Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot at Mid-Term

May 24, 2021

The face of failure

When Lori Lightfoot announced her bid to unseat then-Mayor Rahm Emanuel in May 2018, the Ohio native and former head of the Chicago Police Board and Chicago Police Accountability Task Force struck a pose as a seismic and completely heterodox politician. Over the past two-year period, Chicago residents have come to learn at halfway through her first term in office, Ms. Lightfoot has been a miserable failure. That Ms. Lightfoot has failed is not because of faulty policy, but because she has forsaken her duties as the leader of the City of Chicago. The three areas in which Lightfoot has failed most significantly are on budgetary matters, education and crime.

Running on a platform vowing to restore Chicago’s declining neighborhoods by addressing the pervasive, trans-generational poverty plaguing the Windy City, tackling alleged police misconduct and combating corruption in City Hall, Lightfoot eventually emerged to be a front runner among fourteen candidates for the mayor’s office. An "anybody but Rahm" race, in the 2019 general election, Lightfoot managed to overcome twelve other candidates and knocked out former Commerce Secretary Bill Daley, a member of the political dynasty which dominated Chicago politics for decades, to face Cook County’s "Mean Mom," Toni Preckwinkle, in a runoff. An election which Lightfoot narrowly survived, her one-point margin left her with terrifyingly little room for error in the election against Preckwinkle.

Weeks after eking out a victory in the general election to force the runoff, Lightfoot utterly dismantled Ms. Preckwinkle in a second electoral round in which the detested Cook County Board president astoundingly and hilariously managed to lose in every ward. Becoming the first gay, black woman to gain power over a large American city, Lightfoot, Chicago’s 56th mayor, only the third African American and second woman to have served in the mayor’s office, inherited formidable problems. A city with billions in unmet pension obligations, endemic corruption, a forlorn public school system and persistent violence, Lightfoot was viewed as a political outsider who had never run a political organization of any substantial size and did not have a ready-made team to bring on board. Forced to hire some experienced players who understood the machinery of municipal governance and Chicago’s uniquely tangled and oppressive bureaucracy, Lightfoot risked being co-opted by Chicago’s entrenched political class.  

Upon entering office in May 2019, Lightfoot naively believed if crime continued to trend downward and if the economy continued to hum along, she would have some breathing room to establish herself. A terrible miscalculation, after an exhausting first budget battle and a excruciating, two-week Chicago Public Schools (CPS) strike in 2019, crime rose sharply across Chicago, the COVID-19 pandemic struck, and Chicago suffered through an entire summer of rage and rioting. A test of leadership, Lightfoot learned there were no pharmaceutical fixes for such crises. While Ms. Lightfoot has won some plaudits for her first two years in the editorial pages of the Chicago Tribune and the Chicago Sun-Times, a growing number of residents have come to a clear understanding the 2019 mayoral election featured two unpalatable candidates for office and Lightfoot’s election victory appears less a mandate and more Ms. Lightfoot taking second place in a least-popular contest.

Now approaching a mid-point in her first term, after stumbling her way through the first two years in office, this is an appropriate moment to critique Lightfoot’s achievements and failures.

Ignoring the need for fiscal reform

After presiding over the least energetic and idea-free campaign in modern Chicago political history, Lori Lightfoot came into office determined to impose fiscal discipline over Chicago. Confronted with a cavernous $838-million budget deficit, Lightfoot vowed to close the gap but pledged not to do so on the backs of Chicago’s neediest. Advancing a budget which included an additional $50 million in spending, Lightfoot claimed the closure of the budget gap through $352.2 million in increased revenue, some of which was found in a levy on ride shares, $18 million in increases to property tax, and some very minor spending cuts. Ms. Lightfoot’s budget also relied on $163 million in federal funds which had not been authorized. A budget which passed 39-11, one year later, support from aldermen in the City Council to secure passage for Lightfoot’s second budget package fell by ten votes.

Once considered a reliable rubber stamp for Chicago mayors, opposition to Lightfoot’s year-two budget rest in a modest increase to property taxes. Termed the “pandemic” budget, what was embraced by aldermen was a $3.7 billion capital plan. A spending project investing in infrastructure spread out over five years, Lightfoot’s vision is for improvements to roads, sidewalks and would fund the replacement of streetlights and traffic signals. A $12.8 billion budget, the spending bill passed also included raises to the motor fuel and cloud tax.

Though Ms. Lightfoot claimed her first budget was the first step toward restoring fiscal health to the city’s finances and proclaimed it a “balanced” budget, neither budget proposal the mayor forwarded to the city’s legislative chamber was truly balanced. A pastiche of select tax increases and onetime, quick fixes, Lightfoot may have avoided imposing an extortionate property tax on residents, but she consciously avoided making difficult decisions over broad structural reform in the budget and dodged making needed cuts to personnel within Chicago’s sprawling bureaucracy. Moreover, while a casino deal is expected mitigate the financial catastrophe of municipal pensions, no gambling revenue is expected to flow until 2025.

There is not, to put it mildly, an obvious fix for Chicago’s budgetary woes. Nevertheless, Ms. Lightfoot’s refusal to adopt any serious structural reforms to help Chicago dig itself out of the fiscal dislocation in which it finds itself and her declining to make steep cuts to the budget and the public workforce have only worsened Chicago’s budget problems. More troubling, Lightfoot lacks the political weight and wisdom to pressure state officials to fix the glaring problem related to municipal pensions.

Capitulating to the Chicago Teachers Union

Though Lightfoot implausibly claimed a victory when guiding two budgets through the City Council, much of her other troubles following her inauguration originated with Chicago’s hopelessly broken schools and the shiftless Chicago Teachers Union (CTU). While most of the difficulty with the CPS rests with the CTU’s intransigence, the lone bright spot which may offer hope to students facing a bleak future was Lightfoot committing herself to expanding career and technical education (CTE) programs in Chicago schools.

This is a brilliant move for which the mayor deserves effusive praise. Lightfoot reversing Arne Duncan’s god-awful decision ridding schools of CTE curriculum gives pupils opting against entering college — many of whom are living in suboptimal conditions to begin — a chance at learning needed skills for the workplace while enrolled in CPS schools. Through CTE, students can learn skills and gain practical work experience through internships, on-the-job training, or earn industry certification in CPS schools almost immediately after receiving a high school diploma.

Regarding the CPS, however, other than a plan to return CTE to schools, Lightfoot deserves no recognition for allowing the CTU to continue to inflict dire damage on Chicago’s students. Shortly after classes resumed for the fall term, the CTU voted to strike on October 16, 2019. A walkout which led to the city’s longest school strike in decades, following two weeks of grueling negotiations, educators and students returned to class after Mayor Lightfoot waved a white flag to the union. A complete capitulation to the CTU, by clicking her heels in deference to the CTU, Lightfoot agreed to the absurd demand job protections be extended to substitute teachers, and a cap on the number of students enrolled in charter schools.

A term the CTU insisted on to protect its monopoly over public schools, Lightfoot similarly bowed to the CTU on payments to health insurance, reductions to class size, and the end of hiring non-union nurses. Most important for the CTU, Lightfoot kowtowed to the union by throwing accountability on the top of the garbage heap. Distributing more gifts at the expense of students, Lightfoot acquiesced on the CTU’s demand the joint union-school board commission weigh “mitigate[ing] or eliminate any disproportionate impacts of observations or student growth measures.” Put differently, neither student achievement nor overall performance is a factor in evaluating professional educators.

A contract in which the CTU walked away with a $1.5 billion pay raise along with almost every other item on its laundry list of demands, what made Lightfoot’s cascade of concessions to the CTU so thoroughly appalling was the fact it rewarded educators in a failing school system in which only 81 percent of students graduate, 22 percent are chronically truant and whose performance on the National Assessment of Educational Progress continues to lag. A contract in which the city paid dearly for five more years of malfunctioning schools, only Lori Lightfoot, with all her attachment to high-minded ideals and illusory promises of better schools, would exchange some of the hard-won gains from the CTU on behalf of students only to see them rendered meaningless or forfeited in lopsided negotiations with the CTU.

Despite being thrashed by the teacher’s union, Lightfoot declared victory and played the role of conquering hero. Months later, the menace of the CTU returned when the coronavirus battered the globe. A pandemic which caused disruptions in daily lives unseen since the September 11th attacks, it became a matter of good municipal government to take the most rigorous precautions to blunt the spread of the virus. Temporarily shuttering schools made the best sense. However, as virologists, researchers and public-health experts discovered more about COVID-19, evidence showed schools were not the incubators once thought to be; children were at low risk; they contracted the malady at low rates and transmitted the virus at even lower rates.

Though available evidence was rooted in clinical data, the CTU ignored scientific inquiry and marshalled all their efforts against in-school instruction. After months of dilatory tactics, including the knowledge remote earning was wholly unproductive, in August 2020 the CTU leadership rolled out a set of demands they insisted be met prior to re-opening schools for the fall 2020 term. A cornucopia of the Progressive Left’s punch list, little of which was material to education, while the CTU stalled and exhaustively lobbied to keep pupils learning remotely, it tinged its public statements with apocalyptic language and routinely impugned the character, conduct and motives of critics in an endless fusillade of venomous and unhinged attacks on social media. In addition to hyperventilating about the end of human existence and skewering detractors on Twitter, the CTU disregarded an outgrowth of its inflexibility on the resumption of classes: The alarming emotional toll on children remaining out of school.

Researchers worldwide investigating the impact of the lockdowns and remote learning discovered disturbing trends among children, recording a decline in mental health, primarily depression, anxiety, and the effects of loss of socialization. Some social scientists fear the deterioration in a child’s mental health could linger long after the pandemic subsides. This, of course, was over and above the fact hundreds of thousands of CPS students had lost out on an entire year of academic learning.

The damage the CTU had wrought could hardly be clearer when the union-led school closures are compared to the success story achieved by Chicago’s private schools, many of which opened in the fall of 2020. Though a majority of the Catholic or independent schools are non-union, educators and staff carried out their duties during the COVID-19 crisis. While some risks existed, faculty and staff engaged with pupils in Chicago’s private institutions faced no greater danger of infection than other essential workers who turned out for work every day. The re-opening of private schools had demonstrated students could return safely.

Though Lightfoot did pressure the CTU over re-opening schools, she proved herself a lousy negotiator and, worse, weak-willed. As the battle over school closures intensified and vaccines were more available, the conflict reached a broiling climax in February 2020 when CTU officials Jesse Sharkey and Stacy Davis Gates brazenly revealed plans for a prolonged strike and expressed the union’s alarm over facing a protracted legal battle planned by parents to force the CTU to return to work. Though leverage at the bargaining table had swung in her favor, Lightfoot spurned an opportunity to curtail the CTU’s power by using the authority of the courts to defang the union. Although it is conceivable Lightfoot is utterly bereft of the personal or political grit to brawl with the CTU — the CTU does prefer to duke it out in the gutter — it cannot be ruled out Lightfoot preferred schools remain closed. After all, it is far more difficult for Mayor Lightfoot to plead poverty and ask for billions in federal relief for closed schools if the schools are open for business. 

A colossal failure on the mayor’s part, by allowing the CTU to extract numerous concessions during the strike in 2019, the CTU knew it had an irresolute negotiating partner in Lightfoot during COVID. Ms. Lightfoot genuflecting to the union on both occasions was flawed, certainly; it was the wrong approach for the wrong foe. For one, Lightfoot thought she was appealing to the CTU’s reason, treating union leadership as rational actors in discussions over re-opening schools. The mayor was terribly wrong and, sadly, Ms. Lightfoot has yet to realize the CTU views negotiations with the City of Chicago as a zero-sum game and the union does not negotiate in good faith.

A city living in fear

Though Ms. Lightfoot has enjoyed one or two modest successes, her failures are stacking up. Outside of showing no indication she understands the fiscal severity Chicago finds itself in and her failure to face down the CTU, perhaps the mayor’s greatest flop is over crime and public safety. To be fair, Ms. Lightfoot is not entirely responsible for the eroding conditions on the streets. Although fault for crime must be shared with Cook County’s comically incompetent prosecutor Kim Foxx — crime did, of course, exist before Lightfoot arrived in office — but together the pair have created a culture of impunity.

Nevertheless, since taking office, too often Ms. Lightfoot has demonstrated she does not merely lack the resolve to fight crime, but rather ignores violence on the streets. Over the past two years, several instances and actions reveal her inclination to turn away from crime and direct the public from it. Early on after being sworn into office, Lightfoot created then quickly scrapped “Accountability Monday.” A showpiece created to demonstrate she was in control of the Chicago Police Department to appease critics of police, after several pointless meetings with high-ranking police leaders, Lightfoot discontinued the gatherings with no explanation.

Through the fall of 2019, although homicides dropped from the prior year, Lightfoot faced her first trial when forced to dismiss Eddie Johnson after the former superintendent drove to his home whilst his brain was lubricated by alcohol. In one of the rare moments when she exercised good judgment, Lightfoot named former Chief of the Los Angeles Police Department Charlie Beck as acting superintendent. In his brief tenure, Beck helped immensely by suspending merit promotions and made changes to policy and police strategy, all of which was welcomed by the rank-and-file. During Beck’s time as interim superintendent, several high-ranking department personnel opted for retirement.

However, after Beck’s departure, Lightfoot committed a terrible error: The mayor hired David Brown, the former Chief of the Dallas Police Department. Since becoming superintendent, Brown is known for often barricading himself in his office, eschewing duties during times of crisis, and appointing known incompetents to crucial positions of authority in the upper echelons of the CPD. A man of mediocre qualifications, though no one was anticipating Brown to be the next messiah, Chicago would have settled for the undistinguished career Brown established in Dallas. Unfortunately, Brown has fallen far short of mediocrity while serving the Windy City and for the sake of Chicago, Ms. Lightfoot should have allowed Brown to remain in retirement.

If Ms. Lightfoot’s only error on policing and the routine disorder engulfing Chicago was appointing Brown, she may have been forgiven. However, what occurred in the summer of 2020 only revealed Ms. Lightfoot was selfishly devoted to self-preservation, was willing to give Black Lives Matter (BLM) and criminal opportunists a veneer of respectability, and unwilling to admit any lapse of judgment.

A summer which came to exemplify BLM and Antifa barbarism, as rioters and looters protesting the death of George Floyd in late May 2020 rampaged through Chicago assaulting police, smashing windows, overturning cars and setting buildings ablaze, Lightfoot showed no concern with the notion Chicago could persist in a continuous state of unrest and dismissed a legitimate threat to civic comity all to easily and too glibly. A complete breakdown of mayoral authority, Lightfoot failed to realize the swiftest way to impede the danger posed by the wanton violence on Chicago’s streets would be to direct the forces of law and order, the CPD, to defeat it. This involves not just simple proactivity on the part of CPD to arrest wrongdoers and a commitment by the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office to impose criminal penalties, but for the mayor to publicly and forcefully articulate without reservation or qualification the unacceptability of criminal behavior and the legal obligation of residents to obey police. That Lightfoot did not censure BLM and Antifa violence demonstrated the mayor’s solidarity with intemperate demonstrators. Unsurprisingly, Lightfoot’s refusal to offer any word of condemnation only hardened the resolve of both violent groups.  

However, while the city fell under the control of a rowdy band of anti-police protesters, instead of denouncing protesters’ orgiastic tantrum of property destruction and shaking with rage at the mistreatment of officers, Lightfoot reserved her ire only for police. In several public statements amid the rioting in May and June 2020, including a televised address to the city, Lightfoot rarely mentioned the violent rabble reducing Chicago to ashes and lashed out at police for obscene figure gestures directed at protesters and police taking steps to conceal their identification and service number. Making matters worse, as order was restored, Lightfoot held a 55-minute press briefing with, of all characters, Congressman Bobby Rush, to eviscerate a group of officers who had taken refuge in the congressman’s south-side office. Standing side by side with the ex-Black Panther, Lightfoot declared a dozen men, exhausted after over a week of 12-hour days, were negligent in their duties to minority residents, with nary a word of condemnation for property destruction which required the extra police presence in the first place.

One month later, in mid-July, Lightfoot intensified her attacks on police when a violent mob of demonstrators attacked two dozen police as officers were attempting to defend the Christopher Columbus statue on the south end of Grant Park. An attempt by social justice rogues to “purify” history, as officers guarded the monument to the Italian explorer, they came under siege from fireworks and were pelted with frozen water bottles. Members of the mob attacking police were also armed with home-made spears. An assault on police from an unruly crowd captured on film and shown around the world, as police were ordered to disperse a crowd intent on destroying public property, they clashed with police. Reacting to the chaos, Mayor Lightfoot declined to defend officers, refused to condemn attacks on officers and used her public statements and social media to urge protesters to contact the Civilian Office of Police Accountability (COPA) to lodge complaints against police.

Hardly a way to build respect for the law and the police who enforce it, as Lightfoot witnessed public property destroyed and officers assaulted, she diverted attention away from the rampant criminality and property damage to focus on the alleged heavy-handedness of police efforts to restore law and order.

For the remainder of 2020, Lightfoot remained silent about the epidemic of crime engulfing Chicago, often using the coronavirus to deflect from violence. Nevertheless, it took the shooting death of an armed 13-year-old gang member in the Little Village neighborhood in March 2021 for the mayor to address crime. A peculiar time to address a shooting in Chicago, Ms. Lightfoot's comments followed her deafening silence over two officer suicides and an increase in gunfire directed at police.

After responding to a ShotSpotter detecting gunfire in the vicinity of the 2300 block of South Sawyer on March 29, police arrived and took one man, Ruben Roman Jr. into custody. Sadly, the other offender, an armed Adam Toledo, fled. Pursued by police down an alley, Toledo ignored repeated lawful commands to halt and surrender. While fleeing from police, Toledo attempted to dispose of the weapon while standing in the gap of a fence in a way which would convince the officer he was unarmed. After discarding the weapon, Toledo swiftly turned and raised his hands. As Toledo turned, the officer, still believing Toledo was armed, sensed an imminent threat and was sadly compelled to use lethal force. Had Toledo obeyed lawful commands from police, dropped the weapon, and surrendered immediately, the armed teen would have survived his encounter with police. Even if Toledo had fled and approached the fence and dropped the weapon in full view of the pursuing officer, he may still be alive. That Toledo chose to deceptively rid himself of the weapon is the sole reason he was fatally struck by police.

Unfortunately, Mayor Lightfoot saw none of this. Though Ms. Lightfoot did not implicitly criticize police in an April 5 appearance at Little Village’s New Life Community Church, Lightfoot did not defend police. Vintage Lightfoot, the staged event was suitable for framing. During her briefing, Lightfoot shifted frantically and cast blame on anyone or anything except an armed 13-year-old’s deliberate involvement in criminal activity. By vowing to crack down on guns and to find the people responsible for placing a gun in Adam Toledo’s hands, Ms. Lightfoot’s comments, in effect, treated an armed 13-year-old gang member as a blameless pawn. A soft-lens moment, Lightfoot choked back tears as she moralized about social sicknesses to paint fault for Adam Toledo’s death not on neglectful mothers, absent fathers or a broken moral order, but on society. Instead of placing blame where it belonged, on Adam Toledo, the mayor’s resolution was to advance a plan to restrict police foot chases. A move which will handcuff police ability to carry out their duties, Lightfoot’s notion fatalities would be reduced by limiting police capacity to remove criminals from the streets assuaged, at least temporarily, the rage of community activists. Unsurprisingly, Lightfoot never mentioned a word about compliance with lawful commands from police, the frantic attempts by police to resuscitate Toledo, and offered no compassion for a despondent officer who was forced take Toledo’s life.

Lightfoot’s entire approach to crime at this point in her term has been misguided and fraught with one mistake in judgment after another. Lightfoot is failing to recognize crime is a problem which must be met with vigilance and policing. A great disservice to Chicago residents, for the mayor to concentrate only on alleged police “brutality” in every police-related incident is only distracting attention from the real problem, which is the shocking upsurge in violent crime over the past year.

Worse yet, her compulsion with alleged police “abuse” has created an atmosphere which has led to unnecessary police reform and restrictions on proven police strategies. The results have been devastating: Continuing to adopt reform has only aggravated or broadened Chicago’s crime epidemic. Worse, the effect is rendering police powerless and discouraging police from fully carrying out their duties. An eternal challenge of society, if crime is left uncontrolled, it will result in historic highs in homicide rates. While Chicago may never banish crime entirely, allowing police to create and apply innovative anti-crime strategies will be a first step in saving lives and preserving Chicago.

Under Lori Lightfoot, Chicago resembles a prison with the mayor as warden

Chicago has no shortage of disastrous mayors. While there are many who could be primary contenders for the title of Chicago’s worst mayor, Michael Bilandic, the endearing buffoon who served briefly as mayor following the death of Richard J. Daley, would certainly compete for a place near the top. For her bearing during the first two years of her term in office, Ms. Lightfoot has demonstrated she is worthy of such an ignominy.

Over the past two years, Chicago residents have learned a great deal about Mayor Lightfoot. While Ms. Lightfoot tends to conduct herself with a firmness and a refusal to be dismissed, the mayor has revealed she is utterly intolerant of opposing views, surprisingly fragile and easily intimidated. A woman prone to bluster and outbursts, Lightfoot has demonstrated she improvises often, chances her luck and searches for distractions when crises emerge. Cowed by the Chicago Teachers Union twice and bullied by rioters and looters, people have caught onto Lightfoot’s little ways. Residents have come to understand Ms. Lightfoot is not a seasoned politician, but a loutish neophyte who managed to get elected mayor. Chicagoans have learned the mayor prefers to jawbone about problems rather than fix them.

Through a summer of riots and looting, Chicago's citizens now understand Lightfoot views BLM-and-Antifa-led civil unrest a valuable expression of zeal in support of a morally righteous cause. Residents also understand Lightfoot’s priorities are heavy on gender equality, equity and diversity, and relatively light on good budgetary sense, reining in a deranged teacher’s union and fighting crime. While these principles may be praiseworthy in a community organizer, they are fatal for a big-city mayor.

The problem here, of course, is great issues are at stake and Ms. Lightfoot is the mayor of Chicago. By evading difficult decisions on the budget and ignoring Chicago’s mounting financial difficulties, Lightfoot is allowing Chicago to borrow and sink further in debt. By refusing to stand up to an avaricious CTU, Lightfoot is handing control of Chicago’s schools to an unbalanced labor union. By ignoring crime, declining to reject anti-police sloganeering and refusing to back the legitimacy of police, Lightfoot is allowing a portion of Chicago’s population to believe the city is patrolled by a police department resembling the Belgian Force Publique.

It is the duty of the mayor of the City of Chicago to make difficult choices. Until Mayor Lightfoot begins to treat fiscal responsibility, the education of Chicago’s children, and the safety and security of all residents as not merely as goals but as imperatives, Chicago will continue to decline.

Related Posts