A Crusader Investigation

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Six Black aldermen who originally supported an ordinance that would have delayed marijuana sales to July 2020, switched their votes, giving Mayor Lori Lightfoot a big victory while weakening the power of the Chicago Black Caucus as sales begin with no Black-owned dispensaries

By Erick Johnson

The City Council meeting on December 18 was a hot mess. Aldermen Jason Ervin (28), Anthony Beale (9) and David Moore (17) spoke with much passion while Mayor Lori Lightfoot struggled to maintain order.

The aldermen were lighting up the debate about a proposed ordinance delaying marijuana sales. The city’s 20-member Black Caucus needed help from six members to send a strong statement to Chicago and Springfield about the lack of Black-owned marijuana dispensaries in the city.

In the end, one Black alderman switched his vote and joined four aldermen of color to give Lightfoot a victory. The Black Caucus was dealt a humiliating defeat as their plans to help Blacks reap from a billion-dollar industry went up in smoke.

But the Crusader has learned that five Black aldermen who originally supported the proposal ended up voting against it at the City Council meeting December 18, helping Lightfoot block the Chicago Black Caucus while siding with a mayor whose loyalty to the Black community has come into question.

Questions remain as to how Lightfoot convinced the five Black aldermen and many Latino aldermen to go against their own caucuses to support an ordinance that started marijuana sales with no minority-owned dispensaries.

“This conversation started with a simple question,” Ald. Ervin said at the City Council meeting on December 18. “Why are communities of color being left out of the recreational cannabis business?”

ALDERMAN DAVID MOORE (17th) speaks during City Council meeting on Wednesday, December 18, where he was among several Black aldermen whose efforts to delay cannibis sales to July, was blocked by Mayor Lori Lightfoot. (Screenshot)

Two weeks after a contentious City Hall that signaled a shift in political loyalties, today recreational marijuana is being sold at dispensaries throughout Chicago. None of them are Black-owned, and there won’t be any, anytime soon.

It’s a problem many saw coming when Governor J.B. Pritzker made recreational marijuana law. On January 1, the bonanza began as recreational marijuana began flying off the shelves of 10 dispensaries in Chicago as Illinois became the 11th state where legalized recreational pot became the law of the land.

For a product that has led to the arrests of thousands of Black and brown residents, Black aldermen were concerned that their people would be shut out of the lucrative marijuana industry that Black consumers have helped build for decades.

With no Black marijuana dispensary owners in Chicago, Black aldermen concocted a plan to delay the sales until July 2020. With 19 Black aldermen and 15 Hispanic aldermen, the hopes were high that the plan would work. But in the final hours leading up to the vote, Lightfoot won some over in a 29-19 romp.

Among the Black aldermen, 13 voted for the delay, six voted against it. Ald. Maria Hadden (49) was reportedly out of town and did not vote.

According to City Council records, the six Black aldermen and Hadden originally sponsored the proposal along with the entire Chicago Black Caucus.

On October 16, they banded together along with Alderman Matthew Martin and sponsored the proposed ordinance SO2019-8063, which call- ed for the delay of marijuana sales until July 1, 2020.

Ald. Martin also ended up voting against the proposal that he sponsored.

Had the aldermen stuck with their proposal, the Black Caucus would have had the 26 votes to win and defeat Lightfoot and supporters of her ordinance to start sales January 1.

The support was worse among Latino aldermen, where nine opposed it, and only four supported the proposed ordinance.

ABOVE AND BELOW City Council records show that the seven Black aldermen orginally supported the Black Caucus’s proposed ordinance to delay marijuana sales before six of them voted against it on December 18. Alderman Maria Hadden (49th) was absent.

 

The six Black aldermen who voted against it were: Pat Dowell (3), Michelle Harris (8), Walter Burnett Jr. (27), Chris Taliaferro (29), Emma Mitts (37), and Matthew Martin (47). In June, Lightfoot appointed five of them to head City Council committees.

Ald. Scott Waguespack (32), who Lightfoot appointed to head the Committee on Finance—the most powerful group—was absent from the meeting and did not vote.

Dowell heads the Committee on Budget and Government Operations. Harris heads the Committee on Committees and Rules. Burnett heads the Committee on Pedestrian and Traffic Safety. Taliaferro heads the Committee on Public Safety, and Mitts heads the Committee on License and Consumer Protection.

Lightfoot recently pledged her support for the construction of the controversial $95 million police academy in Mitts’ ward, saying it should be even bigger than her predecessor, Rahm Emanuel, originally proposed.

None of the Black aldermen who voted against the proposed ordinance made comments at the City Council meeting. Black aldermen who supported the proposal remained outspoken at the meeting.

“We complain day in and day out in the African-American community,” said Ald. Beale. “We’ve got the worst schools. We’ve got the most crime. We get the less resources out of everybody in this city, and we have the opportunity today to stand together to make a difference on getting resources to come to our community.”

“This is a billion-dollar industry that’s about to take off without Black and brown people, and as I said before, I have never seen something start off on the wrong foot and end up on the right [foot],” Alderman Sophia King (4) said at the City Council meeting.

One day before the final vote, Ald. Burnett—as a member of the City Council’s Committee on Contract Oversight and Equity—voted, along with six Black aldermen, in favor of the ordinance to delay marijuana sales. Burnett was the only Black alderman on the committee to switch his vote one day after the committee voted 10-9 to move the proposal to the City Council for the final vote.

Sources tell the Crusader that Lightfoot’s aides and allies were scrambling to persuade aldermen to switch their votes to defeat the proposed ordinance, which was proposed by Ald. Carrie Austin (34) on September 18.

On the final crucial vote, the proposal’s co-sponsor, Ald. Patrick Thompson (11), voted against it.


Before the final vote, sources told the Crusader that the Black Caucus met several times where all the members pledged to vote for the ordinance to delay marijuana sales.

Sources say one of those meetings included Toi Hutchinson, who Pritzker appointed as the state’s “pot czar” in September. The Crusader confirmed that Hutchinson attended one of those meetings with Charity Greene, her associate communications director.

Dowell twice voted against the proposed ordinance as a member of the Committee on Contract and Oversight Equity.

The Crusader asked to speak to Dowell and the four aldermen who voted against the proposal. Instead, Dowell sent a long statement saying she was “appalled that the current cannabis law does not provide equity in the cannabis industry for minority communities.”

Dowell also said that the proposed ordinance to delay marijuana “does not move the needle on equity. That is why I voted ‘no.’ The state-licensed cannabis businesses that are currently operating citywide have already jumped ahead of the rest of the pack. The train has left the station. Cannabis as a business is up and running in Chicago. The lesson here is that the City Council has to work hand-in-hand with our colleagues in Springfield before critical legislation is passed at the state level. Together with the state, we can craft laws that better promote the ideals that we as a city all share.”

As of press time on December 31, Aldermen Harris, Burnett, Taliaferro and Martin did not respond to the Crusader’s request to comment for this story.

In her response Mitts said, “As Chairman of the City Council Licensing Committee, I’m well aware that usually in legislative matters, consideration, cooperation and compromises are often necessary to achieve future positive long term benefits for the advantage of the many in our community … and sometimes that means taking difficult stands.”

“There’s no reason why Black aldermen should have voted for this ordinance,” said Ald. Jeanette Taylor (20). “I’m mad at people who don’t stand up for their people.”

Current white owners of marijuana dispensaries in Chicago and Illinois will have first, exclusive rights to open a second location before other potential owners are given a chance to bid.

Pritzker’s office says it has a plan to gradually boost the number of Black and minority-owned dispensaries. That plan is just another promise that’s hard to believe for many Black aldermen.

“I don’t live by the hope factor,” said Ald. Moore during the City Council meeting. “I’m not going to play with the lives of our community. No equity, no ownership. We’re not opting out. We are just delaying.”

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