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Mayor Brandon Johnson’s first City Council meeting: Early victory on installing allies, a dig at Fox News and a delay on migrant spending vote

Chicago Tribune logo Chicago Tribune 5/24/2023 Alice Yin, Gregory Pratt, A.D. Quig, Chicago Tribune
Tyrone Muhammad, with Ex Cons for Community and Social Change, interrupts Lucia Moya-Calderon during a migrant housing news conference at Chicago City Hall on May 24, 2023, demanding prioritization of Black residents' homelessness. © Shanna Madison/Chicago Tribune/TNS Tyrone Muhammad, with Ex Cons for Community and Social Change, interrupts Lucia Moya-Calderon during a migrant housing news conference at Chicago City Hall on May 24, 2023, demanding prioritization of Black residents' homelessness.

Mayor Brandon Johnson’s first City Council meeting saw aldermen back his plan to fill key leadership roles with his allies, an early victory for the new chief executive who spent much of the session attempting flattery and levity — including an opening dig at Fox News.

But the meeting also left immediate concerns surrounding Chicago’s migrant crisis unresolved after opponents blocked a measure to fund shelters through next month.

Johnson started by taking a few selfies from the dais with the freshly sworn-in council behind him. Then he banged the gavel and solemnly declared that he had “breaking news.”

“This City Council meeting is being recorded live from Naperville,” Johnson joked, a jab at a “Fox & Friends” segment in which two men were interviewed at a diner in the western suburb about crime in Chicago and their purported lack of faith in Johnson. The clip that aired the day of Johnson’s inauguration last week was panned for taking place about 30 miles away from the city, and the two Black Chicagoans featured told The TRiiBE their appearance was arranged in advance and they were misled about the purpose of the interview, which they thought was about gun violence only.

Mayor Brandon Johnson applauds Ald. Scott Waguespack, 32nd, for his service during a City Council meeting May 24, 2023, at Chicago City Hall. © Brian Cassella/Chicago Tribune/TNS Mayor Brandon Johnson applauds Ald. Scott Waguespack, 32nd, for his service during a City Council meeting May 24, 2023, at Chicago City Hall.

Johnson’s joke was an acknowledgment of the negative reputation he holds among conservative media regarding his platform of racial justice and taxing the rich. The remark drew laughs from aldermen and highlighted the attempts at humor that have been a hallmark of the affable mayor’s political style, which continued to emerge via the occasional compliment to friendly aldermen and through restraint during moments of criticism.

Yet the meeting quickly turned serious over the migrant crisis, which dominated public comments as the arrival of asylum-seekers in Chicago continues unabated. Amid controversy over the cost to taxpayers and where the migrants are being housed, a planned vote to designate $51 million from surpluses toward migrant services was later delayed.

Members of the public who mainly identified themselves as residents of South Shore, where one of the migrant shelters is slated to open despite community opposition, lambasted the city for neglecting South and West side residents. Downstairs on another City Hall floor, a news conference led by Johnson allies about migrant housing was disrupted by a group with ties to conservatives and the mayor’s runoff opponent, Paul Vallas.

Mayor Brandon Johnson hugs Ald. Felix Cardona Jr., 31st, after the City Council meeting on May 24, 2023, at City Hall. © Brian Cassella/Chicago Tribune/TNS Mayor Brandon Johnson hugs Ald. Felix Cardona Jr., 31st, after the City Council meeting on May 24, 2023, at City Hall.

In a post-council news conference, Johnson disputed the narrative of a city embroiled in division — including within the Black community — over the asylum-seekers.

“We’ve had, for too long, Black residents that have had to bear the brunt of previous administrations and their austerity budgets,” Johnson said. “In fact, if you listen closely to the testimony, Black residents are not mad that migrants are seeking asylum in the city of Chicago. You know what they’re upset about? It’s that communities have been disinvested.”

The meeting began with a series of votes on Johnson’s plan to reorganize the City Council and scuttle an earlier deal brokered among aldermen ahead of his April 4 election. That measure created nearly 30 legislative committees with aldermen assigning chairmanships among each other in a move aimed at establishing their independence.

But Johnson quickly undid the deal, stripping Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s hand-picked Finance Committee chairman Scott Waguespack of that role and giving it to Ald. Pat Dowell, a key supporter who served as Budget chair under the previous administration. Johnson’s plan also installed another close ally, Ald. Carlos Ramirez-Rosa, as chair of the powerful Zoning Committee and the mayor’s floor leader, while other democratic socialists such as Ald. Byron Sigcho-Lopez and Ald. Jeanette Taylor will lead the Housing and Education committees, respectively.

Johnson’s committee setup passed the council 41-9, with some resistance from those who most vocally opposed him during the election. Ald. Raymond Lopez attempted to block the vote after complaining of being “excluded” and warning Johnson that he was headed down the same path as Lightfoot, who alienated aldermen early in her tenure.

The new mayor followed with an explanation that a “no” vote on Lopez’s motion meant that “the work of the people can proceed,” a frequent theme of the progressive who has promised his election meant “the people” will come with him to the fifth floor of City Hall. Lopez’s motion failed, and aldermen then gave the final sign-off.

Other aldermen who had gripes with the reorganization were David Moore, who did not get a leadership position and said his 17th Ward residents on the South Side were “disrespected.” And Ald. Jim Gardiner, who has been the subject of an FBI investigation, scolded Johnson for not rewarding council members based on seniority, but his colleague, Johnson ally Ald. Andre Vasquez, noted that under the old guard, committees didn’t meet for long stretches despite having a budget.

“I appreciate the value of seniority. I also appreciate the value of labor,” Vasquez said.

After the vote, Dowell received a standing ovation upon Johnson recognizing her as the first woman and Black alderman to lead the Finance Committee. Then Ald. Anthony Beale, a Vallas supporter, announced he will resign from the Zoning Committee, now led by Ramirez-Rosa.

Aldermen also approved Ald. Walter Burnett as vice mayor, while Ald. Samantha Nugent was voted in as president pro tem and Ald. Stephanie Coleman as her assistant pro tem.

Waguespack, a previous Lightfoot ally who voted “no” on Johnson’s reorganization structure, delivered a goodbye speech as Finance Committee chair and noted his leadership followed “one of the biggest machine corruption scandals in recent history” — his predecessor Edward Burke’s wide-ranging corruption indictment.

That same ex-alderman, who has pleaded not guilty, ruffled Lightfoot four years ago during her first City Council meeting. The day was largely uncontroversial until Burke stood up to question whether the rules were inappropriately written because they weren’t gender neutral.

That led Lightfoot to sharply cross-examine Burke in a memorable exchange that ended when she declared, “I will call you when I’m ready to hear from you.” While Burke provoked the incident, some aldermen took exception to the mayor’s brusque handling of his objections.

The former mayor had aggravated City Council during the inauguration a week earlier when she criticized aldermanic corruption, then turned to encourage council members to stand and clap. Johnson, by contrast, has focused on being conciliatory, turning to aldermen and thanking them for their service during the inauguration.

Johnson’s reorganization plan shuffles city funds — including cutting the Finance Committee’s budget by $175,000 — to pay for a new Police and Fire Committee chaired by Ald. Chris Taliaferro at a cost of roughly $230,000. The plan also adds just under $50,000 to the Health and Human Relations Committee chaired by Ald. Rossana Rodriguez Sanchez, $80,000 to the Immigrant and Refugee Rights Committee chaired by Vasquez, and $70,000 to the Workforce Development Committee chaired by Ald. Michael Rodriguez.

The reorganization increases the overall spending on committees from $5.6 million to roughly $6.2 million.

For the first time, Johnson is also funding the vice mayor position, which has largely been ceremonial. It gives Burnett just over $400,000 to expand the role and hire staff in order to serve as a mayoral liaison to the community, responsible for attending and hosting meetings, forums and hearings across Chicago “in coordination with the mayor’s Office of Community Engagement,” Crain’s Chicago Business reported Wednesday.

But the successful effort to delay the vote on the $51 million allocation for migrants was an early indication that Johnson won’t get his agenda rubber-stamped by the council. The vote to tap into budget surpluses to keep shelter and food operations running through next month was blocked Wednesday by Lopez, Beale and Ald. Anthony Napolitano.

Beale, who represents the Far South Side, later told reporters it’s unfair that seniors are waiting years to get off public housing waitlists but the city was able to find $51 million to “throw away” for new arrivals.

“This money will be gone in 45 days,” Beale said. “You might as well take that $51 million and set a match to it, because it’s going to be burned up. That’s a problem.”

The meeting adjourned with Johnson praising the body for its “commitment to democracy” as well as to the “soul of Chicago” — a frequent refrain during his inaugural address earlier this month. The next council session will convene in a week, and Ramirez-Rosa told reporters afterward he is confident the $51 million migrant item will pass then on a second attempt to vote.

The delay in migrant spending was the latest in a series of conflicts over how the city can absorb the recent influx of migrants, a crisis that has seen nearly 10,000 new arrivals in Chicago since August, mostly from Central and South America.

That was when Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, a Republican, sent the first busloads of migrants north, arguing border towns had run out of room and resources to shelter migrants and said “sanctuary cities” such as Chicago should accept them. Johnson and other Illinois officials have derided Abbott’s action as a cruel political stunt, but the question of how to respond to the surge of migrants — more than 700 of whom are currently sleeping on the floors of Chicago police station lobbies — has proved controversial in communities across the city.

A pre-council news conference to present plans to combat the migrant crisis and homelessness in Chicago quickly devolved Wednesday morning when about a dozen people — some wearing shirts for the group Ex Cons for Community and Social Change — interrupted the speakers.

Before the disruption, Sigcho-Lopez, the 25th Ward alderman, had vowed that “we are not dismissing or will ever dismiss the issues that we currently have with Black residents” who faced school closures and the dismantling of public housing. As his chief of staff, Lucia Moya-Calderon, began explaining potential plans for small, medium and large temporary housing solutions, Tyrone Muhammad with ECCSC and others walked through the conference demanding that the group “fight for” unhoused ex-cons.

“Commit to me that we’re first!” Muhammad said before the disruptors shut down the news conference. “You can’t get in front of us, that’s all we’re saying.”

Muhammad was one of three men arrested while protesting the opening of a migrant shelter at the former Wadsworth School in South Shore. He also was a paid consultant for the People Who Play by the Rules PAC, according to state records, which is led by Republican operative Dan Proft.

But Johnson sought to brush aside that negativity in his last public appearance for the day, saying disagreement can be civil.

“Coming from a very large family, I know how to disagree without getting put out the house,” Johnson said with a smile. “In other words, I fully expect to be here four years from now and afterwards.”

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