THE LOOP — Watching the City Council vote to approve the biggest property tax increase in Chicago history was like watching a Scorsese flick.
There were intriguing characters embroiled in high-stakes drama. A collection of bullies, bootlickers and a token hipster argued with do-gooders, progressives and mutes about fiscal death, taxes and “blood on the table, so to speak," tied together at the end with a flubbed joke about murder just before the boss got away with it, again.
As aldermen offered rambling explanations for why they sided with Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s budget and giant property tax hike, I wanted to press mute and cue a Ray Liotta voiceover — like those telling soliloquies his Henry Hill character recited in “Goodfellas” — to explain the pros and cons of doing business with an all-powerful boss.
"Now, the alderman has Rahm as a partner. Any problems, he goes to Rahm. Trouble with the press? He can go to Rahm. Trouble with the law, campaign cash, some other bully, he can call Rahm,” Liotta would say as we watch a bootlicking alderman tick off the mayor’s talking points from the Council floor.
“But now the guy’s got to come up with Rahm’s 'yes' vote every month, no matter what. Getting heat from homeowners in your ward? Forget you, vote yes. Oh, neighbors hate the new garbage fee. Forget you, vote yes. Your political career got struck by lightning. Forget you, vote yes.”
Add that bit of context to the political rhetoric — a mix of absurdity, hypocrisy and nonanswer answers spewed by aldermen on the Council floor and the mayor at his victory news conference — and the whole production almost makes sense.
Consider these choice moments from Wednesday’s historic budget vote:
• Ald. Patrick O’Connor (40th), Emanuel’s City Council floor leader, less than eloquently delivered a monologue Wednesday aiming to urge his colleagues to vote for a plan that forces property owners to pay through the nose to dig the city out of the financial hole.
For the record, O’Connor also was the Council floor leader of former Mayor Richard Daley, who pushed aldermen to vote in favor of budgets that shortchanged pension payments, sold off city assets, raided the rainy day fund and kicked the city’s financial troubles down the road.
Now, Chicago’s future, O’Connor said, boils down to either “death or taxes.”
He reminded fellow ward bosses that they swore an oath to “make terrible, miserable” decisions, and it’s their duty do it again.
“If you look at the choices we made over time I don’t think anyone has sat in this chamber and said, ‘I’m going to make this terrible, miserable choice because it’s easy,’ ” O’Connor said. “They make terrible, miserable choices because, as [Ald.] Danny Solis says, 'It is a job that we have sought out, and it is a job that we should perform based upon the oath that we have taken every time we’re sworn in.' ”
Then, the 40th Ward boss praised Emanuel for doing something the old boss, Daley, neither bothered to nor needed to do — convincing aldermen that he cares what they say.
“I commend you and your staff for all the work you have done,” O’Connor said with the conviction of a serial teacher’s pet.
“I have never seen a more active administration trying to get people involved, get their buy-in and have them believe they are truly being listened to.”
• Ald. Danny Solis (25th), who served as Daley’s floor leader from 2001 to 2009, made this sophisticated political argument: Aldermen should back Emanuel’s tax hike and spending plan because they didn’t come up with anything better.
Solis then reminded his colleagues that their job as aldermen is to make sure their wards gets better. They're supposed to make sure their constituents get their money's worth out of this budget. And to make his point, Solis offered less savvy aldermen a lesson in how to get that done in a way that a Goodfella might appreciate.
The veteran ward boss shared a story about a call he received Tuesday night from a principal who wants his support to find funding to expand the gym at her school.
“Most of the money will come [from] the private sector, but maybe I’ll talk to [Emanuel] about it in the future,” Solis said.
Translation: The mayor, he owes me one.
Emanuel used Solis' teaching moment to soften the mood with a rather telling one-liner: “There’s a shock,” the mayor said.
It scored laughs, even from me, and subtly hinted at the truth: Vote yes and you can come to the mayor with your troubles.
• Ald. George Cardenas (12th), however, said he planned to buck the City Council tradition of swapping budget "yes" votes to get the mayor’s green light on pet projects. He called for aldermen to be “transformational” rather “transactional” leaders and join him in risking their political futures to stand with the mayor and save our city from disaster because it’s the right thing to do.
Almost nobody laughed.
• Ald. Jason Ervin (28th) dared to talk about the elephant in the room — Chicago’s great economic divide and the effect the mayor's major tax increase and new fees will have on folks who are just barely getting by. He loudly warned of “Ferguson Effect."
“The Ferguson Effect wasn’t strictly about police, it was about the revenue policies that drove people to a point that they felt they had no options,” he said.
Ervin explained why he would not go along with Emanuel’s budget this way: “I will not send my folks down a cliff. … I want better. The way we’ve structured this revenue package … it’s gonna hurt my residents too hard. It would be difficult to sleep at night knowing some of my most vulnerable people would have to make some decisions that no one should have to make because many of them can’t afford” this budget.
He received a smattering of applause.
• The mayor called on Ald. Emma Mitts (37th). She read a few of the mayor’s talking points, mentioned a job fair she recently attended and pledged her "yes" vote to Emanuel.
• Emanuel tax-hike supporter Ald. Proco Joe Moreno (1st), aka “The Hipster Alderman,” got riled up over a colleague’s take on the great budget debate.
Before the budget passed in a 36-14 vote, Ald. Carlos Ramirez-Rosa (35th) said he was “sad” for people who would be hurt by the mayor’s budget plan — old folks, renters and the working poor. He announced his decision to vote "no" because the administration didn’t do enough to limit corporate tax breaks, cut spending and reform tax increment finance district slush funds.
Later, when Rosa voted "yes" on a measure to give a new car dealership opening in his ward a $5 million tax break, Moreno couldn’t contain his rage. He blasted the 35th Ward alderman for being a hypocrite. I caught a look of shock on Ald. Margaret Laurino's face. After the tirade, Moreno told me he did what he thought had to be done to defend “a good budget.”
“It’s the facts. You stand up and try to be Mr. Champion leftist and Mr. Champion progressive, saying raise taxes on corporations and the same day you give a corporation a $5.5 million tax break. It’s about hypocrisy,” Moreno said.
“This is the City Council in the City of Chicago. You stand up like he did. … the hypocrisy was blatant. Rhetoric like that, I can’t give it a pass.”
Rosa, who said he voted for the tax break at the mayor’s urging because it will bring 80 middle-class jobs to his ward, dismissed the Hipster Alderman’s attack.
“Ald. Moreno is just being a bully for the mayor,” Rosa said. “That’s not what we’re here to talk about today.”
• Ald. David Moore (17th), whom "Chiraq" director Spike Lee recently called a mayoral "bootlicker," proclaimed he would not support the mayor's budget plan. [So, take that, Spike.] Moore, a freshman alderman representing Englewood, said the budget left too much "money on the table," didn't do enough for "the least of them" who might suffer the most, and is backed by people who don't have "blood on the table, so to speak."
Then, in an ironic twist that might have been a rookie mistake, Moore voted in favor of the mayor’s spending plan, and against the property tax hike and fee increase to pay for it.
• Finance Committee Chairman Ald. Edward Burke (14th), the ultimate South Side Irish storyteller, put the budget debate in perspective with a joke before the final votes were tallied.
Burke told a classic crackup about that one time, Moses, after speaking to God on Mount Sinai, returned with two tablets to find his followers clamoring to find out what happened. Burke told it better, but here's the gist:
Moses tells his flock: I’ve got good news and bad news. Good news is that I got the Good Lord down to just Ten Commandments. Then, Burke delivers the punch line, "The bad news is ‘six’ and ‘nine’ are still in.”
He flubbed it — the joke, according to Google, is supposed to end with, "and adultery is still in."
The sixth commandment is "Thou shalt not kill," which happens to be the commandment more people should follow in Chicago these days.
And the ninth commandment — "Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor," which is to say, tell the truth — happens to be a trouble spot for Chicago politicians that we shouldn't wish away.
Still, Burke scored a good laugh anyway and, for a moment, it lightened the lingering Doomsday mood hanging over the Council chambers.
• Mayor Emanuel didn't disappoint either. He wrapped up the budget debate by telling his yes-vote aldermen that their support of the budget put the city in a stronger financial position for the future.
He commended them for their courage, even quoting the late President John F. Kennedy, who once said, “To govern is to choose."
The mayor was darn proud of those yes-aldermen who had the courage to make the right choice for Chicago — the city where everybody pays, no matter what, Ray Liotta might say in voiceover narration of the mayor's speech.
Emanuel also answered nearly every question reporters lobbed at him by responding from a script of talking points and successfully skirting all topics he would rather avoid — the Chicago Public Schools budget mess, promising to hold the line on property taxes for the next four years and explaining why it is he thinks Gov. Bruce Rauner will sign a homeowner exemption bill for Chicago taxpayers when the governor has shown very little willingness to compromise when it comes to taxes, public union pensions and, well, Democrats.
But, on such a historic budget day, Emanuel happily broke more news that's sure to enrage certain Chicagoans.
It happened when a reporter asked the mayor if his recent political fundraiser means that he plans to run for a third term, a move many people didn’t think Emanuel would make, in 2019.
Fresh off his big property tax win, a smiling Emanuel said, “Yeah,” and walked away from the podium with the confident strut of his spirit animal.
I can't be sure, but I think the mayor was telling the truth.
Like I said, it would have been nice if Ray Liotta was narrating, Goodfellas-style, what makes the mayor tick.
Something like, "For a mayor like Rahm to live any other way would be nuts. Uh, to him, those goody-good people who worked under regular CEOs for paychecks without a campaign war chest and a TIF slush fund and drove a Lexus to the suburbs for work every day, and worried about their golf game, were dead. I mean they were suckers. They had no guts. If Rahm ever wanted something he just took it. If anyone complained twice, they got cursed out so bad, believe me, they never complained again."
See, all you need is a little Ray Liotta narration, and what happened at City Hall Wednesday almost makes sense.
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