There was a moment during Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot's inauguration speech at Wintrust Arena when she turned her back to the crowd and faced the risers of aldermen seated behind her. It was right after she said this about aldermanic corruption:
"The family with the bungalow. The lady who runs the hair salon. The guy who owns the store on the corner. They aren't big or powerful or well-connected. But they end up paying. These practices have gone on here for decades. This practice breeds corruption. Stopping it isn't just in the city's interest. It's in the City Council's own interest."
There, Lightfoot -- clearly relishing Monday's historic milestone as she became Chicago's first black female and openly gay mayor -- turned and clapped at the aldermen as the crowd roared, almost daring them to object. Then she rotated back toward the audience and added: "No official in the city of Chicago, elected or appointed, should ever profit from his or her office. Never. Ever."
Hours later, she signed an executive order, her first official act as mayor, curbing the practice of aldermanic privilege, a Chicago tradition that gives aldermen wide-ranging control over their wards from signage to driveway permits to zoning decisions. While some elements of aldermanic control can be a good thing, Chicago's 50-member council has shown how the practice can be abused and leveraged. The council's longest-serving alderman, Edward Burke, 14th, who sat uncharacteristically in the back row of the risers, faces a federal corruption charge alleging he attempted to use aldermanic privilege to steer business to his law practice. Since 1972, 30 aldermen have been convicted on corruption charges related to their official duties.
Monday's swearing-in ceremony for the new Mayor Lightfoot was a robust exercise in tone-setting. Lightfoot went after unaccountable violent crime, government corruption, police accountability and shaky city finances. She pledged a new era of trust in city government as Burke, departing Mayor Rahm Emanuel and former Mayor Richard M. Daley sat behind her, at times clapping reluctantly. In a direct shot at Emanuel, she said she would address trauma and instability in struggling neighborhoods by "restoring our broken mental health safety network," an issue over which Emanuel endured years of grief; he closed city mental health clinics as a money saver.
Lightfoot ended her stemwinder with a plea to Chicagoans to pitch in, to make contributions to the city, to give back. "A single leader cannot by herself conquer all of the challenges that would be present on Day One. We all have to be part of that solution," she said.
She's going to need the help. Many Chicagoans -- and especially the enthusiastic well-wishers who chanted, "Lori, Lori" -- smacked high-fives and whooped it up in the aisles. In the arena or watching on TV, they were with Lightfoot in the moment.
But will Chicagoans stay with her? Because this is a minimum four-year commitment -- for the new mayor, but also for the city that elected her in a landslide and wishes her well. Lightfoot's agenda is bold and controversial. It'll require not just inaugural applause from the rest of us but willingness to sacrifice too. Will rank-and-file Chicago voters support her when she clashes with aldermen or curbs their clout? Will Chicagoans stick with her if violence spikes, or if expectations for her tenure fall short, or if taxes and fees go up?
Lightfoot basked in adoration Monday. How's Tuesday looking? Wednesday?
Voters tend to put reformers on pedestals and wrap them in nods and handshakes. But when tough decisions roll around, and somebody risks losing something that's always been there, the reformers often glance over their shoulders to rows of empty chairs. Where'd everybody go?
Bringing integrity to City Hall will be a lonely grind. It is one of Lightfoot's top priorities. She's going to need more than applause to get it done. Remember that, Chicago.
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