By John Kass
How did I get Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot so wrong?
I wasn’t the only one, was I? She won an overwhelming victory in 2019, defeating Cook County Board President Toni “Taxwinkle” Preckwinkle in every city ward.
Chicago was enthralled. Some pundits compared her to a superhero. She was the queen of memes. Newspapers endorsed her. MSNBC went crazy, all but making her their cigar smoking, foul-mouthed network mascot.
I defended her. So did Joe Ferguson, who like Lightfoot, is a former federal prosecutor. Ferguson recently stepped down after a 12-year run as the city’s Inspector General, pointing out systemic corruption, systemic malfeasance, systemic waste and systemic bureaucratic stupidity.
He’s a guest on the current edition of The Chicago Way podcast, which I host with WGN executive producer Jeff Carlin. I’m including a link here because, when you’re done reading this, I hope you’ll listen to the whole thing.
I asked Ferguson: Where did we go wrong on Lightfoot?
“First off, narrative is so important,” Ferguson said. “John Kass, you know how important narrative is, you’ve hammered home narrative for decades.”
Guilty. Guilty. A thousand times guilty.
Ferguson, a former fan of hers, is no longer a fan. And I too was a fan, until she lied and endorsed catch-and-release Cook County State’s Atty. Kim Foxx for re-election. Kim Foxx? And when she lost the city by caving to the George Floyd looters and the George Floyd rioters. Since I’m free now, I don’t have to call what happened “civic unrest” and “mostly peaceful protests” hijacked by a few lawbreakers. They were riots.
These days Ferguson doesn’t think much of her. I don’t know who does. I see her as a Democrat Trump in pants suits, insulting those who work for the city, though demanding she be treated with utmost respect.
Those of us who supported her feel like, oh, what the word?
“The narrative we got caught up in is the countervailing narrative of Chicago,” Ferguson said. “It’s corrupt. Our leaders are corrupt. And so, given an aspect of her background—we had a former federal prosecutor who was really faltering in the polls, suddenly catching fire because [indicted Chicago Alderman] Ed Burke emerged in the news, and Preckwinkle could not escape the taint of the Ed Burke connection and the narrative started to drive things.
“And give her credit, she drove that narrative she drove that lane, she saw her opportunity and she drove to it.”
Indeed. Burke’s fundraiser for Preckwinkle caused Toni serious problems. After that, she was a just a boss, though not pink, but still she was Chairman of the Cook County Democratic Party, where the warlords hang out before pillaging.
And Lightfoot, said Ferguson, cast herself as an outsider, that she was some kind of true reformer.
“But she’s not a reformer,” Ferguson said. “She’s never been a reformer. She’s a transactional reformer.”
I can imagine Lightfoot reading this, or listening to the podcast, and biting her cigar in half in a fit of rage.
Ferguson recalled meeting her in 1992, when he was a law clerk for a federal judge, and she was with the clout-heavy law firm for Chicago insiders, Mayer, Brown. The issue before the court was, poetically enough, a remap case. Republicans had filed suit against the Democrats to court. Let’s let the then-law clerk Ferguson paint the scene.
“I’m in the courtroom watching that first big gathering of lawyers, of old Chicago, a bunch of old white guys who were the lawyers for clout, lawyers of the Combine before we even called it the Combine
“Everybody was an old white guy from an institutional perspective, except for one person. A diminutive young African American woman working for Mayer Brown, and specifically for Ty Fahner, who was the lead lawyer for the plaintiffs, the Republican Party of Illinois. That is Lori Lightfoot.”
That touchstone about Lightfoot wasn’t accounted for in the narrative of Lori of Arc or the queen of memes.
As Ferguson said Chicago “got caught up in an intersectional, sort of identity politics progressive reform, with a counter narrative of this person having done something that would be the true counterpoint to the prevailing machine and clout system. She’s from within that system.”
She plays intersectional identity politics like a member of The Squad. Everything is race or gender. But she came up on the inside, an appointee of Mayor Richard M. Daley. She’s from within that system and has worked it quite well in many respects.
We missed focusing on that that part, that Lightfoot was a Daley creature, an appointee, who moved from OPS [Office of Professional Standards]—part of the police department—to the city Office of Emergency Management and Communications.
“As general counsel for Ron Huberman, one of Mayor Daley’s favorites, and then to procurement services [purchasing] on the request of Mary Dempsey who was parachuted in there when there was a huge procurement contracting scandal.”
So, from Fahner to OPS, to Huberman and then to purchasing—where only regime insiders are allowed—and sold herself as an outsider. Many good people worked in government when Daley was boss. But only the most trusted of the trusted got to play in the purchasing department.
“She’s a Daley administration person,” Ferguson said. “She’s been connected up to power her whole career. We missed that as a point of emphasis because we were doing a beat down of Toni Preckwinkle, because it was an anti-corruption moment.”
In one of her early victory speeches, to glowing reviews, Lightfoot declared that her election signaled a new day.
“Together, we can and will finally put the interests of our people—all our people—ahead of the interests of a powerful few,” she said, promising to end violent crime and “break this city’s endless cycle of corruption.”
“Together,” she said, “we can and will make Chicago a place where your zip code doesn’t determine your destiny.”
But your political pedigree still matters, and who you know, and who you took care of, and whose toes you didn’t step on.
As I write this, the country is waiting for the jury’s verdict in the Kyle Rittenhouse trial, which traces back to riots and arson in Kenosha, and the political class there caving to anarchy. Same thing happened in Chicago, if you haven’t forgotten, with the George Floyd riots, when the Democrats bent over backward to appease protesters to stoke political turnout in the presidential year. The price was that Michigan Avenue was ruined, and there was wave after wave of looting. The city was shattered like the shards of glass on the downtown sidewalks. Also shattered was any faith in competence as a leader in crisis.
Ferguson’s report was searing in its condemnation of City Hall and the top echelon of the Chicago Police Department. There were many reasons for the collapse, including, according to the report, failure of the intelligence unit. In charge of that function is now First Deputy Eric Carter, loathed by the rank-and-file for rushing them through a somber march after Chicago Police Officer Ella French was killed in the line of duty. Ferguson said Carter has promoted his police officer wife on two occasions. And during the riots, Lightfoot, overtaken by panic, made mistake after mistake.
She was a new mayor then, but she’s refused to learn the lessons of her bad management.
“And I’m afraid of what we’re seeing is a chief executive who consistently refuses to learn, and to make adjustments responsive to those lessons,” Ferguson said on The Chicago Way. “That’s our problem at this moment.”
Yes, that’s Chicago’s problem now. Everything is about race with her. The one thing that would help her is a stereotypical tough white guy to challenge her politically.
And behold! John Catanzara, president of the police union, the Fraternal Order of Police, has resigned from the department and says he’ll run for mayor.
You think she’d like that? You bet she would. It could save her. They could debate by giving each other the finger.
That might be entertaining, and when they get into pugnacious mode, the two of them can be quite entertaining. But managing a failing city is different deal, a grown-up business, especially for a city that the Daley/Rahm group helped plunge into chaos. And now Lightfoot and the 50 aldermen will be cutting up the city ward remap. How? With more naked appeals to race and identity politics.
The city doesn’t need a clown show or a tough man contest. The failing city needs a manager.
Is that manager former Education Secretary Arne Duncan, Barack Obama’s pickup basketball buddy? The White Shadow has relentlessly been positioned by the Obama/Rahm/Axelrod/Pritzker crew. And he’s hugged by Chicago news media that plays along, allowing him to avoid tough questions as they pretend he’s not in the game because he hasn’t “formally announced.”
Or is that manager someone else?
I’m not going to decide that. Chicago will decide. But we talked about it. You’ll have to listen about me offering to play a game of H-O-R-S-E with the White Shadow, as long as I can have a scotch and soda and a cigar and sit in a comfy leather chair.
Politics is exhausting.
“The city is exhausted in the same way the country was exhausted by the end of the Trump term,” Ferguson said. “There are some similarities between our mayor and our former president. Chicago is exhausted by not having sane, stable leadership. We need a grown up in the city. That’s where we are now.”
Sane stable leadership?
That’s no longer a feature of Lori’s narrative. And you won’t find it at City Hall.
(Copyright 2021 John Kass)