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Rev. Ira Acree, Mayor Brandon Johnson's pick for transit board, withdraws from nomination

Rev. Ira Acree, nominated by Mayor Brandon Johnson for transit board, withdraws from consideration
Rev. Ira Acree, nominated by Mayor Brandon Johnson for transit board, withdraws from consideration 03:25

CHICAGO (CBS) -- Rev. Ira Acree, a politically connected West Side pastor, on Friday withdrew his name from consideration for appointment to the board of the Regional Transportation Authority, after some aldermen had argued he wasn't qualified for the post.

"There are forces that have opposed my nomination from the moment the mayor submitted my name, and some of our so-called allies, they're more interested in fighting me than supporting the wonderful people of our city," Acree said.

Mayor Brandon Johnson had nominated Acree to serve on the RTA board, but on Wednesday, allies of the mayor used a parliamentary maneuver to prevent a final City Council vote on Acree's appointment, a tacit acknowledgement that they didn't have the votes to confirm him. After the meeting, Johnson said he wanted to "give people more time to have inquiry."

Acree said Johnson did not ask him to withdraw from consideration from the post, and said he still supports the mayor. 

Acree's nomination to the RTA board had stalled after he struggled to answer questions from aldermen earlier this month about a looming budget deficit for the agency that oversees the finances of the CTA, Metra, and Pace.

Acree, pastor of Greater St. John Bible Church in the Austin neighborhood, accused his critics of "opposition to African American empowerment."

"Ridiculing me or fighting my appointment is an egregious level of disrespect to the wonderful people of my city, and to these hundreds of congregants that I pastor, and the various networks – Leaders Network, Rainbow/PUSH – and people who support me," Acree said. "These opponents of African American empowerment who are on the City Council have to be confronted and addressed."

While the Transportation Committee advanced Acree's nomination on a voice vote on May 8, he faced nearly an hour of questions about his qualifications for the post and the problems facing public transportation in Chicago.

Acree specifically lashed out at Ald. Andre Vasquez (40th) and Ald. Scott Waguespack (32nd), the two committee members to vote against Acree's nomination.

"They have chosen, these two guys, I'll call their name – Alderman Waguespack and Andre Vasquez – they've chosen to color me as not qualified. Such accusations are foolish, especially coming from an alderman whose previous job was a failed rapper," Acree said, referring to Vasquez, who was a battle rapper in his late teens and early 20s. Before Vasquez was first elected to office in 2019, he was a community activist and a marketing manager for AT&T.

Vasquez did not immediately respond to requests for comment on Acree's criticism of his opposition to the pastor's appointment.

At the hearing on Acree's nomination, Vasquez said he was conflicted over the appointment. He said he was "greatly inspired" by Acree's background as a faith leader and West Side activist but that he believes the RTA board needs its members to have expertise on public transit, given the CTA's struggles to improve service since the pandemic.

Acree acknowledged he rarely rides the CTA, but said he does ride the Blue Line or Green Line whenever he travels downtown to avoid high parking costs.

During the hearing, Vasquez, who is one of several aldermen who have called for CTA President Dorval Carter to resign or be fired for his handling of the agency, asked Acree what he thinks of the job Carter has done.

Acree said it would be unfair for him to grade Carter's leadership before joining the board, and that he would evaluate Carter's performance if confirmed for the post.

Acree also struggled to answer when Waguespack asked him what he thinks the RTA needs to do to address a looming $730 million shortfall once federal COVID-19 relief funds run out after 2025.

"This is my first time hearing about a $735 million shortfall. So I wouldn't want to respond to that today without doing the research," Acree said at the hearing.

In an email, Waguespack said he was surprised to learn on Wednesday that Johnson was delaying a final vote on Acree's appointment, "and was as stunned as most people that the mayor lost the majority of votes in a few days."

As for Acree's accusation that his vote against the nomination amounted to "opposition to African American empowerment," Waguespack noted he was the first elected official in Chicago to endorse Lori Lightfoot, the city's first Black woman mayor, when she successfully ran for mayor in 2019, and worked alongside her "to set goals and find solutions to the public transportation system problems."

"My questions for the appointee and this mayor are the same, what are your goals for the issues we face, and what is your vision for the public transportation system? Waguespack said. "This City needs leaders with the fiscal and strategic experience to run City Hall and a well-functioning public transportation system."

In a post Friday afternoon on X, formerly known as Twitter, Vasquez said he has "the utmost respect for Rev. Acre and his work as an activist, man of faith, and for keeping voters engaged by taking them to the polls" and that he met with Acree before the hearing and showed him his questions.

Vasquez said he voted against Acree's appointment because he believes mass transit experience is needed for the RTA board post, including riding the CTA.

"CTA's staff is largely African American and we know that the South and West sides are impacted unjustly by a transit system that needs improvement. Someone from the community who rides CTA or has worked at CTA would be great!" he wrote. "It is unfortunate that the Reverend was put in this position by the administration not prepping him and then taking his appointment off of the Council agenda this week. Two no votes in a committee didn't do that."

On Friday, Acree acknowledged he should have been better prepared for the meeting, but insisted he was aware that the RTA was facing a significant budget problem in the coming years, he just didn't know the specific amount.

"Everybody knows that there is a deficit. Everybody knows that there is a fiscal cliff. Did I know the specifics, whether it was $600 million or $800 million, $675 million? I did not know that, and I would have loved to have known that. That's not on the mayor. That's on me," Acree said.

Acree said, while he might not have expertise in public transportation, had he served on the RTA board, he would have fought to address inequities in public transit service on the South and West sides, and used his political connections to advocate for better public safety on the CTA.

"I'm blessed to bring a unique viewpoint to the board because I believe we all win when the board is composed of diverse individuals and people who represent different communities and networks," he said.

Johnson on Friday afternoon defended his nomination of Acree to the RTA board.

"You know, look, I've made it very clear that people that we put forward to represent the people of Chicago have to come from a variety of experiences. People who are closest to the trauma have better insight on how to deliver effective government for people," Johnson said.

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