A few days after Mayor-elect Lori Lightfoot raised the white flag on Mayor Rahm’s $2.4 billion TIF deals, I happened to see Knock Down the House, an uplifting documentary about Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s upset triumph in last year’s Democratic House primary in New York City.
Since winning that election, Ocasio-Cortez has moved on to Congress, where she’s been a fearless champion for progressive issues.
In contrast, Lightfoot capitulated even though she had campaigned against both TIF deals and, having won 75 percent of the vote, had what you might call a rock-solid mandate to take a stand against such taxpayer-funded scams.
I guess this is why Chicago remains the Second City, at least when it comes to progressive politics.
Lightfoot argued that she didn’t have the City Council votes to stop the deals and so, having wrung concessions on minority hiring, signed on to them with a word of warning.
“I was very clear with the developers: Enjoy this moment in the sun, because you’re never going to get a deal like this again out of the city of Chicago as long as I’m mayor,” Lightfoot said in a press statement.
The standard analysis from many aldermen is that Lightfoot had no choice because Mayor Rahm had enough council votes to pass both deals no matter how much she resisted. So better to avoid a fight rather than to go down fighting for what you believe. Presuming you believed it in the first place.
That logic is so Chicago, my friends. We like to think of ourselves as the Monsters of the Midway—think Dick Butkus tackling running backs in the open field.
But when it comes to standing up for our convictions, we’re more like Marc Trestman’s 2014 Bears—down 42 points at halftime to the Packers, and rolling over without a fight.
If AOC operated like this, she’d have told Trump: I’m voting to fund this wall, but not the next one!
Okay, maybe I’m being too hard on Mayorelect Lightfoot. After all, she didn’t negotiate these deals. That honor goes to Mayor Rahm—just one final middle finger to the taxpayers as he heads out the door.
To remind you, Tax Increment Financing is a surcharge applied to your property tax bill, ostensibly to generate money to eradicate blight in low-income neighborhoods. Instead, it’s largely used to underwrite upscale development in already-gentrifying communities that would probably get developed without a handout.
In other words, it’s Christmas-come-early for the well-connected. In this case, Sterling Bay will get $1.3 billion to underwrite its Lincoln Yards project on the north side, and Related Midwest will get $1.1 billion for the 78 in the South Loop.
What went down at the last City Council meeting was classic Chicago poli-tricks. It’s tough to decide which batch of aldermen was more pathetic. Was it south and west side aldermen who supported the deals, even though their communities continue to lose in the TIF game?
Or was it the north side “reformers”—like Deb Mell, James Cappleman, and Tom Tunney? While running for office, they promised to vote against Lincoln Yards, only to turn right around and vote yes, once their campaigns were over.
At this point, I should give a shout-out to the aldermen who voted no on both deals: John Arena, George Cardenas, Pat Dowell, Leslie Hairston, Sophia King, Harry Osterman, Ameya Pawar, Carlos Ramirez-Rosa, Brendan Reilly, Susan Sadlowski-Garza, Michele Smith, and Scott Waguespack.
In search of other good news, I’d like to report that the last TIF vote ought to put to rest the issue of aldermanic privilege.
This is one where we’re supposed to be outraged because aldermen supposedly have
unfettered control over zoning and projects in their wards.
Another thing about Chicago: we’re endlessly railing against bogus issues, like aldermanic privilege, while looking the other way when it comes to real ones, like TIF abuse.
In reality, aldermen only get to control the relatively small things—like sidewalk café permits—that the mayor doesn’t care about.
But as soon as the mayor has a horse in the race, it’s bye-bye aldermanic privilege. We first learned this in 2008, when Mayor Daley got the City Council to approve moving the Children’s Museum to Grant Park, even as Brendan Reilly, the local alderman, begged them not to.
The current hypocrisy was on full display in the vote on the 78, a massive project earmarked for land along the Chicago River just south of Roosevelt Road.
That project lies in the 25th ward, whose current alderman, Danny Solis, has been out of sight for the last few months, or ever since word broke that he was wearing a wire to gather dirt on Alderman Ed Burke.
The 25th’s incoming alderman—Byron Sigcho-Lopez—says he’s against the 78 TIF handout. The council voted for it anyway.
Don’t worry, Byron, I’m sure they’ll let you approve all the awning permits your heart desires.
One other thing—by creating these two Tax Increment Financing districts, the City Council effectively took two chunks of valuable real estate in rapidly developing communities and made them tax-exempt.
Because this land won’t generate new property taxes for our taxing bodies (schools, parks, county, etc.) for at least the next 23 years, the rest of you will have to pay more. In other words, the City Council just voted to raise your property taxes, Chicago.
Did I mention that Sterling Bay gets to spend $25 million of its handout on lawyers and flacks? Well, they do. Let’s see if our leaders are as generous when it comes to funding our schools.
The council TIF votes went down a week after the mayoral election in which only 32 percent of the voters bothered to show up. There are many reasons why voter turnout remains pathetically low. But one frequent complaint is that Chicago politics is a con game run by hustlers who will sell you out at the drop of a hat, so why bother?
After last week’s TIF votes, I can’t blame Chicagoans for reaching this conclusion. v