When the three aldermen serving the majority of Logan Square took office late last month, they joined a surge of progressive representation in the Chicago City Council. Together with a post-Rahm Emanuel executive office, the three see the potential to remake Chicago politics—but they’ll face more quotidian challenges first.
“We now see the formation of progressive majorities in the Latino caucus. We now see a much larger progressive caucus,” said 35th Ward Alderman Carlos Ramirez-Rosa, elected to his second term in the Feb. 26 elections. “So I definitely think there’s leftward momentum in the Chicago City Council. And I think that we’re going to see a new age of progressive movement building.”
Rosa returns to the council’s Progressive Reform Caucus, chaired by fellow Logan-area Alderman Scott Waguespack (32nd Ward), re-elected unopposed this year. Newcomer Daniel La Spata will join them in the Progressive Caucus, having defeated incumbent First Ward Alderman Joe Moreno. All three have pushed for progressive policies like affordable housing, police reform and increased school funding.
Meanwhile, the council as a whole has moved noticeably left, which Rosa and others forecasted during the election, predicting a boost to progressive agendas. February’s election and April’s run-off brought in 12 new aldermen, and the Progressive Caucus will likely swell from 10 members to about 18, or “close to 40 percent of the council,” La Spata said.
The city also, of course, replaced centrist Mayor Emanuel with self-professed progressive Lori Lightfoot. Logan Square’s aldermen offered cautious hope that the Logan Square resident would support progressive priorities.
“Chicago will have one of the most diverse and progressive City Councils in modern history,” the Chicago Sun-Times said after the runoff votes. “Progressives clearly will have a stronger voice in City Hall,” the Tribune noted, tallying eight progressive incumbent victors and “a handful” of lefty newcomers in the February and runoff elections. (And that didn’t even include Logan’s La Spata.)
Other incoming progressive aldermen include Rossana Rodriguez, who unseated (by 13 votes) incumbent Deb Mell in the 33rd Ward, which covers much of Logan’s neighboring Avondale. Rodriguez will likely join Rosa on a new Democratic Socialist Caucus, which Rosa chairs.
Criminal Justice, TIF and Taxes
Rodriguez also partnered with Rosa on a “Progressive Platform,” published before the elections. Rosa said that those policies, shaped by activists across the city, will define his goals with a more-amenable council.
“The priorities of the new progressives in the city council come from the grassroots social movements in Chicago that have been fighting for years to bring change to City Hall, but unfortunately did not have an ally in the mayor’s office and … just a handful of allies on the Chicago City Council,” he said.
Top of the line for Rosa? Fully funding Chicago’s public schools and “making sure that we address issues of criminal justice, by erasing the gang database and removing the carve outs from our city sanctuary ordinance ,” referring to provisions that permit city police to work with federal immigration forces. On May 29, Rosa re-introduced another of his signature policies, a new ordinance for CPAC, or a Civilian Police Accountability Council, an elected board that could investigate police shootings and enact other oversight.
Waguespack agreed with Rosa that the new council should address issues that have been stifled for years. He joined Rosa and La Spata in highlighting the need for reforms to TIF, or tax-increment financing. That city program sets aside tax revenue from so-called “blighted” areas to be used solely for infrastructure, development and other improvements in those same areas. Critics have said TIFs work like a “slush fund” and have called out the program’s use in the Lincoln Yards project.
“There’s TIFF reforms that we’d like to work with the new folks coming in on that,” Waguespack said. “Had we had them before, we could have prevented some of these big developments.”
Waguespack, who was appointed to the powerful Finance Committee chairmanship by the new mayor, called out the use, or misuse, of TIF funds to support Lincoln Yards developer Sterling Bay. “That burden has benefited developers, and these mega developers like Sterling Bay … for too long,” Waguespack said.
He also highlighted the need for a more progressive tax in the city, in which the tax rate would increase with income. “That’s something that having new aldermen who are progressive talking about those policy issues helps as well,” he said. “Because for years we would talk about them [tax reforms] at the city council, but we could never get public hearings.”
From Housing to the Climate
La Spata and Rosa emphasized the need to promote affordable housing in their wards and better deal with the root causes of Chicago’s violence. The mayor has shown an interest in reforming the affordable requirements ordinance, which requires some apartment buildings to include 10% affordable units, La Spata said. He added that the city could also promote so-called “accessory dwelling units,” like upstairs apartments and garden units, to create more affordable housing.
All three alderman advocated greater environmental actions in the city, with Rosa calling out the need to reduce lead in drinking water.
“We need to bring back the department of the environment for all of the climate change issues and environmental issues that exist and that have been pushed under the rug for the last eight years,” Waguespack said.
La Spata said, long term, he’d like to see Chicago catch up to New York and Los Angeles on climate action. “I think the fact that our city has no strong actionable plan for mitigating and adapting to climate change, that is inexcusable,” he said. “I really want to see Chicago lead the way on some of these issues, and I really want to see the First Ward lead the way.”
Not ‘Rockin and Rollin’ Yet
While all those progressive goals may now have a better chance of getting a hearing, Chicago’s alderman, across the ideological spectrum, face more-immediate challenges, the aldermen said.
As a freshman alderman, with no prior experience in elected office, La Spata said he’s initially focused on the practicalities of running the office. “My first, first priority is really, and this is unglamorous, is figuring out the city and constituent services side of things,” he said. “We want to make sure that people feel heard and listened to and feel like their needs are being met locally.”
Rosa similarly warned activists and voters to give, in particular, the freshman aldermen time to get their council legs. “One of the things I would communicate to the general public… is that they’ve also got to give some of the newly elected aldermen some time to get their bearings and figure out how it is that they’re going to manage their office,” he said. “And so there’s going to be a little bit of time before we really get rockin’ and rollin’.”
All aldermen, progressive or not, also have to deal with the massive project of passing a city budget in the midst of a projected $270 million shortfall for 2020. “Those are some really tough first-year challenges,” La Spata said.
Incoming alderman, too, need to be wary of the old ways of doing politics in Chicago, which may still prevail in the new council, the Sun-Times warned. “Old-guard politicians rely on newly elected aldermen not knowing the ropes, so they handpick freshmen who pledge their loyalty in exchange for legislative assistance,” former mayoral candidate Amara Enyia and others wrote.
Navigating 50 Alderman and 1 New Mayor
And as much as the Progressive Caucus as grown, it’s still nowhere near a majority of the city council, La Spata pointed out.
“I don’t think any of us can ignore the fact that about 60% of the caucus is turning over and maybe does not always share the kinds of values and vision for the city that we or myself have been elected to [enact],” he said. “And so, there’s a need to really build bridges on policies. … There is nothing I can get done of true substance for the city that does not require 25 other votes.”
The incoming mayor, too, represents a question mark to at least some progressive aldermen. While Waguespack endorsed Lightfoot, Rosa, who supported Toni Preckwinkle for mayor, is cautious about the new executive’s potential.
“I think the first challenge is uncertainty,” he said. “The question is what type of mayor will Mayor-Elect Lightfoot be. And if she lives up to her commitment to be a progressive mayor… I think that means that there’s a tremendous opportunity for progressives in the city council.”
Featured photo: Carlos Ramirez-Rosa