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Lori Lightfoot’s Coronavirus Response in Chicago Has Been Anything But “Progressive”

Chicago’s Lori Lightfoot has worked hard to portray herself as a “progressive” mayor. But her coronavirus response has largely shielded the city’s corporate elite — while rejecting policies pushed by democratic socialists on the city council that would benefit working-class residents.

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. Tyler LaRiviere — Pool/Getty Images

Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot has recently cultivated an image as a stern administrator who implores people to “stay home and save lives.” Memes and mainstream media outlets have portrayed her as a tough leader willing to make the difficult but necessary decision of stamping the fun out of urban life in order to blunt the spread of coronavirus.

But there is much more to Lightfoot’s pandemic response than memeable administrator. For example, as the outbreak began to spread across the city, a February 26 Chicago Sun-Times headline announced, “Lightfoot accuses CDC of spreading panic about the coronavirus,” quoting the mayor as saying “I don’t want to get ahead of ourselves and suggest to the public that there’s a reason for them to be fearful … we need people to continue to go about their daily lives.” At the time, many mayors and elected leaders across the country were not taking the virus as seriously as they should have. Yet Lightfoot went further, refusing to close public schools despite pleas from the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) and other groups concerned about the safety of students and teachers.

As the Sun-Times recently reported, Lightfoot had to be pressured by Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker to cancel the city’s massive St. Patrick’s Day parade on March 14, and only gave in on shuttering schools after the governor ordered them closed in mid March. (Pritzker did, however, go forward with the state’s in-person election on March 17, which undoubtedly increased the spread of the virus.)

On April 11, Lightfoot also approved the demolition of a coal plant in the city’s Little Village community on the Southwest Side that blanketed the largely Latino neighborhood in dust and particulates — a stark hazard for an area already facing alarming rates of asthma and hit hard by COVID–19. On May 14, her administration gave the go-ahead for yet another demolition on the site, calling it off only after activists protested outside of her Northwest Side home.

Lightfoot’s response to the pandemic has also included an astounding emergency power grab, cutting against the calls for more transparency and democracy in government that animated her campaign for mayor last year. And she has refused to embrace redistributive policies such as a corporate head tax or a financial transaction tax — while attacking left-wing city council members, including its six socialists who are pushing for them.

Lightfoot’s actions suggest she’s far from the progressive mayor sternly facing down coronavirus, the image she’s carefully cultivated. In reality, she’s been more open to embracing an unabashedly pro-corporate response to the pandemic.

A neoliberal response

Chicago has been battered by COVID–19. Cook County, which includes the city, recently overtook Queens, New York as the epicenter of the outbreak in the United States. The county has seen over 63,000 active cases and more than 2,800 deaths.

Among Chicago tenants, rent collection has been down nearly 75 percent over the course of the pandemic — a reflection of the fact that, even before the crisis, half of Chicago renters were rent burdened, meaning they were paying over 30 percent of their income on rent. As job losses have spiked, that income has plummeted, and without serious help from the government beyond a single $1,200 stimulus check, residents have been left out to dry.

As a solution, Lightfoot’s administration announced a housing assistance grant program to help those impacted. The program, funded by real estate developers, required applicants to show proof that they were facing acute financial hardship due to the pandemic. While 83,000 city residents who lost jobs or pay as a result of the crisis applied within the first five days of the program, only two thousand grants of $1,000 each were ultimately handed out — meaning just 2.5 percent of applicants (who themselves represented a drop in the bucket of total need throughout the city) received funding through the lottery-based system.

Lightfoot’s other signature policy to manage Chicago’s rapidly growing housing crisis was the creation of a “Housing Solidarity Pledge,” an unenforceable compact made by a group of bankers, landlords, and developers to provide flexibility on rent payments for tenants during the crisis. Following the announcement, which featured no tenants’ rights organizations, housing rights groups in the city argued the pledge was essentially a public relations stunt. As Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor writes at the New Yorker, “one of the signatories to Lightfoot’s pledge, TLC Property Management, has filed dozens of eviction cases in Chicago and its suburbs since March 20th, when Illinois’s governor, J.B. Pritzker, declared a statewide moratorium on evictions.”

Rather than marshaling the power of the state to expand social-welfare systems, the mayor has instead turned to the private sector for market-based solutions that won’t upset companies’ bottom lines.

It hasn’t just been housing. In April, Mayor Lightfoot formed a COVID–19 Economic Recovery Task Force, packed with representatives of big business and co-chaired by former White House Chief of Staff Sam Skinner, who served under President George H.W. Bush. Her administration’s other recent initiatives include the Microbusiness Recovery Grant Program and Chicago Community COVID-19 Response Fund — both privately funded, means-tested programs.

But the response that’s received the most coverage in recent weeks has been Mayor Lightfoot’s emergency powers ordinance, giving her office full control over how to distribute federal funding allocated as part of the CARES Act approved by Congress in late March. Instead of allowing democratic decision making over the tens of millions of public dollars flowing to the city, Lightfoot consolidated her power over the funds’ distribution.

In response, a group of nineteen city council members, including members of the democratic socialist caucus, sent a letter to Lightfoot laying out their concerns with the ordinance. They demanded the spending of federal funds in working-class communities, particularly African-American neighborhoods that have been hard hit; help for renters and the homeless; and more oversight over the program, referring to the move as a “power grab.” Lightfoot then proceeded to call the objecting city councilors “selfish” and “shameful” grandstanders, accusing them of acting against the interest of public safety.

The mayor saved her harshest words for Ald. Carlos Ramirez-Rosa, the two-term democratic socialist who represents the thirty-fifth ward, in which Lightfoot lives. Ramirez-Rosa was an outspoken critic of the mayor’s gambit, arguing that the decision on how to distribute federal funds should be made through an “equity lens,” while helping lead the charge against the ordinance. In response, Lightfoot said she was “embarrassed” to be represented by him.

This dismissive attitude toward her critics on the Left and her opposition to progressive solutions have come to define Lightfoot’s tenure as mayor — a blunt about-face from her proclamation that “I’m not Rahm,” an effort to distinguish herself from her neoliberal predecessor Rahm Emanuel who gained a reputation as “Mayor 1%.”

Right to recovery

Lightfoot has railed against the efforts of left-wing city council members, who have pushed a suite of policy demands to support the city’s working class. The Right to Recovery coalition, which includes forty-nine grassroots groups across the city — including United Working Families (UWF) and the CTU — is calling for drastic changes to Chicago’s political and economic status quo in the midst of the global pandemic.

Chief among the coalition’s demands are rent and mortgage moratoriums for the duration of the crisis, universal healthcare including COVID–19 testing and treatment, an end to ICE raids and deportations, twenty days of emergency paid sick leave, the release of individuals incarcerated due to unaffordable money bonds, weekly direct payments of $750 to families facing job losses, and the delivery of groceries and other support for seniors.

On the city level, the Right to Recovery has been championed by five members of the council’s democratic socialist caucus: Alds. Rossana Rodriguez, Jeanette Taylor, Byron Sigcho-Lopez, Daniel La Spata, and Carlos Ramirez-Rosa. In a Sun Times op-ed, the group urged the city to embrace this set of demands, saying “If we want everyone to stay home, we need universal social benefits that leave no one out. … As democratic socialists, solidarity is one of our bedrock principles.”

In early May, hundreds of cars lined the streets of downtown Chicago as part of a socially distant demonstration calling for the Right to Recovery to be implemented immediately—and they were joined by members of the democratic socialist caucus.

Efforts to institute the Right to Recovery have largely been stalled in city council, and haven’t been supported by Mayor Lightfoot. But progressives on the city council have continued to organize in their own communities to protect vulnerable residents from both the pandemic and the economic havoc it’s wrought.

In the 40th Ward on the city’s Northwest Side, the office of Ald. Andre Vasquez, another member of the democratic socialist caucus, helped to establish a “sewing guard” to make masks for frontline workers in jobs deemed to be essential. Using donated fabric and thread, hundreds of volunteers have helped produce masks in a program that has now been expanded to neighborhoods throughout the city.

In the 33rd Ward, Ald. Rossana Rodriguez’s office helped to start up the Albany Park Mutual Aid Network, which now operates independently. The network, alongside Irving Park Mutual Aid Network, has helped raise upwards of $30,000 and handed it out to residents in need. These efforts have aided hundreds of families through delivering food, tenant organizing, providing senior assistance, helping residents apply for unemployment, and connecting those facing hunger to food pantries.

Ramirez-Rosa’s thirty-fifth ward office has been distributing masks and groceries to residents, coordinating food dropoffs from pantries to seniors, and publishing and distributing COVID–19 recovery newsletters that have reached over seven thousand households in the ward, leading to calls from residents who were later helped with unemployment applications and housing assistance.

Though Mayor Lightfoot has so far resisted calls for city government to step in and protect vulnerable residents by providing such support, socialists and other progressives on the council are working to fill in these gaps.

Reimagining Chicago

But with the virus still rapidly spreading, and without proper safety protections for workers or an adequate testing and contact tracing regime, any “reopening” in the immediate future will result in more death. The Right to Recovery would shield the public from this grim future.

By guaranteeing healthcare and income along with safeguarding housing and access to food, the policy package would help sustain working people through the pandemic. While the city’s business class and political leadership may be opposed to these policies, a number of gains have already been won in Chicago, from a temporary eviction moratorium to suspending utility shut offs.

Other cities have gone further, suspending mortgage payments, halting new admissions to prisons, postponing debt collection, providing free public transit, and expanding bike lanes and pedestrianized streets. Outside the US, governments have taken more expansive action, guaranteeing workers’ lost income, converting past paid taxes into interest-free loans, increasing paid sick leave, and providing regular cash payments to residents. These types of state interventions, previously politically unthinkable, are now becoming commonplace.

Though Mayor Lightfoot was able to secure enough votes to pass her emergency powers ordinance, she did so over the objection of twenty-one city council members, including the full democratic socialist caucus. That level of opposition was unheard of under the administrations of past mayors Rahm Emanuel and Richard M. Daley, and likely spells trouble for future attempts by Lightfoot to take action without democratic buy-in.

Following the split vote, Dick Simpson, a former alderman who teaches political science at the University of Illinois at Chicago and has been studying city council votes since the 1990s, now says that Lightfoot has only a “fragile” hold on a majority, adding that “Chicago politics are undergoing a major transformation as the machine era ends.”

The council’s socialists are poised to use that opening. Seeing the devastation that COVID–19 has caused in Chicago, in April, Ald. Rodriguez penned a letter in support of federal legislation, sponsored by fellow democratic socialists Reps. Rashida Tlaib and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to “mint the coin” in order to fully fund state and local governments dealing with the crisis.

“I saw the bills that Congresswoman Tlaib proposed, for the Treasury to mint trillion-dollar coins and to provide aid to cities and states, and I thought, we need that, we can’t do this alone,” Rodriguez told Politico. The letter was also signed by the rest of the democratic socialist caucus, along with over 100 other legislators from across the country.

So while Mayor Lightfoot would prefer the public’s perception of her approach to the COVID–19 crisis to simply be enjoinders to “stay at home,” Chicago’s socialists and other progressives are helping lay a path toward a different pandemic response that enshrines economic rights as human rights.