Chicago Tribune (Sunday)
Add to Chicago’s problems our defensive, irascible mayor
Chicago voters knew they were getting someone tough in Lori Lightfoot, a former federal prosecutor and early 2018 entrant to the mayor’s race.
She yearned to take on Rahm Emanuel — his record, his backers, his money, his power. It wasn’t until he made the surprise announcement he would not seek reelection that the field of candidates blew open with the less brave — a half-dozen other mayoral hopefuls who jumped in only when the well-financed incumbent jumped out.
What voters didn’t know is that they also were getting in Lori Lightfoot someone with a tendency toward the thin-skinned, the defensive, the short-tempered. And no, those aren’t personality quirks assigned to female leaders that would be treasured in a man. They are traits that interfere with advancing the goals of any politician, boss, CEO.
Lightfoot would have more wins on her policy agenda if she could better manage relationships. Instead, she battles with those from whom she needs support — from Chicago aldermen to state lawmakers to her own staff and even rank-and-file police officers, a constituency she desperately needs to help keep the city safe but for whom she offers little public support.
This is not a recipe for success. Halfway through her term, Chicagoans deserve better.
Another unnecessary blowup
Wednesday’s City Council meeting, which had to be adjourned, once again put Lightfoot’s flair for the defensive on display. As aldermen maneuvered to stall her appointment of corporation counsel in an obvious attempt to yank her chain, she took the bait and got into a public argument with Ald. Jeanette Taylor, 20th.
Later during a radio interview, Taylor said she told the mayor to “get your hand out of my face and lower your voice.” Taylor said she told her: “You know what? You are the problem. Ever since COVID, you lost your mind. You don’t want to work with nobody. You don’t know how to talk to people. Every time we try to do something for Black people on this council, you block it.”
Lightfoot started out as the outspoken, independent leader voters wanted. She pushed for the removal of Ald. Edward Burke, 14th, as the influential Finance Committee chairman and shook up other positions on the council. She was such a political novice, she was uncomfortable in her first budget negotiation horse-trading with aldermen over projects, money and attention. “I don’t buy votes,” she said at the time.
She managed an unruly Chicago Teachers Union strike, albeit clumsily; beat back attempts by the CTU to prioritize nonschool issues on its agenda; and handled a scandal under former police Superintendent Eddie Johnson by firing him.
But by the following year during budget talks, she reportedly told aldermen who were opposing her spending plan “don’t come to me for s— ” for the next three years.
When she grew frustrated at past-deadline memos sent to her by staff, she ripped one up, took a photo of the shards of paper, and sent it back.
“Here’s my new practice for memos that come at the last minute,” she emailed the memo writer. “As I noted, I want decisions memos no later than 48 hours before the decision is needed and I have directed (staff ) to reject all efforts to bring things to me directly that skirt these rules. I have asked nicely, now I am done.”
She berated one of her schedulers with an email in which she wrote 16 times in a row: “I need office time everyday!”
“Not just once a week or some days, everyday!” she wrote over and over in a typed tirade.
Tough, rough rhetoric
To reporters, she used the anniversary of her second year in office to grant interviews only to Black and brown reporters, which attracted national scrutiny and for which she is now being sued — and taxpayers covering the costs.
She said she dropped her Chicago Tribune subscription due to what she considered unfair coverage. She has ranted at reporters and editors in private venting sessions; Emanuel did that too.
She has been inconsistent with her expectations of the Police Department: The city hasn’t kept up with reforms mandated under a federal consent decree; she was late pushing a policy change on foot pursuits until two police fatal shootings; she called for firing police officers who gave middle fingers to unruly, shouting protesters last summer — but she also told President Donald Trump “F ... U” during a partisan fight over COVID protocols; and now due to violent crime unfolding across the city, her police officers are working 12-hour shifts, no time off — and retiring in record numbers that could further destabilize the city’s safety.
Her Springfield legislative record suffers from a lack of relationship-building. She was unable to stop bills empowering the strike capability of CTU, enhancing firefighter pensions, and instituting an elected school board. Under her watch, Chicago’s mayor is about to lose control of the school system, a setup in place for some 26 years.
Her relationships at City Council are frayed. Nearly half of the aldermen signed a letter recently accusing her for abusing rules of order and cutting off their comments during meetings.
More bait. You can bet she’ll bite.
Invest in relationships
If Lightfoot wants to improve Chicago by implementing her agenda, she’s going to need another term as mayor. And if she wants another term as mayor, she’s going to have to tone down the impulses that make her difficult to work with.
COVID-19 and all its complexities cannot be to blame as dozens of other big-city mayors faced the same issues. Lightfoot is opening the door, easily, to challengers in 2023 who will campaign on this very point: I will be the calm go-getter, relationship-building mayor.
There is a line between being principled, which she’d say she is, and being impractical.
Lightfoot routinely crosses it — to the detriment of the city she’s been hired to serve.