Chicago’s new City Council will be more diverse than ever. Here’s what that could mean.

With more than a dozen new councilmembers, the power of the council will shift.

Chicago City Council
Chicago's next City Council will be more diverse than ever. Manuel Martinez / WBEZ
Chicago City Council
Chicago's next City Council will be more diverse than ever. Manuel Martinez / WBEZ

Chicago’s new City Council will be more diverse than ever. Here’s what that could mean.

With more than a dozen new councilmembers, the power of the council will shift.

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When Leni Manaa-Hoppenworth walked into City Hall last week for an orientation for newly-elected aldermen, the long row of binders filled with information they would need to start their new roles filled her with a sense of a new chapter unfolding for the city.

“It just felt like history prepared for us this moment,” Manaa-Hoppenworth said, later adding: “We’re preparing the stage and the curtains are about to be opened, and we are poised to represent a new day in Chicago. I’m very excited for that.”

The orientation, which went over everything from setting up ward offices to ethics rules, was the first of its kind in 15 years, said 32nd Ward Ald. Scott Waguespack who helped organize it. He said it was important as the council ushers in new members after a third of its incumbent aldermen left or retired this term. This week marks the last City Council meeting for many of them.

Manaa-Hoppenworth is one of 13 new faces elected to Chicago’s City Council that is poised to become a younger, more diverse and more progressive body.

With nearly all of the 50 ward races decided, there will be a record 14 Latino and two Asian American aldermen, increased female and LGBTQ representation and Black members maintaining their numbers with 20 aldermen.

“This fight for power and representation has always been taking place, and now we see it finally coming to fruition. It’s been a long time coming,” said veteran Democratic political strategist Delmarie Cobb. “We now are getting closer to having a City Council that is representative of the city’s diversity.”

The City Council lost its first and only Asian American alderman four years ago. Now, with the election of Manaa-Hoppenworth and Ald. Nicole Lee winning a full term to represent the city’s first Asian-majority ward, the two are eager to start a formal caucus to give greater voice to Asian American issues — like language accessibility and Asian American hires in city government, Lee said.

Ald. Nicole Lee
Ald. Nicole Lee, 11th Ward, speaks during a Chicago City Council meeting at City Hall, Wednesday, March 15, 2023. Lee, who was appointed to the seat by Mayor Lori Lightfoot, won election to the seat and will be one of two Asian American representatives. Ashlee Rezin / Chicago Sun-Times

The exodus of aldermen also gave groups across the political spectrum a chance to seize power, with a political action committee aimed at electing “pragmatic candidates” pouring hundreds of thousands of dollars into runoff elections. But progressives still made gains, giving Mayor-elect Brandon Johnson a strong base to start with to further some of his top policy priorities that progressive council members have also long advocated for.

Given those additions, Johnson’s relationship with aldermen might contrast with Lightfoot’s frequent clashes with City Council. Though some veteran aldermen have already staked out their desire for the City Council to be a more independent, co-equal branch of government.

“Once you get into office, campaigning and governing are very different,” said Cobb. “And people tend to start compromising, even when they don’t believe they will.”

Political shifts

The Get Stuff Done PAC, which was formed last year by Michael Ruemmler, a former campaign adviser to Mayor Rahm Emanuel, spent over $1 million in the general election and over $400,000 in eight runoff races. The PAC helped reelect six aldermen — two who are new faces to City Council — but saw defeats in the 46th and 48th Wards where Angela Clay and Manaa-Hoppenworth won respectively.

Ald. Gilbert Villegas, 36th Ward alderman
Ald. Gilbert Villegas, 36th Ward, speaks about his time as alderman during an interview on the west side, Wednesday, March 15, 2023. Anthony Vazquez

In the 36th Ward, incumbent Ald. Gilbert Villegas ultimately secured a third term and defeated Lori Torres Whitt, a United Working Families and Chicago Teachers Union-endorsed teacher, by nearly 15 percentage points. The Get Stuff Done PAC spent over $40,000 in support of Villegas and $7,500 against Torres Whitt in the runoff election. Villegas said his win shows that “pragmatism and progressiveness can go hand in hand.”

“The residents of the ward are going to determine who’s progressive,” Villegas said. “Not organizations that want to be the progressive police.”

But progressives undoubtedly made gains. United Working Families, which supported Johnson’s mayoral bid, saw 3 out of the 4 candidates it backed win their runoff elections — increasing their ranks to 12 members on the City Council.

The Progressive Reform and Democratic Socialist caucuses are expected to grow in size.

“It’s people coming together at the grassroots level that got us to the point where we are at now with arguably the most progressive mayor that the city has ever seen, and the most progressive City Council,” said 35th Ward Ald. Carlos Ramirez-Rosa, who was the first-ever Democratic Socialists of America member elected to the council in 2015 and chair of the Democratic Socialist Caucus.

Johnson’s top priorities in his first year in office include a bevy of progressive policy goals, such as reinstating a Department of Environment, reopening shuttered mental health clinics, and passing “Treatment Not Trauma” and “Bring Chicago Home” plans — efforts that aim to send health professionals, and not police, to mental health calls and increase funding for homelessness prevention by raising a tax on the sale of high-end properties.

With increased ranks and Johnson as mayor, “progressives will have the advantage,” said Connie Mixon, an Elmhurst University political science professor and director of its urban studies program. “But there’ll be enough conservatives to be able to make some noise and push back against Brandon Johnson.”

Mayor-Elect Brandon Johnson
Mayor-elect Brandon Johnson greets supporters at the Chinatown Red Line Station, the day after he defeated Paul Vallas in a runoff mayoral election, Wednesday morning, April 5, 2023. Ashlee Rezin / Chicago Sun-Times

Working with the mayor

Johnson is likely to face opposition from City Council when it comes to his goals to increase taxes to raise new revenue and implement public safety reforms.

Issues of crime and policing were top of mind for voters during the municipal elections, and Johnson will soon have to choose a new police department superintendent who will ultimately require approval from the City Council. Some aldermen who had endorsed Johnson’s rival, former Chicago Public Schools CEO Paul Vallas, in the mayoral election had warned last month that first responders were ready to leave the city if Johnson was elected.

Peter Chico, a police officer endorsed by the FOP who is replacing outgoing Ald. Susan Sadlowski Garza to represent the 10th Ward, said with the summer months quickly approaching, rank-and-file officers want to ensure their voices are heard. Summer has historically seen spikes in crime, and officers often are required to cancel days off and work long hours.

“The last couple summers it’s been very difficult for our officers,” Chico said, “and they just want to know the mayor’s paying attention to them.”

Lee said she has questions about Johnson’s pitch to promote 200 detectives and how it may create a strain on the need for officers on the street. But Lee, who endorsed Vallas in the mayor’s race, said ultimately she aims to “find the points of intersection where we can agree.”

Johnson will also have to contend with a City Council that’s coming off of a newly independent streak.

Last month, a majority of aldermen voted to adopt new rules and select their own committee chairs in a long-sought bid for independence from the mayor’s office. The mayor has historically hand-picked their committee chairs, giving them major sway over what legislation can advance.

But the vote was just a first step — with the new rules and expanded list of committees still requiring approval from the new City Council once it officially convenes in May.

The plan — which was voted on five days before the runoff election — faced sharp criticism that aldermen were acting in self-interest to preserve their power before a new mayor assumed office. Committee membership and budgets must still be decided, and this time, the newly-elected aldermen will have a say.

“I appreciate the sentiment that was being shared, which is independence and more transparency. But I do wish they would have waited,” Chico said of the timing of the vote.

But it’s a bid for independence that some of the architects of the plan hope will become a permanent fixture under Johnson. “That way they’re not beholden to any mayor or another,” said Waguespack, a Lightfoot ally who didn’t back either mayoral candidate in the runoff election and retains his powerful Finance Committee chairmanship under the plan.

“I would hope that Mayor-elect Johnson recognizes [the desire for independence] and respects that and doesn’t have agents coming in to try to disrupt the process,” Villegas said.

A spokesman for Johnson did not respond to a request for comment on whether the mayor-elect plans to introduce his own selections for committee chairs.

Ramirez-Rosa, who endorsed Johnson in the mayor’s race, said he hopes the City Council will embark on its new era of independence with the mayor’s office involved in the discussion.

“No one wants Council Wars,” Ramirez-Rosa said in reference to the legislative impasse City Council experienced in opposition to Chicago’s first Black mayor, Harold Washington. “No one wants gridlock. We’ve gone through four very difficult years in City Hall. We need four really good years coming up in City Hall, where we’re moving on an agenda that invests in neighborhoods, that reduces and prevents violence in our communities, and improves the city for everyone.”

Tessa Weinberg covers Chicago government and politics for WBEZ. Follow her @Tessa_Weinberg.