“I’m not Rahm Emanuel. I’m not hiding from the press.” – Mayor-elect Lori Lightfoot
By Erick Johnson
There’s nearly two weeks before Mayor-elect Lori Lightfoot is sworn in as the city’s first Black female mayor. She is busy preparing for the big day. Tickets to her historic inauguration at Wintrust Arena have kept her staff in overdrive. On Tuesday, Lightfoot spent a day in Washington, where she met with Ivanka Trump at the White House.
Five days earlier on May 3, Lightfoot did something that her predecessor, Rahm Emanuel, has never done: held a meeting with Chicago’s Black Press.
It was a big statement Lightfoot made as she prepares to usher in a new era of fairness and transparency at City Hall.
After years of covering the elusive, but image-obsessed Emanuel, publishers and journalists of the Chicago Crusader, the Chicago Defender, the Final Call, the Chicago Citizen, Windy City Word, N’DIGO, TBT and Bronzeville Life huddled in a tight conference room at Lightfoot’s temporary office at the Reid Murdoch building on the Chicago River. For more than an hour, they got more face time from the incoming mayor than they did from Emanuel during his entire eight years in office.
For the city’s Black Press, it was a refreshing, but long-awaited experience that aimed to heal the wounds and scars left by an administration that rarely spoke to newspapers of color or returned phone calls.
For Lightfoot, it was an opportunity to reaffirm her agenda of change, equality and fairness to Black newspapers that identify with the struggles of the city’s disenfranchised Black residents.
Many Blacks are excited about Lightfoot’s plan to smash the machine politics that have festered at City Hall for so long. All 50 of Chicago’s wards, including the 18 predominantly Black wards, gave her a landslide victory over Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle. Her election made headlines in Chicago’s Black newspapers where before her historic victory, Lightfoot was a relatively unknown public figure who rarely made the front page.
But Lightfoot made herself known in what was an eye-opening discussion with the Black Press—one that saw the mayor-elect use an expletive while addressing concerns and answering questions about her agenda for neglected Black neighborhoods and her availability to newspapers of color.
That same meeting saw Lightfoot defend her decision to allow the City Council meeting to go forward before aldermen approved over $2 billion in TIF funding for the Lincoln Yards and The 78 mega developments last month.
It was also a meeting where there was some cause for concern as Lightfoot remained silent on requests for candid discussions on race, and for the first time, expressed a slight change in her position on reopening the six mental health clinics that her predecessor closed in 2012.
“I’m going to do everything I can to uplift the quality of life in every neighborhood, particularly those neighborhoods that have been left behind,” Lightfoot said.
Emanuel was often criticized for his lack of availability and transparency on issues affecting the police department and Chicago Public Schools system. Emanuel was especially evasive in giving interviews to the Crusader. He did reach out to Publisher Dorothy R. Leavell for support as he was considering running for a third term, as he had lost appeal and political support in the Black community after the Laquan McDonald scandal.
“I’m not Rahm Emanuel. I’m not hiding from the press. I’m not retaliating because you write a story that’s critical. We’re all in the same ecosystem. I recognize that you all are going to be doing your job. But we’re not going to play those kinds of games. It’s not going to happen. It’s not.”
Lightfoot said she has 2,000 people going on her website applying and are desperate for jobs. She also said that Chicago’s $3 billion in procurement contracts should go towards contractors in the city unless a firm that offers a unique service or product isn’t available. Lightfoot said big procurement contracts should be “broken up in pieces” small enough to allow small and minority contractors to share wealth.
“We are the 20th largest economy in the world. We are a force where we don’t need to go outside the city of Chicago for procurement of goods and services for probably much of anything. Of that $3 billion, where are we resourcing our goods and services from? There should be a damn good reason why we don’t procure from a city of Chicago vendor for anything.”
“We haven’t had a land use plan since 1966. So, what that means is when development happens, how it happens, it’s completely left up to the vagaries of developers. There’s no comprehensive development plan. None. What you see is nothing south of Roosevelt Road, nothing west of Ashland.”
She promised to support and clean up struggling neighborhoods on the South and West sides by making sure Streets and Sanitation and the Chicago Department of Transportation treat those neighborhoods the same way those on the city’s North Side are treated.
“I made it very clear to Streets and Sanitation and CDOT that Black and brown neighborhoods are not going to be denied services to which they are entitled, and that the only reason they get it is because someone lights themselves on fire complaining. And if you continue to see that, please let me know because I’m very serious about that.
“Leading up to Memorial Day, my directive is, get out there in those streets, cut the grass, pick up the trash, and it better be a continual thing as a matter of course because we deserve to live in neighborhoods that look the same way as Lincoln Park; and part of that, is making sure that Streets and Sanitation and CDOT do their job.
“I’ll give you another example. I went down to Kennedy King (College) on Monday for a community gathering. We drove westbound across 63rd Street right near Kennedy King. Those roads are a disaster, and literally, I was yelling at the driver because we were ditching these big holes all the way there for three or four blocks. That doesn’t make any sense. [There needs] to be a real plan to pave those streets so that they’re drivable. During the runoff, we went down to David Moore’s ward office in the 17th Ward. Now, this is an alderman who can’t get city services. That’s crazy. That’s a total lack of respect.”
“And when the crews come, could there be some that look like us?” Crusader Publisher Leavell asked. “Too often, you can go out and they’re working on something and nobody looks like you, nobody looks like me. I know there are people who are trying to get jobs, and I’m not sure what kind of red tape you’ve got to go through with your city departments to make sure they are more diverse.”
Lightfoot gave warning to Chicago’s affluent Black bourgeoisie, who have often been accused of building their success and affluence with the political establishment at City Hall. Lightfoot didn’t state names, but several publishers and journalists in the room understood who she was talking about.
“There has to be a reckoning on Black folks of wealth and means and prominence and platforms to do what is necessary to see where the need is, and I’m going to help illuminate that. But, they have a responsibility, and I’m going to keep talking about that and if there’s no movement, I’m going to start naming names because it’s time. It’s way past time.”
Carl West, publisher of TBT, a digital Black publication, agreed.
“I recognize how crucial that is among that group, and I call them the elite group. You cannot be invisible to your own community and then expect those communities to rise up and prosper.”
Mary Datcher, editor-in-chief of Bronzeville Life, said, “That same group, Carl, have [sic] considered themselves to be the gatekeepers a great deal. And they have aligned themselves with the status quo in the last couple of administrations, and they have always been the ones to get the bigger slice of the smaller pie.”
“We can’t have the attitude ‘I’m on board, pull up the ladders, the hell with the rest of you,’” Lightfoot said.
“They (Black bourgeoisie) need direction,” said Hermene Hartman, publisher of N’DIGO, a Black magazine. “They need somebody to say, ‘I need you to take care of this street, I need you to hire this many people or I need you to create this many jobs.’ Somebody has to say do this. What that group does is run up behind the mayor, whoever the mayor is, and kiss butt and then if that doesn’t work, go to see Jesse so he can beat somebody up. That, as a business model has to stop.”
“In just thinking about Lincoln Yards and The 78 and the $8.5 billion at the airport, those are tremendous opportunities. I got sh** from people on the left…. Look, the train was way down the track by the time I showed up. The votes were already there. There were a lot of reasons why stopping it would be damn near impossible…. But one thing I felt good about is having my lawyers go through the six hundred pages of these contracts, and look at what controls we have,” commented Lightfoot.
West asked Lightfoot to hold several city discussions to improve race relations in Chicago following cases involving Jussie Smollett and Officer Jason Van Dyke, who was convicted of second-degree murder for shooting Laquan McDonald 16 times in 2014.
“I really believe that it would help solve some of the ills in terms of how people do business with each other, how people see each other, again how neighborhoods are looked upon from underneath and not the surface.”
Lightfoot answered by referring to the Tribune and the Sun-Times and how “they characterize things that are happening in Black and brown neighborhoods because that obviously has great influence on the problem as well.”
Throughout her campaign for mayor, Lightfoot repeatedly told the media, including the Crusader, that she would reopen the seven mental health clinics Emanuel closed in 2012 to save the city $3 million. But during the meeting, she gave a new explanation that many did not hear during her mayoral campaign.
“When I saw this issue blow up, my instinct was we should reopen them. Of course, we should reopen them. But I’ve had a lot of substantive conversations with clinicians and people that are in the mental health professions, particularly community-based.
“And what have I learned from people in that world is that the city of Chicago has never done a particularly good job of delivering services, and that those clinics because they were really stretched for resources or addressing the most urgent needs of people who had serious mental health issues, weren’t really able to look across the landscape of people who are suffering from trauma, depression.
“As this conversation has proceeded, what I’m focused on is making sure we’ve got a network of care that’s neighborhood-based, that’s accessible, meaning physically-accessible, financially-accessible, and so one of my transition committees is looking at initiatives.
“I’m anxiously awaiting their recommendations, but what I know is we must provide care and treatment options to people in neighborhoods.”