Bringing to a close a contentious four years presiding over Chicago’s City Council, Mayor Lori Lighftoot ended her final meeting without a farewell address of her own.
Several incoming aldermen, Lightfoot’s wife and even a young Lightfoot doppelganger were in attendance for the nearly five-hour meeting that featured a long list of others’ teary speeches, haikus and old war stories as a dozen council members bid farewell.
Ald. Michelle Harris presented Lightfoot and retiring aldermen with their City Council name plates affixed to framed Chicago flags so “that you may always think of these hallowed halls and that you may always think of this chamber.”
Lightfoot said she hadn’t expected to receive recognition, and instead believed “this is a day for the aldermen who are departing who have served this city so well and [selflessly].”
Lightfoot entered City Hall with a promise to curb public corruption that has long taken root at City Hall, with one of her first acts in office signing an executive order to curb the unwritten practice of aldermanic prerogative.
She oversaw the City Council as it governed virtually through an unprecedented pandemic, protests over police brutality and a rise in violence the city is still grappling with. Lightfoot also shepherded long-sought goals of her predecessors through the City Council, such as a city casino and the extension of the Red Line train. But her legislative wins at times came at the expense of her relationships with aldermen, who began to shed the City Council’s “rubber stamp” reputation of going along with the mayor’s agenda.
Ald. Andre Vasquez said Lightfoot “had the hardest hand dealt to you of any mayor in the history of the city of Chicago,” and despite disagreements, “never did we have doubts that you didn’t fully believe and were committed to the decisions that you were making.”
Aldermen praised Lighfoot’s push for greater investments in the South and West sides, and it’s a legacy Ald. David Moore said amounts to Lightfoot doing “more than any other mayor in this city,” including Chicago’s first Black mayor, Harold Washington.
“He laid the foundation,” Moore said of Washington. “But you implemented things … Anybody after you have to do it now — they have to focus on the South and West sides of Chicago.”
Even some of Lightfoot’s staunchest critics who frequently butted heads with the mayor praised Lightfoot for her leadership over the last four years.
“Your presence made me become a better alderman,” said 15th Ward Ald. Raymond Lopez. “I think my presence helped you become a better mayor.”
While Lightfoot’s loss to Cook County Commissioner Brandon Johnson limited her to just one term, a near-record 16 incumbent aldermen are leaving.
That includes the City Council’s longest-serving alderman, Ed Burke, who is retiring after a record 54 years.
“You’ve been here longer than I’ve been alive,” Ald. James Gardiner said of Burke, later adding: “That’s something to be proud of.”
Burke once famously said there are three ways to exit office — “The ballot box. The jury box. Or the pine box.” — but there was little mention Wednesday of the circumstances surrounding Burke’s exit.
The dean of the City Council opted not to run for reelection ahead of a federal corruption trial later this year. He pleaded not guilty to charges of racketeering, bribery and attempted extortion for allegedly using City Hall to gain business for his private law practice.
Instead, colleagues focused on Burke’s support and influence. Ald. Nick Sposato thanked Burke for providing him with an extra staff member to aid Sposato after he needed to use a wheelchair from multiple sclerosis that had progressed.
“I know you got some shade,” Ald. Walter Burnett, who will be the most-tenured member of the new City Council, said to Burke, “but people should recognize all of the sun that you have, and all of the sun that you put out.”
Burke, who was dressed in one of his trademark pinstripe suits, said when he didn’t file petitions to run for reelection his wife, retired Illinois Supreme Court Justice Anne Burke, said: “Darling, I married you for better or for worse. Not for lunch. Find something to do.”
But as he closed his likely final speech in the City Council chamber, Burke recounted a saying he’s often quoted that in politics, there are no permanent enemies, no permanent friends, only permanent interests.
“If I have failed during these past 54 years in achieving that goal,” Burke said, “please permit me to apologize.”
In a nod to the changing of the guard between old and new, Ald. Leslie Hairston, one of the most senior members of the council who is retiring, said she has been preparing her successor, Desmon Yancy, for the city’s budget hearings that take place in the fall.
Hairston, who is known for asking some of the harshest questions of department officials during the budget process, said she passed on boxes of budget books to Yancy stretching back to the start of her tenure 24 years ago.
“So my presence will be felt, and my questions will live on,” Hairston said.
Wednesday also marked the retirement of historic firsts, including Ald. Tom Tunney, who was the first openly gay alderman to serve on the City Council when he was elected in 2003.
“Your two decades of service opened the door for me and so many others,” Ald. Carlos Ramirez-Rosa, a member of the LGBTQ Caucus, said to Tunney.
While the meeting was devoted to goodbyes, there was still city business to take care of. Aldermen approved an agreement to sell water from Lake Michigan to Joliet that’s expected to bring in $30 million in revenue annually for the city, and improvements for parks on the South Side. Aldermen also moved to codify into law a task force Lightfoot created that aims to prevent gender-based violence and human trafficking.
As the outgoing City Council worked through its final orders of business, Mayor-elect Johnson made his pitch to state lawmakers in Springfield. Johnson and a younger, more diverse and more progressive City Council are poised to be sworn in next month.
Addressing speculation of what she will do once she leaves office, Lightfoot said with a laugh during a resolution honoring a Simeon Career Academy basketball coach: “I’m going to go be the play-by-play commentator at Simeon. I wish.”
West Side resident Catherine Campbell called her son out of school for the day so he could attend Lightfoot’s last meeting. Idris Lockett, 8, who made headlines in 2019 when he dressed up as the mayor for Halloween, made an encore performance Wednesday, with a Lightfoot-style suit and dyed gray hair.
Lockett was shy about his costume, sitting quietly through the arduous council meeting, and telling WBEZ he was happy to be here. Idris and his mom brought Lightfoot a bouquet of roses as well.
“It’s a reminder that we’re still rooting for her even though she didn’t get a second term as the mayor of Chicago,” Campbell said, “but she did a phenomenal job, and we just wanted to pay homage.
Since Lightfoot’s defeat she has not held her standard press conferences after each City Council meeting, and Wednesday was no different. After Lightfoot quickly left the City Council chambers once the meeting adjourned, Idris was placed in her seat at the dais.
Tessa Weinberg and Mariah Woelfel cover Chicago city government and politics at WBEZ.