Column: Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot walks loudly but carries no stick

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John Kass, Chicago Tribune
·5 min read
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Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot is often portrayed in national media as a strong liberal Democratic avatar eager to do rhetorical battle with Republicans.

But talk isn’t power. Talk is talk. Only power is power.

And now, two years before the end of her term, she’s seen as weak by many of her fellow Democrats who run the failing blue state of Illinois. They don’t love her. They don’t help her. They work against her because they don’t fear her.

Lightfoot walks loudly but carries no stick.

She’s one of many liberal Democratic mayors whose cities were devoured by violence growing out of the George Floyd protests last summer. Democrats found political value in the street anger. It stimulated the Democratic vote in November.

But now Lightfoot faces the political expressions of power. She’s weakening. Chicago politicians who want Lightfoot to succeed can see it. Ald. Roderick Sawyer, 6th, the son of a late mayor, says he wants her to succeed. But he can see the problem.

“It sounds like it’s all just writing itself, doesn’t it?” Sawyer told me. “It’s tragic and comic at the same time. She’s not loved. She’s not feared. It writes itself now.”

The mayor and her city careen from one crisis to another, from the waves of downtown looting she couldn’t stop, to businesses shuttered by Chicago violence and the pandemic, to public schools staying closed for most of the year while private schools remained mostly open. To more street violence.

The people of Chicago want two things from their mayor: They want to be safe, and they want their kids in school. She has struggled to provide either.

In the City Council, she’s stuck between angry Progressive Caucus aldermen who don’t respect her and the regulars who don’t respect her.

“Some want to respect the mayor,” said a progressive alderman still loyal to Lightfoot. “But she doesn’t know how to enforce order. She has no enforcers.”

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Columns are opinion content that reflect the views of the writers.

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Did she think running a city meant starring in memes and being gushed over by national media outlets?

And now, a new crisis. Earlier this week, she lost the top three officials at Chicago Public Schools, including her star, schools CEO Janice Jackson. With her resignation, Jackson no longer will have to deal with what’s coming: an elected Board of Education that would be disastrous for public school children and their families because it would be dominated by the hard-left bosses of the Chicago Teachers Union.

Lightfoot, who is opposed to an elected school board, repeatedly caved to the CTU. And she’s powerless to stop Democrats in Springfield and Gov. J.B. Pritzker, who goes weak-kneed at any public employee union demand.

“Right now, the politics in education are ugly,” Jackson was quoted as saying in the Chicago Sun-Times. “I think they’re misplaced and they should not get the coverage that they get. I’m making a distinction between what you sometimes hear from CTU leadership and what average rank-and-file teachers want every day.”

Staying would be dumb. Jackson isn’t dumb.

An elected school board dominated by the CTU would put administrators in an impossible position. It wouldn’t help schoolchildren and their families. It would give workers the power to select and control their bosses. As a purely political matter, it illustrates how isolated Lightfoot has become, by her own design.

Historically in Chicago, mayors have used their power at City Hall to check impulses by Democrats in the state legislature. They had enforcers to squeeze the flow of city dollars to a ward.

Richard J. Daley had Tom Donovan. Daley’s son Richard M. Daley had Tim Degnan and Jeremiah Joyce. They understood the pressure points. Who does Lightfoot have?

Rather than build relationships and seek out people who understood the political rat holes along with the C-suites, she decided to be her own counsel. How’s that working out?

One way that wise mayors exerted control over Chicago-based legislators was to provide jobs and other perks that could be withdrawn at a mayoral whim. Or did you think successful politics is about sneering and dropping F-bombs and other such language on TV?

“She doesn’t talk to anybody,” said a Lightfoot ally at City Hall. “She has no relationships. It was always going to catch up to her. And now it has.”

Pritzker, a Democrat, curries favor with the CTU, bestowing powers upon them. The Democrat-controlled House voted to support an elected school board. The state Senate has begun negotiations on a “hybrid” model, with some members appointed by the mayor and others elected.

Lightfoot has received much attention with her commission to rid Chicago of politically troublesome and offensive public statues. Abraham Lincoln made that list. So did Leif Ericson, Viking explorer.

But there is one statue she should have put in her office to stare at her every day: a statue of Niccolò Machiavelli.

He wrote “The Prince” and decided that for a leader to keep power, it was much better to be feared than loved.

“If she read ‘The Prince’ did she understand it?” asked a longtime Chicago political wise man who has worked with many mayors.

“She’s not loved. She’s not feared,” he said. “She doesn’t talk to anybody and who wants to talk to her? No one fears her. And now it’s too late.”

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jskass@chicagotribune.com

Twitter @John_Kass