The Illinois chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union slammed Chicago mayor Lori Lightfoot for trying to recruit student volunteers for her reelection campaign through an “inappropriately coercive” pitch to teachers.
Lightfoot’s team sent an email to Chicago Public Schools teachers Wednesday, urging them to offer class credit to their students in exchange for their helping out on the campaign.
“We’re simply looking for enthusiastic, curious and hard-working young people eager to help Mayor Lightfoot win this spring,” the email, obtained by WTTW News, read. The campaign claimed to the outlet that the pitch was also intended to cultivate civic engagement among schoolchildren.
The ACLU quickly blasted Lightfoot for what it suggested was a scheme that was potentially intimidating to the teachers and students involved.
“The Lightfoot campaign’s email to Chicago Public School teachers urging them to offer extra credit to students as an incentive to volunteer on the Mayor’s re-election campaign is inappropriately coercive and raises First Amendment concerns,” Colleen K. Connell, executive director of the ACLU of Illinois, said in a statement. “The Supreme Court has made clear that government officials cannot use their office or power to coerce participation or to punish for lack of participation in political campaigns.”
The ACLU’s concerns stemmed from the fact that Lightfoot is mayor, has ultimate authority over the K–12 school system, and appoints the superintendent of the Chicago Public Schools and the Chicago Board of Education. Therefore, teachers might feel pressured to acquiesce to her request for student volunteers given her position of power, the organization argued.
“Teachers may feel coercion in this ask from the Mayor’s campaign or fear negative consequences for lack of participation,” the ACLU said.
Lightfoot’s behavior is reminiscent of old favoritism politics in Chicago, in which officials abused their authority for personal gain, according to the ACLU.
“It is striking that Mayor Lightfoot presented herself four years ago as a candidate who would eschew the old corrupt patronage ways of Chicago politics. Now her campaign employs practices that harken back to the worst days of the Chicago political machine,” Connell said.
The ACLU demanded that the mayor “personally and publicly renounce this infraction in strong, explicit language,” clarifying that no one will be penalized or rewarded for assisting in her bid for a second term.
Lightfoot’s campaign responded to the controversy in a statement obtained by WTTW News: “All campaign staff have been reminded about the solid wall that must exist between campaign and official activities and that contacts with any city of Chicago, or other sister agency employees, including CPS employees, even through publicly available sources is off limits. Period.”