City Council issues major check on Lightfoot’s power

Mary Dixon: The Chicago City Council handed over a large power check to Mayor Lori Lightfoot yesterday. In an unusual move, they rejected his appointment as head of the city’s education committee. It was a remarkable moment as some council members continue to fight for more independence from the mayor’s office. WBEZ’s Mariah Woelfel says more about how the political clashes could have a real impact on the council’s ability to serve residents.

Mariah Woelfel: It is an unwritten tradition in Chicago politics that the mayor chooses the council members who control the committees. Like finance, public safety, education. This means that while the alderman technically has to vote on these nominations, the mayor’s choice is usually approved. But that was not the case yesterday.

Lori Lightfoot: The yeses are 18. The noes are 29. Uh, the motion fails.

Mariah Woelfel: Lightfoot was trying to appoint Alderman James Cappleman, an ally of his who is retiring after this term, to lead the education committee. This seat has been vacant for months since the resignation of the previous president. And in a last-minute move this week, Lightfoot chose Cappleman over a perhaps more logical candidate.

Sophie King: I’m the acting president.

Mariah Woelfel: Vice President and now Acting Chair of the committee itself, Alderman Sophia King, who is running against Lightfoot in the 2023 mayoral race. All of this came to a head at the end of the meeting of yesterday when King spoke.

Sophie King: And quite frankly, if you spent more time tackling problems than people, we would be much better off.

Lori Lightfooyou: Alright Alright. Alderman King, you’re out of order.

Sophie King: Thank you, Madam President.

Lori Lightfoot: You’re out of order and I’m not going to let you make a political speech on the floor, because of your aspirations.

Mariah Woelfel: Lightfoot continues to deny that his decision to choose Cappleman over King was political. If you roll your eyes at another story about politicians yelling at each other during an election season, let’s talk about the importance of chairing committees. To help me, I called former Inspector General Joe Ferguson, who for more than a decade until last year served as the city’s top watchdog. Take a police oversight bill, for example, before that bill is passed by the city council, it has to go through a committee.

Joe Ferguson: The person who decides when and how to send it to committee, when and how to hold hearings on it, is the chair of the committee. If the chair of the committee is someone who responds to the mayor’s request, that means the decision is made by the mayor and the mayor’s office. Thus, the mayor leads the body which is supposed to propose laws on his own terms.

Mariah Woelfel: In other words, if a mayor disagrees with this hypothetical police reform agenda, his public safety chairman can find ways to keep him in committee for months or even years, what really happened in Chicago. This is why mayors here have very rarely had to use their veto power to defeat legislation, as they are able to prevent it from coming to a vote in the first place. It also means that if a political opponent is vying for a presidency, that seat can sit empty for months, delaying progress on ordinances that could help residents.

Joe Ferguson: This is not how effective democracies work with proper checks and balances between the executive and the legislature. We don’t have democracy in Chicago, at least procedurally.

Mariah Woelfel: This is something reformist aldermen want to change, but may not yet have the momentum to do so. Alderman Carlos Ramirez-Rosa is a two-term alderman who chairs the Democratic Socialist Caucus.

Carlos Ramirez-Rosa: You could ask the aldermen to collectively decide that they will form a coalition of 26 to appoint these committee chairs. The question is around what base are you building this alliance?

Mariah Woelfel: He notes that not everyone who voted against Lightfoot’s nomination yesterday did so in a show of support for change. Some just didn’t like the last-minute nature of his move. They wanted more information about the date. In a press conference after the meeting, Lightfoot hinted that she would try again in the future, giving her more time to vote for the president of her choice. Mariah Woelfel, WBEZ News.

WBEZ transcriptions are created in a very short time by an automatic speech recognition service and members of our digital team. The authoritative recording of WBEZ programming is the audio recording.

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