fair elections platform is huge, you don’t get that done in 100 days,” Vasquez said. “It’s trying to figure out, for me, it’s just to figure out the inner workings of the council, the dynamics and the relationships we need to be able to build to move legislation forward,”
Ald. John Arena (45th), one of the few incumbents to fall to a more conservative candidate, said he hoped the City Council’s Progressive Caucus will team up with Ald. Michele Smith (43rd) and Ald. Harry Osterman (48th).
The group should focus on TIF reform, police accountability, the Fair Workweek ordinance and Environmental and Social Governance standards for city investments, Arena said.
“We were able to get to 26 on a number of things,” Arena said. “Our numbers formerly in caucus were 11, now we have potential for 15 to 18 members, depending on where people end up. Yeah, it’s always a game of addition… it has to have a mission and goals, people will gravitate towards that.”
Some organizers present Friday let out a celebratory whoop when new vote totals came in showing Rossana Rodrigez-Sanchez’ up 14 votes in her contest against Ald. Deb Mell (33rd) on Friday. The election will be certified Tuesday.
“Jesus, look at God,” Taylor said. “She’s got it, she’s got it. We’ve all been looking at that race. I don’t think we celebrated because we were all waiting. I can breathe. That’s what I’m talking about.”
If Rodrigez-Sanchez defeats Mell, she will join Ald. Carlos Ramirez-Rosa (35th), Vasquez, Taylor along with Alds.-elect Byron Sigcho-Lopez and Daniel La Spata as members of the City Council who are also members of the Chicago chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America.
“People are watching, people are shocked about some of these races,” Taylor said. “In my space, I’m more vocal, I call out BS. That’s a threat to what’s going out there. It’s no hiding place, we can’t do business as usual in Chicago anymore. That 26 will come quicker than we think it will.”