New Mayor, Fresh Start for Chicago

On February 26, 2019, Lori Lightfoot was elected Mayor of Chicago. Her victory was both historic and surprising. When she announced her run, Lightfoot was relatively unknown and a political outsider. She is also female, African-America and an out-lesbian – in marked contrast with almost every past occupant of that coveted fifth floor office on Clark Street. Consider that, in its less than 200-year history, Chicago has had exactly one other female mayor (Jane Byrne), two African-American mayors (Harold Washington and Eugene Sawyer), and no publicly-declared LGBT mayors. There has certainly never been a mayor that checked all three boxes. Suffice it to say that few people took Lightfoot’s candidacy seriously when she first announced her run.

But, against all odds, Lori Lightfoot not only won the general election, she did so with nearly 75% of the popular vote – a landslide by any definition. She did this through a combination of smart campaigning, some plain old-fashion good luck along the way (Rahm Emanuel’s announcement that he would not run for reelection, and Toni Preckwinkle’s too-close relationship with disgraced Alderman Ed Burke), and a message of change and new beginnings that resonated with Chicago voters. She also impressed Chicagoans with her competence and intelligence. At the end of the day, she convinced the city’s residents that she was the best candidate to put the city on a different path. Her margin of victory tells us that Chicagoans were hungry for change.

Her victory was both historic and surprising.

Lightfoot has now had a year to put into practice her campaign promises. Perhaps the central theme of her campaign was bridging the gap between the two Chicagos – one largely confined to the Central Area and the North and Northwest Sides that is prosperous, globally competitive, and largely white – and the other concentrated on the West and South Sides that is often poor, minority and struggling to find its place in a post-industrial America. It is fair to ask, after a year on the job, how she is doing in her attempt to implement her vision of a better future for the city.

Perhaps the central theme of her campaign was bridging the gap between the two Chicagos.

The answer is – she has done a lot but still faces daunting odds. Chicago did not become the segregated and highly unequal place that it is today all at once, and it will take more than a year to reverse course. But, as the saying goes, you have to start somewhere, and start she has.

Two good places to gage this shift in governing styles and priorities are the Mayor’s Budget Address and an examination of the appointments she has made to important administrative positions within city government. Let’s start with the address.


Budget Address – October 23, 2019

Lightfoot began her remarks with a values statement:

Chicago did not become the segregated and highly unequal place that it is today all at once, and that it will take more than a year to reverse course.

“Just over five months ago, our city came together in a transformative moment to begin building a city that was more transparent, equitable, and prosperous for every community member and every resident, embarking on a new day of good governance that made out city work for our families and communities, particularly in neighborhoods that have been historically disinvested.”

As a framing argument, this one is pretty clear. It is also what got her elected.

In her budget address, the Mayor knew she would have to walk a very fine line between the desire of the business community to see economic reforms that would repair the city’s badly damaged finances, and the desire of many Chicago residents to see more investment in overlooked communities and a fairer distribution of services across the city.

Accomplishing both of these competing goals would be hard for any mayor to pull off. This was made more difficult by the immediate need to balance the $838 million hole in the city’s annual budget. Chicago, unlike the United States, cannot print its own money. Lightfoot knew only too well that none of her platitudes about fairness and equality mattered if she could not first find a way to fill this gaping hole.

Lightfoot knew only too well that none of her platitudes about fairness and equality mattered if she could not first find a way to fill this gaping hole.

Lightfoot was determined to exercise fiscal responsibility while avoiding the mistakes of her predecessor. Fairly or not, former Mayor Rahm Emanuel was labeled “Mayor One Percent” for funneling investment and TIF money into favored downtown projects while closing schools and seemingly doing little to alleviate the downward spiral of the South and West Sides. Lightfoot seems to be no less aware of the critical importance of the downtown economy to the city’s overall economic health. But, unlike Emanuel, she is driven by the belief that Chicago cannot flourish when so many city neighborhoods continue to struggle and decline.

The budget address was notable for announcing that the Mayor had found a way to fill that $838 million gap without raising property taxes while still prioritizing some new investment in distressed areas. Her critics said that some of her budget “solutions” were gimmicks and that others were dependent on assistance from Springfield that was far from certain to be forthcoming. Nevertheless, the combination of operating efficiencies, avoidance of increasing property taxes, and carefully thought out revenue enhancements is representative of a Mayor who is striving to do what she can to both steward the city to better economic health while also using the resources of the city to help the neighborhoods that need it most.


Lightfoot’s Administrative Appointments

We expect a new administration to appoint new administrators. The Lightfoot administration is no exception to this rule. It is interesting to look at whom she has retained and whom she has replaced in key City positions. Let’s start with those whom she retained.

Perhaps the most notable retentions from the Emanuel administration are Judy Frydland, Commissioner of the Department of Buildings; Janice Jackson, Chicago Public Schools Superintendent; and Rosa Escareno, Commissioner of Business Affairs and Consumer Protections. All three women have solid reputations for competence and integrity. Ms. Frydland has made great strides bringing Chicago’s building codes up to modern standards; Janice Jackson was Lightfoot’s trusted partner in the difficult negotiations with the Chicago Teachers Union during last year’s CTU strike; and Rosa Escareno has a long history as a City Hall insider under both the Emanuel and Daley Administrations.

But Lightfoot has made some interesting changes as well. She appointed Candace Moore as the City’s first Chief Equality Officer, a new position intended to ensure that the city pay more attention to issues of equity and social justice. Lightfoot re-established the Department of Housing, appointing longtime community activist and former Metropolitan Planning Council policy expert, Marisa Novara, as its head. This appointment is a clear indication of the importance the new Mayor ascribes to housing, and affordable housing in particular.

She appointed Candace Moore as the City’s first Chief Equality Officer, a new position intended to ensure that the city pay more attention to issues of equity and social justice.

Other new Lightfoot appointments include Samir Mayekar as Deputy Mayor; Jannie Huang Bennett as Chief Financial Officer; Susie Park as Budget Director; Marielle Sainvilus as Chief of Communications; Samantha Fields as Head of Intergovernmental Affairs; Maurice Cox, recently with the City of Detroit, as Commissioner of Planning and Development; Thomas Carney as Commissioner of the Department of Transportation; Andrea Telli as Chicago Public Library Commissioner; and Mark Flessner at Corporation Counsel.

Lightfoot at first retained, and then fired, former Chicago Police Superintendent Eddie Johnson. While a permanent replacement for CPD Superintendent has yet to be found, Lightfoot’s interim Superintendent, Charlie Beck, has already shaken up the department with a redeployment of hundreds of higher-ranking officers from desk jobs back to the 22 police districts scattered around the city. Lightfoot is also committed to bringing CPD into compliance with the Consent Decree. By all accounts, CPD has been slow to implement the required Consent Decree reforms. Many rank and file CPD officers as well as the CPD’s union – the Fraternal Order of Police – remain bitterly opposed to this decree and its requirements.

There are certainly some common themes in both Lightfoot’s retentions and replacements. These include a considerable number of women and minority appointments, reflecting the new Mayor’s commitment to a diverse administration in a diverse city.

Lightfoot appears to have been surprised by the resignation of Eugene Jones, Jr. last year, the well-regarded Chicago Housing Authority CEO, who left to head up the Atlanta Housing Authority. This position remains unfilled with James Bebley acting as interim CEO.

There are certainly some common themes in both Lightfoot’s retentions and replacements. These include a considerable number of women and minority appointments, reflecting the new Mayor’s commitment to a diverse administration in a diverse city. Her appointees, both retained and new, are people of demonstrated accomplishment, integrity and competence.

There is no question that the Mayor wants to devote more time and energy to the issues of housing affordability and neighborhood development. Her reinstatement of the Department of Housing, and her choice of Maurice Cox to head the Planning Department, are clear indications of these priorities. And her appointment of Candace Moore as the city’s first Chief Equality Officer suggests that she wants to give more than lip service to issues of social justice.

There is no question that the Mayor wants to devote more time and energy to the issues of housing affordability and neighborhood development.

Mayor Lightfoot has clearly hit the ground running. She had little choice. The challenges she faces are extreme. To succeed, she will have to find a way to navigate the often conflicting goals of the city’s business establishment and its neighborhood activists. Both have legitimate needs and concerns. Neither side of this divide seems to trust or understand the other.

The new Mayor clearly wants to thread this needle and appears to be making a real effort to consider the needs of both business and communities in her decision-making. Her recent compromise over the 606 demolition moratorium is one example of this balance (see related article in this Newsletter). She did not ignore the community members who wanted relief from rising property values and rents; but neither did she ignore the business community that warned against overly harsh market intervention. In the end, neither side liked her decision – a good indication that she struck a reasonable compromise between the two camps.

Mayor Lightfoot has clearly hit the ground running. She had little choice. The challenges she faces are extreme.

Both her budget priorities and her appointment of competent administrators demonstrates her desire to serve as a responsible steward of the city’s economy, but also do more to help its neediest citizens and communities. We wish her every success. The city’s future depends on it.