A year ago a campaign known as Bring Chicago Home that would create a dedicated revenue source for the city to fund homelessness prevention couldn’t even get heard in City Council.
Now under a new mayoral administration that backs the proposal, progressive alderpersons have garnered enough support to set the tax increase up for likely passage Tuesday. The measure would ask voters whether they want to increase a tax on the sale of property above $1 million – while implementing a tax cut on property valued under that amount.
But the race for a spot on the March 19 primary ballot hasn’t been without procedural roadblocks from opponents who have tried to stymie voters from being allowed to weigh in on the issue.
Last week, the political chicanery was on full display when a specially-called City Council meeting descended into chaos over a different proposed referendum on the city’s sanctuary status that some alderpersons are trying to get on the ballot.
That’s because there are only three coveted spots for citywide referendum votes on an election’s ballot. In the event more than three citywide referendum questions are submitted to appear on the ballot, state law specifies only the first three valid questions may be certified, according to the Chicago Board of Elections.
The special meeting faced hurdles from the start because they didn’t have enough members present to gavel the meeting to order — even as some alderpersons absent from the special city council meeting were inside the building. Ald. Carlos Ramirez-Rosa, 35th Ward, was accused of “bullying” and physically trying to block Ald. Emma Mitts, 37th Ward, from entering the chambers. After the meeting did eventually get underway, it ended with the lights being shut off as Ald. Raymond Lopez, 15th Ward, tried to recess the hastily adjourned meeting.
Ramirez-Rosa announced Monday in a statement that he would be stepping down as Mayor Brandon Johnson’s floor leader and from chairing the powerful Committee on Zoning, Landmarks and Building Standards, after calls for him to step down from his leadership posts ramped up over the weekend.
“Tensions were high at a chaotic meeting, and I let that get the best of me, leading me to act in a way unbecoming of a leader,” Ramirez-Rosa said.
Ald. Anthony Beale’s, 9th Ward, controversial proposal would let voters weigh in on whether Chicago should retain its sanctuary city designation it’s held since 1985.
“We have other Democratic cities… sending their people to Chicago. They’re sending their migrants to Chicago. Why? Because they’re saying we can’t take any more,” said Beale, who accused absent alderpersons of playing hide-and-go-seek. “Chicago has yet to say, ‘We can’t take anymore.’ We have to draw the line somewhere… All I’m asking is to just put this question on the ballot – nonbinding – in order to give the people of this city a voice they have not had.”
No vote was ultimately taken on Beale’s proposal Thursday, and mayoral allies had deployed procedural maneuvers earlier in the week to ensure there would be room for Bring Chicago Home on the ballot – even if the sanctuary city referendum had managed to pass.
“It’s sometimes a bit of a chess game,” Ald. Maria Hadden, 49th Ward, and a lead co-sponsor of the Bring Chicago Home proposal said Wednesday of the maneuvers.
Dick Simpson, a professor emeritus of political science at the University of Illinois at Chicago and former alderman who represented the 44th Ward in the 1970s, said there needs to be some limit to the number of referendum questions on the ballot so voters aren’t mired in dozens of proposals. But the ballot often gets strategically packed as a result – often with nonbinding resolutions that simply take a pulse of voters’ sentiments on an issue.
“However, the problem has been [that] it’s usually been manipulated – particularly by the City Council, sometimes by other bodies – because they don’t like something. They’ll put three resolutions of their own on the ballot, and that makes it then limited,” Simpson said.
It’s a tactic supporters of Bring Chicago Home have faced from opponents before. Now, they don’t want to see it boxed out again. Hadden has also sponsored two other nonbinding referendum questions that could crowd out Beale’s proposal: one calling for the establishment of a flood mitigation plan and another on the expansion of the city’s mental health clinics.
The former is set to be called for a vote Tuesday during a City Council meeting along with Bring Chicago Home, while the resolution on the city’s mental health clinics may be substituted for one “that addresses Chicago’s migrant situation,” according to the agenda for Tuesday’s committee hearing taking place ahead of the full City Council meeting.
The prospect of having voters weigh in on the city’s flood response instead of its sanctuary city status incensed some City Council members, who want to see the latter put up for a public vote as tensions have boiled over regarding the city’s support of more than 20,000 migrants who have arrived since last year.
“Frankly, using a ballot question asking whether or not Chicago shall create a flooding mitigation plan, who’s going to vote against that? I mean, why aren’t we doing that already?” Ald. Brendan Reilly, 42nd Ward, said last week.
“It just seems a shame that we’re employing tactics that date back to the old machine days of Daley to push off questions that we believe – I believe – the people of Chicago should be asked and allowed to answer. That’s who we all work for here. And it’s been a long time since the people of Chicago have been asked their opinion on this issue,” Reilly said in reference to Beale’s sanctuary city resolution.
But Hadden says the stakes are higher for the Bring Chicago Home proposal, which has had to follow a rigorous state-mandated process that the other nonbinding resolutions are not required to go through. Illinois statute specifies that a majority of voters must authorize City Council to increase the real estate transfer tax – and even lays out how the ballot question must be worded.
“We just want to make sure that we get the Bring Chicago Home question on the ballot after all the work that we have done,” Hadden said. “So, looking forward to a real victory, really getting that through City Council and being able to take it to the voters.”
Tessa Weinberg covers Chicago government and politics for WBEZ.