CITY HALL — Mayor Lori Lightfoot took office Monday and immediately struck at the heart of aldermen’s ability to veto — or green light — licenses and permits in their wards in an effort to fulfill her promise to root out corruption at City Hall.
The new mayor’s inaugural address built around the words of Chicago poet Gwendolyn Brooks, centering on Lightfoot’s pledge to increase equity in Chicago and govern with the poor, the threatened and scared uppermost in mind.
“‘We are each other’s harvest,’ she said, quoting the former poet laureate. “‘We are each other’s business; we are each other’s magnitude and bond.’”
Lightfoot, Chicago’s 56th mayor, is the first black and openly gay woman to serve as Chicago’s chief executive.
While Lightfoot praised former Mayor Rahm Emanuel and his wife Amy Rule for their service to the city, much of her speech was an implicit rebuke of his eight years in office.
Lightfoot promised to reverse the city’s population drop — led by an exodus of African Americans from the South and West sides — by making every neighborhood safe, strengthening public schools and digging the city out of a “giant financial hole.”
“People cannot and should not live in neighborhoods that resemble a war zone,” Lightfoot said.
Lightfoot also indirectly contrasted her approach with that of President Donald Trump, who proclaimed during the 2016 Republican National Convention, “I alone can fix it.”
“The challenges we face today did not arise overnight,” Lightfoot said. “And they will not be solved overnight, and they certainly won’t be solved by one mayor acting alone.”
Lightfoot’s speech was broken into four parts, as she redefined the four red stars on Chicago’s flag, telling the celebratory crowd she would “reinterpret these four stars [with] new meaning for a new century.”
The first she said, stood for safety, the second for education, the third for stability and claiming the fourth one for “integrity.”
“I know, I know – putting Chicago government and integrity in the same sentence is, well, a little strange,” Lightfoot said, drawing laughter from the thousands packed into Wintrust Arena and from some of the aldermen on stage behind her. “But that’s going to change. It’s got to change. For years, they’ve said Chicago ain’t ready for reform. Well, get ready, because reform is here.”
At Lightfoot’s words, the crowd erupted in floor-shaking cheers as they leapt to their feet in one of several standing ovations. That forced the aldermen to their feet as well — some with more alacrity than others.
“These practices have gone on here for decades,” Lightfoot said. “This practice breeds corruption. Stopping it isn’t just in the city’s interest. It’s in the City Council’s own interest.”
As the cheers rolled, Lightfoot turned to look at the aldermen, a slight smile on her face, and gestured they should applaud too.
Twelve new aldermen – Daniel La Spata (1), Stephanie Coleman (16), Jeanette Taylor (20), Michael Rodriguez (22), Byron Sigcho-Lopez (25), Felix Cardona (31), Rossana Rodriguez Sanchez (33), Samantha Nugent (39), Andre Vasquez (40), Jim Gardiner (45), Matt Martin (47), and Maria Hadden (49) — took the oath of office Monday, alongside new City Treasurer Melissa Conyears-Ervin and Clerk Anna Valencia, who won her first election.
Many of those aldermen ended political dynasties or ran on pledges of reform. Two replaced aldermen not spotted since a federal conviction (former 20th Ward Ald. Willie Cochran) and revelations of a federal investigation and wire tapping colleagues (former 25th Ward Ald. Danny Solis).
They meet again for their first regular meeting on May 29, one of the first tests of Lightfoot’s power.
A June 7 federal indictment deadline looms over Ald. Ed Burke (14) on a charge of attempted extortion for allegedly using his power as an alderman to force the owner of a Burger King in his ward to hire his private law firm to appeal their property taxes.
Lightfoot waited less than two hours before making good on a promise to limit that kind of power, signing an executive order that she declared “ended aldermanic prerogative” in front of a throng of reporters gathered in a newly redecorated mayor’s office. Colorful prints lined the wall and a family portrait of Lightfoot, her daughter, Vivian, and her wife, Amy Eshleman turned outward to face the news media.
“It is really important for me to make good on the promise that we ran on about bringing change to the city,” Lightfoot said as cameras clicked away, adding that she would work with aldermen.
The order gives city departments 60 days to submit a report to the mayor detailing how the “the department has deferred to aldermanic prerogative as a matter of custom or practice, but which deference is not otherwise required by the Municipal Code of Chicago” as well as what officials did to establish “fact-based, objective criteria by which decisions should be made.”
In addition, the order seeks to create a paper trail to record how — and when — aldermen have weighed in on official actions.
“Whenever a department receives input from an alderman in a decision-making practice that does not require deference to aldermanic prerogative as a matter of law, any such input must be memorialized in writing,” the order reads.
Lightfoot promised to work with members of the City Council, saying that “aldermen will continue to have a voice, but they will no longer have a veto.”
“I want to be clear, this is not ending aldermanic influence, this is not ending the way in which aldermen conduct their business every day and do hundreds of good things for people in their wards,” Lightfoot said. “What this is, is ending the unilateral, unchecked power that aldermen had to control virtually every aspect of business and community life that interacts with the city. We want to make sure that people understand that they are entitled to good, basic city services and that they don’t have to give more to get that.”
Flanked by her chosen floor leader, Ald. Gilbert Villegas (36), and Ald. Michele Smith (43), her proposed chair of the newly created Committee on Ethics and Good Governance, Lightfoot promised more “good government ethics reforms” in the coming weeks and days — including a plan to reform the city’s zoning code, which determines what can be built where.
Standing to her side, former Ald. Dick Simpson (44) — for decades a single voice calling for reform in city government and one of the first high-profile Chicago politicians to back her campaign for mayor – could not help but drive the point home.
“Thank you, mayor, for ending 150 years of aldermanic prerogative,” Simpson said.
Lightfoot is not the first Chicago mayor to take office and immediately focus on reform.
In 2011, Emanuel took office and immediately issued six executive orders focused on ethics designed to signal an end to the old way of doing business.
However, Emanuel turned over his office Monday to Lightfoot, who was swept into office by a wave outrage fueled by the latest round of corruption allegations that may yet land one — or more — of the aldermen sworn in Monday behind bars.