Red Star Bulletin Issue #11

Red Star Bulletin Issue #11

Welcome to Issue #11 of the Red Star Bulletin!

The aim of this bulletin is to bring Chicago Democratic Socialists of America members a regular round-up of important legislation, committee meetings, and other updates from City Hall, as well as analysis of what this means for our organizing as socialists.

Make no mistake: the City Council is not friendly terrain for us. We must first and foremost continue to build power in the places it derives from–our workplaces, our neighborhoods, and the streets. But we hope to give CDSA members information they need to assess the electoral project we’re embarking on, and to continue building it into a powerful vehicle for working-class politics in our city.

The Mayor’s Emerging Problem: More Alderpersons are Growing a Spine

Mayor Lori Lightfoot continues to demonstrate that her command of the City Council is not quite that of her predecessor. While the pushback appears to come in small doses, it marks a potential long-term struggle of enacting her agenda without challenge.

On its surface, Lori Lightfoot’s victory over Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle was a landslide. Lightfoot defeated Preckwinkle by over 47 points, winning each of Chicago’s 50 wards and, astoundingly, losing only 15 of the city’s 2,069 precincts. The resounding victory did not, however, represent a mandate for Lightfoot or her platform. At the time of the election, Lightfoot did not have ties to many alderpersons, and the relationship between the mayor and City Council since Lightfoot’s inauguration has often been strained. Lightfoot has shown poor instincts for coalition-building and a penchant for pettiness that has alienated other elected officials. As a result, an incipient revolt against the mayor’s authority is forming.

In the initial municipal election held on February 26, 2019, Lightfoot finished first among 14 candidates with 97,667 votes. Preckwinkle, second among the candidates, received 89,343 votes. In the April 2 runoff election, Lightfoot received 386,039 votes to Preckwinkle’s 137,765. Lightfoot gained 288,372 votes between the initial election and the runoff while Preckwinkle gained only 48,422. The people of Chicago were not enthusiastically supportive of Lightfoot; they were vehemently opposed to Preckwinkle.

At the time of the April runoff, only one sitting alderperson had endorsed Lightfoot (Waguespack, 32). No sitting alderperson had signed on to Lightfoot’s “People First Pledge”, and of the aldermanic candidates who had signed on, only Matt Martin (47) won a seat in the City Council. Waguespack received the chairmanship of the Committee on Finance as a reward.

One of Lightfoot’s first acts as mayor was to sign an executive order curbing aldermanic prerogative, which rankled some members of the council. Beyond irritating alderpersons, Lightfoot’s move has had practical consequences. According to Alds. Rodriguez (22), Hopkins (2), and Sigcho-Lopez (25) the lack of aldermanic prerogative prevented Rodriguez from blocking or delaying the permit that allowed Hilco to move forward with demolition of a shuttered coal plant in Little Village.

In late 2019, over the course of several weeks, Lightfoot made two moves which alienated a majority of city council members. First, after easily passing her budget through the council by a vote of 39–11, Lightfoot published a website which sought to shame the 11 alderpersons who cast nay votes. This despite a pledge from Ald. Waguespack that there would be no retribution for alderpersons who opposed the mayor’s budget.

Then, in mid-December, Ald. Brendan Reilly (42), the president pro tempore of the City Council, invoked a seldom-used rule to add himself to the Contracting Oversight and Equity Committee in an effort to block an ordinance introduced by Ald. Ervin (28) which would have delayed the sale of recreational marijuana in Chicago. Reilly’s procedural maneuver was almost certainly done at the behest of Mayor Lightfoot. The ordinance was co-sponsored by all 20 members of the Aldermanic Black Caucus. Reilly’s maneuver was unsuccessful, and the ordinance advanced to the full council for a vote, where it was voted down during an uncharacteristically heated session.

The next major point of contention came during April’s City Council meeting, which was held virtually due to the pandemic. Mayor Lightfoot was seeking passage of an emergency powers ordinance which would give the mayor’s office the power to approve contracts and appropriate money from the budget without the approval of council. During the meeting on April 22, Alds. Lopez (15) and Ramirez-Rosa (35) moved to defer and publish the ordinance. Any two alderpersons can move to defer and publish a proposed ordinance. The one-time-only motion requires publishing an ordinance in the journal of the city council, thus delaying a vote until the following council meeting. The alliance of Lopez and Ramirez-Rosa demonstrates discontent with Mayor Lightfoot across the political spectrum as Carlos Ramirez-Rosa is a member of the Chicago Democratic Socialists of America (CDSA) and Ray Lopez is decidedly not.

Immediately following the motion to defer and publish, the City council meeting was rescheduled for two days later and then adjourned. Ald. Ramirez-Rosa pointed out that the ability to convene council meetings on such short notice showed there was no need for an emergency powers ordinance. The delay in passing the ordinance did allow sufficient pressure to build that forced amendments capping the value of contracts the mayor could unilaterally approve at $1 million and setting a sunset date of June 30 for the emergency powers. The emergency powers ordinance was ultimately passed during the April 24 meeting by a vote of 29–21.

During that same council meeting Ald. Martin (47) introduced legislation that would have provided some rent relief during the pandemic. The ordinance did not seek to cancel rent but would defer rent payments for 12 months for Chicagoans who have lost income due to COVID-19. It also called on Governor Pritzker to implement a similar policy for homeowners’ mortgage payments. While it would not provide the same level of relief as cancelling housing payments, the ordinance certainly would go further than Lightfoot’s insulting rent lottery. The mayor did not support Martin’s legislation, and the ordinance was referred to the Committee on Committees and Rules, which is where municipal legislation goes to die.

A final point of contention during the April 24 meeting was an ordinance introduced by Ald. Vasquez (40) calling for the City Council to meet twice a month, citing guidelines defined in the municipal code. That ordinance was voted down. Overall, the April 24 meeting was well summed up as a “total shit show” by an unidentified alderperson (rumor is it was Sue Garza (10)).

May saw further unrest against the mayor as residents protested outside of Lightfoot’s house after demolition work unexpectedly resumed at the Little Village site caused an enormous dust cloud to blanket the neighborhood. In an unprecedented move, CDSA member Ald. Sigcho-Lopez (25) joined the protesters. It is not uncommon for Chicagoans to protest outside the home of the mayor. It was, however, unheard of for an alderperson to be among them.

Mayor Lightfoot introduced an ordinance during the May 20 council session that would require landlords to give 90 days notice before terminating a lease rather than the current 30 days. It also would require landlords to pay tenants a $2,500 relocating fee if they want to take back the unit to rehab or demolish it. In another unprecedented move, alderpersons who felt the ordinance did not go far enough moved that it be referred to the Rules Committee. Generally, the mayor gets to refer ordinances to whatever committee they choose.

Some of the incidents outlined here may seem minor, but taken together they demonstrate that Lightfoot’s grip on authority is tenuous at best. And all of this took place before Lightfoot’s extreme response to the protests that erupted in response to white supremacy and ongoing police brutality. The city is in for an eventful summer.

Lessons Learned from the Springfield Legislative Sessions

As fatalities from the COVID-19 pandemic continue to mount, so do the economic casualties for the most vulnerable citizens of the world. More than 40 million people in the United States have lost their jobs, and Chicago residents have not been exempted. Federal, state, and local governments have offered paltry pathways to relief.

In response to this nonresponse, more than 50 grassroots organizations—including the Chicago Democratic Socialists of America (CDSA) and United Working Families (UWF)—have joined with leftist politicians to form the Right to Recovery Coalition (R2R). R2R developed a list of policy demands that range from the right to health care and healthy communities to the right to public education and housing. By developing this list of demands and organizing around a single initiative, R2R has provided socialists and progressives a point from which to struggle.

In late May, the Illinois General Assembly convened ostensibly to face the formidable challenges created by the Coronavirus outbreak. State Representative Delia Ramirez (4th District) introduced a bill to the Illinois House of Representatives that built on the work of R2R. The bill’s primary concern is grappling with the dire housing situation in Illinois.

While some of those who lost their jobs have been able to collect unemployment, nearly 30% of Illinoisans are cost-burdened by rent, meaning that rent comprises more than 30% of a household’s monthly budget. In some areas in Chicago, the number approaches 70%. Consequently, margins are thin for households. Any loss of income, no matter how much, can drastically affect a household’s ability to make rent. These conditions prompted Rep. Ramirez’s bill, which included the following provisions:

  • Cancel rent payments for people experiencing COVID-related hardships for 180 days;
  • Establish a fund for landlords to recoup lost income; and
  • Place a 180-day moratorium on eviction and foreclosure proceedings and require landlords to offer a “reasonable payment plan” to tenants.

As expected, Ramirez’s bill met with resistance from Senate President Don Harmon, the Illinois Realtors Association (ILRA), and a number of other neoliberal Democrats. In an attempt to bring at least some relief to the working people of Illinois, Ramirez started to negotiate. During negotiations, Ramirez offered to reduce the rent and mortgage moratorium to 60 days (down from 180) and drop a freeze on rents. Despite these concessions, the bill stalled.

One small win that did come from the four-day emergency sessions was increasing the amount of state relief funds available to tenants and landlords by around 90%. Tenants and landlords are able to apply for assistance from the $396 million fund, which is administered through the Illinois Housing Development Authority.

All in all, this was a blow to socialists in Chicago and Illinois.

The most obvious lesson from the inability to pass Ramirez’s bill is that the Left still had many enemies in the Illinois state legislature on both sides of the aisle. Even during a pandemic, when public opinion seems to recognize the need for real relief, community organizers still cannot sway elected representatives across the state to act in the interest of working people in the smallest ways.

Once again, it becomes evident that compromise is never a winning strategy within a capitalist system. The ruling class will always work to preserve its place in society. This means mainstream politicians beholden to the ruling class and lobbying groups (like the ILRA) will always try to strip out provisions that challenge capital in any meaningful way.

Instead, we need to rely on what we do have working for us: our numbers in the working class. We have the people necessary to take actions to put items on the agenda.

All of these lessons are based on the status quo, where socialists do not hold a majority in elected offices across the city and state. While that is our position now, this does not mean we stop fighting to elect socialists to decision-making positions. We need to fight with the tools we have now—our current electeds and the numbers of our movement—while simultaneously building for our future.

The The Red Star Bulletin was conceived by Ramsin Canon and is a project of the Political Education & Policy Committee. This issue was drafted by CDSA members. Special contributions were made by Derek Barthel, Brent Glass, Nick Hussong, Charlotte Kissinger, Anna Kochakian, Alan Maass, Sveta Stoytcheva, and Caleb Tumin. Graphics were contributed by Patrick O’Connell. If you would like to contribute to the Red Star Bulletin or have any feedback, email politicaleducation@chicagodsa.org.