Swept Into Office by Promises of Reform, Lightfoot Faces New Scrutiny on Ethics Record

Lori Lightfoot won every Chicago ward in her first bid for mayor after her campaign took off like a rocket, fueled by promises that she alone could put an end the notion that placing Chicago government and integrity in the same sentence is an oxymoron at best, or a joke at worst.

But Lightfoot’s campaign for a second term has been weighed down by a growing amount of evidence that not only has she failed to fulfill campaign promises to “bring in the light,” but also that she has at times governed more like an old-school machine politician than a reformer. For her part, Lightfoot has said that her administration has made strides in pushing back against corruption. 

Thanks to our sponsors:

View all sponsors

For much of Lightfoot’s time in office, concerns about ethics, transparency and good government were eclipsed by the COVID-19 pandemic that has killed more than 8,000 Chicagoans, the economic catastrophe it unleashed and a public safety crisis that sent violent crime to the highest levels in nearly 25 years.

But ethics issues are back in the white-hot spotlight after WTTW News was first to report that the Lightfoot campaign sent emails to Chicago Public Schools teachers and City Colleges of Chicago faculty members asking them to encourage their students to volunteer to help Lightfoot win a second term as mayor – and earn class credit.

Lightfoot told reporters that the emails were a “well-intentioned” “mistake” approved by her deputy campaign manager, a staffer that Lightfoot referred to as young and a “20-something” five times during a 36-minute news conference on Thursday. Lightfoot declined to fire the staffer, saying she had an obligation to mentor young women across Chicago.

During that same news conference, Lightfoot said she had fulfilled her 2019 campaign promises to root out corruption at City Hall and toughen the city’s ethics regulations in an attempt to break the grip of the city's “corrupt political machine.”

“We’ve broken up the status quo, whether it comes to aldermanic prerogative, whether it comes to putting the interest of individuals ahead of what’s in the best interest of our city,” Lightfoot said, claiming credit for passing what she called the “toughest package of ethics reform package in the city’s history.”

“We’re taking on those fights. We’ve never shied away from them,” she said. 

Jason DeSanto, a senior lecturer at Northwestern’s Pritzker School of Law, said the revelations about the Lightfoot campaign’s actions would make ethics a “thorny” issue for the incumbent mayor.

“This action directly undercuts her 2019 vow to ‘Let in the Light’ – and not in the distant past but during this re-election campaign,” DeSanto said.

'Bold' Package of Ethics Reforms Approved

The City Council voted 50-0 in July 2019 to overhaul the city’s ethics laws by giving the inspector general the authority to investigate alderpeople and committees by hiking the fine for violations from $2,000 to $5,000. That measure also banned members of the City Council from working as property tax attorneys — a provision that was aimed squarely at indicted Ald. Ed Burke (14th Ward).

Chicago Board of Ethics Executive Director Steve Berlin said the ordinance is the “boldest law of its type in the country” that allows Chicago to claim “bragging rights.”

But even when it passed, Lightfoot acknowledged that it was just the first step toward tearing out the roots of the culture of the corruption that has led to the conviction of 37 members of the Chicago City Council since 1969.

But the next two attempts by members of the City Council to tighten Chicago’s ethics ordinance faced stiff opposition from Lightfoot.

Lightfoot asked the City Council to ease the ban it imposed in December 2019 on elected officials from other jurisdictions from lobbying Chicago officials. That ban, prompted by the arrest of now-former state Rep. Luis Arroyo (D-Chicago), had “unintended consequences,” Lightfoot told reporters.

Led by former Ald. Michele Smith (43rd Ward), the City Council’s Ethics and Government Oversight Committee delivered a stinging rebuke to Lightfoot in October 2020 by rejecting that proposal unanimously and preventing it from advancing to the full City Council.

Smith and Lightfoot clashed again in the spring of 2022, when the now-former Ethics Committee chair proposed another major overhaul of the city’s Government Ethics Ordinance that hiked fines for violations from $5,000 to $20,000 and expanded the number of companies limited to contributing $1,500 to any one candidate per year to include those doing business with the city's sister agencies such as the Chicago Public Schools.

Lightfoot blocked that proposal from advancing for three months, and began negotiations with Smith only after Chicago Board of Ethics Chair William Conlon told WTTW News the package should be passed swiftly.

Before she backed the proposal, the mayor demanded changes that would have benefited two of her allies who found themselves in the crosshairs of the Chicago Board of Ethics.

The ethics board is now required to notify the elected official in writing at least 10 days before the Board of Ethics could find probable cause that they violated the law, giving them a chance to refute the allegation and potentially avoid public embarrassment.

Lightfoot said that change was necessary to “make sure that the board is viewed with legitimacy, not as judge, jury and executioner before they even get the other facts from the person who's the target of the complaint.”

The Board of Ethics is set to consider at its meeting on Monday whether to give Lightfoot 10 days to respond to evidence that there is probable cause to believe her campaign’s emails to employees of CPS and the City College violated the ethics ordinance Lightfoot herself helped twice rewrite.

A formal decision by the Ethics Board that there is probable cause that Lightfoot violated the ordinance could not be made until Feb. 27. Election Day is Feb. 28.

Efforts on Aldermanic Prerogative Stalled

Lightfoot’s record on aldermanic prerogative is also mixed, nearly four years after the mayor used her inaugural address to tell City Council members she would not flinch from her campaign promise to strip them of the final say on ward-level issues, saying the “practice breeds corruption.”

Despite signing an executive order on her first day in office to give department heads the power to issue most licenses and permits, regardless of what the alderperson wants, Lightfoot has failed to even propose demolishing the basis for the largely unwritten, decades-old practice, which is woven throughout the hundreds of pages of the municipal code.

Even as Lightfoot proposed smaller scale changes to aldermanic prerogative, an overwhelming majority of the City Council pushed back, led by some of the mayor’s closest allies.

That opposition came even as federal officials probed whether aldermanic prerogative has created a hyper-segregated city rife with racism and gentrification. The results of that investigation could be released at any moment.

The lone exception was a December 2021 vote by the City Council, urged on by Lightfoot, to approve plans for a 297-unit apartment complex in one of Chicago’s wealthiest neighborhoods because it included 59 units set aside for low- and moderate-income Chicagoans.

But more common was the outcome of the fierce debate over where a casino should be located. Ultimately, Lightfoot backed plans to build it in the 27th Ward, represented by her ally Ald. Walter Burnett – the only alderperson who welcomed the entertainment complex and resort.

At Odds With City’s Watchdog

In addition, Lightfoot spent much of her first term at odds with former Inspector General Joseph Ferguson over a host of issues.

Shortly after he left office, Ferguson told WTTW News that not only had Lightfoot failed to live up to promises on reform and transparency, things were actually worse during her administration than under former Mayor Rahm Emanuel.

After Ferguson’s departure, Chicago was without a City Council-confirmed watchdog for 180 days.

Early in her tenure, Lightfoot pushed through a change in city ordinance that allowed the city’s top lawyer to release previously confidential reports from the inspector general in certain high-profile cases.

However, Lightfoot has resisted calls to release any inspector general’s report covering incidents during her time in office, including a botched implosion of a smokestack in April 2020 that sent a plume of smoke and dust over Little Village as well as the drunken night that led to the dismissal of former Chicago Police Supt. Eddie Johnson.

Lightfoot and Ferguson also locked horns over the watchdog’s proposal to the plan to create a database of police misconduct files dating back to 2000 in an effort to hold officers accountable by increasing transparency.

After originally dismissing Ferguson’s original proposal as too expensive, Lightfoot backed a scaled back database. However, the push fell apart amid the acrimony, and the database never got off the ground.

Impact of Closed-Door Ward Remap

But perhaps the campaign promise broken by Lightfoot that will have the longest and most profound impact on Chicago is unfulfilled vow to form an independent commission to draw a ward map based on the 2020 census that reflected neighborhood boundaries and was not gerrymandered.

Instead, the ward map set to take effect in May was drawn the same way it has always been – behind closed doors by incumbent alderpeople to pick their own voters and punish their enemies while boosting their allies.

Utlimately, the ward map adopted by the City Council was backed by the Black Caucus, which is led Lightfoot's closest allies.

That map will be in place until after the 2030 census – after the next three mayoral elections.

Contact Heather Cherone: @HeatherCherone | (773) 569-1863 | [email protected]

Thanks to our sponsors:

View all sponsors

Thanks to our sponsors:

View all sponsors