Michelle Harris: Stroger protege who earned the chance to trade council seat for clerk's office
Sunday, October 25, 2015
by Fran Spielman
Ald. Michelle Harris, who won the Cook County Democratic Party’s endorsement Friday for circuit court clerk, is a longtime protégé of the once-powerful Stroger family who earned the opportunity to vacate her Chicago City Council seat after paying her dues in the South Side’s political vineyards.
The party’s committeemen chose her unanimously after dumping incumbent Dorothy Brown in the face of an ongoing federal corruption investigation.
In 2006, then-Mayor Richard M. Daley appointed Harris to replace Ald. Todd Stroger (8th). She got her first shot at elected office when the son took his father’s seat as Cook County Board pesident after John Stroger’s debilitating stroke.
The aldermanic appointment was particularly poignant for Harris because it was a job once held by her aunt, former Ald. Lorraine Dixon (8th). Dixon died of breast cancer in 2001 at the age of 51.
Prior to becoming alderman, Harris spent four years as the 8th Ward’s sanitation superintendent and several years after that as secretary to the Cook County Board of Commissioners under the elder Stroger, her political mentor.
Harris subsequently became a political powerhouse in her own right, replacing Todd Stroger as 8th Ward Democratic committeeman.
After Ald. Richard Mell (33rd) retired from the City Council and convinced Mayor Rahm Emanuel to appoint his daughter Deb Mell to replace him, Harris was rewarded with the elder Mell’s other job: She was named chairman of the powerful City Council Rules Committee.
But the Rules Committee chair became a trick bag for Harris during the 2015 aldermanic campaign when she refused to hold a hearing on an ordinance empowering Inspector General Joe Ferguson to investigate aldermen.
The City Council’s two most powerful aldermen — Finance Chairman Edward Burke (14th) and Budget Chairman Carrie Austin (34th) — remain dead set against the ordinance.
Harris is one of Emanuel’s staunchest supporters in the City Council’s Black Caucus. She played a key role in helping the mayor win 57.3 percent of the African-American vote in Chicago’s first-ever mayoral runoff. The support of Harris and others helped Emanuel boost his support among African-American voters by 14.5 percentage points between rounds one and two of the mayoral sweepstakes.
At Wednesday’s City Council meeting, Emanuel will be counting on Harris again — this time to support his $7.8 billion budget, which includes a $588 million property-tax increase for police and fire pensions and school construction and a first-ever garbage-collection fee.
Harris already has convinced the mayor to soften the blow of his $9.50-per-household monthly garbage-collection fee by giving senior citizens a 50 percent break.
“Me and Alderman [Roderick] Sawyer — in our wards, everybody there is older than me,” Harris told reporters last month. “I’m 50-plus. As I get older, so does my community. When I look at folks in my community, they look like my parents. I’m quite concerned about that fixed-income piece and those folks being able to . . . take on another fee.”
In a rare show of defiance, Harris joined 14 of Chicago’s 18 black aldermen earlier this month in demanding that Emanuel fire police Supt. Garry McCarthy after another bloody weekend on Chicago streets. As of that date, half of Chicago’s 2015 homicides had occurred in 10 wards. Harris’ 8th Ward was one of them, with 18 murders.
On the day she took her City Council seat, Harris was one of three women joining the ranks of female aldermen, along with Darcel Beavers, daughter and longtime chief of staff for retired Ald. William Beavers (7th), and Lona Lane, former executive director of the Greater Ashburn Planning Association.