Mayor Brandon Johnson to new City Council: Congrats, now let’s collaborate

·6 min read

Brandon Johnson faced the aldermen arrayed behind him at Monday’s inauguration … and applauded them.

“To the members of the City Council, and especially the 13 newly elected alderpersons: Congratulations,” the newly minted mayor said during his inaugural address. “This is your day and you deserve recognition.”

The people of Chicago “are counting on us to work together to collaborate to make their lives better every day,” Johnson said at the University of Illinois at Chicago’s Credit Union 1 Arena. “Now, we won’t always agree. But I won’t ever question your motives or your commitment. And I’ll always do my part to find common ground.”

The convivial moment was notably friendlier than just four years ago when incoming Mayor Lori Lightfoot turned to face the City Council onstage with her at the 2019 inauguration and shamed them into joining her and the crowd in applauding the need to end aldermanic corruption.

For Johnson, Monday was the easy, celebratory part, though.

Opting to accentuate the positive in his inaugural remarks, he now has to work with the council to get things done.

Johnson pointed in his inaugural address to reopening city-run mental health clinics, increasing affordable housing and fighting homelessness as important agenda items he and aldermen will tackle.

Fourteen Latino, 20 Black and two Asian members were sworn in Monday, making this council one of the most diverse and progressive in recent years. The LGBTQ caucus grows to nine members, and the number of Democratic socialists rises to seven.

Johnson’s close council ally, Democratic Socialist Northwest Side Ald. Carlos Ramirez-Rosa, 35th, will be his floor leader, responsible for helping rally support in the council for the mayor’s agenda. It’s an interesting choice.

Ramirez-Rosa, who will also chair the powerful Zoning Committee under the mayor’s proposed leadership plan, is held in high regard among many of the more progressive aldermen and others on the council. But he has not been shy about taking more moderate and conservative members to task for their positions on some issues over the years.

And Johnson’s move to preempt a City Council committee reorganization plan a majority of aldermen endorsed just days before he got elected and to instead push his own proposal installing Ramirez-Rosa and other allies in key leadership positions could be a tone-setter.

Johnson is playing up the “historic firsts” in his chairmanship chart, calling his council leadership team “the most diverse group of council chairs in history,” and saying it gives unprecedented power to Black and Latino council members.

In practical terms, it will empower certain aldermen, while potentially alienating others who will lose leadership posts they would have gotten under the council version.

The City Council has 16 new members compared to the class of 2019. Mayor Lori Lightfoot appointed a few of them who went on to win their first election bids. Those were: 11th Ward Ald. Nicole Lee, the body’s first Asian American woman; 24th Ward Ald. Monique Scott, who succeeded brother Michael Scott; and 43rd Ward Ald. Timmy Knudsen, the ward’s first openly gay alderman.

The South Side has witnessed a fresh infusion: former state Rep. Lamont Robinson takes over representing the 4th Ward that includes Bronzeville and Kenwood; organizer Desmon Yancy will lead the 5th Ward that includes Hyde Park; pastor William Hall is now alderman of the 6th Ward that includes Chatham; and political adviser Ronnie Mosley takes over in the 21st Ward, which includes mostly Washington Heights.

Several new members were already public workers: Ald. Peter Chico, a police officer now representing the Southeast Side’s 10th Ward adds to the ranks of council’s former first responders; 12th Ward Ald. Julia Ramirez, a Chicago Public Schools re-engagement specialist who defeated a Lightfoot appointee; and Jeylu Gutierrez, a former CPS counselor who succeeds indicted Ald. Edward Burke in the 14th Ward on the Southwest Side.

There are new faces on the Northwest Side, adding to the ranks of Latinas on council: Community organizer Jessie Fuentes succeeds retiring Ald. Roberto Maldonado in the 26th Ward while Ruth Cruz takes over in the 30th Ward. The new 34th Ward, which encompasses the western portion of the Loop, will be represented by Bill Conway, while Bennett Lawson, the longtime chief of staff to outgoing Ald. Tom Tunney, 44th, will take over that ward, which represents Wrigleyville and Northalsted.

Along the north lakefront, progressives Angela Clay, a housing organizer, and Leni Manaa-Hoppenworth, a small-business owner, take over in the 46th and 48th wards.

The council that was sworn in four years ago had 20 Black and 12 Latino members, as well as five openly LGBTQ members and six Democratic socialists, and Lightfoot likewise put aldermen she felt she could trust in important positions.

Those relationships in some instances soured during Lightfoot’s term, though, making it more difficult for her to accomplish getting some initiatives passed. Lightfoot’s inaugural remarks foreshadowed the fact she wasn’t going to make maintaining friendly relationships with aldermen her highest priority.

In her May 2019 speech, Lightfoot ripped public officials who engage in corruption, saying, “Stopping it isn’t just in the city’s interest. It’s in the City Council’s own interest.” The crowd roared its approval, having elected her in no small part because they thought Lightfoot was best able to fight the aldermanic corruption symbolized by the late 2018 FBI raid of Burke’s City Hall office.

The council also had been rocked months earlier by revelations retired Ald. Danny Solis, 25th, cooperated with federal law enforcement and had worn a wire on colleagues. Several other members of council were targets of federal probes, including former Aldermen Carrie Austin, Patrick Daley Thompson and Ricardo Munoz.

And Lightfoot threw down the gantlet even before she took the oath, convening groups of aldermen at her River North transition offices in the weeks before the inauguration to lay out steps she planned to take to curtail the so-called aldermanic prerogative that gave them wide power to make decisions affecting their wards. She signed an executive order her first day as mayor designed to do just that, setting the stage for four years of tense relations with the council.

Good-government advocates have often cited aldermanic prerogative as a power that is often abused by aldermen and a corrupting influence that enables aldermen to almost single-handedly approve projects in their wards for only friends or political allies and reject projects tied to political enemies or those unwilling to engage in city politics.

Prior to inauguration day, aldermen complained Lightfoot wasn’t doing enough to communicate with them, a criticism many of them carried throughout her single term in office.

Johnson hasn’t gone to the mattresses off the bat with the same apparent relish, instead painting himself as a collaborative leader.

The council is set to reconvene next week to vote on the chairmanships and committee assignments, and the new mayor’s version, which his transition team has dubbed “the unity plan,” is almost certain to have enough support to win.

That meeting could go a long way to showing what kind of working relationship he will have with the 50 “little mayors” over the next four years.

jebyrne@chicagotribune.com

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