Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot 100 days in -- reform at City Hall still a work in progress: 'We haven't declared victory, but I think we've taken some very positive steps'

2019-08-28 | Chicago Tribune

Aug. 28-- Aug. 28--On her way to becoming Chicago's 56th mayor, long-shot Lori Lightfoot trounced a historic number of candidates by brandishing her experience as a former federal prosecutor and her promise to clean up City Hall.

Just days after her inauguration this spring, Lightfoot presided over her first City Council meeting and shut down Ald. Edward Burke, who had become the most recent face of alleged public corruption in a body that's seen dozens of aldermen go to prison over the years.

"Alderman, I will call you when I'm ready to hear from you," she told Burke, the longest-serving City Council member -- and then did not for the rest of the meeting.

Publicly, the new mayor got her share of props, but behind the scenes one unnamed alderman came to her office and told her, "a number of members of City Council felt like I was a little too harsh ... and that I was a little too prosecutorial in the way I responded to his challenge about the new City Council rules."

That private conversation, as the mayor recounted, happened the same day Burke was indicted on wide-ranging federal public corruption charges, to which he's pleaded not guilty.

"So that's the environment in which we'll work, but I'm not daunted by that," Lightfoot said. "Change has to come."

As Lightfoot marks her 100th day in office on Wednesday, she said she feels good about what her administration has done so far, but knows reform is still very much in progress.

"Changing the culture that aldermanic prerogative is such a part of has not been easy, it's not over, we haven't declared victory," Lightfoot said. "But I think we've taken some very positive steps."

Since taking office on May 20, Lightfoot has signed an executive order aimed at limiting the power aldermen wield in city departments and got the City Council's unanimous approval of her ethics reform package, which includes measures aldermen have long opposed.

But her first 100 days efforts encompassed more than government ethics.

Faced with gun violence that's even garnered national attention from President Donald Trump and his daughter Ivanka, Lightfoot has held weekly "accountability" meetings with police to stress urgency. She also pushed through a fair workweek ordinance requiring businesses give workers more advance notice of schedules -- a progressive measure previously quashed by former Mayor Rahm Emanuel.

She's also proposing changes to the city's fines and fees program, which she calls an "addiction" that hurts the working poor.

"Have we done everything in 100 days? Of course not. Is there a lot more that needs to be done? Yes," Lightfoot said. "But I feel very good about where we are and also setting the right tone for city government."

The first-time elected official also said she feels good about her City Hall team.

Despite her early victories, Lightfoot faces challenging days ahead. On Thursday, she's expected to unveil a budget deficit approaching $1 billion, and several major unions still haven't resolved their contracts. A potential teachers strike looms.

Many aldermen are privately upset with her for not communicating with them enough and for stripping some of their powers.

Lightfoot, who entered office after winning all 50 wards and 74% of the vote, also is grappling with criticism from some progressives that she hasn't been enough of a break with Emanuel.

Ald. Tom Tunney, 44th, whose ward includes Lakeview, said she's done well on ethics reform and the scheduling ordinance. But, he says, "We're going to have a tough budget season."

"I think part of that is bringing in aldermen and trying to figure out how we collectively can settle on a budget and try to make sure that it works for everybody, including, I would hope, lessening the dependence on property taxes," Tunney said. "I think that's going to be a really big challenge, and of course, you know, behind the teachers union contract is police and fire."

Contracts and finances

After Lightfoot's Thursday evening address, she plans to hold neighborhood town halls across the city. The administration also is conducting an online survey asking people to weigh in with their fiscal priorities, as well as which taxes they would increase to offset its expected budget hole.

How Lightfoot fills the shortfall could be politically unpopular, as the city's next budget is certain to include some sort of tax increases.

Southwest side Ald. George Cardenas, 12th, predicted a "robust debate" around the budget.

"I can tell you we're going to look for a solution, and it's not going to be just rubber-stamping a property tax or any notion," Cardenas said. "I think we're going to have robust discussions about what decision we make. We're going to have to tighten our belt."

South Side Ald. David Moore, 17th, said it's long been known that the budget would have a major shortfall and the public will appreciate Lightfoot being "honest about the numbers." But once that's done, development on the city's South and West sides will be important for her to focus on, Moore said.

It's not yet clear how Lightfoot plans to offset the expected budget hole, but she's approached legislators in Springfield for help and floated some ideas that could include a sales tax on professional services, which Illinois lawmakers would need to authorize. In July, Lightfoot also said she might pursue raising the real estate transfer tax on expensive property sales.

Lightfoot was sworn into office shortly before the state legislative session ended and didn't get a bailout from Springfield. The legislature did pass a bill allowing a Chicago casino, though a recent consultant's report said the tax structure lawmakers approved was "very onerous" and could fail to attract an investor.

Nevertheless, local officials hope Lightfoot's attempts to build relationships with state lawmakers will pay off down the line for Chicago. Ald. Harry Osterman, 48th, a former state rep whose ward includes parts of Uptown, Edgewater and Andersonville, praised her efforts.

"She spent some quality time in Springfield before the end of session, which I think, as a former state rep, it's needed that there's a good relationship between the governor, the mayor, the legislative leaders but also the rank and file," Osterman said. "I think that was important for her to go down there and spend time and develop relationships."

In addition to pushing through her first spending plan, Lightfoot could spend this fall sparring with the Chicago Teachers Union, which on Monday rejected a fact-finder's report that largely sided with the mayor.

CTU's decision started the clock ticking on a potential teachers strike. The union's leadership wants a shorter contract with more promises on staffing for social workers, librarians and nurses. Lightfoot has stopped short of agreeing to include contract language addressing the school staffing shortages the union has identified as a key facet of any deal, but has said it's in the district's budget.

CTU Vice President Stacy Davis Gates, a frequent Lightfoot critic, wouldn't predict whether the teachers union will strike.

But, she said, "What prevents a strike is that the promises that candidate Lightfoot made become commitments that Mayor Lightfoot puts in writing and enshrines in an enforceable contract, that she allocates funds for in the budget, that she taxes wealthy people in order to realize (change)."

Lightfoot told the Tribune she soon may have something "concrete" to say about the police supervisors contract, and she recently met with the firefighters union president to talk through issues.

The contract with the Fraternal Order of Police, the union representing rank-and-file Chicago cops, may be thornier. She's argued with the union for accountability reforms and was caught on a hot mic calling a union vice president "this FOP clown" during a City Council meeting.

Challenging the council

Many aldermen privately bristle at Lightfoot's criticism of the city's political system, and some feel they aren't consulted often enough.

Lightfoot told the story of the unnamed alderman complaining about how she spoke to Burke in June during a Reform for Illinois luncheon.

As the alderman who relayed the complaints left her office, Lightfoot said, her staff rushed in to tell her federal prosecutors had just indicted Burke on sweeping corruption charges.

"I don't know that I've seen any kind of indictment of a single sitting alderman that's as condemning as this, and yet his colleagues feel like I was being too tough on him," Lightfoot said.

Southwest Side Ald. Raymond Lopez, a Burke ally who's emerged as Lightfoot's leading critic, has taken exception with how the mayor addresses members of the City Council.

"Governance is about relationships," Lopez, 15th, said. "Even if you're not friends with people, you have to learn how to have disagreements without being disagreeable. I think there were some missteps in the beginning in dealing with aldermen."

Ald. Brian Hopkins, whose 2nd Ward includes parts of downtown, praised Lightfoot for being supportive of his efforts to shut down or relocate General Iron scrap yard. But Hopkins said he's "adamantly opposed" to Lightfoot's executive order on aldermanic prerogative and potential changes to the city's zoning code that would further curb aldermen's influence.

"She's throwing the balance of power into disarray by doing this," Hopkins said. "I would argue that the system worked quite well, occasional abuses aside."

None of the aldermen, however, voted against Lightfoot's ethics package when it passed in July. The measure gave Inspector General Joseph Ferguson the authority to audit the council's committees, tightened rules on outside jobs and City Hall lobbying, and increased fines for ethics violations, from a range of $500 to $2,000 up to a range of $1,000 to $5,000.

Aldermen in 2016 refused to vote for the expanded inspector general powers, Lightfoot noted.

Though she hasn't said what her next reforms will be, Lightfoot has vowed to curb the sway aldermen hold over zoning matters in their wards.

"We can't really successfully change aldermanic prerogative but say carte blanche when it comes to zoning," Lightfoot said in May. "We're not going to do that. We're going to drive change there as well."

Behind the scenes, some wonder whether the mayor's actions on aldermanic prerogative and reform rhetoric will lead to aldermen bucking her agenda.

But ousted Ald. Joe Moore, who served as a high-profile foil to Mayor Richard M. Daley before becoming a close Emanuel ally, said he hasn't seen real signs of that happening yet.

"If they're not willing to fight to keep some of the powers that they had before, that helped them manage their wards, it's hard to see whether they're going to object to even a politically unpopular budget," Moore said, adding, "Nobody ever went broke betting against the City Council exerting its authority."

Asked how she feels about her relationship with the City Council, Lightfoot said it'll always "be a work in progress."

"I'm never going to make all of them happy, particularly because I'm disrupting their status quo, I'm pushing them out of their comfort zone. So there's always going to be someone you can run to and stick a microphone in front of and say, 'Tell me terrible things about Mayor Lightfoot,'" she said. "There are going to be people who are going to gleefully do that. Actually, I respect those people more when they put their names on the record than the people who hide in the shadows and carp."

Progressive criticism

Socialist Ald. Carlos Ramirez-Rosa, 35th, said he's so far been disappointed in the Lightfoot administration, despite the fair workweek measure.

"It's certainly progressive, but given the past eight years of Rahm Emanuel, given the new council, we really needed an FDR," Ramirez-Rosa said. "Instead here, it seems like we're getting a Jimmy Carter or Gerald Ford."

Several progressive groups appeared at City Hall on Monday to criticize Lightfoot, including United Working Families, a quasi-political party closely aligned with progressive public unions. Standing with advocates for affordable housing, neighborhoods and immigrants, UWF Executive Director Emma Tai said the groups give Lightfoot a "D" for her first 100 days.

"She hasn't failed yet, but it's a far cry from what the people of Chicago were promised when they voted for her in April," Tai said.

The groups are upset Lightfoot so far has not closed loopholes in the city's Welcoming City ordinance and for reversing her pledge to support an increase in the real estate transfer tax for homeless services. Instead, Lightfoot has suggested she wants that money to fill the budget deficit.

Asked about the groups' criticism, Lightfoot first noted it came from some progressive groups "affiliated with CTU."

"The reality is, you can't please everyone. I'm old enough to know that I have to speak and act based upon my values and what my North Star is, and I think we're doing that," Lightfoot said. "We have laid a foundation for helping low-income and working-class families."

She also pointed out that she's personally handed out "know your rights" flyers against threatened Immigration and Customs Enforcement raids in immigrant-populated neighborhoods like Little Village and rhetorically asked when a Chicago mayor last did that.

"Maybe never?" she said. "So I feel pretty good about where I'm at."

Police

Arguably one of the toughest tasks facing Lightfoot is curbing Chicago's violence. The city deals with multiple shootings every weekend.

At the beginning of her administration, Lightfoot launched a weekly meeting with police brass and city officials. From the start, one of Lightfoot's goals has been pushing police to confront the city's crime problem with urgency.

Ald. Walter Burnett, 27th, who represents the booming West Loop and more economically depressed West Side areas, said, "that's just a hard one to tackle," but praised applying pressure on police.

Burnett said he has heard from police commanders in her district that they have tight mandates about not letting big crowds form. Lightfoot has been "getting on their case big-time as far as dealing with the crime situation, which is ... helpful to us," Burnett said.

"But it's still a hard nut to crack," Burnett added. "I think it's a good thing she's pushing the police to do more, to pull more solutions out of it."

So far, the city's seen some results.

Homicides are down from 360 to 306 through Aug. 18, compared with the year-earlier period, a 15% drop, official CPD statistics show. The number of shooting incidents have dropped from 1,534 to 1,351, a decrease of 12%, the statistics show.

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Lightfoot's expressed cautious optimism about crime figures but said there's far more work to be done.

"I'm not going to be satisfied until I wake up on a Saturday morning or a Sunday morning and there's no emails showing that somebody's gotten shot," Lightfoot said. "That may seem like pie in the sky, but I think that's a worthy goal for us to try and achieve."

gpratt@chicagotribune.com

Twitter @royalpratt