Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot Is Prioritizing a Coronavirus Recovery for the Wealthy, Not Average Chicagoans

Mayor Lori Lightfoot was elected last year as a progressive reformer who rejected politics as usual in Chicago. Yet her response to coronavirus in the city has prioritized the city’s corporate interests, not the vast majority of Chicagoans.

Chicago mayor Lori Lightfoot tours the COVID-19 alternate care facility constructed at the McCormick Place convention center in Chicago, Illinois on April 17, 2020 in Chicago, Illinois. Tyler LaRiviere - Pool / Getty

Lori Lightfoot portrayed herself in her 2019 run for mayor of Chicago as a progressive who would fight for all Chicagoans. Lightfoot’s COVID-19 recovery task force, which she rolled out on April 23 to plan the city’s economic recovery, was a chance to stay true to the progressive values she ran and was elected on by ensuring an equitable recovery for all Chicagoans, especially its black and brown working-class communities that have been most impacted by the pandemic. Instead she has chosen to appoint corporate and finance insiders who have made a career out of fighting for the 1 percent at the expense of workers.  

Co-chaired by a staunch Republican with plenty of banks, investors, and big business representatives, Mayor Lightfoot’s task force for COVID-19 economic recovery is an insult to the workers who are bearing the brunt of the pandemic and its economic impact. This crisis demands equitable economic recovery and majority representation for unions and community groups, not corporate and banking insiders.

“In crises, it is essential for different levels of government, different industries, and different communities to work together as we embark on the most ambitious recovery project Chicago has ever seen, one rooted in equity and inclusion,” said task force co-chair Samuel K. Skinner, who held various positions in President George H.W. Bush’s White House, including chief of staff. These kinds of platitudes ring hollow from a man, who, in the past few years, has donated to several Republican senate campaigns, the Republican National Congressional Committee and former Illinois governor Bruce Rauner.

Lightfoot touted Skinner’s experience as a point person in various emergencies and crises — conveniently omitting the many times in his career that Skinner acted against the interests of working people. He notably defended Exxon Mobile for its absurdly inadequate response to the Exxon Valdez oil spill and represented the Bush administration’s anti-labor stances in various strikes, both when he was transportation secretary. Skinner’s experience handling crises has earned him the nickname “the master of disaster,” but he has mastered exploiting disasters to push neoliberal policies that maximize private plunder at the expense of the public good.  

Skinner’s appointment signals that Lightfoot intends to use the extraordinary, unilateral spending powers she fought so hard for with her emergency powers ordinance — over our objections — primarily to aid the recovery of corporate interests in the city, not the working families that are currently struggling to decide between buying food or paying rent.

Another member of Lightfoot’s economic task force is Richard Edelman, CEO of Edelman, a public relations firm. Edelman has directly advised fossil fuel companies on how to combat negative press attention and will be leading a working group on marketing and business development to help Chicago “tell its story of what happened, where we have been, and what we will be in a post-COVID-19 world as we recover.” Lightfoot seems to be thinking ahead on how to most effectively sell the public on a recovery plan that will fall short of providing the help working people so desperately need.

Lightfloot flaunts the presence of a few token community-based nonprofit organizations on her task force. One such group is Heartland Alliance, an organization that is currently holding thirty-seven immigrant children sick with COVID-19 in their Chicago-area detention centers. Most notably absent from the task force roster is representation by any environmental group — an especially obscene omission considering her administration’s approval of a demolition by Hilco in Little Village this month that left entire city blocks of a working-class, immigrant neighborhood covered in dust and debris. Lightfoot then approved a second demolition by Hilco. Only after protestors demonstrated in front of her house did she backtrack on the measure. Again, signaling the need for an environmental group to be represented on this task force.

You can tell a lot about a person by the company they keep. In Mayor Lightfoot’s case, the task force she has assembled illustrates that her priority is not recovery for the communities hardest hit by COVID-19, but recovery for a small class of corporate interests most concerned with protecting their stock portfolios. Decades of austerity budgets that prioritize corporate interests are what have left working families so vulnerable to this crisis. What we need now is bold action like a freeze on rent and mortgage payments through the remainder of the crisis to protect Chicago’s working class, not sell them out to the highest bidder. 

This past month, the mayor asked the Chicago City Council to trust her to make the right decisions for Chicago’s families. Her administration now has control over millions of taxpayer dollars meant to help residents struggling to survive in a pandemic. Lightfoot was elected as a progressive and a reformer. Especially now, during this unprecedented crisis, she needs to live up to the values she campaigned on.