Lightfoot accused of strongarm tactics on pandemic budget passage

Lightfoot accused of strongarm tactics on pandemic budget passage

Amisha Patel, executive director of the Grassroots Collaborative, speaks during a protest outside City Hall in August, calling for the city to defund the Chicago Police Department. | Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times

On the eve of a final budget vote, representatives from the DefundCPD Campaign, Black Lives Matter, the Grassroots Collaborative and United Working Families put the mayor on blast and aldermen on notice.

Mayor Lori Lightfoot was accused Monday of using strongarm tactics to round up City Council votes for her $12.8 billion pandemic budget.

On the eve of a final budget vote that is not in doubt, representatives from the DefundCPD Campaign, Black Lives Matter, the Grassroots Collaborative and United Working Families put the mayor on blast and aldermen who “cave” to mayoral pressure on notice.

Emma Tai, executive director of United Working Families, said she is “disgusted” by the “conditions under which this budget was negotiated.”

Tai was referring to the mayor’s threat to members of the Black Caucus who dare vote against the budget. Lightfoot warned: “Don’t ask me for s–t for the next three years” when it comes to projects for her five-year, $3.7 billion capital plan.

“To threaten the aldermen who represent the most disinvested communities in the city of Chicago — the people who are suffering the most, who are dying the most this year — that they will not get anything from the mayor if they dare to vote against a budget that includes $11 million for vacant positions in the cop budget? That is not good-faith negotiations. That is not how this should have gone down,” Tai said.

Damon Williams from the #LetUsBreathe Collective and the DefundCPD Campaign, said he’s not fooled by Lightfoot’s signature “Invest South/West” plan to rebuild 10 long-neglected communities.

“Once there was political pressure on Lori Lightfoot, she specifically went to the representatives of Black communities and said, ‘You will get nothing if you go against me,’” Williams said.

“That was not a threat to a few alderpeople. That was a threat to the vulnerable Black people of Chicago. That is saying that, ‘I am going to do exactly what has been happening for generations. I’m gonna divest from your communities unless you get in line with my political agenda.’”

The mayor’s office responded by pointing to the “unprecedented, $1.2 billion budget gap” Lightfoot had to close, in collaboration with the City Council and organized labor after extensive community engagement.

“This budget avoids hundreds of layoffs, maintains the level of service our residents deserve, ensures predictability and transparency around property taxes, and increases funding towards community-based violence prevention initiatives, affordable housing and mental health response,” the mayor’s statement said.

Lightfoot has told the Sun-Times the threat to members of the Black Caucus was “taken out of context” and she is “not going to get in the mud with people who leak clearly private conversations.”

“Members of the Black Caucus — and particularly the more veteran members — have repeatedly complained about the fact that, over many administrations, they have taken the hard votes and they’ve gotten little to show for it,” the mayor has said.

“What I’ve been very clear about saying to members who tell me they can’t and won’t vote for the revenue sources is that your ward cannot be prioritized over other wards who do vote for and support the budget. It’s not right and it’s not fair.”

There is no doubt Lightfoot has the votes to approve both the budget and the $195.7 million revenue package that includes a $94 million property tax increase, followed by annual increased tied to the consumer price index.

The only question is how many aldermen will vote against the budget. It’s likely to be 20 or 21, making it the largest vote against a mayoral budget since the 1980’s power struggle known as Council Wars that saw 29 mostly-white aldermen thwart then-Mayor Harold Washington’s every move.

Amika Tendaji of Black Lives Matter Chicago predicted “never-before-seen numbers” of aldermen voting against the mayor’s budget.

But she’s “not in this” for moral victories, she said. Her only goal is to help Chicagoans “who are sick, who are mourning, who are out of work and who deserve more from City Council.”

As part of the “DefundCPD Campaign,” Tai said she was part of a broader effort that flooded aldermanic in-boxes with 3,000 emails urging them “vote no on any budget that does not include treatment — not trauma, that does not tax the rich, that does not cut the police and does not protect essential workers.”

“Instead of rent and mortgage relief, we’re getting a $94 million property tax increase. Instead of care and healing, this budget will spend around $11 million to pay for just 230 vacant positions in the Chicago Police Department. Instead of a moral budget, we got a do-nothing budget,” Tai said.

“It should not pass on the heels of the largest protest movement in U.S. history, in the midst of a global pandemic, in Chicago’s most violent year in recent memory. And with working and poor people fighting off illegal evictions, we need and deserve so much more than this budget has to offer.”

Tai told aldermen taking what she called a “courageous and principled” position against the budget: “We will remember this vote.”

But the same goes, she said, for aldermen who “cave to pressure from the mayor and big business.”