Chicago Mayor Brandon Johnson on Wednesday deflected questions about a City Hall controversy in which a top adviser tried to persuade an alderman to vote for parts of Johnson’s progressive agenda by tying those votes to the administration’s willingness to remove homeless camps in the alderman’s ward.
The mayor was responding to questions from reporters about the proposal, which was made by top aide Jason Lee to 34th Ward Alderman Bill Conway a day after the Tribune first reported on the discussion. Conway criticized Lee’s efforts and said it was an inappropriate quid pro quo.
The mayor Wednesday at first sidestepped a question about the exchange, telling reporters, “I am not necessarily privy to every single conversation that happens throughout the city of Chicago.” But pressed further on Conway’s allegations, Johnson said they were “a mischaracterization” and said “pushing for real support around the unhoused (is) what this has always been about.”
“I’m not going to apologize for doing right by the people of Chicago. I said I was going to bring Chicago home. I said I was going to invest in the unhoused,” Johnson said, referring to his push for a real estate transfer tax increase on property sales over $1 million to develop a stream for anti-homelessness services. “There is no secret to what I said I was going to do, and my administration carrying that out is exactly what the people of Chicago expect in their mayor.”
The mayor ended his response with a broadside against unnamed opponents of his agenda: “And if anyone wishes to stand in the way of the people of Chicago, well they’re going to get rolled over by the people of Chicago.”
The conflict between Conway and Johnson’s administration began with Conway’s efforts to remove the encampment near Union and Ogilvie train stations, which Conway said is a trouble spot for drugs and violent crime in the ward. Two recent shootings in the area have exacerbated his concern, he has said.
As part of his efforts to get the tents removed, Conway said he spoke with Lee in early October while aldermen were at City Hall for meetings. Conway said he shared with Lee his concerns about guns, propane tanks and drug packets found in the viaducts that are now crowded with tents.
According to Conway, Lee pulled Conway into a copy room behind council chambers and offered to help remove the homeless camps, but Conway said Lee tied the action to the alderman supporting the real estate transfer tax plan and an end to the subminimum tipped wage for service workers.
A day after their in-person conversation, Lee and Conway spoke again by phone, and Lee reiterated his requests, the alderman said. Conway recalled asking Lee whether City Hall was able to do more than had already been done at the sites, as he was running into bureaucratic problems.
Lee responded, “We won the election. Where there’s a will, there’s a way,” and added, “Special problems require special intervention from the mayor,” according to Conway.
Conway also said he recalled Lee saying the administration’s progressive allies would “raise hell” if they helped clear out the viaducts, but City Hall was willing to make that happen because Conway’s votes for the two measures would “give us all the ammunition we need to justify why this is a critical intervention.”
In an interview published earlier this week, Lee acknowledged linking the issue of the camps with support for the “Bring Chicago Home” and One Fair Wage ordinances. But he defended it as an appropriate deal.
“What I expressed to Alderman Conway is that … there’s a perception that doing something like removing encampments is not necessarily in line with progressive values and that it could be perceived as a callous act disconnected from the realities of what the unhoused and other vulnerable populations are going through,” Lee said.
“Alderman Conway demonstrating his commitment to progressive values, including eliminating the subminimum wage but most importantly Bring Chicago Home, is helpful to neutralize some of the criticism he might face in pursuing that.”
Conway, meanwhile, said Wednesday that he has not heard from Lee since details of the conversation became public, but he is more concerned about “the public safety crisis in the 34th Ward.”
“It is beyond abhorrent that I was offered public safety resources in exchange for legislative votes,” Conway told reporters. “I will never negotiate on public safety. Public safety is the reason I ran for alderman, and the mayor’s office should not have asked for that.”
In the end, Conway voted for neither Johnson initiative. He missed a vote on the subminimum wage — he said he was sick — and voted against Johnson’s plan for a transfer tax hike.
Conway was also traveling during the One Fair Wage vote, which Lee ridiculed by saying he “fled the country” rather than cast his ballot.
And the encampments are still there.
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