Lightfoot didn’t mention that, according to Illinois Gov. J.B.Pritzker’s office, the city has failed to collect $30 million in refugee aid that’s been available since March because it hasn’t filed the needed paperwork. (City officials reply that preparing the required vouchers is complicated.) Or that Pilsen leaders including Ald. Byron Sigcho-Lopez, 25th, were about to open their own emergency shelter for migrants who have been sleeping in a nearby police station because the city hadn’t responded to proposals to use available churches and closed schools at this time of “emergency.”
So it has gone for Chicago’s 56th mayor as she prepares to turn over the keys to the city on Monday to Brandon Johnson.
Lightfoot had to deal with enormous medical and public safety crises that weren’t of her making, and did in many cases the best anyone could expect. But often times she’s led with her fist instead of an open hand, driving away potential allies. Combined with what is widely perceived around City Hall and among business leaders as having a handful of really talented people around her but far too few of them, it’s led to a city that too often just isn’t working. As in not preparing and being ready for an influx of migrants that Abbott and others have hinted for months would soon resume soon.
Lightfoot declined to be interviewed for this column. Except for budget-time appearances before Crain’s editorial board, she’s given no one in this organization an interview in three years. As someone who repeatedly interviewed mayors from Mike Bilandic, Jane Byrne and Harold Washington through Rahm Emanuel, I regret that.
But in talking to dozens of City Hall insiders and watchers in recent weeks, a picture emerges of a woman with solid ideas who got more of them implemented than is generally realized, but also someone whose status as an outsider and professional litigator did not serve her well in this role.
Among strong points are city finances, with Chicago finally having climbed the pension ramp and actually having begun to pay down billions in accumulated debt. And she landed the city owned casino that several of her predecessors wished for.
Another is her focus on development in long-neglected neighborhoods via her vaunted Invest South/West program. I fear it lacks the needed companion program: investment in the Chicago Transit Authority, so people in any neighborhood can easily access jobs downtown, and then go home to shop, eat, drink and recreate in their own neighborhoods. But the core equity idea is solid.
Lightfoot friends also note her ability to generate more affordable housing in Chicago, like an apartment complex on the Far Northwest Side that is needed to house airport workers but drew objections from the local alderman. They also mention tighter ethics rules passed on her watch, a worthy accomplishment but one that was surely made easier by contemporaneous federal corruption cases against former Aldermen Ed Burke, 14th, and Danny Solis, 25th.
But this mayor’s handling of public safety was a disaster — for people in every neighborhood in the city who just want to live in peace, for scared downtown office tenants, for police reform advocates and the police union alike. No one was happy. No one.
Ultimately, government is, to use one of Johnson’s favorite words, a “collaborative” process. And Lightfoot at heart isn’t a politician willing to cut a deal to get something done. She’s someone who wanted what she wanted, and on her timetable.
The result: NASCAR will roar through downtown Chicago in July with almost no neighborhood input. Chicago soon will have an elected school board that could result in total Chicago Teachers Union domination of the schools because Lightfoot didn’t know how to float her own ideas early and effectively. A third example: a needed transit experiment on the South Side and south suburbs, in which Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle got nothing but thumbs down from Lightfoot to her proposal to make better use of Metra lines.
“Once she had an issue with someone who rubbed her the wrong way, she wrote them off,” says a business leader who likes and has worked well with Lightfoot and who asked not to be named. “With her, it was all good and evil.”
It’s hard to run a government that way, at least a government that will work. And though Lightfoot probably is right that she was treated more harshly by the media than male predecessors who weren’t shy about cussing, dealing with the media is part of the job.
I hope “Citizen Lightfoot,” as she called herself the other day, stays around and stays active. Who knows, you even may hear from her again. We all have more to learn.
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May 12, 2023 at 06:55AM