Lightfoot feeling the heat

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Mayor Lori Lightfoot (Manuel Martinez/WBEZ)

After 100 days, empty promises, teacher contract disputes, departures of high-ranking Blacks add pressure as mayor seeks to plug $1B city budget deficit

By Erick Johnson

A storm is brewing for Mayor Lori Lightfoot.

In her first 100 days, Chicago’s first Black female mayor has earned poor grades in housing, immigration, police accountability and education. As activists voice their frustrations and the Chicago Teachers Union moves closer to a strike, Lightfoot begins an uphill battle to balance the city’s proposed 2020 budget.

Pressure is mounting on Lightfoot as she faces her biggest test under a growing list of challenges that will force her to make some tough financial decisions to balance the city’s estimated $1 billion budget deficit.

In her historic landslide victory in April, Lightfoot swept the Black vote, but the departures of several Black high-ranking officials have renewed concerns about her commitment to hiring or keeping people of color in decision-making positions in her administration.

In her first 100 days at City Hall, three senior executive-level Blacks in various departments have left their jobs, and none, so far, have been replaced by people of color.

Last week, Eugene Jones, Jr., abruptly resigned as CEO of the Chicago Housing Authority, becoming the second high-ranking official to leave the department in a month. Earlier this month, Marielle Sainvilus resigned as Lightfoot’s press secretary. Hours after Sainvilus’ decision, Lightfoot replaced her with Michael Crowley, chief of staff of After School Matters.“Over these past 100 days, we have made important strides in building stronger communities, safer neighborhoods and creating meaningful change across Chicago, but our work has only just begun,” said Lightfoot in a statement. “I want to thank all our residents, community leaders, elected officials and other stakeholders for their collaboration, partnership and support in enacting historic legislation and unprecedented reforms for our city. In the months ahead, we must continue to stand together as we build on our success and take on even greater challenges to create a Chicago that is truly a beacon of hope and opportunity for every resident and for generations to come.”

Lightfoot’s challenges come as Chicago’s Working Families—an activist organization—released a report card that gave Lightfoot several failing and disappointing grades after her first 100 days in office.

Three days before Lightfoot was scheduled to hold her State of the City address at the Harold Washington Library, activists released their report card during a press conference at City Hall. They called on her to live up to her campaign promise by doing more to help struggling neighborhoods whose residents helped elect her mayor.

The report card grades Lightfoot on six different areas: affordable housing and homelessness; immigration defense and sanctuary; police accountability and criminal justice reform; public education, mental health centers and violence prevention.

Lightfoot received an “F” in police accountability and education. Activists accused the mayor of not passing their proposed Civilian Police Accountability Council ordinance and not supporting an elected representative Chicago School Board, which is one of the few entities around the country where members are appointed by the mayor instead of voters.

Activists gave Lightfoot a “D” in affordable housing and homelessness, immigration defense and sanctuary and criminal justice reform.

Lightfoot received an “Incomplete” for not passing the community benefits agreement housing ordinance that addresses concerns of gentrification and displacement of residents living near the impending Obama Presidential Center in Jackson Park. She also received an “Incomplete” for not establishing a special office to prevent gun violence.

Perhaps the most pressing and urgent concern is Lightfoot’s promise to reopen the six mental health clinics that former Mayor Rahm Emanuel closed in 2012 to save the city $3 million.

It has been seven years since the clinics were closed, and some health experts have repeatedly linked the city’s social and crime problems to the lack of mental health clinics. During the campaign season at many mayoral forums across the city, Lightfoot promised to make the reopening of the clinics a “high priority.”

During a meeting with the Chicago’s Black Press in May, Lightfoot seemed to walk back her promise, saying the city historically has done well with mental health clinics. She said she was “anxiously” waiting to receive recommendations on treatment options from mental health experts.

Diane Adams, an activist who said she tried to kill herself in 1998 two years after her son was killed, said she has healed with the help of a mental health therapist. She urged Lightfoot to reopen the six mental health clinics at Monday’s press conference.

“Lightfoot is not keeping her word,” she said. “We want her to keep her word. It took me 15 years to get where I am today.”

With a $1 billion budget deficit, that may be difficult for Lightfoot, who bucked tradition by not releasing her proposed budget or proposed cuts before she made her scheduled speech on August 29. Last week, Lightfoot ordered a city-wide hiring freeze.

After her speech at the Harold Washington Library, Lightfoot will hold a series of townhall meetings across the city in September to hear community input on the budget.

Making Lightfoot’s job harder is the ongoing contract dispute with the Chicago Teachers Union, which days before the new school year is set to begin, rejected a sweetened $351 million contract that would have boosted teachers’ salaries by 16 percent over five years.

Despite the increase, union officials say the bigger contract doesn’t cover all the years that Chicago Public School teachers went without increases while many experienced furloughs.

Teachers are also demanding librarians and nurses at every school, more special education and bilingual support, smaller classes and a counselor for every 250 students. Lightfoot has vowed to accede to some of those demands outside of the CTU contract.

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