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Angry Lightfoot admonishes City Council for tone of set-aside debate

The mayor received a standing ovation and a 47-1 vote to launch a study that could lay the groundwork for earmarking contracts for gay- and transgender-owned businesses in Chicago.

Mayor Lori Lightfoot spars with Ald. Jason Ervin (28th) during a Chicago City Council meeting in December 2019.
An angry and emotional Mayor Lori Lightfoot admonished a handful of African American aldermen Wednesday for “demonizing” the gay community during debate about contract set-asides.
Sun-Times file photo

An angry and emotional Mayor Lori Lightfoot admonished a handful of African American aldermen Wednesday for “demonizing” the gay community and said the “pie is big enough to slice it in lots of other ways.”

The mayor’s impassioned plea was followed by a standing ovation and a 47-1 vote to launch a study that could lay the groundwork for creating contract set-asides for gay- and transgender-owned businesses in Chicago.

Ald. David Moore (17th) demanded the roll call and cast the only “no” vote.

Chicago’s first openly gay mayor was disturbed by the tone of committee debate Tuesday on her resolution to launch the study.

African American aldermen led by Black Caucus Chairman Jason Ervin (28th) and Ald. Walter Burnett (27th) voiced concern earmarking contracts for gay business owners could pave the way for “privileged white men” to game the system again at the expense of African Americans.

They pointed to Chicago’s sordid history of minority business fraud, culminating in $100 million in janitorial contracts going to white men from a Duff family with reputed ties to organized crime during former Mayor Richard M. Daley’s administration.

They further warned there was no apparent way to prove a person’s sexuality and, therefore, that a set-aside for gay business owners would be ripe for corruption.

Lightfoot was having none of it. She was incensed by the tone of the debate, which was repeated in a milder form on the City Council floor Wednesday.

When every aldermen who wanted to speak had their say, Lightfoot lectured those more concerned about preserving their piece of the pie than about making Chicago a more equitable city.

“It’s not the questions that are the problem. It is the content of the questions, and the offensive nature of the tone and the questions and the ‘concerns’ that were expressed,” the mayor said.

“As a black gay woman proud on all fronts, I have to say I’m disturbed by the nature of the committee discussion and the nature of the discussion here today. We need not ask anyone’s indulgence, patience or forgiveness or acceptance to be who we are and who we love.”

She added, “My friends, the pie is big enough to slice it in lots of other ways....We need not victimize, demonize and discriminate through our words against anyone else because we are worried about what the size of the pie is going to be for me.”

Lightfoot talked openly about the “offensive, harmful things said in my presence as a black child” that she lacked the “words, the voice or the strength” to counter.

“I bear the shame of my silence to this day,” she said.

“When I was coming out in my 20s, similarly I was worried about how I would be perceived and I let people say terrible things about gays and lesbians in my presence and I was silent. I will be silent no more on any issue. When people say and do things that are offensive and racist, I feel I have an obligation to speak and so I am.”

Lightfoot has made no bones about her desire to create set-asides for gay business owners in addition to the 26% and 6% of city contracts already earmarked for minorities and women.

The resolution approved Wednesday is only a first step. It calls for technical assistance and training programs to build capacity and “increase the potential for successful bidding on city projects.”

More importantly, it states that the city’s chief procurement officer, in consulting with the Department of Law “shall gather all relevant data that may assist the city in determining the need for a citywide program to promote opportunities in city procurement for LGBTBEs.”

The resolution sets a Sept. 23 deadline for submitting a written report to the mayor.

Lightfoot wasn’t the only one angered by the “where’s mine” tone of this week’s debate on the issue of gay set-asides.

Ald. Maria Hadden (49th), the only gay black woman on the City Council, said she doesn’t know whether to react with anger or laughter to the debate, which included Ald. Walter Burnett’s reference to a 2007 Adam Sandler comedy about two New York City firefighters who pretend to be gay to secure medical benefits for a child.

“We’ve got to do better, you guys. Being afraid is never an excuse to dismiss” a legitimate concern about discrimination, Hadden said.