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How Is Chicago Mayor’s Promise of Co-Governance Going?

When Mayor Brandon Johnson took office last May, he was praised for his notion of bringing “the people” into City Hall. But progress has been rocky as Johnson must contend with the realities of legislating with 50 different aldermen.

Chicago Alderman Chris Taliaferro believes his ward largely supports the use of ShotSpotter gunfire detection devices, but the dissent of one particular constituent stands out: the mayor of Chicago.

Although Taliaferro, 29th, is a solid ally of fellow West Sider Brandon Johnson, the alderman criticized the mayor’s administration in the media this month after the company behind the technology tipped him off about the city canceling the contract, effective in September.

“There was no surprise with regard to ShotSpotter because the mayor campaigned on it,” Taliaferro told the Tribune. “Where my hopes were diminished is that we should just talk about this before it happened, and that didn’t happen.”

Johnson’s decision on ShotSpotter and its haphazard rollout point to broader issues for the fledgling administration, however. He set a high bar for himself to create a new era of open collaboration with aldermen that he hasn’t always lived up to.

Johnson has downplayed any friction with other leaders.

“I talk to so many people, all day, every day,” the mayor said told reporters last week in response to Chicago police Superintendent Larry Snelling also breaking with him on ShotSpotter. “Nothing is surreptitious about my administration. … I don’t make decisions based upon one person’s opinion. I don’t. This was a collective response.”

When Johnson entered office last May, he and his leftist grassroots coalition made much hay over the concept of “co-governance.” Indeed, his inauguration address featured a round of applause for the aldermen onstage, an olive branch to his legislative counterparts after a rancorous four years.

The former Chicago Teachers Union lobbyist and Cook County commissioner did not have direct City Hall experience, but Johnson presented his fresh face as an advantage after voters narrowly rejected his establishment opponent to elect him as the most progressive mayor of Chicago in decades. The weight of that distinction came with a notion that he would bring “the people” to the fifth floor of City Hall.

The road since has been rocky. And at heart is a struggle between Johnson’s firebrand origins and the reality of legislating with 50 different aldermen — and egos — whose votes he needs to enact many of his plans.

Some council members who spoke to the Tribune portrayed the past 10 months as filled with unusually high interpersonal drama and judgment lapses by the Johnson administration, posing a risk of exhausting goodwill in the body with many of the mayor’s toughest votes yet to come. Others allied with Johnson, however, shrugged off recent flashpoints as signs of a healthy democracy and countered that the mayor’s electoral victory propels his bold agenda above any need for broader consensus.

Taliaferro — now racing to persuade Johnson to reverse course on ShotSpotter — indicated he will continue appealing to the mayor’s emphasis on partnership.

“They’ve listened to what I’ve had to say. I don’t know what deference they give it,” Taliaferro said about Johnson’s team. “But when your prevailing political view is a little bit different than some, you want to build as many bridges as possible, and I think that’s what the mayor is doing.”

Intergovernmental Affairs

That bridge building got off to a shaky start when Johnson’s transition team fired the city’s deputy mayor of intergovernmental affairs, only to swiftly rehire her.

Beth Beatty had been appointed by former Mayor Lori Lightfoot and was largely considered a knowledgeable mainstay of City Council since the Daley days, but her capacity as the mayor’s official lobbying arm was hobbled during the Johnson administration, aldermanic sources said.

The intergovernmental affairs office faced persistent issues with filling vacancies created when other Lightfoot holdovers left, while at the same time, some observed Johnson’s senior adviser Jason Lee and others in the inner circle supplanting Beatty’s role.

Intergovernmental affairs isn’t a City Hall office that directly touches Chicagoans’ lives, but it’s a critical tool for any mayor to get anything done. Intergovernmental affairs officials and staffers listen to aldermen’s complaints while cajoling and strong-arming them to back the mayor’s plans.

“We were definitely upset about (Beatty), and the way that they treated her was just pretty horrible,” Ald. Scott Waguespack, 32nd, said. “You can’t claim, ‘I have a mandate so I’m going to fire people in this way.’ … Beth was very experienced, but I think Beth was undermined by the administration itself.”

Beatty, who left to become Joliet’s city manager in December, declined to comment for this article. She was replaced by Johnson appointee Sydney Holman, a former lobbyist who worked for Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s legislative office and also garnered accolades from aldermen.

Johnson has addressed controversies over his handling of personnel decisions multiple times, most recently telling reporters following this month’s sudden dismissal of cultural affairs Commissioner Erin Harkey: “It’s very common for a new mayor to come into office and to hire people. And so yes, I’m committed to making sure that we make hires that reflect our values.”

Aldermen across the spectrum have noticed the intergovernmental affairs operation has so far been less hands-on under Johnson. His team will sometimes vie for votes by focusing on convincing leaders such as the heads of the council’s Black and Latino caucuses, instead of exhaustively tracking all 50 members as former Mayors Richard M. Daley, Rahm Emanuel and, to some extent, Lightfoot did. Legislation that is at odds with Johnson’s positions or lacks a reliable cushion of support sometimes moves along anyway, to mixed results.

This approach has led to some tighter-than-usual outcomes for Johnson. He has already had to cast two City Council tiebreaker votes, a necessity almost unheard of for Chicago mayors.

Most recently was last month’s Gaza- Israel war cease-fire resolution, sponsored by Johnson allies. Waguespack said that minutes before the cease-fire vote, a “visibly shaken” Holman approached him to find out where he stood on it.

“In my mind, I was kind of going, ‘Are you serious? You’re asking me right now?’” Waguespack said. “Look at the two tie votes, and that’s just been absolutely unprecedented. That just shows me that they weren’t ready for those votes. They didn’t do their homework.”

But resolution co-architect Ald. Daniel La Spata, 1st, said others were to blame for dropping commitments to the intergovernmental affairs office on voting yes.

“The mayor, I’m very extraordinarily grateful for his vote that day,” said La Spata, Johnson’s chair of the Committee on Pedestrian and Traffic Safety. “He never should have been put in the position if people had kept the commitments that they made to IGA.”

Aldermen vowing to vote with the mayor on a hot-button issue, then changing their minds at the last minute without fear of consequence speaks to the precariousness of Johnson’s relationship with the body.

Johnson’s other tiebreaker vote was against Waguespack’s motion last fall to censure the mayor’s ex-floor leader, Ald. Carlos Ramirez-Rosa, 35th, after several colleagues said Ramirez-Rosa threatened or physically blocked them ahead of a scheduled vote on a nonbinding referendum question about repealing the city’s sanctuary city status. Ramirez-Rosa has apologized and stepped down from those positions, sidelining him from being the chief Johnson proxy in the council who whipped votes on his behalf.

For Progressives, A Sweet Spot

To be sure, the new administration came in with hurdles outside of its control, including a historically brief transition period. Meanwhile, the pace of asylum-seekers being bused from Texas skyrocketed soon after the April runoff election, plopping a full-blown humanitarian crisis on the new chief executive’s table on day one.

Johnson has also checked off some items in his progressive agenda, such as abolishing the subminimum wage for tipped workers and expanding workers’ paid-leave rights.

He also got the council to vote to place a referendum on the March primary ballot on raising taxes on certain real estate sales to fund homelessness services. A Cook County judge on Friday invalidated the ballot question, jeopardizing that Johnson win.

Nonetheless, “those are not light lifts by any stretch of the imagination,” La Spata said. “So it’s frustrating if folks are discounting that.”

The endangered March referendum item, commonly known by the moniker Bring Chicago Home, went through much evolution from the time it first surfaced as a plan to triple the transfer tax on all sales above $1 million. Lead sponsor Ald. Maria Hadden, 49th, said the administration’s budget team last summer pitched a new marginal, progressive structure instead, showing legislative nimbleness while working with a coalition of supporters to craft the more complex version that eventually passed the council.

“We reached some places, right, where we could have had impasses,” Hadden said. “We might have had some different thoughts on how to get there, but we got there because we were motivated.”

The mayor’s first budget plan easily clinched council approval and includes additions that reflect behind-the-scenes negotiating, too. An office of reentry was added at the behest of vice mayor Ald. Walter Burnett, 27th, who was worried that new investments in migrants would shortchange formerly incarcerated Chicagoans.

But in other pockets of the City Council, there is a sense that there may soon come a day when Johnson must tap into aldermanic support outside of the usual progressives.

“The mayor currently is still under a honeymoon, but I think it’s quickly ending,” said Ald. Gilbert Villegas, 36th. “And as we get further along, and ordinances become more challenging and that collaboration is not there, there’ll be some times when the administration is going to fail to pass things.”

From Candidate to Mayor

One of Johnson’s first public appearances after inauguration was a panel at the University of Illinois Chicago, where friendly community organizers asked him the meaning of “co-governance.”

“It’s essentially bringing the fifth floor and community closer to one another … (and) participating in every aspect of governance, that ultimately leads to transformation,” the new mayor said at that event in May. “That’s also intergovernmental affairs as well, because policy actually has to be lobbied.”

Johnson also took a shot at his predecessors for their “very isolated, narrow approach towards governance.”

Now, critics say some on Johnson’s team are employing the same heavy-handed tactics that his progressive base has railed against. That includes incidents where staffers who complained about senior advisor Lee’s treatment of them were fired and placed on the city’s do-not-hire list. Ald. Bill Conway, 34th, has also filed a complaint against Lee for allegedly threatening to withhold the cleanup of a homeless encampment in his ward unless he voted for Bring Chicago Home.

Almost four months after Ramirez-Rosa stepped down as the powerful zoning chair, the seat remains vacant. Sources say Aldermen Andre Vasquez, 40th, Villegas and La Spata have all thrown their hats into the ring, but the Johnson administration has not chosen a new chair.

A council member who asked to be anonymous said Ramirez-Rosa told them the Johnson administration wants him to come back to head the Zoning Committee.

The former floor leader denied lobbying for the role, telling the Tribune that colleagues have “erroneously claimed” his efforts to mend relationships are the same as trying to get reappointed zoning chair.

As for who Johnson wants, Ramirez-Rosa was tight-lipped: “The mayor is engaging in a process where he’s talking to members of the council, and I’m not looking to get out ahead of that process.”

Ald. Nicole Lee, 11th — one of the council members who alleged Ramirez-Rosa threatened to hold her ward items in committee unless she backed Johnson in the sanctuary city fight — said she is opposed to his return, though the Johnson administration has not asked her about it.

“With everything that happened, there’s trust that has to be built, and that doesn’t get built overnight,” Lee said.

Amid Crisis, Early Tensions in Springfield

Aldermen who were reelected this term were optimistic City Hall’s rapport with Springfield could only improve after a yearslong tug of war between Lightfoot and Pritzker. They were surprised at how quickly the relationship devolved as discord flared at times between the new mayor and the governor over Chicago’s costly asylum-seeker response.

Some of that tension plays out in public, via dueling press releases on each office’s handling of the humanitarian emergency. Or in the most recent case this month, a joint $250 million migrant funding announcement from Pritzker and Cook County President Toni Preckwinkle that notably did not include the Johnson administration after the city opted not to put up a remaining $70 million in projected costs for 2024.

But state Rep. Kam Buckner, a 2023 mayoral candidate, said the clashes between Johnson and Pritzker are routine. A Johnson ally who represents a district spanning from the Gold Coast to the South Side, Buckner said the Chicago legislative delegation has a much more open line of communication with the mayor’s office than before.

“I think there’s still a learning curve that is a typical one with all administrations,” Buckner said. “So I don’t put a lot of stock into the friction a lot of people are talking about.”

At the same time, the migrant response has elicited some of the sharpest gripes from aldermen over not being kept in the loop on decisions, such as expensive city contracts or the arrival of an asylum-seeker shelter in their wards.

Vasquez’s time as Johnson’s hand-picked immigration chair has included some public disagreements with the administration after being blindsided over updates.

“When we’re looking at a new administration, there are times when the communication could have been improved,” Vasquez said. “When there were things that were coming up in a crisis moment, and I’m finding out about them through the news as opposed to the administration, it will lead to me answering questions when the press is calling.”

The alderman also suggested the Johnson administration should reassess its calculus on how receptive the City Council might be to allocating that $70 million for migrants after all.

“There needs to be more engagement with the council to get a better sense of the pulse when things like this happen,” Vasquez said. “In the middle of a crisis, we have to make tough decisions, and I do believe there would be support.”

©2024 Chicago Tribune. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
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