Alderman Leslie Hairston (5th) is retiring after 24 years in office. Carrie Austin (34th) will soon be gone. Michael Scott (24th) gave up his seat for a big job at Cinespace Film Studios. Aldermen Roderick Sawyer (6th) and Sophia King (4th) are giving up their seats to run for Mayor. Aldermen Howard Brookins (21st) and Chris Taliaferro (29th) want to leave the City Council but lost their judicial races in the June 28 Primary. Black aldermen are voting for ordinances that hurt their own wards.
The 18-member Chicago Black Caucus, once a force during the days of Mayor Harold Washington, has an uncertain future after retirements, departures and political divisions threaten to reshape a group that has played a critical role on the City Council.
Five aldermen in the Chicago Black Caucus are leaving the City Council which will have a new look next April after the city’s aldermanic elections. Black political newcomers are preparing campaigns, hoping to join a younger generation of Black aldermen by replacing incumbents, some of whom have been in office for decades.
But questions remain as to whether a new, younger, progressive Chicago Black Caucus can withstand the pressures of City Hall and serve Black Chicago under Mayor Lori Lightfoot, a polarizing figure who’s running for reelection after her challenging freshman term in office.
“The faces that’s going to appear on this new council, I can’t say,” said Preston Brown, who ran several times against Alderman Austin in the 34th Ward.
“I think there’s going to be more progressives on the council and there’s going to be more turmoil. Is the Black Caucus strong now? No. They go along and get along with Lori.”
When she swept all 50 Chicago wards in 2019, Lightfoot became the city’s first Black female mayor who many believed was a progressive because of her race, gender and sexual orientation as lesbian.
But during her term, Lightfoot surprised many Chicagoans and disappointed many of the city’s Blacks as she reneged on promises she made during her campaign, including reopening mental health clinics and creating a fully elected school board.
She fought against renaming Lake Shore Drive after Jean Baptiste Du Pointe DuSable and spearheaded a curfew ordinance that drew concerns of racial profiling against Black teenagers visiting Millenium Park in the evenings.
Lightfoot this summer pushed to keep her speed camera ordinance, which hurts more Blacks and minorities than white residents in Chicago.
Lightfoot was able to get these ordinances passed by forging key alliances with members of the Chicago Black Caucus. They include Aldermen Michelle Harris (8th), Jason Ervin, (28th), Chris Taliaferro (29th), Carrie Austin (34th) and Emma Mitts (37th), all of whom voted in favor of ordinances Lightfoot pushed, while other Black aldermen, especially Anthony Beale (9th), pushed back.
Last year, Beale joined the Latino Caucus, breaking with the Chicago Black Caucus, and accusing the group of deserting him during the ward remap process.
Meanwhile, Lightfoot continues to push economic initiatives to Blacks who believe she is no different from her predecessors.
As she campaigns to keep her job, Lightfoot’s allies have helped weaken the Black Caucus’ power and influence on key votes that go before the City Council.
It has also created disillusionment among Black voters seeking change from a political establishment that historically has protected the status quo as police brutality, disinvestment and economic inequity continue to afflict Chicago’s Black neighborhoods.
All this has left the Chicago Black Caucus crumbling at a pace never seen before at City Hall. Without it, Black Chicago is in danger of moving backwards as the economic gap widens between the North, South and West Sides.
The question remains, is the future of Chicago’s Black Caucus more than ever in jeopardy and can a new generation of aldermen restore it with little political influence and clout?
“We don’t have a Black Caucus to fight for the people they represent,” said political strategist Delmarie Cobb.
“They’re interested in making deals. A prime example is when Aldermen Moore and Hairston championed to hold the vote until we have Black-owned cannabis dispensaries in Chicago. But the Black Caucus eventually caved in. And if you remember, David Moore said if the Black Caucus can’t stick together for this, then what good is the Black Caucus.
“We need to get more progressive Black Caucus members on the City Council. Everybody wants to be progressive but progressive is really about your values. Are your values based on every policy based on the progress of your constituency?
“What we have are people who support regressive policies that hurt Black people. We have hollowed out in the Black community and it’s not going to change until we get people in there who are going to stand up and fight and not take a call from the middle of the night and change their vote the next morning.
Cobb continued, look at “The fact that you had nine Black aldermen who signed a letter to support Rahm Emanuel to be the ambassador of Japan. As the Chicago Black Caucus, how can you ignore the disdain this man had for the Black community? We’re still feeling the damaging effects of this mayor.
“But not having the foresight of what’s at stake or not having the fight to protect our community is dangerous. We need a Black Caucus that’s going to stand out.”
Restoring the Chicago Black Caucus and ensuring its future may start with the mayor, who in June appointed Monique Scott to fill her brother’s seat in the 24th Ward. The move drew heavy criticism from listeners on WVON, where callers blasted Lightfoot and accused her of the nepotism for which City Hall has been notoriously known for decades.
Cobb said Hairston decided to retire rather than quit, to prevent Lightfoot from appointing an ally to represent the 5th Ward.
“That may seem like no big deal, but finishing out your term is a very big deal,” Cobb said. “That’s what we have to do to keep control of the Black Caucus.”
Cobb explained the Chicago Black Caucus has been declining for years in leadership. The irony of the situation is that the Chicago Black Caucus is in even worse shape under a Black mayor, who won City Hall despite being an unknown figure to residents across the city.
“The Black Caucus was already divided when she got there,” Cobb said.
“She just took advantage of it. She knew who the players were and who she could get to and who she could cut deals with. She didn’t change anything. She did the same thing that Rahm did.
“We should have done our homework,” Cobb said.
“You get appointed by Rahm and Daley six times because you’re a good soldier. You were with the Procurement Office, the Office of Emergency Management, the Task Force and the Police Board. All these positions were appointed positions. People didn’t really know you. Where were you when Chicago had all these fights with Rahm? Where was she? Just because you’re Black, woman, gay that doesn’t mean she’s a progressive person.”
In recent months, Lightfoot has stepped up her INVEST South/West campaign to pump $1.4 billion in grants and aid to 12 community areas. It’s an effort that some say is Lightfoot’s way of trying to win votes in the Black community as she seeks a second term.
Lightfoot said she gave more money to Black Chicago than any mayor, including Harold Washington. Cobb said those efforts are not extraordinary.
“That’s what you’re supposed to do as mayor of any city,” she said. “We’re used to not having anything, so anything politicians give us seems like something, but it’s not.”