Lightfoot: I wasn’t elected to ‘win a popularity contest with the City Council’

“I don’t buy votes. I never have and never will,” Lightfoot said Thursday. “I’m different in every single way than any other mayor that’s ever been here before. … Some folks are comfortable with that. Some are not.”

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Mayor Lori Lightfoot at a news conference on Thursday, Feb. 4, 2021.

Mayor Lori Lightfoot at a news conference on Thursday.

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times file

Mayor Lori Lightfoot said Thursday voters gave her a “mandate to change the status-quo” — not to win a “popularity contest with the City Council” — and traced her contentious relationship with aldermen to her refusal to “buy votes.”

Two days after changing floor leaders, a defiant Lightfoot denied her combative personality had turned her contentious relationship with the City Council from bad to worse.

Lightfoot said she replaced Ald. Gilbert Villegas (36th) with Ald. Michelle Harris (8th) before she had even reached mid-term because Villegas “came to me in good faith and said he wanted to focus on other issues.”

But the mayor openly acknowledged what she called the “style-point.”

That is, the contentious relationship she established by using her inaugural address to portray the City Council as corrupt, issuing an executive order stripping aldermen of their “prerogative” over licensing and permitting and disdaining the horse-trading that is the currency of politics.

“I don’t buy votes. I never have and never will. … I manage every vote to 26. If I wanted to run up votes, I could buy votes and offer taxpayers’ money to buy votes. I don’t buy votes,” Lightfoot said.

“I’m different in every single way than any other mayor that’s ever been here before. … Some folks are comfortable with that. Some are not. But … I’m not here for a popularity contest with the City Council.”

Nearly two years into her four-year-term, Lightfoot acknowledged aldermen are “still getting used to” her refusal to play the game by the old rules.

“We are pushing people out of their comfort zone. ... And many people don’t like it. Sorry. I got a mandate to get things done. I got a mandate to shake up and change the status quo,” she said.

Lightfoot argued concessions she made before the 29-to-21 vote on her $12.8 billion “pandemic” budget show she has honored the public promise she made last summer to reach out to those with whom she disagrees.

Never mind that she famously threatened members of the Black Caucus who dared to vote against her budget, saying if they didn’t back her, then “Don’t ask me for s- - t” in her $3.7 billion capital plan.

“They came to the table in earnest with a number of different suggestions. But at the end of the day, I wear the jacket,” she said.

Former Ald. Pat O’Connor (40th) spent eight years delivering lopsided majorities for then-Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s ambitious legislative agenda.

As a former North Side congressman, a political operative to one president and chief-of-staff to another, Emanuel made O’Connor’s job easy, building personal relationships with aldermen and embracing legislative horse-trading.

On Thursday, O’Connor had a word of caution for Lori Lightfoot. There is a big difference between saying, “I don’t buy votes,” and trying to “bully” aldermen and use “insults to force a vote.”

“When people read, ‘I don’t buy votes,’ they intuit that as being, ‘I’m giving jobs. I’m giving contracts,’ which nobody does anymore. People have abandoned that a long time ago because that’s the stuff … that gets people in trouble,” O’Connor said.

“But finding out what somebody is interested in for their ward. Finding out if they have any projects … for which there is money available. … That’s not buying anything. That’s working together. And workingtogether builds a trust. And that trust builds a willingness to take a leap of faith and support programs.”

Villegas agreed.

“It’s not about buying votes. It’s about finding out what are the priorities that the aldermen are working on and figuring out ways to help the aldermen deliver on the things they’re working on in their ward, which ultimately benefits not just the ward, but the citizens of Chicago and the mayor as well,” Villegas said.

Lightfoot has threatened to strip aldermen of control over zoning. But that would require a City Council vote she is almost certain to lose.

O’Connor advised the mayor to drop it. Permanently.

“Aldermanic prerogative really was the courtesy or deference aldermen gave to one another. You don’t find it anywhere in the books,” O’Connor said.

“How do you really straighten that out? You really can’t. Unless you take aldermanic decision-making out completely, which I don’t think anybody thinks is a good idea. … It’s not something you can legislate away. There is no way in the world you can prevent the majority of aldermen from feeling that somebody elected in a given area knows more about that area than they do.”

O’Connor called Harris a “wonderful person with a winning personality.” But, he added, she won’t be able to cover for a mayor with a hair-trigger temper who can’t seem to resist the taking things personally and lashing out at her critics.

“If you tick enough people off, you’re gonna reap” what you sow, O’Connor said.

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