Welcome to Issue #13 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.
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Resolutions, Rules, and Rubber Stamps: The June Chicago City Council Meeting
As the Chicago City Council held its most recent virtual meeting on Wednesday, June 17, hundreds of Chicagoans were gathered outside City Hall to demand #CPACNow. Protestors’ chants could be heard through the Mayor’s Zoom audio, and the meeting started a few minutes late as staffers scrambled to resolve a “technical difficulty.”
The meeting began with the customary 30-minute public comment period, during which Chicagoans expressed overwhelming support for CPAC, getting police out of public schools, defunding the police, reparations, and meaningful protections for renters. Afterwards, the Council spent nearly two hours discussing honorary resolutions, with alders lining up to speak in honor of notable Chicagoans who had recently passed away. While this might seem inoffensive, the effect was to alienate the public and limit time—and patience—for substantive policy debate later in the meeting.
The Council also voted to adopt Ald. Maria Hadden’s (49th) resolution celebrating Juneteenth. In November 2019, Hadden introduced an ordinance that would make Juneteenth an official city holiday, including paid time off for city workers. The ordinance, though supported by an overwhelming majority of alders, was re-referred to committee in January. Mayor Lightfoot has argued it would be too expensive to make Juneteenth a holiday.
The Council also voted to adopt a resolution to form a “commission” to study reparations for the descendants of slaves. When it was originally introduced, by Ald. Roderick Sawyer (6th), this resolution called for the city to form a permanent commission that would include representatives of impacted communities and hold regular public hearings to report on its progress. The substitute resolution—swapped out in committee—passed on the 17th is a far cry from the original. At the behest of the Mayor, the permanent commission became an unspecified body of “designated individuals,” and the requirement for public representation and public hearings disappeared.
The Socialist Caucus helped to introduce two significant pieces of legislation reflecting movement demands.
— Alds. Sawyer, Carlos Ramirez-Rosa (35th), and Jeanette Taylor (20th) introduced an ordinance that would immediately terminate the $33 million contract between the Chicago Police Department and Chicago Public Schools. Organizers, led by CPS students, have been fighting for years to get cops out of schools and invest the money in desperately needed resources like textbooks and counselors. This bill was originally assigned to the Committee on Public Safety. Ald. Chris Taliaferro (29th), a former police officer and current chair of the Public Safety Committee, requested the bill go to the Committee on Education and Child Development. As a result of this irrelevant dispute over jurisdiction, the ordinance was referred to the Committee on Committees and Rules, where legislation goes to die (see the separate item below).
On Thursday, July 2nd, the Public Safety and Education Committees convened a joint meeting, but ordinance to terminate the contract was not on the agenda. Instead, the joint committee discussed an Inspector General’s report, issued two years ago, on substantial issues with the school resource officer program. No vote was planned.
This meeting could have been an opportunity to demonstrate the strength of public support for police-free schools. However, there was no opportunity for this. Taliaferro was attempting to diffuse the pressure exerted by a militant movement for police-free schools by holding a largely symbolic hearing to discuss the issue. At the same time, he actively obstructed debate on legislation that would actually impact the balance of power.
— The Just Cause Eviction ordinance, supported by a broad coalition of Chicago housing organizers, including Chicago DSA, met a similar fate. The legislation was originally assigned to the Committee on Housing and Real Estate. Ald. Brian Hopkins (2nd), one of the Mayor’s strongest allies on Council, called the bill for the Committee on Consumer Protection. Like Cops Out of Schools, Just Cause was referred to the Rules committee. Unlike the Mayor’s watered-down alternative, this ordinance is unlikely to see the light of day without a fight.
Additional items of note from the June 17 meeting:
- The Council passed a limited COVID-19 eviction moratorium ordinance, supported by the Mayor, over objections from alders who borrowed talking points from the real estate lobby to argue the provisional moratorium placed an undue burden on small landlords.
- The Mayor’s appropriation of federal CARES Act stimulus funds passed, with nine dissenting votes. The Socialist caucus objected to the bill because it contained no guarantee that funds would not be spent on policing. This comes after revelations that Lightfoot used her emergency spending powers to allocate $1.2 million for private security firms in the wake of protests against police brutality.
- Ald. Daniel La Spata (1st) introduced an order requesting a one-year extension of the ComEd franchise agreement—the 28-year agreement expires in December—to ensure adequate time for the city to consider alternatives, like municipalization, prior to a new agreement being signed. This bill was referred to the Committee on Environmental Protection and Energy.
The next City Council meeting will be held on Wednesday, July 22nd at 10 am.
The Committee on Committees and Rules: Where Only the Mayor’s Bills Survive
The Committee on Committees and Rules governs how City Council business is conducted. This body oversees the Rules of Order and Procedure, committee assignments, and ward redistricting, while holding sole authority to resolve disputes over committee jurisdiction. All 50 alderpersons are members of the Rules committee. Ald. Michelle Harris (8th) is the Chair.
For a piece of legislation to be voted on by City Council and enacted, it must first pass through the appropriate committee. This committee is assigned when the legislation is filed with the City Clerk’s office. Once an item is introduced at a City Council meeting, any alderperson can dispute that assignment and “call” the legislation to a different committee. Whenever this happens, the legislation is referred to the Rules committee to decide the appropriate venue.
This parliamentary maneuver is a way to stall debate and keep an issue from coming to a vote—particularly if that legislation is not favored by the Mayor. In theory, the Rules committee should report its recommendation about where to send a piece of legislation at the next City Council meeting. This rarely happens: if the committee never takes up an item, there is no recommendation to report, and the substantive debate can be delayed indefinitely. As of this writing, there are 25 pieces of legislation stalled in the Rules committee, including Ald. Matt Martin’s (47th) ordinance, introduced in April, to provide modest rent relief for Chicagoans who lost income due to COVID-19.
Meetings of the Rules committee—and all Council committees—happen at the discretion of the chair, who also determines the agenda. Officially, committee chairs are selected by the City Council itself. In reality, committee chairs are handpicked by the Mayor and rubber-stamped by the Council. Ald. Harris was selected to head the Rules committee by Rahm Emanuel in 2013, and retained by Mayor Lightfoot in 2019.
The Mayor’s outsize influence on committee proceedings was on full display last month. The Rules committee has met just once all year, on June 16, 2020. Despite a long list of items awaiting referral to another committee, the agenda included exactly one item: Mayor Lightfoot’s watered-down Fair Notice ordinance. Following Lightfoot breaking off months-long negotiations with organizers working on a Just Cause Eviction bill, the Fair Notice bill was introduced then quickly referred to the Rules committee at the behest of several members of the Socialist Caucus. A meeting of this committee was promptly scheduled, where the bill was deliberated on and referred to the Committee on Housing and Real Estate.
During the Rules meeting, Ald. Byron Sigcho-Lopez (25th) made a motion to amend the agenda so the committee could consider other items, including Ald. Martin’s rent relief ordinance. Chair Harris denied the motion, requiring a written request signed by 26 alders to act on legislation pending before the committee. According to the Rules of Order and Procedure (Rule 39), a majority of the members of a standing committee is required to bypass the Chair’s authority to call meetings. Since every alderperson is a member of the Rules committee, this means getting a majority of City Council members. Thus, the Chair of the Rules committee and, by extension, the Mayor, who handpicks committee chairs, have extraordinary influence over an ostensibly democratic process.
Whether hours are wasted on meaningless honorary resolutions, ordinances are swapped out with non-binding resolutions, or legislation is stalled indefinitely via procedural maneuvers, the ruling class has many tools at their disposal to put off policies that would materially benefit the working class. This said, even a small number of socialists in office—if they are uncompromising in their insistence on doing the people’s work—do have the ability to shift some power away from the Mayor and raise people’s expectations beyond the rubber-stamp status quo. But to win, we must continue to build our power to the point where our demands are impossible to ignore. We need more socialists committed to class struggle holding elected office, a militant rank-and-file labor movement, and millions of ordinary Chicagoans in the streets willing to shut it down until we get the world—and the City Council—we deserve.
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 Brent Glass, Courtney Gray, Charlotte Kissinger, Alan Maass, and Sveta Stoytcheva. Graphics were contributed by Patrick O’Connell and Jon Lyons. If you would like to contribute to the Red Star Bulletin or have any feedback, email firstname.lastname@example.org.