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The mayor isn’t very good at this, is she?

Some reluctant thoughts on watching Lori Lightfoot operate from a distance.

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

“Rahm Emanuel was abrasive,” my savvy Chicago pal said. “But if he’s sandpaper, Lori Lightfoot is a belt sander.”

I don’t know about that. I always thought of Rahm as more oily than caustic, an oleaginous insider slithering through the drain pipes of power, popping up through a grate to lubricate a momentary ally, then dissolving into the gutter with a wet splat, and gone.

Now, our current mayor, well, I don’t have much direct personal experience to bring to the table. Lightfoot sat down for an hour with me and my colleague Lauren FitzPatrick for a profile when she was running in 2019. Lightfoot struck me then not as abrasive but guarded, measured, deliberate. Not personable in the look-you-in-the-eye-and-ask-about-your-dog sense. Not much eye contact, really.

But, then, Lightfoot isn’t a politician. Her campaign chairman told me as much while we chatted at an ACLU luncheon. A reluctant campaigner, he said, she had to be dragged into a room of potential supporters, where she’d stand, regarding them with disgust, until poked. Then, she’d murmur something and flee.

Voters claim to like that. They seem to like electing officials who aren’t politicians. Yet they wouldn’t hire a plumber that way, based on complete lack of familiarity with plumbing.

We saw the result again at Wednesday’s bizarre, amateur hour City Council meeting. Maybe we’re used to Rahm, and Rich Daley before him, who turned the Council into a trained seal act, rearing up on command, clapping their flippers together and barking approval in unison in return for a herring delivered in private.

Lightfoot couldn’t ram her new corporation counsel through, then ran to confront Ald. Jeanette Taylor (20th), accusing her of “cutting out a woman of color.”

Casting everything that doesn’t go her way in racial terms is the mayor’s go-to move. I’m sure she’ll dismiss whatever I say as the ravings of a suburban white man. Perhaps. But as a former $1.1 million-a-year equity partner at the Mayer Brown law firm who quit to become mayor of Chicago in her first bid for elective office, Lightfoot’s continual insistence that she is a victim of racial oppression gets old.

The key to understanding our mayor, to the degree it is possible (trying to understand Rich Daley was like trying to peel a ball bearing with your thumbnail) is to close your eyes and feel the breeze from the revolving door at City Hall as aides and assistants rush in and out. Lightfoot has trouble finding people to accept money to support her; how is she going to cultivate political allies?

She doesn’t even try with the press. If you asked me who Rahm’s press secretary was, that’s easy: Tarrah Cooper. We’d have lunch, she’d pitch stories she thought would make her boss look good, or complain or spin. That was how it works, or worked. I couldn’t name a Lightfoot staffer if you put a gun to my head and have never been approached by the mayor’s folks about anything. Maybe the media is in such decline she feels she doesn’t have to. That is a possibility.

The phrase I used to explain Rahm was: “He cares so much about his image it makes him look bad.” For Lightfoot it is: “She cares so little about her image it makes her look bad.” The result’s the same, and it’s probably too late for her to change now.

In Lightfoot’s defense, even before she took office, Chicago was afflicted with problems that would flummox Job, from the exponentially increasing sinkhole of pension liability, to the paranoid tribal police force, to a sprawling mess of a tottering school system. COVID and the post-George Floyd unrest made everything worse, and that was before this summer’s spike in headline-grabbing crime.

Is it too early to invoke Jane Byrne? Another brash amateur who blew into office on her outsider cred, then couldn’t do anything but alienate people, then ran into the arms of her enemies.

Lightfoot’s brand was riding herd on the police. But ever since she elevated her own CPD superintendent, she’s been just emitting obfuscating clouds of verbiage, like an octopus billowing ink, without actually accomplishing anything. Nor can she keep Lake Shore Drive, one of the few things people elsewhere know about Chicago that isn’t children being shot, from being rebranded.

The council is going to meet Friday and try again.