Smith announces abrupt retirement from City Council, setting up another Lightfoot appointment
Ald. Michele Smith (43) speaks at a March 2022 City Council meeting. [Don Vincent/The Daily Line]
Lincoln Park Ald. Michele Smith (43) will retire from the City Council next month, capping her City Council career at 11 years and giving Mayor Lori Lightfoot her third opportunity this year to appoint a new alderman, she announced on Thursday.
The sudden announcement, citing a desire to spend more time with family and friends, comes one day after Smith scored a major legislative victory with the City Council’s passage of an ethics reform ordinance she championed.
“For the last eleven years, it has been a great honor to serve as your alderman, representing the Gold Coast, Lincoln Park and Old Town neighborhoods,” Smith wrote in an email to constituents on Thursday. “I am announcing today that I will be retiring from office on August 12, and will not be seeking a fourth term as Alderman of the 43th [sic] Ward in next year’s municipal election.”
A longtime attorney who served a stint as a federal prosecutor in the 1980s, Smith’s political career began in 2007 with an unsuccessful challenge against then-Ald. Vi Daley. But a year later she unseated Daley’s chief of staff to become 43rd Ward Democratic Committeeman and built up a political base that she used to seize the aldermanic office in an open race following Daley’s retirement in 2011.
“My decision to retire prior to the completion of this term is a difficult and deeply personal one,” Smith wrote in her announcement Thursday. “At this point in my life, I have deepening responsibilities towards family and friends. These personal issues mandate that I step down now.”
Smith’s announcement comes just one day after her overhaul (O2022-2064) of the city’s ethics code was unanimously approved by the City Council after facing months of delays. The measure aldermen approved on Wednesday was the result of a compromise between Smith and Mayor Lori Lightfoot.
- City Council rejects speed camera ticketing rollback, approves crackdown on drag racing
- Ethics reform package breezes through committee, teeing up final City Council vote
The ordinance nixed some of her proposal’s most controversial sections, including a provision that would have required aldermen to physically leave the room or log out of Zoom during discussion of any legislative item on which they had to recuse themselves due to a conflict of interest.
Still, most of the original proposal remained in the new ordinance, including an expansion of conflict-of-interest rules so that city officials will be barred from using their public powers to help relatives or significant others.
Earlier this year, Smith joined Ald. Brendan Reilly (42) and Ald. Brian Hopkins (2) in staunch opposition to Lightfoot’s push to invite Bally’s to build a casino at the Tribune printing site in River West, citing environmental concerns. She also joined Reilly in opposition to an ordinance (O2022-1279) that opened the door for mega-event spaces to hold outdoor concerts on a permanent basis. The measure was approved in May and gave an immediate boost to the “Salt Shed” concert venue that is scheduled to host concerts in August.
Smith is the third alderman this month to announce a departure from the City Council. Ald. James Cappleman (46) and Ald. Harry Osterman (48), who also represent wards on the city’s north lakefront and first assumed office in 2011, have confirmed they will not run for new terms next year.
- Osterman won’t run for 4th term in 2023: ‘The time is right to make this transition’
- Cappleman to call it a career after 12 years as Uptown’s alderman as crowded field emerges to replace him
Smith built a reputation as a close ally of both mayors she served under, although she occasionally voted against their agendas. She voted for Rahm Emanuel’s historic $500 million property tax increase, forcing her into a tough reelection campaign against challenger Derek Lindblom, a former Emanuel staffer. And she voted in favor of Lightfoot’s 2021 “pandemic budget” that included a $94 million property tax hike.
During the 2019 campaign, Smith championed an ordinance designed to prevent committee chairs from using their staffs to help man ward offices — a reform aimed squarely at Ald. Ed Burke’s (14) longtime stewardship of the Finance Committee. After the election, Lightfoot picked Smith to chair the new Committee on Ethics and Government Oversight — a key post under a mayor who had campaigned on cleaning up corruption. Smith took the new gig seriously, spearheading a series of city ethics reform ordinances crafted by Lightfoot to put tighter controls on lobbying.
Smith has also been a vocal critic of AirBnB and other home-sharing companies, helping push an ordinance in 2020 to crack down on vacation rentals.
However, Smith’s relationship with Lightfoot eventually soured, especially after the mayor put up roadblocks to slow-roll the alderwoman’s ethics package this spring.
Smith has also voiced mounting frustration over both the Emanuel and Lightfoot administrations’ lack of action to create a park on the heretofore industrial banks of the Chicago River North Branch.
Still, Smith touted more than a decade of progress in her newsletter on Thursday, saying she and her staff “have moved our community forward in positive and transformative ways.”
“We have come back from the loss of our largest employer, Children’s Memorial Hospital, and recreated the area as a new neighborhood crossroads with activities, public space and new shops and restaurants,” she wrote. “We transformed the Armitage and Halsted area from a dying retail area to the premier hub of on-line shops in the Midwest.”
She also touted a doubling of the neighborhood’s under-18 population, an addition built to Lincoln Park High School, infrastructure updates and tree-plantings.
Smith’s departure date will begin a 60-day window for Lightfoot to fill the aldermanic vacancy in the 43rd Ward. Lightfoot will be required to appoint a new alderman with the consent of the City Council, and the new alderman’s term will last until Smith’s current term is up in 2023.
Lightfoot announced in June that she had picked Ald. Monique Scott (24) to replace her brother Michael Scott after he left his council seat for a community relations job with Cinespace.
Lightfoot appointed her first alderman in March when she named Ald. Nicole Lee (11) as the new 11th Ward alderman, replacing Patrick Daley Thompson who was forced to resign after he was convicted on charges of tax fraud.
The process for both Lee’s and Scott’s appointments played out the same. A search committee made up largely of community members was tasked with vetting candidates and sending their recommendations to Lightfoot. It is expected the process to replace Smith will look similar.
“While I expect Mayor Lightfoot to appoint an interim alderman, you alone will decide who our next Alderperson will be,” Smith wrote in her announcement message Thursday. “For decades, the 43rd Ward has had strong independent leadership, dedicated to preserving the historic and beautiful nature of the Gold Coast, Old Town and Lincoln Park, while making changes to bring us forward. While I expect I will be a committed volunteer for causes in which I believe, now is the time for others to step forward and take on the responsibility to lead our community.”
Lightfoot issued a laudatory statement Thursday afternoon, saying Smith’s retirement is “a great loss for her ward and our city, but she leaves behind a great legacy of service.”
“As with other Aldermanic vacancies, we will work to find the best person to represent the 43rd ward,” the mayor wrote. “The formal process for identifying the next Alderman of the 43rd ward will be announced tomorrow, Friday, July 22, 2022.”
Meetings & Agendas