Chicago, IL

Former Chicago Mayor Lightfoot's Tenure Fostered Significant Number of Independent Alders in City

Natalie Frank, Ph.D.

City Council members embrace independence, bringing disagreements to new mayoral administration
Photo bySixth Ward [CC BY-SA 3.0]

Mayor Lori Lightfoot's term has left a lasting mark on Chicago's political landscape. A recent report by researchers from the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC) reveals that Lightfoot's relationship with the City Council was one of the most contentious in decades, but it may have ushered in a major shift towards independent decision-making.

The UIC report sheds light on a significant transformation in the Chicago City Council. For decades, the council had often been seen as a rubber stamp for mayoral administrations, with members routinely voting in alignment with the mayor's agenda. However, Lightfoot's tenure brought about a departure from this tradition. Approximately half of the council members supported her 90% or more of the time, as indicated in the 86-page report.

This level of support was notably lower than that enjoyed by previous mayors, such as Richard M. Daley and Rahm Emanuel, who had strong majorities backing their legislative agendas. Daley and Emanuel also had core groups of alderpersons who voted with them 100% of the time, a stark contrast to Lightfoot's experience.

One intriguing aspect highlighted in the report was the contentious legislation proposed during Lightfoot's tenure. One notable example was an ordinance aimed at condemning violence against certain castes, which sparked vigorous debate within the city's South Asian community but ultimately failed to pass in the council.

A resounding majority of the Chicago City Council made a historic move five days before the runoff for mayor in April, voting to declare independence from whomever was elected city mayor. This step led by former allies of Former Mayor Lori Lightfoot, cames after years of efforts to transform the City Council into a legislative body with the power to set policy for the entire city.

Fierce debate, personal accusations, and allegations of corruption dominated the discussion. Ald. David Moore revealed that the new rules created nine new committees, rewarding those who agreed to vote in favor of the changes with Chairmanships giving them significant power and large budgets. It also ousted some of the previously elected chairs in favor of these supporters.

When Brandon Johnson was chosen as Mayor he was warned before even being sworn in not to change the new organization of the Chicago City Council. Almost the first thing he did after being sworn in was to reorganize the City Council.

He replaced Finance Committee Chairman Scott Waguespack (32nd) with Ald. Pat Dowell (3rd), who played a pivotal role in endorsing Johnson during his mayoral campaign. Ald. Jason Ervin (28th), the chair of the Black Caucus, who supported Lightfoot in the initial round and Johnson in the run-off, assumed the role of Budget Committee Chair, succeeding Dowell. Ald. Carlos Ramirez-Rosa (35th), chair of the City Council’s Democratic-Socialist caucus, was appointed to lead the powerful Zoning Committee.

Under Johnson's "Unity Plan," all nine of the new committees previously created by the outgoing City Council will be eliminated. Instead, the plan retained the original 19 committees and introduced one additional committee, "Police and Fire," which handles matters related to the police and fire departments. The Committee on Public Safety addresses broader issues related to reducing violent crime in the city.

The plan included two permanent sub-committees focused on revenue and youth employment.

However, regardless of the new Chicago mayor shifting the council to be more in line with his policies and priorities, there was still a shift towards more independent decision-making by alderpersons. The contentious relationship between Former Mayor Lightfoot and the City Council have prompted discussions about the evolving political enivironment in Chicago.

Researchers believe that this shift could position Chicago as a more mature democracy, one that genuinely responds to the will of its citizens and effectively addresses chronic issues facing the city. At the same time, so far, Mayor Johnson has made a number of committments and solutions to the migrant crisis in Chicago without the input of the council or Aldermen in wards where he is taking action.

As Chicagoans look ahead, there is anticipation regarding the emergence of new factions, caucuses, and voting blocs under Mayor Brandon Johnson's leadership. The future of Chicago's political landscape remains uncertain, but one thing is clear: Lori Lightfoot's tenure has left a lasting impact on the dynamics of the city's government.

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Chicago, IL

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