We get it. It’s not easy being a first-term mayor at one of the worst times in Chicago history.
Between the pandemic — which will shutter the city’s public school buildings this fall, disrupting students and parents’ routines and potentially undoing years of educational progress — and this summer’s upheaval of violence and looting — which is putting Chicago on the national stage for all the wrong reasons — Mayor Lori Lightfoot is facing challenges that might bring even the most experienced of elected leaders to their knees.
Let’s also be clear that we continue to share this mayor’s vision for our city, where neighborhoods — especially poor Black and Latino ones — matter as much as downtown and there is no tolerance for government corruption. We share her overall agenda and values.
But even as we root for Lightfoot, we are increasingly troubled by the mayor’s tiresome habit of public shaming. She has an unfortunate, and ultimately self-defeating, way of lashing out against those who criticize or disagree with her.
Taking a breath
Being a leader, especially in times like this, means knowing how to turn the other cheek, take a breath, strategize and then, in the most constructive way possible, respond. Instead, the mayor too often comes out swinging, whether it’s getting into a Twitter scrap with President Donald Trump’s press secretary, calling her a “Karen,” or sending personally insulting text messages to the head of the city’s largest police union.
Michelle Obama famously once said, “When they go low, we go high.” Lightfoot, for her part, is as likely to fly off the handle.
To the detriment of leading Chicago forward.
When Ald. Anthony Beale (9th) in September 2019 marshaled opposition to Lightfoot’s effort to install Ald. Scott Waguespack (32nd) as chair of the City Council’s powerful Finance Committee, there was no burying the hatchet. Lightfoot stripped Beale of his ability to run any committee whatsoever. It was the start of a pattern. Lightfoot can alienate the very people whom she should be trying to get on her side.
In December 2019, Lightfoot created a website, chicagobudgetvotes.com through a political action committee to call out 11 aldermen who voted against her city budget plan. We editorialized then that this amounted to stifling dissent at a time when a new mayor should be working on letting voices be heard.
When former mayoral challenger Paul Vallas publicly suggested in April that the city’s precarious financial situation might be damaged even more by COVID-19, Lightfoot lashed back, “Unfortunately, some people are desperate to be relevant. The suggestion that somehow our city budget is in tatters, as Mr. Vallas dramatically suggests, it’s just foolish.”
But Vallas, a former city budget director, was no fool. Every city’s finances, including Chicago’s, have been hit hard by the pandemic.
When Trump needled Chicago and other cities in a tweet in the wake of the civil unrest sparked by George Floyd’s killing, Lightfoot replied, “I will code what I really want to say to Donald Trump. It’s two words: It begins with F and ends with YOU.” Also around that time, the mayor exchanged profanities with one of her chief critics, Ald. Ray Lopez (15th), calling him “full of s---.”
Yeah, we know. Former Mayor Rahm Emanuel swore at people, too — most famously in a private meeting with then-Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis. We called Emanuel out on that, and for the same reasons. It’s not helpful.
A good question
That takes us to this past week. When a reporter asked Lightfoot on Monday to elaborate on a point — her point — that the state’s attorney’s office and courts must do more to hold criminals accountable, she accused the reporter of trying to pit the relevant elected officials — State’s Attorney Kim Foxx, Cook County Chief Judge Tim Evans and her — against each other.
“Don’t bait us,” she said.
That response was off point on several levels. The reporter’s question would have been legitimate to ask of any mayor. It was made all the more legitimate by the fact that Lightfoot, as a candidate for mayor, supported in a general way the very bail-bond reforms for criminal defendants that she now is attacking.
If the mayor believes these reforms have been carried out poorly by Foxx, as she first argued a year ago, she should by all means continue to press that argument. But without the political bomb-throwing.
Mayor up against it
Lightfoot’s too often intemperate manner springs from a conviction, no doubt, that she’s up against some truly intransigent foes. And she’s right about that.
In John Catanzara, she’s dealing with the most combative Fraternal Order of Police president we’ve seen in decades. In the Chicago Teachers Union — which welcomed her to office with a teachers’ strike that we strongly opposed — she’s dealing with a union leadership that can’t get over the fact that she beat their preferred candidate, Toni Preckwinkle, in the race for mayor. The CTU, as well as aldermen the union supports, are looking to undermine the mayor at every turn.
Yet it is a mayor’s job to rise above all that, to co-op foes and find common ground. Let others be the rejectionists. Even swearing at Trump, useless to Chicago as he may be, is not in our city’s best interest.
Lightfoot has shown an ability to govern effectively. On Tuesday, the mayor reached terms on a one-year contract with the city’s firefighters’ union that seemed to leave both sides wanting more — a sign that both the firefighters and taxpayers got a fair deal.
And before the arrival of the pandemic turned everything upside down, she was making headway on a pledge to address neighborhood inequities. She was aiming to erase an $838 million shortfall in her first city budget without a massive property tax increase, and she created a program to channel some $250 million of city investment into 10 inner-city neighborhoods. She delivered on a $15-an-hour minimum wage.
A unifying approach
There’s a compassionate, unifying side to Lightfoot that is her greatest strength when she allows it to be. Remember those social media posts created by others in which she stands guard all over the city during this pandemic? Those memes might have done more to encourage Chicagoans to practice social distancing than all the finger-shaking of other elected officials, and Lightfoot rolled with it. “I’ve enjoyed them,” she said of the memes.
Lori Lightfoot’s got everything it takes to be a terrifically effective mayor: A big brain and a big heart, personal charm, knowledge and experience. It’s all she needs.
The intemperate stuff? The lashing out?
She’s better than that.
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