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Lightfoot’s troubles put her under harsh spotlight — as office she holds becomes shadow of what it was

Mayor of Chicago once was all-powerful job that made Richard J. Daley a kingmaker. But Lori Lightfoot is losing her absolute control over the schools and perhaps the police department.

Mayor Richard J. Daley, left, in 1961; Mayor Lori Lightfoot, right, in mid-June.
At a time when Mayor Lori Lightfoot, right, appears to be most vulnerable to a potential challenge, the job that made Richard J. Daley, left, a kingmaker is becoming a shadow of what it once was.
Sun-Times archives; Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times file

Rahm Emanuel liked to say there are five chief executive jobs in the nation worth holding: president; governor of California or New York; and mayor of New York or Chicago.

After his successor’s recent losing streak, Emanuel might want to cross mayor of Chicago off that list.

At a time when Lori Lightfoot appears most vulnerable to a potential reelection challenge, the once all-powerful job that made Richard J. Daley a kingmaker has — or is about to — become a shadow of what it was.

Chicago’s mayor will still wear the jacket for Chicago Public Schools. But a Chicago Teachers Union with expanded bargaining rights and a 21-member elected school board — both approved by the Illinois General Assembly over Lightfoot’s strenuous objections — will make it more difficult, if not impossible, for the mayor to make the changes voters demand.

The same goes for violent crime and the Chicago Police Department. There is no more stalling the civilian oversight board recommended by the Task Force on Police Accountability that Lightfoot co-chaired after the court-ordered release of the Laquan McDonald shooting video.

The civilian oversight board is likely to have the final say on police policy and be empowered to take a vote of no-confidence in the police superintendent that would trigger a similar city council vote. The only question is whether Chicago voters will approve a binding referendum giving the oversight board even more power.

Adding to the mayor’s headaches are a tidal wave of police retirements and a firefighters pension bill that, Lightfoot claims, will saddle beleaguered Chicago taxpayers with $850 million in potential costs by 2055, setting the stage for a parade of future property tax increases.

Not to mention an emboldened council that just handed the mayor her first defeat — on a 25-24 vote — on the issue that has divided Lightfoot and council members since her inauguration: aldermanic prerogative.

Mayor Richard M. Daley heatedly presents his budget to the City Council in 2010.
Mayor Richard M. Daley heatedly presents his budget to the Chicago City Council in 2010.
Al Podgorski/Sun-Times file

“If the trend continues, there will be a period of the mayor being scapegoated for things that they’re no longer really responsible for or in charge of. It’s gonna be very difficult for anybody that is the mayor,” given those changes, said Pat O’Connor, a former 40th Ward alderman who served as council floor leader under Emanuel and his predecessor, Richard M. Daley.

“In Chicago, we’re used to the mayor being in charge. In a lot of cities throughout the country, the mayor really isn’t in charge. They cut ribbons. They put forth ideas. But they don’t really perform the job of control.”

O’Connor pointed to the changed dynamic in Springfield after the departure of two top Chicago Democrats who were among the city’s strongest champions: longtime House Speaker Michael Madigan and Senate President John Cullerton.

Madigan was forced out by the Commonwealth Edison bribery scandal that triggered the indictment of two close political operatives. He has not been charged and has denied wrongdoing.

“In the past, you could count on Springfield to help the mayor of Chicago. In the past, you could look at people to be supportive of trying to make the streets safer and trying to be supportive of police. And now, all of that is turned on its head,” O’Connor said.

Ald. Patrick J. O’Connor, center, talks with Mayor Rahm Emanuel, right, at a  City Council meeting in 2016.
Ald. Patrick J. O’Connor, center, talks with Mayor Rahm Emanuel, right, at a City Council meeting in 2016.
James Foster/Sun-Times file

“So a mayor coming in … is gonna have a difficult time getting their policies in place without a council that’s willing to work with them and without a Springfield that’s willing to go the extra mile for the city, as it pretty much always did in the past.”

Democratic political consultant Peter Giangreco said it’s still early to know just how vulnerable Lightfoot really is and what impact the diminished role of the office — what one political insider called “the incredible shrinking mayor” — will have on possible mayoral challengers.

“If the mayor eventually … will have almost no say in the schools and you’ve got a potential position where they also can’t appoint the police [superintendent], the job becomes a glorified Streets and San commissioner job,” said Giangreco, who advised Illinois Comptroller Susana Mendoza’s 2019 mayoral campaign.

“Everything flows from public safety and education. If the mayor’s ability to affect those things continues to be restricted or taken away, it makes the job tougher to do and less appealing to run for.”

O’Connor, who spent many years as chairman of the council’s Education Committee, argued the teachers union has been “pretty much running” CPS for a while, forcing the seven-member board appointed by the mayor to “play defense.”

Striking Chicago Teachers Union members march outside City Hall in 2019.
Striking Chicago Teachers Union members march outside City Hall in 2019.
Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times file

That was evident when Lightfoot was forced to give away the store — at a cost of $1.5 billion over five years — to end the 11-day strike in 2019 by a union that had backed County Board President Toni Preckwinkle over Lightfoot in the mayoral election.

The end came only after Lightfoot removed the line she had stubbornly drawn in the sand by compensating teachers for five of the 11 days they had spent on strike. Still, the six-day pay cut so infuriated CTU leaders that they refused to stand with the mayor when the agreement was announced.

Bitterness from that episode still lingers on both sides and nearly triggered a second strike when it came time to hammering out an agreement to reopen schools after the pandemic.

“It’s a tough way to run a system when, essentially, you’re trying to hold on as opposed to implement policy. But, at least you’re on the field when you’re playing defense. When you’re in the stands, it’s much harder to figure out how to impact the game,” O’Connor said of the elected, 21-member board.

Lightfoot campaigned as a staunch proponent of an elected school board, only to repeatedly block what she called an “unwieldy” bill tripling the size of the board to 21 members, with a president elected citywide.

When she argued in recent months that CPS would “never have opened without mayoral control” after the pandemic, she fueled speculation about whether she would ever have delivered on that pivotal campaign promise.

“During the campaign, that was a very strong part of her pitch. To say, ‘Now that I’m here, I see more clearly and this is a bad idea,’ the horse was way out of the barn,” O’Connor said.

Then mayoral candidates, from left, Lori Lightfoot, Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle and Paul Vallas participate in a forum before the February 2019 election.
Then mayoral candidates, from left, Lori Lightfoot, Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle and Paul Vallas participate in a forum held by the Chicago Sun-Times Editorial Board before the February 2019 election.
Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times file

“But again, the relationship that previously existed between the mayor’s office and the state Legislature and the governor would pretty much have prevented those things from happening. And that relationship seems to be non-existent at this point.”

Lightfoot also campaigned on a promise that in the first 100 days of her administration, she would give a civilian oversight board the power to fire the police superintendent and also have the final say over police policy.

She hasn’t delivered on that promise, either — and blocked pending ordinances that would do what she said she would do. When she finally offered her own version of civilian oversight, it reserved those decision-making powers for the mayor.

“People felt double-crossed. Because of what the city council and the Legislature thought of her, they’re sticking it to her,” the political observer said.

“Now, Chicago will have to live with the consequences of a weakened mayor. They have taken an important position and stripped it of its capacity to effect change.”

The mayor’s frayed relationship with the council has been evident since her inauguration. But it came into sharp relief during the angry confrontation between Lightfoot and Ald. Jeanette Taylor (20th) last week.

Lightfoot could not contain her anger after Taylor joined Ald. Ray Lopez (15th) in a parliamentary maneuver to delay Lightfoot’s appointment of Celia Meza as corporation counsel. They did it to protest the Law Department’s treatment of Anjanette Young, the woman whose home was raided by Chicago police officers who had the wrong address.

Taylor has since likened Lightfoot to a “bully” and said she wouldn’t speak to her until she apologizes.

Mayor Lori Lightfoot exchanges heated words with Ald. Jeanette Taylor (20th) during a City Council meeting last week.
Mayor Lori Lightfoot exchanges heated words with Ald. Jeanette Taylor (20th) during a City Council meeting last week.
Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times file

“Who stands up to her? This is not the first time she did this to somebody. She does this all the time, and people let her get away with it,” Taylor has told the Sun-Times.

“It’s a ‘no.’ How many times do you keep letting a bully bully you? Clearly, this is bullying.”

Since that confrontation and the 25-24 vote to strip away from Lightfoot’s pandemic relief package that portion of the mayor’s ordinance that eliminates aldermanic control over sign permits, aldermen clearly smell political blood in the water.

In a letter to the mayor, 22 aldermen demanded that she “honor and consistently follow” council rules of procedure, citing numerous occasions when Lightfoot made parliamentary rulings contradicting those rules.

Demands for the council to hire its own legal counsel and its own parliamentarian are also gaining steam.

All that spells potential trouble when it comes to determining how $1.9 billion in federal coronavirus relief funds will be spent. That will be wrapped into Lightfoot’s unveiling of the 2022 city budget, which the mayor has moved to September — a month early.

In Round One of the 2019 mayoral election, Lightfoot finished first in a crowded field of 14 enticed by Emanuel’s decision to call it quits amid the political fall-out from his decision to keep the Laquan McDonald shooting video under wraps until after he had been safely re-elected in 2015 and release it, only after a judge ordered him to do so.

Half of the Round One 2019 mayoral candidates, from left, Gery Chico, Bob Fioretti, state Rep. La Shawn Ford, state Comptroller Susana Mendoza, Lori Lightfoot, Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle and Paul Vallas, meet with the Chicago Sun-Times Editorial Board in the second of two forums held before the February 2019 election.
Half of the Round One 2019 mayoral candidates, from left, Gery Chico, Bob Fioretti, state Rep. La Shawn Ford, state Comptroller Susana Mendoza, Lori Lightfoot, Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle and Paul Vallas, meet with the Chicago Sun-Times Editorial Board in the second of two forums held before the February 2019 election.
Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times file

Lightfoot had languished in the single digits until Jan. 3, 2019, when the first round of federal charges were filed against Ald. Edward Burke (14th).

Preckwinkle’s mayoral campaign acknowledged that day she had received a $10,000 campaign contribution Burke allegedly muscled from a Burger King franchise owner. The Preckwinkle campaign said she knew nothing about the alleged shakedown and returned the contribution because it exceeded legal limits.

Preckwinkle tried desperately to distance herself from Burke — returning the money she raised at his house and using her position as Cook County Democratic Party chair to strip Burke of his role as head of judicial slate-making.

It didn’t work. In Round Two, Lightfoot swept all 50 wards, in large part because she had no ties to Burke — and is, in fact, a longtime adversary.

Mayor-elect Lori Lightfoot celebrates after defeating Toni Preckwinkle in the Chicago mayoral election on April 2, 2019.
Mayor-elect Lori Lightfoot celebrates at her election night rally at the Hilton Chicago after defeating Toni Preckwinkle in the Chicago mayoral election on April 2, 2019.
Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times file

This time around, the mayoral field is almost certain to be smaller — at least in part due to those soon-to-be-diminished mayoral powers.

Among the possible challengers are: former Chicago Public Schools CEO Arne Duncan; Ald. Roderick Sawyer (6th); Ald. Brian Hopkins (2nd); City Treasurer Melissa Conyears-Ervin; U.S. Rep. Mike Quigley, D-Ill.; CTU Vice President Stacy Davis Gates; and City Clerk Anna Valencia, now running for Illinois secretary of state.

“Mayor Lightfoot has been given the benefit of the doubt for a while because of COVID. As the city recovers, there’s gonna be a re-focusing on her ability to get public safety under control. To do the two things that people want: Keep them safe in their homes and reform the police so these shootings of particularly Black and Brown young people come to an end,” Giangreco said.

“It’s tough to pull off. This is not just a Chicago problem. … We saw it play out in New York. We’ll see it play out in mayor’s races all over the country. That trying to enact racial justice reforms in the face of a nationwide spike in homicides is really, really tough. It gets tougher if the structure of government ties the mayor’s hands.”