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EDITORIAL: Lessons from Lori Lightfoot’s first flip-flop

Protests against mega-projects Lincoln Yards and 'The 78'

Protesters rallied outside City Hall on April 10, the day $1.6 billion in subsidies for two mega-developments, Lincoln Yards and "The 78," were approved by the Chicago City Council. | Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

Memo to Mayor-elect Lori Lightfoot:

Announcements to the news media sent shortly before midnight usually are ill-conceived. Especially when they involve more than a billion-and-a-half dollars in taxpayer subsidies for two of the city’s most massive redevelopment projects.

But that’s exactly what Lightfoot did Tuesday night in walking back her repeated statements that the City Council should delay its approval of tax-increment financing for the two developments: Lincoln Yards on the North Side and “The 78” on the South Side. To be precise, a press release from Lightfoot announcing her change of view was sent out at 10:47 p.m., with the actual news buried in the last paragraph.

“There are likely sufficient votes to advance these proposals,” Lightfoot said. “I am not yet the mayor, and I recognize that the current administration and City Council must decide whether to carry this vote forward according to the interests of the constituents they serve.”

Say what?

Just hours earlier, Lightfoot had said this on WBEZ: “I’m not ever going to commit that I’m going to get comfortable with the vote going forward” on Wednesday.

And she had insisted for months, as a candidate, that the new mayor — whoever that might be — and the new City Council should get the final say on the hefty city subsidies.

Lightfoot’s flip-flop on Tuesday night paved the way for the City Council’s swift approval on Wednesday morning of subsidies of up to $900 million for Lincoln Yards, which is a $6 billion project planned by developer Sterling Bay, and subsidies of up to $700 million for The 78, which is being developed by Related Midwest on 62 acres at Roosevelt and Clark.

Lightfoot was in Springfield on Wednesday, so she wasn’t around to see the protesters sitting in the middle of La Salle Street outside City Hall. Among them were seven newly elected aldermen who now, despite Lightfoot’s previous stance, won’t get to vote on the matter.

We’re feeling like chumps, too.

On Tuesday, based on Lightfoot’s own past public statements, we wrote in an editorial that a City Council vote on Lincoln Yards this week would be “an insult to all those Chicagoans who handed Lightfoot a margin of victory of almost 3 to 1 in the April 2 mayoral runoff.”

Let’s be clear: We are not fundamentally opposed to the two projects. On the contrary, they almost certainly will create tens of thousands of jobs and, over time, bolster our city’s economy and property-tax revenues. TIFs run their course in two decades or so — and this TIF money will be spent on basic infrastructure improvements, such as roads and bridges.

But we were of the opinion — and still are — that a more careful review of what the city is giving up is needed. We felt sure — and still do — that this review would entail something more than what could be accomplished in a flurry of phone calls and closed-door bargaining over just 48 hours.

We also agreed with Lightfoot, before she decided to disagree with herself, that a vastly different City Council, to be sworn in next month, should be given a chance to weigh in.

In justifying her flip-flop, Lightfoot noted that both Sterling Bay and Related Midwest had agreed to “meaningfully strengthen” their commitments to women- and minority-owned contractors on the projects. This is welcome, providing it gets done right.

Chicago has had a problem with minority-contracting fraud, which we’re sure Lightfoot will be mindful of given her previous jobs as a federal prosecutor and as a top official in the city’s procurement department under Mayor Richard M. Daley.

We appreciate the politics of Lightfoot’s late-night reversal. As she said in the press release, she’s “not the mayor” yet. And she would have looked politically weak had she continued to call for a delay and the Council voted to approve the subsidies anyway.

But Lightfoot’s flip-flop, including the way it was announced in the dark of night, feels so retro for a mayor-elect who campaigned on a promise to put ordinary Chicagoans before developers with clout.

We endorsed Lightfoot for mayor in February. We thought she had the makings of a terrific reform-minded mayor, and of course we still do. This has been one ham-handed week before she has even been sworn in, like the Cubs’ losing streak at the start of their season.

Let’s hope Lightfoot works on her footing.

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