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CITY HALL — No one questioned that Mayor Lori Lightfoot has been firmly in charge of Chicago’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic. But during a briefing Lightfoot had with the city’s aldermen on March 30, she made it clear anyway.
Each alderman was given an opportunity to ask a question, and when it was his turn, Andre Vasquez brought up the city’s growing housing crisis. Vasquez is a first-term alderman from the 40th Ward on the North Side. Like many new members of the City Council, he campaigned last year on a progressive agenda similar to Lightfoot’s that included promises to expand affordable housing. In the briefing, he reminded Lightfoot that, for many people, rent and mortgage payments would be due in the coming days. Could the mayor’s office provide aldermen with regular or even daily updates on proposals to help residents thrown out of work during the outbreak?
“I’ve got people ready to rent strike, so I need to figure out what’s going on,” he said.
According to a recording of the briefing that was shared with me, Lightfoot briefly paused. Then she took more than a minute to tell Vasquez that the answer was no — and to criticize his request.
“Our biggest priority, obviously, is making sure we’ve got hospital beds, and rent assistance is something that is a conversation that’s going on, but I just can’t commit to documenting every single conversation we’re having with the state on a range of issues,” Lightfoot told him. “That’s just not feasible. And candidly, given all the things we’re doing, we’ve got people who’ve been working literally 30 days straight, I don’t think that’s a good use of our time.”
She informed Vasquez that if he had specific questions, he could contact her staff.
“Moving on,” the mayor said.
As the pandemic has altered life across the city and nation, Lightfoot has won widespread praise for strong, visible leadership. In addition to holding regular press conferences, she has become a frequent guest on national news shows, and her often-humorous videos urging people to comply with stay-at-home orders have gone viral on social media.
Still, at a time when coordination is critical, her decisive and frequently impatient style has also left many aldermen feeling like bystanders. The briefings have largely focused on sharing the mayor’s decisions and plans, sometimes just minutes before they are released to the media, rather than gathering input about the needs of neighborhoods. And as late as last week, some aldermen still didn’t understand how the city’s initiatives on COVID-19 testing, education outreach, schools and housing were being implemented in their own wards. Several told me they fear the lack of collaboration could slow or weaken the effort to contain the spread of the coronavirus, especially among vulnerable and disconnected populations.
All this is happening as Lightfoot has been battling to yank power from aldermen in the name of political reform — and she appears to be winning. Upon taking office last May, Lightfoot announced steps to limit the long tradition of aldermanic “prerogative” over matters large and small in their wards. Fighting back, some aldermen have charged that her policies left their wards subject to the whims of the mayor and downtown bureaucrats. The issue was hotly debated again recently after the botched demolition of an old power plant smokestack left parts of the Southwest Side Little Village neighborhood coated in dust and debris. Lightfoot blamed private firms for that debacle.
On Tuesday, the City Council’s Budget Committee is set to meet by videoconference to consider an ordinance granting Lightfoot and her administration new emergency powers. The measure, which would move to the full council for approval Wednesday, allows the mayor and her department leaders to spend money and issue contracts related to the pandemic response with minimal oversight. The powers would remain in place, “without further action of the City Council,” until no later than June 30. An earlier proposal granted the administration broader spending powers and had no specified end date, but the mayor’s team pulled it after criticism from aldermen.
Even after the emergency powers are lifted, Lightfoot is likely to emerge from the pandemic with accelerating political momentum. Few in Chicago need to be reminded that the city has a long history of mayors who have assumed the mantle of bosses, if not monarchs.
Lightfoot, her staff and her council allies say her team has worked hard to keep aldermen informed. Anel Ruiz, the mayor’s press secretary, emailed me a statement noting that the mayor had participated in seven briefings with aldermen since March 11, while mayoral aides and other city officials held 13 more. The mayor’s staff had also sent out daily updates including data, guidance and answers to questions about the city’s coronavirus response, she said.
“We deeply value our relationships with members of the City Council and consider them vital partners in ensuring that important information reaches all of our residents,” the statement said. “We are particularly appreciative of the leadership shown by some aldermen who have stepped up during the COVID-19 crisis by becoming involved personally and working on behalf of their constituents to ensure a coordinated citywide response.”
Lightfoot’s leadership style and political dominance was brought into sharp relief for me last week, when a source involved in city government provided recordings of two phone briefings Lightfoot held with aldermen — the one from March 30, which lasted more than an hour and a half, and another from April 6, which went for about 30 minutes. I was also given recordings of briefings from other city officials. I confirmed the contents of the recordings with multiple people who participated in the calls.
Taken together, the recordings show how Lightfoot has worked hard and taken charge of the city’s pandemic efforts. They also illustrate that she has become a singular political force, with little patience for skepticism or even questions about her team’s efforts.
The mayor’s March 30 briefing was at least the fourth she scheduled with aldermen that month, according to her daily calendars.
Lightfoot outlined work by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to use part of the McCormick Place convention center as a field hospital. Other officials provided updates on remote learning plans for public schools students and aid to the city expected from the federal government.
After more than 40 minutes, aldermen were invited to ask questions. A number of aldermen said they didn’t have any. Many thanked and praised the mayor and her team for their work. Several others didn’t answer when their names were called, including 14th Ward Alderman Ed Burke, the council dean, who has been charged in federal court with attempted extortion; he has pleaded not guilty and denied any wrongdoing.
Anthony Beale, alderman of the 9th Ward on the far South Side, asked if McCormick Place would have enough beds to handle the possible surge of patients in the coming weeks.
Last year, Beale was one of the first aldermen to endorse Lightfoot’s mayoral bid. But they had a falling out and she booted him from his chairmanship of the City Council’s Transportation Committee. They have sparred repeatedly during her first 11 months in office.
Lightfoot informed Beale that his facts were wrong. “Maybe you missed my comments earlier, but the other thing we are working on in conjunction with the state is opening up closed hospitals,” she told him before taking the next question.
Beale later told me that he appreciates the briefings, though talking with the mayor is like “dealing with someone who is just mad at the world.”
“It’s like, ‘How dare you ask me that question,’” he said. “It’s like a conscious effort of, ‘We got this, you just sit back.’”
When it was her turn, Rossana Rodriguez Sanchez, alderman of the 33rd Ward, said that some businesses in her community weren’t making customers practice social distancing. She asked if the city had any resources to help them. “I was wondering if we have any materials or guidelines or a toolkit that we can give business owners that we can share so that they can enforce those things in their businesses.”
“Um, yeah,” Lightfoot said. She told Rodriguez Sanchez to go to the city’s website. “I would point businesses to guidance that’s been up now for a couple weeks.”
Rodriguez Sanchez later told me that she wasn’t sure what to make of the mayor’s response. “It felt like I was being told the solution was there and I had not been paying attention,” she said — and stressed that’s not the case. She said she includes updates from the city in her ward newsletters and personally talks with as many business owners as she can; she even made short videos to share with some.
Rodriguez Sanchez said the briefings have provided aldermen with a lot of helpful information. “But that’s different from participation. That’s different from consultation,” she said.
Vasquez felt the same way after Lightfoot shot down his request for updates about rental assistance.
“Overall, she’s done a really solid job,” he said.
But the city and state have still not announced a long-term solution for the housing time bomb that concerned Vasquez. Last month, the city launched a program to offer one-time rental assistance of $1,000 to each of 2,000 different households. More than 86,000 applications poured in.
“Maybe it’s quicker to do things than to try to find consensus,” he said. “But there’s just a lot of leadership that’s left on the table.”
Mick Dumke reports on politics at ProPublica Illinois, with particular interest in housing policies, criminal justice and city and state government.