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Lightfoot’s ‘helluva’ first year culminates in pandemic that will define her tenure

Chicago Sun Times

‘Nobody comes into office thinking they’re gonna have to deal with a pandemic before they even hit their one-year anniversary,’ says Chicago’s first African American female and first openly gay mayor.

No matter how long it lasts or what else she says and does, Lori Lightfoot’s tenure as mayor of Chicago will be defined by the coronavirus.

Shutting down the lakefront. Cutting off citywide liquor sales. Driving around the city to personally break up large gatherings, inspiring a hilarious string of memes that softened her hard edges.

Her self-declared war on poverty made infinitely more difficult in black and Hispanic neighborhoods that have borne the brunt of the layoffs and deaths.

The stay-at-home shutdown of the Chicago economy that will blow a giant hole in her precariously balanced budget. The strike-shortened school year cut even shorter. And a Chicago City Council rebellion that gained steam during the mayor’s 29-to-21 fight for emergency contracting and spending authority.

“If she is able to guide us through this incredibly difficult time and Chicago emerges stronger, she is going to be viewed historically as one of the city’s greatest mayors,” said former Ald. Joe Moore (49th). “But, boy, it is daunting.”

Democratic political consultant Peter Giangreco said the “most important measure of any executive is to show strong leadership” during a crisis, and Lightfoot has “hit that one out of the park.

“She’s got to keep leveling with people,” said Giangreco, who advised Susana Mendoza’s losing mayoral campaign against Lightfoot. “She’s at her best when she’s telling people inconvenient truths.”

Wednesday will mark the one-year anniversary of Lightfoot’s historic inauguration as the first African American female and first openly gay mayor of Chicago.

“It’s been a helluva year,” Lightfoot told the Chicago Sun-Times. “Nobody comes into office thinking they’re gonna have to deal with a pandemic before they even hit their one-year anniversary… It’s been a humbling experience.

“I’m not gonna say that there haven’t been days where I shed a tear. I have. I’ve wept for the loss. I’ve wept for the hardship that so many people are suffering. But I know that they rely upon me to…pick myself up and get back into the fight every single day.”

It seems forever ago that Lightfoot used her inaugural address to portray the city council as corrupt, stripped aldermen of their “prerogative” over licensing and permitting in their wards and used her first council meeting to humiliate now-indicted Ald. Edward Burke (14th).

Since then, Lightfoot has been faced with so many controversies that she jokingly has compared herself to the central character in the bible’s Book of Job.

She erased what she said was an $838 million shortfall — without a massive property tax increase — by balancing her $11.6 billion budget with assumptions and one-time revenues.

During the budget battle, Lightfoot angrily accused ride-hailing giant Uber of “paying off” black ministers with an offer of $54 million to kill her $40 million congestion fee. The unsubstantiated charge offended the ministers, a powerful political force.

After the council vote, the mayor again showed how intolerant she is to dissent. She used her political action committee to shame the 11 aldermen who dared to vote against a budget they said “woefully underfunds” affordable housing and mental health.

Lightfoot also endured an 11-day teachers strike that ended, only after she lost the public relations battle to a machine-like Chicago Teachers Union and essentially gave away the store to the union that backed her vanquished opponent Toni Preckwinkle, the Cook County Board president.

The end came only after Lightfoot removed the line she had stubbornly drawn in the sand by compensating teachers for five of the 11 days they had spent on strike. Still, the six-day pay cut so infuriated CTU leaders that they refused to stand with the mayor when the agreement was announced. Bitterness from that episode still lingers on both sides.

The firing of police Supt. Eddie Johnson was another key moment in Lightfoot’s first year. Even after Johnson was found slumped over the wheel of his police SUV near his Bridgeport home — and told the mayor that happened after he had dinner and drinks with friends — Lightfoot allowed Johnson to announce his own retirement and held a celebratory news conference in his honor.

A few weeks later, a livid Lightfoot fired Johnson after accusing the superintendent she inherited of “lying to me and lying to the public” about the circumstances surrounding the Oct. 17, 2019, incident. She got even with a vengeance, placing Johnson on City Hall’s do-not-hire list.

To David Greising, the Better Government Association’s president and chief executive officer, the ugly firing of one of Chicago’s most popular police superintendents showed Lightfoot “maturing” on the job.

“She went from being doubtful he could do the job to learning she needed to rely on him through the summer, then deciding he wasn’t the person going forward, yet trusting his first version of what happened at the asleep-behind-the-wheel-of-a-parked-car episode to then being lied to and, in a pique, saying more than she needed to about what had gone on there,” Greising said. “It was not her finest hour.”

Garry McCarthy, the former police superintendent-turned-mayoral candidate, doesn’t care about the circuitous path Lightfoot took to get rid of Johnson. What matters to McCarthy is she ended up in the right place.

“You can’t hold police officers accountable for lying and not hold the police chief accountable for the same thing,” he said.

Johnson’s firing hastened the arrival of retired Los Angeles police Chief Charlie Beck, a policing heavyweight lured by Lightfoot’s public safety gravitas.

Beck didn’t just sit there. Taking on the dirty work, he ended merit promotions and engineered a massive police shakeup while running things until the arrival of former Dallas police Chief David Brown.

The manner in which Lightfoot got her choice, in Brown, generated its own controversy. A former Chicago Police Board president whose recommendations were ignored by former Mayor Rahm Emanuel, Lightfoot said the selection process “only has legitimacy if you follow it.”

Lightfoot had her eye on Brown from the moment she fired Johnson. She chose Brown one day after the board made public its list of three finalists and made certain the other two finalists had nowhere near Brown’s experience so that the choice would appear obvious. It was hardly the “transparency” she had promised.

Before returning to Los Angeles, Beck said there were “two pandemics that face Chicago — and only one of them is virus-induced.”

Now, Brown is on the clock to find a solution for the pandemic induced by gangs and gun violence.

“The courts are effectively closed,” Lightfoot said. “The jail is closed. Our federal partners that we rely upon are at home and not doing what they normally do from a criminal justice standpoint. Our Chicago Police Department is standing effectively alone. And guess what? They’re human beings. They’ve been getting sick. Some have died.

“Trying to figure out how you police in this really difficult environment is the challenge of a lifetime. I joked with David Brown the other day. I called and said, ‘I hope you’re not heading back to Dallas.’ ”

The April 11 demolition debacle in Little Village triggered, yet another controversy, this one at the worst possible time.

Armed with a city demolition permit that Ald. Mike Rodriguez (22nd) tried to block, a subcontractor hired by Hilco Redevelopment Partners demolished a 95-year-old smokestack at the site of a shuttered coal-fired power plant without abiding by the safety measures it had promised to implement.

A giant plume of dust rained down on the community, making it difficult to breathe during a coronavirus pandemic that does the same.

Desperate to minimize the political fallout, Lightfoot blamed Hilco, slapped the company with $68,000 in fines and vowed to overhaul the city’s regulatory system. She also denied that her executive order stripping aldermen of control over licensing and permitting had set the stage for the demolition disaster and lashed out at aldermen who said otherwise.

Council members who pushed back against Lightfoot’s request for expanded spending and contracting authority for the duration of the pandemic similarly were denounced as “shameful,” “selfish” grandstanders willing to put politics over public health.

Lightfoot got her way after a 29-to-21 vote not seen since the 1980’s power struggle known as Council Wars that saw 29 aldermen, most of them white, thwart former Mayor Harold Washington’s every move.

But the close vote and thin-skinned prelude to it signals trouble may be ahead when the shutdown ends and painful, budget-balancing decisions begin.

“She is willing to put opponents in their place in order to make a point about the power dynamic between her and her opponent,” Greising said. “Does she do that to make an important point, as she did in her smackdown of Ed Burke? Or does she just do that to kind of show off in a way that’s not constructive?

“If she has unnecessarily dismissed people or embarrassed them or called into question their value as representatives of their wards, has she cost herself in terms of being able to advance her agenda?”

Apparently referring to earlier skirmishes with aldermen over aldermanic prerogative, recreational marijuana and gay setasides, Moore agreed that Lightfoot “has to do a better job of relating to the city council” because her “margin for error is diminishing.

“Clearly, there are lot more socialists and uber-left progressives who are gonna vote against her no matter what because she is adopting a very pragmatic governing style,” he said. “But a few of those 21 votes were — based on my conversations with my former colleagues — just aldermen who feel like they’re being disrespected.

“That would be the one area that…she needs improvement on. But, overall, ironically, she’s governing in the same pragmatic style as Rahm Emanuel. She may not like the comparison, but it’s very similar in terms of policy. The only difference is Rahm…did a very good job of building relationships with members of the city council, [and it showed] when they were called upon to cast difficult votes.”

Former Ald. Pat O’Connor (40th), who was Emanuel’s floor leader, said the council “could become a growing problem” for Lightfoot but not until life in Chicago returns to some semblance of normalcy.

“If you’ve got a life-threatening infection, you’re not worried about the fact you’ve got a hangnail somewhere,” O’Connor said. “She’s not gonna worry about what she needs from them until she needs it, while she can do the things with the pandemic that she’s got to do.”

Until the pandemic brought normal life to a halt, Lightfoot’s biggest concern was her war on poverty and her plan to target 10 inner-city neighborhoods for an unprecedented $250 million city investment and $500 million more from other government agencies.

She delivered a $15-an-hour minimum wage and a predictable scheduling ordinance — signature victories for organized labor. She pushed through the first installment of her plan to go easier on scofflaws.

But she still was being pressured from the left to deliver civilian police review, a police contract that makes it easier to discipline officers and more money for the homeless and affordable housing.

Now, COVID-19 occupies nearly every waking moment for Lightfoot and makes intransigent problems worse.

“The vulnerabilities of our city — poverty, the lack of access to health care, disparities in investment and jobs — those vulnerabilities are flashing like a neon sign every single day,” the mayor said.

“Black people are dying at an absolutely unfathomably high rate. Now, we’re seeing this huge surge of cases in the Latinx community…We’ve got to speed up the work. We don’t have the time to contemplate and think great thoughts.”

Jacky Grimshaw, who was one of Washington’s closest advisers, said Lightfoot “bit the bullet to do something that other mayors, really since Harold,” wouldn’t, confronting “inequities in the city and the way services are delivered.”

One element of that was appointing a chief equity officer.

Grimshaw said Lightfoot’s nonbinding “Housing Solidarity Pledge” was a disappointment and that she’s worried about a spike in foreclosures, evictions and homelessness tied to the coronavirus unless there is real rent relief.

But she said, “Maybe this was the best deal she could get. At least, she was trying to get something in terms of relief, even though it didn’t go far enough.”

Grimshaw was particularly impressed with the stay-at-home public service announcements engineered by marketing guru Michael Fassnacht. They have turned Lightfoot into an international celebrity.

“It wasn’t her doing in terms of creating the memes,” said Grimshaw, vice president for government affairs at the Center for Neighborhood Technology. “But she had the right person ….to help her, and she was willing to take his suggestions.

“She understood that it was a harsh thing to cut off the lakefront, and you couldn’t just be mean about it. You had to try and give people an understanding of why you had to make the decisions you made.”

Lightfoot’s tough-love message is not getting through to millennials, though. They have continued to party, oblivious to the stay-at-home order. That’s likely to only get worse as temperatures rise and the lakefront remains closed.

She has been criticized for strolling up to a playground and lecturing African American men playing basketball during the pandemic.

Chicago’s steely-eyed mayor makes no apologies. She said she is just trying to be “who I am: strong and steady.”

Lightfoot said it’s been a “different year than I would have predicted,” but she “wouldn’t trade a second of it — except for the loss of life.

“Not just from the pandemic,” she said. “The loss of life for gun violence. That still haunts me.”

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