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Ald. Ed Burke

Ald. Edward M. Burke, 14th Ward, at a City Council meeting on March 23, 2022. Wednesday is Burke’s last scheduled City Council meeting, after he stepped down amid federal criminal charges. It’s Mayor Lori Lightfoot and many other aldermen’s last meeting as well.

Manuel Martinez

These are the moments that defined Chicago’s outgoing City Council

The last City Council meeting of the term this Wednesday marks the end of a historic era for Chicago’s legislative body.

The 2019-2023 “class” is one defined by a wave of new, progressive members, the city’s first Black woman and openly gay mayor, virtual meetings brought by a global pandemic, the stripping of power from its longstanding veteran member, contentious battles between the executive and legislative branches, and a near-record number of retirements by the end of the term.

Farewells have marked committee hearings in recent weeks and are sure to dominate Wednesday’s meeting as a slew of incumbent aldermen are retiring, or have already left — including due to criminal charges and looming federal indictments.

Here’s a look at the 2019-2023 council by the numbers:

  • 16 incumbents are leaving or already gone

  • 276 years of collective experience between those departing

  • 23,650 pieces of legislation passed

  • Three indicted, or convicted, sitting aldermen

  • Four aldermen appointed by the mayor due to vacancies

  • 54 — the number of years Ed Burke, the body’s most senior member, has been in office

  • 59 — the age of the soon-to-be-longest sitting alderman, Walter Burnett

Come May, a younger, more diverse and more progressive City Council will take office with Mayor-elect Brandon Johnson.

But for now, here’s a roundup of some of the moments that defined the City Council under Lightfoot.

A power check on the “dean” of the council — May 2019

Lightfoot had campaigned on curbing aldermanic power, and true to that promise, at her first meeting presiding over the City Council she admonished Burke as the two clashed over council rules.

“Alderman, I will call you when I’m ready to hear from you,” Lightfoot told Burke, who would continue to clash with Lightfoot at subsequent meetings.

A fixture of the City Council since 1969, Burke was a leader of the opposition to Harold Washington, the city’s first Black mayor, during the Council Wars era. Over five decades he amassed power as chair of the influential Finance Committee.

But that influence sputtered after his offices were raided by the FBI in 2018. Burke opted not to run for reelection ahead of a federal corruption trial later this year as he faces charges of racketeering, bribery and attempted extortion. He has pleaded not guilty.

Ald. Raymond Lopez attempted to toss an homage to the council’s longest-serving member leaving, and proposed a resolution that would have declared May 15 “Alderman Edward M. Burke Day.” That’s the day of the scheduled inauguration of Johnson, the city’s third Black mayor. But Lopez withdrew the resolution, purportedly at Burke’s urging.

Virtual CIty Council meeting

Chicago City Council members meet on Zoom for the city’s first virtual meeting in April 2020.

Going virtual: “This is a total s*** show.” — April 2020

Chicago’s City Council began meeting virtually for the first time three years ago (with plenty of swearing) and it’s a pandemic-era change that’s still a fixture of many committee hearings.

Going virtual improved the City Council’s overall attendance rate to 86% from May 2019 through 2021, an analysis of records by Crain’s Chicago Business, The Daily Line and WBEZ previously found. But it also raised questions about transparency and the city faced a lawsuit over alleged violations of the Open Meetings Act. The City Council started meeting again in person in April 2021.

“Don’t come to me for s*** for the next three years” — November 2020

Lightfoot has been outspoken about the fact that she can cobble a majority of aldermen she needs to pass her legislation: “I don’t buy votes and I manage to 26, which is the majority. So anything over 26 to me is gravy,” she once opined.

But one of the first behind-the-scenes looks at her negotiating style with the City Council came from a Chicago Tribune story revealing Lightfoot used foul language and a vague threat to get council members to vote in favor of her budget. In 2020, she told members of the council’s Black caucus “Don’t come to me for s*** for the next three years” if they didn’t support her budget.

The tough talk may have had ripple effects in her dealings with other aldermen, but her relationship with the council’s Black caucus chair Jason Ervin only seemed to strengthen throughout the term, and Ervin remained one of her staunchest supporters.

Mayor Lori Lightfoot

Mayor Lori Lightfoot delivers her budget address during a Chicago City Council meeting at City Hall on Oct. 23, 2019.

Manuel Martinez

A council/mayoral showdown over the city’s top attorney — June 2021

Council members rebuked Lightfoot’s executive power multiple times during her term, but perhaps one of the most contentious instances was the delay of Celia Meza’s appointment to lead the law department.

Alds. Jeanette Taylor and Lopez moved to “defer and publish” the appointment, leading to a heated exchange between Lightfoot and Taylor that garnered significant attention.

Taylor took issue with Meza’s handling of the botched raid on Anjanette Young’s home. But the parliamentary move only delayed Meza’s appointment by a few days.

A medical emergency — Carrie Austin faints — December 2021

In a nerve-wracking moment in December 2021, indicted 34th Ward Ald. Carrie Austin, the second most senior member of the term, collapsed while seated at a City Council meeting. Ald. Anthony Napolitano, a former firefighter, tended to Austin before she regained consciousness. She was then carried out of chambers on a stretcher. The council reconvened after a brief huddle and prayer.

Austin later sought to be declared medically unfit for trial as she faces corruption charges. FBI surveillance later undermined those claims. Austin stepped down from the seat she held for more than 28 years in March.

Ald. Carrie Austin

Ald. Carrie Austin, 34th Ward, attends a City Council meeting at City Hall on September 18, 2019.

Manuel Martinez

Valentine’s Day conviction of Patrick Daley Thompson — February 2022

Former Ald. Patrick Daley Thompson was convicted of federal tax fraud in February of 2022, prompting Lightfoot to make her first in a series of appointments to the council.

Daley Thompson went on to serve an “absolutely horrible” four-month prison sentence.

Finally, a new ward map — May 2022

The once-in-a-decade process to remap the city’s 50 wards was racially charged, contentious, at times personal, and lasted months past the city’s Dec. 1 deadline.

By the end, the council’s Black Caucus largely maintained its power, the Latino Caucus gained some and the council made some historic changes, including creating the city’s first majority-Asian ward around Chinatown.

But it wasn’t without complaints of gerrymandering, and a social media debate over what shape the city’s most wonky ward — the 36th — resembles (Is it a pool noodle? A teeter totter? A snake?) The ward is home to the alderman who led the fight against the city’s prevailing Black Caucus and Rules Committee.

Bye, bye, bye — Michael Scott first in a string of resignations — May 2022

Former Ald. Michael Scott was the first of a string of resignations that would later extend to 16 incumbents leaving the body — clearing the way for one of the youngest and most diverse councils to take shape.

Lightfoot appointed Scott’s sister, Monique Scott, to replace him. Monique Scott was one of four appointments Lightfoot got to make in her term — with three winning election to a full term on the next City Council. Ald. Anabel Abarca lost to Julia Ramirez.

Ald. Michael Scott Jr.

Ald. Michael Scott Jr. (24th) receives a hug after City Council members praised him before his resignation during a City Council meeting at City Hall in the Loop, Wednesday morning, May 25, 2022.

Pat Nabong

Going all in on a Chicago casino — May 2022

Passing Chicago’s decades-in-the-making casino, meant to help pay for city workers’ retirements, is perhaps one of the biggest projects the City Council took on.

And — in a sign of how Lightfoot used her executive prowess to push her legislative agenda — aldermanic allies of the mayor performed legislative backflips and played a game of Twister to get the casino deal through.

Take the casino’s passage, for instance. A special casino committee had to keep pausing its meeting to garner the support the project needed, reconvening three times in two business days. Amid one of those pauses, the full council debated the project in an hourslong, last-minute meeting before it was finally approved in yet another meeting.

And all that was in one week.

Tacking on some additional political maneuvers, in all it took the council less than a month to pass the deal after it chose Bally’s as the winning casino operator.

Some opponents called the process rushed and unprecedented, while others applauded the mayor’s urgency.

No to a committee chair — October 2022

In one of the final major checks on Lightfoot’s executive power, the City Council rejected Lightfoot’s pick to lead the Committee on Education and Child Development — left empty for months after Michael Scott’s departure.

Committee chairmanships are typically rubber stamped. Instead of choosing Ald. Sophia King, the vice chair of the committee but an opponent in the mayor’s race against Lightfoot, Lightfoot tried to tap the arguably less qualified Ald. James Cappleman. The council rejected her pick 29 to 18, and the committee remains chairless.

Independence Day — March 2023

Before the mayoral race was decided, aldermen seized the chance to push through new rules and their own chairs to oversee an expanded set of committees come May.

Proponents of the plan painted it as a chance “to set our own destiny” in a long sought-after push to make the legislative branch more independent of the historic control the mayor’s office has wielded.

But critics of the plan — which was approved five days before the runoff elections — said it was rushed and smacked of self-interest as aldermen tried to jockey for coveted chairmanships before the next mayor could weigh in.

“You can’t buy me. I ain’t got a price. I ain’t no prostitute,” 17th Ward Ald. David Moore, who voted against the proposals, said at last month’s meeting.

The plan must still be approved when Johnson and the new City Council convene in May.

Mariah Woelfel and Tessa Weinberg cover Chicago city government and politics at WBEZ.

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