Mayor Lori Lightfoot on Monday launched her history-making administration with a shot across the bow at aldermen whose support she needs to solve Chicago’s financial crisis.
“For years, they’ve said Chicago ain’t ready for reform. Well, get ready, because reform is here,” Lightfoot said during her inaugural address — without mentioning legendary Ald. Paddy Bauler (43rd), who made the comment.
“I campaigned on change. You voted for change. And I plan to deliver change to our government.”
The declaration of war against business as usual in Chicago made former Mayor Harold Washington’s 1983 attack against “business as usual” look tame by comparison.
It was red meat for the thousands gathered at Wintrust Arena to witness the inauguration of Chicago’s first openly gay and African-American female mayor.
They rose to their feet in rousing applause. As it turned out, their new mayor was just getting warmed up.
“When public officials cut shady backroom deals, they get rich and the rest of us get the bill. When some people get their property taxes cut in exchange for campaign cash, they get the money and … we get the bill,” she said.
Turning to face the aldermen seated behind her, Lightfoot declared, “These practices have gone on here for decades. … Stopping it isn’t just in the city’s interest. It’s in the City Council’s own interest.”
Aldermen sat silently as the crowd rejoiced. Their standing ovation dragged on, only to be followed by another one after Lightfoot’s next line.
“No official in the city of Chicago, elected or appointed, should ever profit from his or her office. Never. Ever,” she said.
“This requirement that people must give more to get access to basic city services must end. And it will end, starting today.”
After returning to City Hall, Lightfoot made good on that pledge by signing an executive order stripping aldermen of their absolute power over licenses and permits in their wards.
The order states: “As soon as practicable, no department shall defer to aldermanic prerogative in their decision-making process unless expressly required by the municipal code. ... When engaged in decision-making, departments shall consider aldermanic input as an important source of information, but shall not be bound by that input or by any attempt by an alderman to otherwise exercise aldermanic prerogative over decision-making.”
Ald. Anthony Beale (9th), the odd man out in Lightfoot’s City Council re-organization, said the executive order “means absolutely nothing” and is “not worth the paper it’s written on.”
Beale said Lightfoot’s strident attack on the City Council turned a “great speech” into a bad start for the new mayor.
“You can’t paint the entire City Council with a [broad] brush,” he said.
“Making the transition from campaigning to reality. Now, reality is setting in. This is no longer a campaign. We have to work together. We have to move forward together. That’s her slogan. We have tough decisions to make. You can’t make tough decisions by attacking the same people you expect to work with you,” he said.
Ald. Scott Waguespack (32nd), Lightfoot’s choice to chair the City Council’s Finance Committee, acknowledged the new mayor’s declaration was a bitter pill for his colleagues to swallow.
But, he argued, it was a long time coming.
“The only people who are offended might be the people doing something wrong. The rest of us know we have to set new standards for the Council,” Waguespack said.
“It was directed at people who have been benefiting to the detriment of taxpayers — and that’s what’s gonna change.”
Ald. Michelle Harris (8th), who will remain Rules Committee chairman in the new Council, said she understands the new mayor’s decision to “set the tone of no tolerance” for corruption “considering what’s been going on” in the unfolding scandal that threatens to bring down deposed Finance Committee chairman Edward Burke (14th).
“I’m not corrupt, so I’m not offended. ... If the shoe fits, wear it — and it’s not my shoe,” Harris said.
As for the executive order ending aldermanic prerogative when it comes to licensing and permitting, Harris would say only there are “some things we’ve got to work on and tweak with her” so Lightfoot gets what she wants while aldermen retain the power they need to protect their constituents.
“In our community, we have a proliferation of bad businesses. ... I don’t veto business licenses. It’s a process. But I’d like to see that process continue. I just want the community to have input,” she said.
Even without the attack on the City Council, Monday’s swearing-in ceremony for Chicago’s 56th mayor was rich with the political history that it made, the expectations it created and the uncertainty that lies ahead.
She promised what now-retired Mayor Rahm Emanuel promised eight years ago on a sunny morning at Millennium Park: A city of “safe streets and strong schools for every child regardless of neighborhood or zip code.” But Lightfoot went further.
“A city where people want to grow old and not flee. A city of sanctuary against fear where no one must hide in the shadows. A city that is affordable for families and seniors and where every job pays a living wage. A city of fairness and hope and prosperity for the many, not just for the few, a city that holds equity and inclusion as our guiding principles,” she said.
U.S. Magistrate Judge Susan E. Cox, a longtime friend of the former federal prosecutor, administered the oath; Lightfoot’s hand was on a Bible that was a gift for her 1980 graduation from high school in Massillon, Ohio.
It’s been 40 years since Jane Byrne was inaugurated as Chicago’s first and — until now — only female mayor. It’s been 36 years since Harold Washington claimed the mantle as the city’s first African American mayor.
Lightfoot, 56, recognized that political history, just as she did on April 2, the night she claimed her 74 percent mandate by carrying all 50 wards against County Board President Toni Preckwinkle.
“We stand today at a time of great hope and possibility.And I can’t help but feel the spirit of the great Mayor Harold Washington here with us this morning.”
Normally unflappable, Lightfoot choked back tears as she acknowledged her 90-year-old mother, seated in the front row. Ann Lightfoot was introduced to the crowd, first as an “elected official” and as “a one-time school board member” from her Ohio hometown.
“She’s my role model, my champion. The woman whose dreams and high expectations for me propelled me through life — my mother, Ann Lightfoot,” the new mayor said.
It had to be a bittersweet moment for Emanuel, who twice appointed Lightfoot as police board president and raised her public profile even higher by naming her to co-chair the Task Force on Police Accountability in the furor that followed release of the Laquan McDonald shooting video.
After eight action-packed and controversial years, he left City Hall as mayor on Friday for the last time to the cheers of his underlings and admirers.
On Monday, the cheers were largely reserved forLightfoot, who used the platform that Emanuel gave her first to hammer him, then to replace him. Rahm Emanuel’s long goodbye is ending. A new era in Chicago politics is beginning.
One indication of that: As Emanuel was introduced, the closed-captioning on the big center-court screens read: “mayor i don’t remember of city of chicago.”
But the announcer got his name right, and in her remarks, Lightfoot also gave Emanuel his due.
“I thank Mayor Emanuel for his dedication and service to our city, which was exemplified by the attention and time that he and his staff devoted to making this transition as smooth as possible,” Lightfoot said.“I also commend [his wife] Amy Rule for her contributions to the city.Join me in wishing them both well as they head off into the next chapter of their lives.”
Emanuel and Rule were seated next to Lightfoot, her wife, Amy Eshleman, and their 11-year-old daughter, Vivian, during a nearly two hour ceremony that included performances by Miguel Cervantes, who plays Alexander Hamilton in the Chicago production of “Hamilton.”
The program also featured: Chicago Sinfonietta, the Puerto Rican Arts Alliance and Latin Music Program, the Chicago Gay Men’s Chorus and the After School Matters Choir.
Lightfoot framed her speech around the four stars in Chicago’s flag. As designed, they stood for the founding of Fort Dearborn, the city’s two world exhibitions and the rebuilding after the Chicago Fire.
She reimagined them as standing for public safety, education, stability and, of course, integrity, the opposite of the corruption the former federal prosecutor vowed to eradicate.
Although it was the still-unfolding City Hall corruption scandal that helped put her in office, Lightfoot put equal emphasis on eradicating Chicago’s never-ending cycle of gang violence.
“People cannot … and should not … live in neighborhoods that resemble a war zone,” Lightfoot said. “… there is no higher calling than restoring safety and peace in our neighborhoods. We will develop a new, proactive strategy in partnership with the communities hit hardest by the scourge of gun violence.”
Another star in her re-imagined Chicago flag was schools.
“We cannot attract families to Chicago and keep families here without providing a quality public education for every child — and that means every single child,” the new mayor said.
Sounding much like Emanuel, who fashioned himself as Chicago’s education mayor, Lightfoot said the promise of quality education for all children “must begin early — that’s why we will work to expand early childhood education, and extend the promise of a good education through high school and college, and to every kid, no matter their path forward,” Lightfoot said.
“Every student should have the option to pursue vocational and technical training. We will work with businesses and unions to set up apprenticeships for those who want to learn a trade. We will then connect Chicago’s employers with our job-ready students while they’re in school, so they can get to work the day they graduate.”
Yet another was stability, meaning city finances and affordable housing for families who are fleeing Chicago.
Emanuel prides himself on having identified dedicated funding sources for all four city employee pension funds. But, Lightfoot made no mention of those tough decisions that made her job at least a little bit easier.
“Over many, many years, Chicago dug itself into a giant financial hole. We have an out-size structural deficit, a persistent and growing pension debt and other costs that threaten our financial stability,” she said.
“We must tackle this problem head-on. … We will lay out a plan to put Chicago on the path to solvency. No doubt some hard choices will have to be made and none of this is going to be easy. But, we will do the hard work ... to put our pensions on a true path to solvency and make our government work more efficiently and without balancing budgets on the backs of low wage and working class Chicagoans.”
Lightfoot is expected to have the votes to deliver the leaders she has chosen when the City Council meets on May 29 to take a reorganization vote that will be the first test of Lightfoot’s City Council muscle.
It’s a vote she cannot afford to lose. In fact, she needs to win it handily if she hopes to have the cushion she needs to deliver a budget that is certain to include another round of painful post-election tax increases and budget cuts.
On his way into Wintrust Arena, the Rev. Jesse Jackson Sr. said he’s not at all concerned about a reprise of the Council Wars power struggle that saw 29 mostly white aldermen led by Burke and then-Ald. Edward Vrdolyak (10th) thwart then-Mayor Harold Washington’s every move.
“When Harold was sworn in, we were going through a tremendous cultural change. It was a kind of black-and progressive-won election. And the Council itself was in rebellion,” Jackson said inside the arena.
“She won 50 wards. It was the most diverse, broad-based election victory ever. So, she starts from a very different place.”
Burke and Lightfoot were political arch-rivals long before Nov. 29, when FBI agents raided Burke’s ward and City Hall offices and covered the glass windows and doors at both places with brown butcher paper.
At the time, Lightfoot was stuck in the single-digits in public opinion polls in a crowded field that included several Democratic Party heavyweights with far more money and name recognition.
They included: former White House chief of staff Bill Daley, son and brother of Chicago mayors; newly-re-elected State Comptroller Susana Mendoza; and County Board President Toni Preckwinkle, who doubles as the Cook County Democratic Party Chairman.
After the raid and the Jan. 3 attempted extortion charge against Burke, everything changed.
A former federal prosecutor, Lightfoot successfully sold herself as a change agent in a change election dominated by what is likely to be the biggest City Council corruption scandal Chicago has ever seen.
When Burke was charged with allegedly shaking down a Burger King franchise owner for legal business and for a $10,000 campaign contribution to Preckwinkle, the die was cast for a previously unthinkable political upset.
Burke breezed to re-election, even though the feds now face a June 7 deadline to indict him. But, every one of the four mayoral candidates with ties to the 50-year veteran alderman went down in flames. Lightfoot called them all the “Burke Four.”
During a news conference Friday to accept her transition report, Lightfoot reflected on the final days before she accepts the awesome responsibility that comes with being mayor of Chicago.
“I’m looking forward to this moment. As folks have been reminding me, it’s only gonna happen once. And I’m gonna make sure that I soak it all in and have fun with it and look forward to leading this great city. ... It’s not gonna quite be the John Kennedy moment of, ‘Ask not what your country can do for you,’ but something akin to that, that is reflective of the moment that we’re in.”
Lightfoot tried to meet that moment with a look back at some of Chicago’s past achievements.
“I look out today and see a proud city with a proud history,” she said.
“Here in Chicago … right here … our people invented the skyscraper and the Ferris Wheel,” she said.
“Here … our people invented our own Chicago blues. ... Our people. Generations of industrious, hardworking people … who built one of the greatest cities to ever grace God’s earth.
“I stand here today as your mayor … humble and hopeful … and I make one solemn promise to the generations who came before us and to the generations who come after us:
“We will continue to build this great city … and leave it better, stronger, fairer, and more prosperous than we found it.
“The challenges we face today did not arise overnight … and they will not be solved overnight … and they certainly won’t be solved by one mayor acting alone.”