Mayor Brandon Johnson saves City Council ally from official rebuke for bullying, threats

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A day after Mayor Brandon Johnson’s top City Council ally gave up his leadership positions, following accusations that the alderman threatened and bullied colleagues, the mayor Tuesday rescued him from being officially rebuked for his behavior.

While Johnson showed loyalty to Ald. Carlos Ramirez-Rosa, 35th, his former floor leader, the council was clearly divided.

Johnson broke a council deadlock on a measure to censure Ramirez-Rosa after the alderman last week threatened and tried to block some fellow council members from entering the council chambers to debate a resolution Johnson opposed.

The censure vote — a largely symbolic but extraordinarily rare procedural punishment — came after West Side Ald. Emma Mitts made an emotional floor speech, saying Ramirez-Rosa made her feel “like I was back in the South” when he tried to stop her from getting into chambers Thursday.

“I felt like everything in me was shaking,” said Mitts, a native of Elaine, Arkansas, who has represented the 37th Ward on the City Council since 2000. “At that point, I didn’t really know if I could do my job again. I didn’t. If that’s what I have to put up with, if this is what women have to put up with. … I’m a strong Black woman. Strong Black woman that believe in fairness.”

Mitts and Ramirez-Rosa embraced on the floor Tuesday after her remarks, and he apologized to her and others for his behavior while he tried to prevent a Thursday special City Council meeting from achieving a quorum.

In a dramatic gesture, Mitts then cast a late vote against censuring Ramirez-Rosa.

Ramirez-Rosa stepped down Monday from his positions as Johnson’s floor leader and the chair of the powerful Zoning Committee, as Johnson tried to move past the crisis.

But that hardly put to rest the controversy that has imperiled the kind of council cooperation Johnson needs to enact key parts of his progressive agenda.

Ald. Scott Waguespack, 32nd, sought to censure Ramirez-Rosa for his conduct toward Mitts and the threats several aldermen have said Ramirez-Rosa made toward them to block zoning legislation in their wards if they took part in last week’s special meeting.

A censure “is how we ensure a measure of accountability for a process and a set of rules that we all subscribe to that will guide us, no matter what or how heated the debates get,” Waguespack said.

After several council members spoke for and against the motion, Johnson tried to halt the debate by ruling Ramirez-Rosa could not be officially reprimanded for behavior he engaged in during a prior meeting or that occurred outside council chambers.

A council majority voted down the mayor’s interpretation of the rules, however, setting up the censure vote, which at first was 25-24 against admonishing Ramirez-Rosa. But downtown Ald. Brendan Reilly, 42nd, then pointed out Ramirez-Rosa was not allowed to cast a vote in his own favor, setting up Johnson to break a 24-24 tie.

The failed censure does not seem likely to be the end of it. In addition to whatever hard feelings remain, some of the aldermen who said Ramirez-Rosa threatened them said they planned to complain to the city’s inspector general and Board of Ethics. Ramirez-Rosa denied making any threats.

“I hated that we had to have the conversation at all,” Ald. Nicole Lee, 11th, told the Tribune after the vote, which she said she “respected.”

Lee maintains Ramirez-Rosa threatened to stall zoning measures in her ward if she did not leave chambers Thursday, a charge Ramirez-Rosa has repeatedly denied.

“The censure is the one tool that we as a body have, that we can set an example to say what’s not acceptable behavior, colleague to colleague in this body,” she said. “My biggest concern is that the behavior stop, and that we have leadership that doesn’t resort to, you know, coercion and bullying to get things done.”

Thursday’s meeting was called to consider a nonbinding ballot referendum question on the city’s sanctuary status for immigrants, which Johnson and his allies attempted to no-show in order to make sure there was no quorum.

In impassioned comments, Mitts, 68, gave her personal account of the events that day, denying Ramirez-Rosa “manhandled” her, but saying the two “(came) into contact” and that Ramirez-Rosa physically blocked her from entry.

Mitts’ experience was only the latest in a series of escalating tensions over the city’s response to the migrant crisis. No vote was held on that question last week, but proponents tried and failed again on Tuesday — to a boisterous public response at City Hall that eventually led to the chambers once again being cleared. And passions reignited over the city’s tentative plans to create a base camp for heated tents to house asylum-seekers on the city’s South Side.

Ramirez-Rosa’s leadership resignations leave a vacuum at a critical time for the mayor’s agenda and further paint a picture of a City Hall in disarray as tensions between Johnson’s solid progressive bloc and his moderate-to-conservative opponents continue to fester, particularly around the city’s costly mission to care for its asylum-seekers.

Recent debates over the issue have highlighted racial and economic divides in the city, with many Black aldermen arguing the cost of the migrant response has left their communities feeling further disinvested.

Mitts had broader lessons for Ramirez-Rosa: “I have seen a lot in my lifetime of struggle, and Ald. Rosa, learn a little wisdom: Always take the high road,” she said, later adding, “Never let your position take over you.”

Johnson has not yet named a replacement floor leader or a zoning committee chair. Johnson told reporters he will be “deliberate and intentional” about finding a replacement, but did not share a timeline. Ramirez-Rosa intends to stay in the zoning role until Dec. 1.

Ramirez-Rosa stood up to apologize to Mitts shortly after she spoke, “for the disrespectful interaction that we had outside of council chambers and for my overzealous attempts throughout the day to try to convince you not to be part of the quorum. I should have never done that to you, I should have never put you in that position.”

He extended similar apologies to individual aldermen, the entire City Council and the mayor “for letting you down in my leadership roles. … I feel awful about everything that happened.”

At that point, Mitts came over and gave him a hug. Ramirez-Rosa concluded by saying he “hoped to be able to rebuild the trust that we have in each other. … I’m going to make amends, I’m going to work every single day to make sure that we’re becoming a stronger council.”

Despite the apparent reconciliation, Waguespack followed through on plans to censure Ramirez-Rosa, whose actions were “beyond the pale,” and “not the mark of a healthy, functioning body.”

Ald. Monique Scott, 24th, advocated for censure as a formal a recognition of harm that colleagues felt. “The most hurtful thing as a victim is to feel that you have your victimization has not been acknowledged,” she said.

Asked Tuesday whether Johnson’s siding with Ramirez-Rosa would solidify council opposition to his agenda, the mayor said the proceedings were evidence the council could heal together.

“Here’s the part that I’m grateful for: Ald. Mitts made it very clear she’s committed to restorative practices, and she voted with the rest of her colleagues that censureship did not apply in that particular scenario,” Johnson said. “We stood with Ald. Mitts today.”

He did not address the allegations of Ramirez-Rosa’s bullying or threats from other aldermen.

After CBS Ch. 2 released video of the incident, a group of roughly 300 local progressives leaped to Ramirez-Rosa’s defense with a statement late Monday, arguing that Ald. Raymond Lopez, 15th, “clearly lied” about the severity of the Mitts incident, that Ramirez-Rosa’s exit from leadership were “hasty” and censure efforts were “politically motivated.”

Those supportive groups included leaders of the One Fair Wage campaign, members of the Chicago Teachers Union, members of the 33rd and 35th Ward progressive organizations, and Cook County Commissioner Anthony Quezada (a former staffer for Ramirez-Rosa).

And on Tuesday, Ramirez-Rosa said he was “distraught” that his actions fueled division between Black and brown Chicagoans. But he said Lopez widened that divide by making “false allegations that I physically assaulted, that I manhandled someone ... and that was not true.”

Earlier in the day Tuesday, other rounds of discord over the migrant crisis derailed a Rules Committee meeting scheduled to consider an amended ballot question on the migrant crisis. Protesters angry over ongoing spending on the new arrivals forced the meeting to pause and then recess entirely until later this month.

Those members of the public were ultimately ushered out of the City Council chambers by the sergeant-at-arms, but not before some Johnson opponents in the council cheered them on, saying their voices were being stifled because the mayor’s allies continued to block the referendum on repealing the city’s sanctuary status.

Johnson’s hope to buy a former Far South Side grocery store and parking lot and erect winterized base camps for incoming migrants stalled amid widespread City Council resistance last week, including from local Ald. Ronnie Mosley, 21st. But on Tuesday, the plan was revived as aldermen — including Mosley — approved the purchase of the former Jewel-Osco at 115th and Halsted streets for $1.

Johnson likely could have still moved forward without the sale by simply leasing the property, but the growing resistance from aldermen across the city and political spectrum over his shelter locations and continued spending on the migrant mission remains a thorn in his side.

The mayor is racing to find housing — before winter sets in — for the 3,300 migrants who are awaiting placement at a city shelter while on the floors of police stations and airports. The city had freezing temperatures and snowfall last week.