A recent fake controversy stoked by right-wing forces on Chicago’s city council led to socialist alderman Carlos Ramirez-Rosa losing two key positions. The antics would be laughable if they weren’t a major blow against Mayor Brandon Johnson’s working-class agenda.

Chicago alderman Carlos Ramirez-Rosa speaks on June 21, 2023, at City Hall. (Shanna Madison / Chicago Tribune / Tribune News Service via Getty Images)

In his administration’s first six months, Chicago mayor Brandon Johnson has delivered key victories for working people. No one can do that without making some enemies along the way, though the absurdity and dishonesty of those enemies seems to have reached new lows in recent months.

The mayor’s agenda since taking office earlier this year includes passing legislation phasing out the city’s subminimum tipped wage, guaranteeing all Chicago workers ten days of paid leave, and placing a binding referendum on the March 2024 ballot to address the city’s homelessness and affordable housing crisis, funded by raising the real estate transfer tax on property sales of over $1 million. Socialist alderman Carlos Ramirez-Rosa has been central to the passage of these measures in his positions as the mayor’s floor leader on city council and chair of the council’s zoning committee.

One reading of these measures is that they are relatively modest, economically redistributive policies for a city that badly needs economic redistribution. For the city’s business interests and the conservative elected officials who supported Johnson’s mayoral race opponent, Paul Vallas, these measures are intolerable and grounds for a declaration of war against the mayor and his allies. No surprises there: this is what the rich and their electoral allies do.

What is surprising is how those interests were recently able to use demonstrably false accusations of “assault” and “bullying” in a cynical effort to exacerbate black-Latino tensions in the city over the migrant crisis — and effectively ousting Ramirez-Rosa, Johnson’s most powerful ally on the council, from his floor leader and zoning chair positions.

On Thursday, November 2, the city council held a special meeting to consider putting a nonbinding referendum on the March 2024 ballot asking voters whether Chicago should remain a sanctuary city for immigrants and refugees — an attempt by conservative aldermen, including Tucker Carlson regular Raymond Lopez, to stoke anti-immigrant sentiments about Latin American asylum seekers in the city. After the meeting unraveled over procedural chaos and failed to meet quorum, Lopez accused Ramirez-Rosa of “manhandling” Alderwoman Emma Mitts, a sixty-eight-year-old black woman and the longest-serving woman on the council (and, it should be noted, a longtime foe of the Johnson-allied Chicago Teachers Union) in order to prevent them from attending the meeting.

According to Lopez, Ramirez-Rosa grabbed and physically blocked Mitts; Lopez said he “had to physically position myself between [Ramirez-Rosa] and her, physically pushing him back until she was able to break free.” Lopez and others who have lined up against Ramirez-Rosa claim that Ramirez-Rosa assaulted both Mitts and another alderwoman, Nicole Lee.

On Sunday November 5, Mitts, who still hadn’t commented publicly on what happened, told the mayor, her pastor, and the city council’s Black Caucus different versions of events but that Ramirez-Rosa did not touch her. But the other account she gave, according to anonymous sources cited by the Chicago Sun-Times, supported the council’s Black Caucus’s portrayal of the incident as “physical and verbal harassment” and called for Ramirez-Rosa’s removal.

On Friday, Alderwoman Lee corrected the record on Twitter, saying, “I was not personally ‘manhandled’ by Ald. Ramirez-Rosa.” But over the weekend, she and other conservative council allies prepared a letter calling for the council to censure Ramirez-Rosa for abusing his position on the zoning committee by threatening to block their zoning requests if they attended the Thursday meeting.

Upon review of the committee’s zoning votes, I did not find any stalled votes of Lee, Alderman Felix Cardona, or Alderman Chris Taliaferro even when they were critics of the mayor or had voted against his platform previously. What I did find is that those same aldermen, who said Ramirez-Rosa abused his power, invoking the corruption of Chicago’s machine politics, have taken a combined $31,000 from real estate and developer interests in the last year. A review of Ramirez-Rosa’s funds found he had taken zero dollars from developers or real estate interests.

Come Monday, Ramirez-Rosa had resigned from his floor leader and committee chair roles at the mayor’s request. But within a few hours of his resignation, CBS released video of the incident with Mitts (which the channel sat on for four days), showing that Ramirez-Rosa had clearly done nothing wrong. (It also shows Black Caucus chair Stephanie Coleman, who led the charge to oust Ramirez-Rosa, walking by the incident without seeming to notice or feel the need to intervene.) Clearly Ramirez-Rosa should not have been asked to resign.

All of this is fairly absurd stuff, the kind of petty mudslinging that often makes local politics a laughingstock. But the implications are potentially huge for a city that has made enormous strides in working-class politics in recent years. Especially in light of the news footage’s release, it’s clear that Ramirez-Rosa’s enemies on the council had no scruples about blatantly lying about the exchange between him and Mitts in order to execute a political hit job against an effective ally of labor and the Left, damaging Ramirez-Rosa’s reputation and costing him his leadership roles.

The fallout could also potentially result in long-term consequences for the mayor’s progressive agenda. There’s a reason the mayor appointed Ramirez-Rosa to such important roles in the first place: since Ramirez-Rosa’s election in 2015, he has helped build a powerful electoral operation on the city’s northwest side, which Johnson won handily and helped carry him over the finish line in the mayoral race earlier this year.

Ramirez-Rosa has also consistently been the most progressive and vocal leader on the city council (including during some very lonely years when he was effectively the body’s only steadfast pro-worker legislator allied closely with labor and social movements), while also working to expand the council’s socialist and progressive bloc. I saw these achievements up close when I worked as field director for his 2019 reelection campaign.

What made this coup successful was how the city’s right wing effectively seized on racial and political divisions over how the migrant crisis should be addressed. While the mayor and his coalition need to figure out how to ameliorate those tensions, Johnson should have seen this melee for what it was: an attempt to hobble his administration’s ability to enact meaningful change.

Ramirez-Rosa suffered a blow in this episode, but he’s not going anywhere. The day after his announced resignation, he spoke at a press conference announcing the mayor’s affordable housing initiative, and past efforts by real-estate and other corporate interests to unseat him haven’t come close. But the Johnson administration should understand these attacks as a foreshadowing of what’s to come. The assault accusation was bush-league stuff easily disproved. But the forces who orchestrated it won’t back down; they will continue to try to seize on and exacerbate real fissures in the city’s politics like the migrant crisis to try to halt the kind of progressive agenda Johnson ran on. The mayor would be wise to not get fooled again.

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