Chicago Tribune |
Apr 05, 2019 | 10:00 AM
Chicago Mayor-Elect Lori Lightfoot speaks about her improbable election as mayor on April 3, 2019. (Zbigniew Bzdak / Chicago Tribune)
Chicago Mayor-elect Lori Lightfoot sat down Thursday for a wide-ranging interview with City Hall reporter Bill Ruthhart. Here is the full transcript of the interview, edited for clarity:
Q: You've had a little more than a day to let this sink in; is it still surreal? Has it been overwhelming at times with everything there is to do?
A: It doesn't feel overwhelming, but there is a lot to do. The conversations that I've been having with people are about, "Tell me what you believe is the right thing to do, and put the politics aside." I'm not naive, and we're going to have to contend with that, but I want to know what's the best thing for the city, for the residents, taxpayers. And so that's the charge that I've been giving to people that are working on the transition from my perspective, but also talking to people who are in, or have been in, city government. … I want to imagine things as big as possible, and then we'll figure out what the practical realities are. But I don't want to have things on the cutting room floor before we even start the conversation.
Q: You called getting elected mayor surreal. What has made this so surreal?
A: Everything about it. If you think about, there was a Sun-Times poll that came out in January, now query whether or not it was accurate, but it put me at like 2.8 percent, which was really tough. It made it hard to gain people's confidence. When you see a poll like that, it makes it very difficult to raise money, get people to rally to your cause, but we survived. And you think about that, to winning all 50 wards on Tuesday night and vanquishing a very experienced politician who's at the head of the party and holds virtually every title that you can think of along her path, that's a pretty magnificent way to arrive on the public scene.
So, because of that, because of Chicago, I'll say, and because of the way in which we won, all sorts of possibilities have opened up, and I'm hearing from people that probably didn't know my name 10 minutes before their aide said, "You should call this person, who just did this." But I want to think about how we can use this moment to really add to the greater good for the city.
Q: Do you think winning in such a convincing fashion will make governing a bit easier early on as opposed to if it were a really tight race?
A: You know, it depends, right? I think it will make governing easier when you talk about the residents and voters of this city. Will it make it easier for dealing with a City Council that is still going to have people on it who have been around forever and just view the game from a very different perspective? That remains to be seen.
Q: Who has called you since you won? Obama called. What's that been like?
A: I spoke with President (Donald) Trump. Very cordial conversation. Spoke with (former) President (Barack) Obama. Spoke with Ivanka Trump, which was interesting and a surprise. Spoke with a number of different Democratic presidential contenders, who have reached out. A number of mayors from across the country have reached out. And then, you know, lots of friends and family members from near and far.
Q: Were you surprised that Trump called?
A: Yes and no, right? It's a smart, politic thing to do. Yeah, of course I was a little surprised. You know, when you get the White House operator and they say, "Just a moment for the president of the United States," that's a pretty heady moment.
A: I think it went well. I've never spoken to the man before. He's never spoken to me. He was very complimentary about the race, and extended an offer to be helpful to the city. I intend to take him up on that offer. While our politics are radically different, he's still the president of the United States. We have a lot of taxpayers in this city who deserve to get every nickel of their tax dollars that they're entitled to from Washington, and I intend to make that happen.
Q: Did the president bring up the crime issue that he so frequently tweets about?
A: Yeah, but in a much more indirect way. Yes, we did talk briefly about it. It was not a short conversation, but not a long conversation.
Q: You spoke with Obama, too. How did that go?
A: It went well. We don't know each other well, but we have met. He was a black lawyer in Chicago, as I am, so that's not a huge circle of people. But again, very cordial.
Q: Did you talk about the future of the presidential center and that situation?
A: Only in very brief terms. Again, it was a congratulations call. It wasn't a substantive policy discussion. Obviously, we both know that's something that is on the table and needs to to get resolved so everybody can move forward. I said to him, "It's really important that we make sure people in the neighborhoods feel like this is a good thing for them," and he agreed. I don't want to get into the details of the conversation, but I feel confident that we're going to be able to work together well, and we'll be able to move things forward in a way that protects the interests of people in the community.
Chicago Mayor-elect Lori Lightfoot speaks on April 3, 2019, about how the Ald. Edward Burke scandal helped propel her to victory in the mayoral election. (Zbigniew Bzdak / Chicago Tribune)
Q: You mentioned the unlikely nature of your campaign, just from the poll numbers in January to now. If you think back even further to when you started on the Police Board, that was pre-Laquan McDonald and before policing became the mega-issue that it is now. Has the thought crossed your mind that without the McDonald shooting and without the raids and charge against Ald. Ed Burke, that you wouldn't be sitting here in this position?
A: Well, let me take that in chunks. I think that the fact of Laquan McDonald's murder and all of the process around the suppression of the videotape caused a lot of things to happen in our city. It sent tremors in a lot of ways. It certainly galvanized the feeling that had been expressed in black and brown communities, particularly black communities, for a long time, that the police were not fair to them. And that's probably a supreme understatement. It opened up a lot of shock waves, and certainly it galvanized a lot of activism, of all generations, particularly around young people. It gave them kind of a rallying cause for sure, which I think on balance has been a good thing for our city. Obviously, there are people in that community who view me as suspect, that's probably the most generous characterization.
But some of the conversations we're having today, certainly around that issue, but also just around governance and accountability between the government and the people, we wouldn't be having without that moment happening. So, yeah, that certainly has made me think about public service and governance in a very different way. I can say unequivocally thinking about being a candidate for mayor back then was probably the furthest thing from my mind. It wasn't even in my mind. That came much, much later. But we've been in this moment in our city. We didn't know it in October of '14 when Laquan McDonald was murdered, but really if you kind of trace the arc of this, it probably could trace back until at least then. Now, a lot of these issues that are blowing have been cross currents that have been in Chicago for maybe the entirety of its history, but certainly modern history. So that's kind of one phase of it.
What happened with the search warrants with Burke's office, I can actually remember very clearly you called on a Friday afternoon, and said, "Nobody else is talking to me." I was surprised by that, because it was such a seminal moment. That conversation that we had that Friday afternoon probably propelled things, because I certainly realized they're running for cover. This is an important thing that we need to talk about, make sure we capitalize on for sure. But what it did, and obviously the final chapter in this is far from being written, but you think about that happens on a Thursday and the next Tuesday or Wednesday he holds his annual fundraiser and 2,000 people show up. They probably broke records. That really kind of puts in context where we were.
I think that and the reaction, particularly around all the running for cover. I said they were scattering like cockroaches with a light shined on them, and I think there was some truth to that. Now, I wasn't calling a person a cockroach, but it was that action of running for cover to stay away from this story and hope that it didn't consume them, but it did.
I've talked with people who are like Fortune 25 CEOs in that world, and I've talked to just the little, tiny small business person and local residents, this issue of corruption is something that touches everybody. Everybody. And people are sick of it. They want a life in this city that they don't have to do something because they are afraid that not to take some action, not to write a check, not to kiss the ring in some way, is going to cause them harm. We still have that city, and I want to fundamentally change that. So, yes, I became the vessel into which people poured their hopes that we can have a different kind of city. I recognize that, but in politics, sometimes it's good to be lucky.
Q: You ran on getting rid of aldermanic privilege (the practice of aldermen having veto power over all permitting and zoning decisions in their wards). That's probably easier to talk about than the mechanics of actually withdrawing that practice. It's not like it's a line in the city code. It's deeper than that. How do you go about addressing that?
A: I'm going to consult with some of the alderman who have been supportive of the campaign. I'm very clear on it. Some of them have a very different view, but I'm very clear that it's got to go. I want to do it in a way that doesn't do further harm, the quintessential throwing the baby out with the bathwater. But it's got to go. How do you do it? My thoughts are that because it's not written into law and it's just a very dominant culture … I'm thinking about an executive order from day one that says in more legalese than this, "This is not a thing. We will no longer honor this."
Because the way that aldermanic prerogative works is there's got to be compliance with the executive branch, because otherwise it doesn't work. So, you've got to eliminate that compliance, and you make it a mandate. And then you do training, particularly in the city licensing departments whether it's zoning, buildings, housing, planning, and you pick the people who run those agencies and the deputies that are pledging allegiance to the new world order and good governance. And then I think you have the inspector general do some spot audits to make sure that there is real compliance.
You obviously have to engage in a dialogue with the City Council. It's not that alderman no longer are able to have notice and an opportunity to be heard. If aldermen are doing their job right, they should be the people who are closest to the vibe and the beat in their neighborhood and have a very important role to play on a number of different issues, but not a unilateral, unchecked right. That's gone as soon as I take office, because it prevents us from engaging in citywide initiatives, it prevents us from moving ahead on important issues like affordable housing and it is fundamentally corrosive and there is no way to monitor it in a way you can bring transparency and accountability to it.
Chicago Mayor-elect Lori Lightfoot speaks on April 3, 2019, about how she'll end aldermanic privilege. (Zbigniew Bzdak / Chicago Tribune)
If I've got to go and kiss the ring of the alderman for everything, for a license to have a block club party or whatever it is and there is a catalog of all the things that are run through the aldermanic offices, that is fundamentally a problem. And it's the tens of thousands of touches that an alderman has on a regular basis with constituents who think that they have to give some additional thing to get access to basic city services, that is the corrosive effect. And it's obviously worse when an alderman takes that power and then tries to monetize it for him or herself.
Q: You mentioned Inspector General Joe Ferguson. Many conclusions he's reached in his reports you've mentioned in the campaign. It seems like one piece of low-hanging fruit in terms of reform is to give him the power to investigate aldermen. What is your relationship like with him and how might he be a partner in some of these reforms?
A: I've known Joe for a long time. We were trial partners together at the U.S. attorney's office, and when (then-Inspector General) David Hoffman was leaving, my law partner, Ty Fahner, was Mayor (Richard M.) Daley's, basically I think his personal lawyer, and was leading the search. So, I suggested Joe's name. So he became the inspector general. Now, obviously, Mayor Daley made his own choices, but I've known Joe for a long time. I think he and his team do really top-notch work. I know being in an oversight capacity, you're not always loved by all. I think he's done a lot of good work with integrity.
I look to the New York model. The department of investigations there, which I think is pretty comprehensive, they've got their people embedded into city agencies. So, we'll work through what's the right thing. Oversight auditing of (City Council) committees, to me, that's a no-brainer. I know why that was stopped, and I think he is becoming less and less relevant, he being Ed Burke. But I think that's a no-brainer. We have to have oversight. I also think that we have to think about whether or not we consolidate some of the inspector general's functions. I still would keep CPS separate, because I think that's just a whole different animal, and I think the inspector general there actually does a very good job.
But I've meant what I said. I'm not a person who puts things out in writing and policy prescriptions and is not intending to follow through. Making sure we have a robust audit function also fits in larger with …. We have to have a real, meaningful risk management function within the city government. That is a big priority for me. I've already started thinking about what that might look like and already have talked to a number of people about the possibilities of who, but that has to happen.
Q: By all accounts, it sounds like your meeting with the mayor went OK and was not as contentious as the last time you were in that office meeting with him.
A: No. It was night and day difference from the last time I was there. It was very, very cordial. He pledged full support in helping the transition and was very generous in part talking about family and how important it was to make sure that the job didn't blot out time with our child. You know, he's raised three children while he's been in office. So, he offered I think some really sound advice on that front. I don't know (Emanuel chief of staff) Joe Deal very well, but Joan Coogan was also in that meeting, and I've known Joan for 25 years from when she was working in county government. So, I think it was a good conversation, a good start. I'm sure there will be many more.
There's only one mayor at a time, which he mentioned subtly, actually subtly. But he's right. There is only one mayor at a time, and I want to make sure that we are in communication with each other. We obviously come at issues from a different perspective. He's not forgotten, I'm sure, that I ran while he was still in contention, but I feel very confident that we're going to have all the cooperation and help that we need. That's already started at a very senior level, and I'm appreciative of that.
Q: On the Lincoln Yards development, you called for that to be held until you take office. What's your sense of where that is in the process, and do you still feel that way?
A: I do still feel that way. I don't like setting the precedent of having a mega-project like this where there is this massive commitment of city resources without a level of transparency around things like infrastructure impact, transportation impact and just kind of quality-of-life issues. I think those issues really needed to be laid out in a much more fulsome way to the public. And you know the Sterling Bay folks and probably Ald. (Brian) Hopkins (2nd) would say, "Oh my God, we had so many community meetings …." But as you know, the master plan of the project kept evolving, and still is from what I understand. But the impacts, whether there were studies done, those were not fully out there and explained for the public to give them some confidence that this project is one that's not going to completely transform, in all the bad ways, their quality of life.
Q: Do you think Lincoln Yards still goes forward?
A: Look, I think they've got the votes for it to go forward. But all the money's not going to be given at one tranche, so we will have leverage, and I intend to make full use of that leverage to get done what needs to get done.
Q: There is a concept that Ald. Gilbert Villegas is talking about, having a speaker of the council, and allowing the council to select its own committees, chairman and acting like a true legislative body. Do you have thoughts on that concept?
A: Well, look, l think that very few people benefit by having a City Council that's a rubber stamp for a mayor. I believe that in my core. And if they want to assert new powers, we'll see what comes out of that process. They need to then actually do their jobs, and they need to build in infrastructure to be able to do it. I don't think that's a bad thing obviously, but then I want it not to be for show. I want it to be for real.
Q: They're going to need money to set up that type of infrastructure, though, right?
A: And they're going to have to figure out how they do that. Obviously we are in a very tight budgetary situation, but you know, we will sit down. We will have discussions. We'll figure out how this all goes. You know, I've heard all sorts of rumblings like, "We'll show her. We'll teach her." That's really quite foolhardy, particularly given the incredibly broad mandate that we had. They need to read the election results. We won everywhere, and we're going to take that mandate because the people have given it to us.
Q: So you're open to this idea of a speaker of the council?
A: I mean I don't really have an opinion on it at this point. There's always a leadership. The mayor typically has a floor leader. So I don't know if that's what they're thinking about. If it's akin to that, I don't really have an opinion on it, since it's not been an idea that's been run by me. But my bottom line is they need to govern. They need to understand the responsibilities for the entire city, not just for their individual wards. And then I think we'll have a productive working relationship, which is all I think that I'm entitled to ask for.
Q: You mentioned the budgetary issue that's one of the big things you'll have to tackle relatively quickly. Now that we're not in a campaign anymore, can you give us a better sense of where you may be looking for revenue? And I know a lot of potential revenue ideas like the one you mentioned about taxing high-end law firms and accounting firms needs approval in Springfield. That would be a pretty narrow window in May to get that accomplished in Springfield. Will you look for revenue this session?
A: Well, I think, look, I'm not going to wait until May 20 to start having a legislative agenda in Springfield. That's just not enough time. It's just the vagaries of the election and when you get sworn in, so those discussions have already started, and we'll probably be taking a visit to Springfield sometime relatively soon. And you know we had a very good discussion this morning and those discussions continue at the staff level with Mayor Emanuel's financial team about what are some realistic options, and we're going to take all of that into consideration. You know, a lot of it depends upon what we can get help from Springfield with, and particularly around pension issues. And there are some things that I think seem like they're in play. Again, I don't want to talk about specifics yet, because I need to educate myself a little bit more about them before I start pushing those or pushing that.
Other than crime, there's no bigger issue that we face than securing the financial future of our city. And because of decisions that were made way beyond my thoughts about being a mayor of a city, we are in a very difficult circumstance. And you know I've said before we are absolutely going to have to have a conversation with the taxpayers about revenue. But there's a lot of things that we have to do first, and the more conversations I have with people, that list keeps getting longer of things that we have to do first.
I just want people to feel like we've heard them. People feel like they are taxed to death. They feel like they are nickel-and-dimed. And I think most people, particularly in this deep blue city, understand that taxes are a thing that have to happen. But there's got to be some rationality around it. And it's got to be coupled with a demonstration that we're going to run city government much more efficiently. I'm never going to say we're going to run city government like a business, because the two things are not the same. But it doesn't mean that we get to squander tax dollars in the way that we're doing it.
Q: So given that you want to cut first before you raise taxes, it seems to make that hard to go looking for new revenue in May in Springfield. Is that fair?
A: I don't think so. I don't think so.
Q: So one doesn't preclude the other?
A: No, I don't think so. I mean I think the city itself has to do its own business. Now, obviously our budget process is driven by what happens in Springfield, but what happens in Springfield we absolutely have a stake in. For example, the discussion that's going on right now regarding the progressive income tax. We're going to be either be hurt or helped by how those numbers and what those brackets shape out. So we have to influence that process 100 percent. We can't be on the sidelines waiting for it to just happen to us. There's too much significance there. There are discussions going on about how to address certain pension issues. I think the city of Chicago has got to have a seat at the table in those discussions. We may ultimately opt out or we may opt in, but we at least have to have a seat at the table so that our interest are represented. So there's a number of things that have to happen, which is why having a Springfield agenda and urgency …. Now, I didn't allow myself to look past Tuesday, but you know every day for the last month at least, Springfield's been on my mind.
Q: You mentioned opt in; are you referring to the possibility of having the city's pension funds consolidated with the state's?
A: Yeah. Those are some of the discussions that are going on.
Q: Have you spoken with (Gov. J.B. Pritzker) or (House Speaker) Mike Madigan?
A: The governor and I have not had a substantive discussion yet. That's going to happen, and I expect to have a sit-down with him relatively soon. Yes, I've spoken with the speaker and the president of the Senate.
Q: And those are just niceties or did you get down to some business in those conversations?
A: I wouldn't say we got down to business, but they were a little more than niceties.
Q: A bill allowing a Chicago elected school board passed the House today (Thursday). Under that version, I think there's 20 members and the legislature gets to draw the districts. Do you have thoughts on who should draw the boundaries, how many members there should be?
A: Well, I think there are some fundamentals that still haven't been addressed, and I'm not fond of the bill in its current iteration at all. I don't think you can have a number of people on a board that's completely unwieldy and are not going to be able to do their business. We haven't answered the questions of, "OK, if we have an elected school board, what's the selection process?" And it can't just be this is like aldermanic races. That's not going to work.
I want actual parents to be able to sit on that board, and if we treat it like another political body, that's not going to happen and that to me is absolutely untenable and a nonstarter. What the level of experience is that people have to bring, and the kinds of experiences also make a difference to me. I favor a situation where we have people who have come through the (Local School Council) process, because they have skin in the game. That means they're probably a parent. They've been able to make and meet budgets. They have some expertise in doing hiring. I think all those things are very valuable skills that will help inform a school board. So obviously, Mr. (state Rep. Robert) Martwick did not confer with me about the content of his legislation. That to me is a nonstarter.
Q: So, maybe you've had to serve for a certain number of years on a Local School Council before you can run for school board?
A: Yeah. I want to spend a little more time with it, but that makes more sense to me than just throwing it open, because then it just becomes another political monster. We're going to replace one broken system with another broken system, and that's not going to build confidence in anyone. I don't favor this bill at all. I don't favor it.
Chicago Mayor-elect Lori Lightfoot speaks on April 3, 2019, about reducing violent crime in Chicago. (Zbigniew Bzdak / Chicago Tribune)
Q: You've said crime is No. 1 issue facing the city. How have your discussions with Superintendent Eddie Johnson gone? I know the low clearance rate on solving homicides is an issue you've talked about. Does the department need more detectives or how do you plan to address that?
A: Depending on who you talk to, they have a completely different perspective about the clearance rate. I'm told that the clearance rate for this year is much improved over what it has been the last couple of years. I haven't dug into the details of that yet, and I'm expecting to get a fuller briefing on that sometime soon.
Look, I didn't know Eddie Johnson at all before he became the superintendent. I think I was in maybe one or two meetings where he was present, but the way the Police Department works is unless the superintendent tells you to speak, you don't talk. So he was in rooms that I was present, but we had no real interactions.
I had a lot of contact with him when I was serving as the president of the Police Board. I think we have a very cordial and good working relationship. I think there are some things he's worked extremely hard on and are important to him, including rebuilding trust. And I think he's done a good job at that. There is more work to be done. Obviously, we have to do a far better job on keeping our community safe, and that's where I'm going to put a significant amount of input.
Yesterday's conversation was an opportunity for them to kind of lay out their plan for summer violence, but I'm a detail gal, and yesterday wasn't really the time for that. But we'll be digging into the details, and we're going to hold people accountable. It just has to be. We cannot continue at the pace we're continuing at. We know there are better solutions. We see it in other cities across the country, and we're going to change this thing around or we're going to make changes.
Q: You've met with Janice Jackson. How did that go? You've said she needs to apologize for the attempt to close the National Teachers Academy in the South Loop.
A: I told her when I met her that I thought it was an important thing for her to recognize, and of course she does, that people have been really hurt. They have been wounded by the way in which a lot of things have happened at CPS. I don't think there's another institution in the city that evokes more passion than public education. There are so many stakeholders. It's a very difficult job. In some ways, it's just as challenging, if not more so, than being superintendent of police. But there are parents out there who feel like they have been shut out from the process of how their children are educated, and that's never a good thing. So I've urged her to continue a process of healing, particularly around the school closures and the attempted closure of NTA. She owns that now. But I will also say I was very impressed by her in our conversation.
A: Because she's a real person. She doesn't come at you with education-speak. She's very direct. I think she's very smart, and I appreciated the candor of our conversation.
Q: This transition in some ways is kind of insane. You have five weeks to do this. When the mayor won eight years ago, he didn't have a runoff and had more time, three months. Does this short period mean that some of the current commissioners and people in more complicated positions, like the Aviation Department or CTA, are more likely to stay in place because of the quick turnaround?
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A: I don't think that is the measuring stick. Clearly, there are some places that play a more prominent role in the day-to-day operations of the city than others, but what we are doing is systematically analyzing every city department. Some people are going to be departing on their own volition. We've already gotten word of that, and we will bid them well. There are other people who … there certainly will be changes that are made.
Chicago Mayor-elect Lori Lightfoot speaks on April 3, 2019, about the short transition period before taking office. (Zbigniew Bzdak / Chicago Tribune)
Who and what is really going to be a function of, from my perspective, who are the best people to drive the change that is going to be necessary? Who has exhibited innovation and energy around a set of values that we are defining? And we're looking not just at the commissioners, but really down to the deputy level. On the day-to-day basis, the deputies are really the people who are driving things in the operation of city departments. You know, we're also thinking about how we reimagine some of the things in city government. So, there are a lot of factors that are going to roll up into who we ask to stay and who we say, "Thank you for your service."
And also, there are some people who may stay for a short time, because five weeks is an insanely short period of time, and we want to make sure we've given ourselves enough time. I don't want to be what happens in some instances where there's this wholesale change and then you have nobody to turn the lights on and off every day. That's not going to happen. But we're trying to be as thoughtful and robust as we can. We've been thinking about these things, certainly longer than Tuesday night. And as you see, there is a whole operation and the Civic Consulting Alliance has been extraordinarily helpful, as they would have been helpful to President Preckwinkle.
So, there's a lot of work to be done, but I think we've got a good plan in place to find … to the extent we need to find new talent, we have a whole process in place to be able to do that. I can tell you that I, personally, and other people have been inundated with requests, resumes. We'll be making an initial announcement today (Thursday) about key people on the team, and I'm sure they'll be swamped. You know, this is an exciting time. We're in a city with unbelievable talent, so I have every confidence that we're going to be able to find the talent that we need.