Is Chicago’s first openly-gay mayor laying the groundwork for gay set-asides on city contracts?

In 2003, Ald. Tom Tunney (44th) broached the subject of gay set-asides, only to drop the idea after plenty of pushback from the gay community. Now, Mayor Lori Lightfoot is raising it again.

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Ald. Tom Tunney (44th), Chicago’s first openly-gay alderman, said Mayor Lori Lightfoot told him during the mayoral campaign that she wants to establish gay set-asides. She just needs to figure out how.

Ald. Tom Tunney (44th), Chicago’s first openly-gay alderman, said Mayor Lori Lightfoot told him during the mayoral campaign that she wants to establish gay set-asides. She just needs to figure out how.

Sun-Times Media

Chicago’s first openly-gay mayor is laying the groundwork to revisit a politically volatile idea: set-asides that would give gay-and-transgender-owned businesses a leg up on city contracts.

Sixteen years ago, Ald. Tom Tunney (44th) broached the subject of gay set-asides, only to drop the idea like a hot potato after plenty of pushback from the gay community.

Critics argued then that Chicago already had contract set-asides for minorities and women and that carving out, another piece of the pie for gay-owned businesses would benefit only one rather privileged group: gay white men.

Mayor Lori Lightfoot is well aware of the prior controversy. She and Tunney talked about it during the mayoral campaign.

But Lightfoot is apparently determined to revisit the controversy to remedy, what she believes is a history of discrimination against gay-and transgender-owned businesses.

At Wednesday’s City Council meeting, Lightfoot introduced a resolution that aims to identify business development opportunities for “LGBT-owned Business Enterprises.”

It calls for technical assistance and training programs to build capacity and “increase the potential for successful bidding on city projects.”

More importantly, it mandates the city departments of Procurement Services and Law to “gather all relevant data that may assist the city in determining the need for a citywide program to promote opportunities in city procurement for LGTBE’s.”

A final report is due on the mayor’s desk on Sept. 23, 2020.

Procurement Services says it’s too soon the say whether the study will be a prelude to meeting the rigid burden of proof — a documented history of past discrimination — that the U.S. Supreme Court has long demanded to justify contract set-asides. That depends on the data.

But Tunney said Thursday Lightfoot told him during the campaign that she wants to create a gay set-aside in addition the 26% and 6% of city contracts already earmarked for minorities and women.

She just has to figure out how to do it.

“Women and people of color are already included. Is it just white gay men that are excluded? If we can help all the LGBT community without taking jobs from women and people of color, we need to study it….The onus is gonna be on us,” Tunney said.

“She’d like to do it, but I wanted to remind her this is not a new idea and issues [raised before] are still the issues of today. Let’s work on it. If it doesn’t work, it doesn’t work. But at least I give her a lot of credit for attempting to do this.”

Over the years, Chicago has seen countless examples of minority business fraud. Women and minorities served as “fronts” for white men.

Tunney acknowledged that a gay set-aside could be equally “ripe for abuse.”

“People know there’s discrimination still in the LGBT community. But if we’re going to help LGBT businesses, we need to do it in a fair and equitable way that’s verifiable…I don’t want to get pigeonholed [into saying], ‘It’s a choice.’ People can come out” or not, he said.

Ald. Ray Lopez (15th), another Gay Caucus member, said he finds it hard to believe Lightfoot can get around the earlier roadblocks.

“How do you prove someone is a member of the LGBT community? We’re not gonna have a gay test to prove you qualify. That would open us up to all kinds of stereotypical questions and things we’re not willing to go backwards on to prove who we are,” Lopez said.

“The fact that the LGBT community has been discriminated against for decades does warrant a conversation. But I just don’t understand how she can ensure that it’s not taking away from others who have also been disenfranchised.”

Ald. Carlos Ramirez-Rosa (35th), another one of the council’s five gay aldermen, said a transgender set-aside would be easier to justify.

But he said, “If it’s an able-bodied, cis-gendered white man, that’s a little bit harder case to make. Outside of who it is they love, for all other intents and purposes they do receive an extraordinary amount of privilege.”

For now, the LGBT Chamber of Commerce of Illinois is satisfied with giving LGBTQ business owners “recognition and access to opportunities,” said director Jeremy Holston.

“We’re not asking for set-asides...We’re not really entertaining that. We’d love to come back and have another conversation down the road if it does look like there is a good chance to make it an option. But at this moment, we’re fine with what has been proposed,” he said.

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