CHICAGO — The Chicago chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America is moving to kick a North Side alderman out of the group after he voted to approve Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s pandemic budget Tuesday, but the alderman said he stands by his vote to protect union jobs.
Ald. Andre Vasquez (40th) was the only member of the six Democratic Socialists on the council to cast a “yes” vote to Lightfoot’s budget, which narrowly passed and included an unpopular $94 million property tax increase to close a $1.2 billion 2021 budget deficit.
The virtual City Council meeting had barely ended before the Chicago chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America, or DSA, issued a statement “censuring” Vasquez for his yes vote and calling on him to resign his membership.
Vasquez “sided with an austerity regime and the Democratic Party establishment over the interests of Chicago’s working class,” a statement from the Democratic Socialists of America read.
“The Mayor’s budget preserves the white supremacist power of the Chicago Police Department and further burdens working class people with regressive taxes and fines, which in a time of pandemic will lead to more displacement, debt, and death,” it continued.
Despite swift backlash from DSA members, Vasquez said he remains a Democratic Socialist with or without the organization’s endorsement. While he understands the anger over his decision, he believes it was the right call, pointing to the more than 300 city worker layoffs that will be avoided.
“Respectfully, no organization can decide who is and isn’t a socialist,” he said. “I think many of my comrades and I all share the same goals, but we may differ on the approaches to get there, and that’s OK.”
Vasquez joined two other progressive members of the council, Alds. Maria Hadden (49th) and Michael Rodriguez (22nd) to push Lighftoot’s budget past the 26-vote hurdle needed for passage. The budget passed 29-21 and in a separate vote, an unpopular $94 million property tax increase passed 28-22.
Although they often align with the Council’s socialists, Hadden and Rodriguez are unaffiliated with the organization.
Ald. Daniel La Spata (1st), Ald. Jeanette Taylor (20th), Ald. Byron Sigcho Lopez (25th), Ald. Rossana Rodriguez Sanchez (33rd), and the veteran of the DSA group, Ald. Carlos Ramirez Rosa (35th) all voted against the budget. Ramirez Rosa couldn’t immediately be reached for comment.
The five socialists who voted against the plan acknowledged the concessions made by Lightfoot in floor speeches Tuesday, but said they weren’t sufficient to earn their vote.
“Don’t give me crumbs and tell me it’s cake. We’re in a global pandemic, and there’s no way in the world that we should be balancing this budget on the backs of taxpayers,” Taylor said.
While DSA officials said the 2021 budget was about “austerity,” Vasquez said the layoffs of hundreds of Black and Brown city workers was avoided because of negotiations among a coalition of progressive, Black and Latino caucus aldermen, the Chicago Federation of Labor and the mayor.
He said it was clear Lightfoot was not backing down on the property tax hike — especially when three of her hand-picked committee chairs, Alds. Matt O’Shea (19th), Tom Tunney (44th) and Harry Osterman (48th), were unable to persuade her to drop it. All three also voted against the budget.
“Had they tried to keep the layoffs to lower the property taxes, that’s a more austere budget,” Vasquez said. “No one in Chicago wants to see 350 Black and Brown city workers being thrown on the street by the city itself.”
Instead of laying off workers, which was initially proposed in addition to the tax hike, the city will borrow $15 million against future tax revenues from cannabis sales. The administration will avoid borrowing the money if a second round of federal stimulus funds materialize.
The mayor also offered up other concessions, including providing an additional $10 million in spending on violence prevention programs and creating a pilot program next year to respond to some mental health emergencies without law enforcement — a watered down version of a plan championed by Rodriguez Sanchez.
Lightfoot had previously announced a co-responder model that would pair a police officer with a mental health professional to respond to mental health emergencies in two police districts. But Lightfoot conceded to the demands of the Progressive Caucus to include a non-law enforcement response in the pilot program.
“In order to win any of these things with multiple people at the table that don’t agree, you have to negotiate, and you’re not going to win all the things, but you have to win some,” Vasquez said.
Vasquez also said he reached an agreement with Lightfoot, over the course of several phone calls, to create a “framework” to allow a working group, including aldermen, to begin vetting 2022 budget proposals at the beginning of next year.
Within this new framework, Vasquez said he believe the policy goals of DSA members have a better shot of being approved in City Council.
Kicked Out Over One Vote?
Although Lightfoot took a more conciliatory tone with budget opponents this year after the vote, there is no guarantee she will actually follow through on the budget working group. During negotiations, she told members of the Black Caucus, “don’t come to me for sh*t” if they voted against the plan, according to the Tribune, and last year her political team launched a website targeting those who voted no.
Other ideas supported by DSA members have been sent to legislative purgatory recently. Rodriguez Sanchez’s mental health first responder ordinance and a corporate head tax plan aimed at large logistics companies like Amazon were blocked by unsupportive aldermen last week and sent to the Rules Committee, where legislation faces a long and difficult path to receiving a hearing.
“If we establish a framework where all alders can bring their ideas and flesh them out, we’re going to win the things we’re fighting for, because I believe in our causes,” Vasquez said. “If you give us the ability to debate it out…we’re going to win things, rather than being angry that we don’t win them.”
Vasquez won the DSA endorsement only after he defeated a crowded aldermanic field in 2019, including the DSA-endorsed Ugo Okere, to force a run-off with longtime incumbent, former Ald. Patrick O’Connor.
Sarah Hurd, communications director of Chicago’s DSA chapter, said the decision to censure Vasquez and call for his resignation wasn’t taken lightly. The 44-member executive committee had been in contact with the alderman prior to the vote, urging him to vote against the plan and not break ranks with his fellow socialists.
Vasquez had signaled he may vote yes and officially announced his decision to constituents over the weekend. On Monday night the executive committee convened an “emergency meeting.”
“We discussed it for several hours and decided we wanted to make an official statement censuring him and giving him the opportunity to resign from the organization, before a process was started to look into pushing him out,” Hurd said.
Hurd said Vasquez has made clear he doesn’t hold loyalty to the DSA group, and also brought up campaign contributions from the real estate community Vasquez has received as cause for concern.
Vasquez told Block Club he does not accept donations from anyone seeking to develop within the ward within six months of a zoning decision and contributions made within six months prior to a zoning decision are returned.
“I think that it’s important for us as an organization that we draw the line somewhere in terms of what our expectations are for people we work with and support,” Hurd said. “I think that’s what makes Democratic Socialist aldermen different than a ‘progressive,’ when you’re a ‘progressive’ you can make a lot of excuses like, ‘oh I had to do this…’”
Hurd noted that 2023 is a long way from now, but did not rule out the group endorsing a primary opponent to run against Vasquez in his next election.
Vasquez said he believes his actions since taking office and what he does going forward will win back those who may be upset with him now.
“I believe in my heart of hearts, that if I’m doing the job I was elected to do, like taking care of and helping my neighbors, especially during this time, that they’ll recognize that as my full body of work and not just lay it out on one vote.”
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