CHICAGO — Days before aldermen were set to vote on Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s controversial plan to sue gang members as an anti-violence strategy, she texted an impassioned message to several City Council members seeking their support.
“We must send a strong message to gangs that we will take away their profits which last year was over $26M. I would not press this without the appropriate checks and balances and as you know, we will have to file in court, and a judge will determine whether we have met our burden of proof,” Lightfoot said in a text message, which she apparently copied and pasted to several individual aldermen in February.
“To me, this will be an essential tool we need in the crime fight. I hope we can count on your support. Let me know if you have any further questions.”
Despite the personal outreach, however, Lightfoot has so far failed to gather enough support for her so-called Victims’ Justice Ordinance, which would allow the city to sue gang members and attempt to seize their assets. Days after Lightfoot launched her effort to personally lobby aldermen, two City Council allies moved to delay a vote on the ordinance, and she hasn’t brought it back for consideration.
When asked about the delay, the mayor has said she needs to “educate” members about the importance of the legislation, which faced criticism from all sides of the political aisle.
Fraternal Order of Police President John Catanzara previously blasted the plan as a “waste of everyone’s time to pretend she is doing something of substance.” Civil rights lawyers, meanwhile, argued the city would end up violating people’s civil rights and seizing property from grandmas who aren’t involved in gang life, creating more problems down the road.
Lightfoot’s inability to marshal enough support for a law she said was key to public safety reflects the broader challenge she has faced building strong relationships with other elected officials across the state. Aldermen frequently criticize the administration for a lack of communication and Lightfoot does not often lobby City Council members directly for their support.
The City Council won’t be back in session until September, which will mark a full year since Lightfoot introduced her ordinance. Her hand-picked public safety committee chair, Alderman Chris Taliaferro, told the Chicago Tribune he doesn’t know if the proposal is coming back “because it is her ordinance, but I have not heard anything from her on that. I’ve not heard anything on whether she’s planning on pursuing that any further.”
Getting aldermen to support the measure will likely remain a challenge, though she may yet be able to generate support by pressuring City Council on crime. Her efforts in February stalled, however, as text messages released by the city illustrate. North Side Alderman Matt Martin, a freshman council member, responded to Lightfoot’s text, “I know that we all view public safety as our top priority, and recognize the need to urgently address the trauma and instability that street gangs continue to cause.”
“While I will not be supporting the VJO (Victims’ Justice Ordinance), I share your commitment to utilize many other tools to improve public safety in both the short and long term — including expanding reach of violence prevention organizations and our summer youth employment program, increasing the number of detectives, and strengthening our area and regional carjacking task forces,” Martin wrote, according to records released by the mayor’s office in response to a Freedom of Information Act request.
North Side Alderman Harry Osterman, who is Lightfoot’s hand-picked Housing committee chair, simply responded, “Mayor Lightfoot I’ll be a no on the VJO ordinance.”
“Got it,” she texted back.
Several aldermen apparently did not text back to the mayor’s message, including then-Alderman Michael Scott, who faced pressure from West Side civil rights leaders to oppose the ordinance. Others, including Northwest Side Aldermen Ariel Reboyras, Samantha Nugent and Anthony Napolitano expressed their support.
That Lightfoot texted aldermen to request their support reflects the symbolic importance for the mayor, who has been struggling to tamp down violence crime since 2020 ushered in big spikes.
Rogers Park Alderwoman Maria Hadden released a detailed explanation in February of why she opposed the ordinance saying it wouldn’t be worth the manpower hours and could expose the city to liability if officials wrongfully seize property.
“If this ordinance passes, at best, it will make it seem like the mayor and City Council are doing something significant to address crime and give false hope to a frustrated police department and public looking for more tools in combating organized criminal activity,” Hadden wrote. “At worst, this ordinance will encourage two powerful city departments — police and law — to push the limits on respecting civil rights and exhaust valuable time and tax dollars in exchange for negligible financial gain.”
The ordinance languishes as the city continues to deal with high levels of violent crime.
The roughly 800 homicides that occurred last year in Chicago marked the highest death toll from gun violence in the city since the mid-1990s. There were about 4,300 shootings in Chicago last year, a massive jump from 2018 when there were approximately 2,800 people shot.
So far this year, homicides were down 16% from the same period in 2021, with Chicago police recording 379 through Sunday compared with 452 last year, official department statistics show. The number of total shooting victims was down nearly 20% over 2021 with 1,969 people shot nonfatally or fatally through Sunday, while 2,455 people were shot at the same time last year, the statistics show.
At news conferences on crime, Lightfoot frequently notes the city has recorded fewer shootings and homicides this year and calls it good progress, though she adds that the city needs to do more.
What she doesn’t mention, however, is that carjackings are up to 947 through Sunday, compared with 879 during the same time period in 2021. Violence has also spiked downtown, raising concerns about the city’s economic engine.
(Chicago Tribune’s Jeremy Gorner contributed to this story.)
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