Since her historic election as the city’s first Black Woman and LGBTQ Mayor, Lori Lightfoot has faced unprecedented challenges and obstacles running the city. From dealing with a global pandemic, racial unrest, a contentious relationship with the Chicago Teachers Union, and local alderman, Mayor Lightfoot has had much to contend with. The Chicago Defender met with Mayor Lightfoot to talk about what the past two years have been like and what lessons she’s learned during her administration.
LAW ENFORCEMENT, VIOLENCE, AND LAWLESSNESS IN THE CITY.
Chicago Defender: Many are concerned with the approaching summer months and violence? What are your plans to deal with the violence in Chicago?
Mayor Lightfoot: In looking at historical data we identified 15 beats on the South and West sides that are the most challenging in dealing with violence. We have taken a holistic approach to government. And by that, I mean, we are looking at these areas literally block by block, identifying with our city resources the Department of Family Support Services, Department of Health; whether it is a library, a park, or a school, we have to look at what we have by way of assets? What can we do to make sure we are flooding these areas with resources?
This work must be about capacity building. We must make sure that we are entrenching long-term sustained resources and giving residents the tools that they need to create a safe environment for themselves with support from the city, but not exclusively by the city. We have put together a rapid response team, so when something pops off, we have got a strategy to address it, and pivot if we need to.
I feel confident about the strategy. One way or the other, we are going to learn a lot. Hopefully, in these areas that account for 30% of the violence in this city, we can bring those numbers down. If we can do that, not only are we going to save lives, but we are going to make a difference in overall safety.
Chicago Defender: In addition to the violence in the city, many residents have mentioned that their neighborhoods seem to be overrun with lawlessness. Speeding down streets, running red lights, the fireworks, ATVs on public property, etc. In neighborhoods, people cannot even enjoy their own backyards in peace, what can residents do about these things that are not necessarily violent but disruptive, nonetheless?
Mayor Lightfoot: Quality of Life is a big, big part of this discussion, as it should be. I would say is that when you are seeing those things at the local level, hopefully, you are participating in your beat and caps meetings, your block clubs, your local chambers of commerce and business, because it has to start at the neighborhood level. People should not feel like they cannot say anything, they do not have a voice. If the people and communities do not step up and speak out, then those who do not care about anybody else’s safety are going to be the dominant voice. We cannot let that happen. So, I would just encourage people to organize, participate and when you do that, then it is incumbent on us then to be responsive.
Chicago Defender: Speaking of law enforcement, what is the status of a new contract for the Chicago Police Department?
Mayor Lightfoot: It is interesting that you say that. We are almost four years from the date of the contract with the Fraternal Order of Police expired. Four years. Not because of a lack of effort on the part of the city but the current FOP leadership, led by John Catanzara. He refuses to bargain. They canceled bargaining sessions; they do not show up. They were unwilling to accept the reality that there must be real accountability and reforms. I am not sitting at the table, writing a check for retro pay, if they are not going to face the reality that they must be accountable to the residents of the city… period. We have a website that informs the public and officers about contract negotiations, but the website also details what is at stake because the Leadership is not telling the truth to its members. We must educate those members to put pressure on the leadership to get back at the negotiating table. John Catanzara has literally said that his strategy is to stall. I am just saying. Police officers have been without a pay raise since 2017. No other union in a major city is experiencing that and it is solely the fault of the leadership at the FOP.
Read more about CPD Contract Updates here.
CHICAGO PUBLIC SCHOOLS AND AN ELECTED SCHOOL BOARD
Chicago Defender: Let’s switch and talk about Chicago Public Schools. During your campaign, you said you were in support of an elected school board, however just objected to the creation of an elected school board presented in the Illinois Senate. Why? Did you change your mind?
Mayor Lightfoot: I am in favor of a hybrid board, which includes both elected and appointed members and the reason for that is this. This discussion about a fully elected school board, if you listen to it, does not include one word about children or kids. It is about power and politics, and not about the people in CPS. The most important people in Chicago Public Schools are the children and their parents.
I believe that the best form of governance is a hybrid. That is what we that is what we need. Particularly when you talk about the learning loss and growing achievement gap that is so detrimental to black kids in Chicago. None of these discussions about governance on the other side even addresses those issues, is purely about a power grab, and about dividing up what they think are going to be the spoils of CPS, but it is not about our children. That is the wrong approach.
Our values are clear. We have got to be about the children first. We must give parents a reasonable pathway, not only just to vote and by vote, I mean all parents. The current proposal that is pending in Springfield disenfranchises undocumented parents, which make up about 19% of the CPS population. So, we are going to now disenfranchise them? Does that make sense to you? Because it does not make sense to me.
The current proposal also does not address the reality that every year, the Chicago City subsidizes CPS to the tune of $500 million dollars. So, there is a lot of things that are not addressed that must be if we are going to make a shift in governance, this monumental to Chicago public schools. The proposal that was passed by the Senate this past week addresses none of those issues.
COMMUNITIES DEVASTATED ECONOMICALLY BY THE PANDEMIC
Chicago Defender: One of the things that we are realizing as we began to come out of this pandemic, is the devastation economically done to our communities. If you look at the south and west sides of Chicago, there are more abandoned homes and businesses. What is the City’s plan to revitalize and get some economic development into these areas post-COVID?
Mayor Lightfoot: We’re staying the course on our signature economic development plan, Invest South/West. This plan includes looking at 10 Community areas, 12 different commercial districts, and really co-curating a different economic future with the residents and stakeholders in those areas. We have made significant progress. Even during the pandemic year, we invested $70 million, and we got a return on that investment of $300 million in private dollars in capital. There are also plans underway to rebuild retail strips, parks, and streetscapes. There is a lot of economic activity that I think will magnify the effect of Invest South/West.
In addition, through our capital plan, which was passed in last year’s budget, we are bringing needed resources into communities all over the city, particularly the south and west side. So new streets, new bridges, and underpasses. Sprucing up public infrastructure all around the City of Chicago. I think that will make a big impact. In addition to that, this city, unlike New York, or LA, or any other city of similar size, we have already invested during the pandemic $100 million in small business support, whether they were grants or loans. Over 40% of those monies went to black and brown small businesses, including micro-businesses that employ four people or less.
We are continuing to look for ways to support both small businesses and work with the local chambers of commerce to think creatively about how we reuse some of these abandoned spaces. We have a package of small business reforms and support that is now pending before the City Council. We are very forward-thinking and understanding that we have got to bring small, black, and brown businesses and women-owned businesses to this part of his recovery. I have said this many times. Our values must be equity inclusion and that means seeing the entirety of the city, not just the downtown, but we have got to be focused also on our neighborhoods. So, a lot of the work that we have been doing throughout this pandemic, and we will continue to do as the city opens and recovers is about looking to the neighborhoods to see what is needed, and then making sure we provide the support so that those communities also flourish.
THE MAYOR REFLECTS ON THE LAST TWO YEARS
Chicago Defender: It has been two years now and I am sure you did not expect to begin your time in office with a pandemic and everything else that has occurred. What is the greatest lesson you have learned during your first two years in office?
Mayor Lightfoot: That’s a great question. You have got to be humble because this job will humble you. What we have been through in the last two years, I think if you look back through the history books, no other mayors in previous years have experienced what we have; A global pandemic, economic meltdown, massive civic uprising, and righteous conversation around systemic racism and people feeling like they have been left behind. These last two years have me going to back what Daniel Burnham said, “Make No Small Plans”. We must take on the challenges of the here and now, whether they have been neglected for decades before, it is about the here and now.
Our people are suffering. they are experiencing pain and they need our help. Here and Now.
Danielle Sanders is a journalist and writing living on the Southside of Chicago. Find her on Twitter @DanieSanders20.