Last week, news came out about Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot's campaign repeatedly asking Chicago's Public Schools (CPS) to encourage students to campaign for Lightfoot's reelection in order to earn extra credit. This wasn't some right-wing plot to catch the mayor in inappropriate conduct. It was WTTW, the Chicago PBS affiliate, that has been covering this story. The mayor was forced to answer for her campaign's move while on the most recent edition of MSNBC's "The Sunday Show," during which she called the move "simply a mistake."
After her campaign was caught sending e-mails to Chicago Public Schools teachers asking them to offer extra credit to students who volunteered to get her re-elected, Chicago Democrat Mayor Lori Lightfoot now says it "was simply a mistake." pic.twitter.com/dPVACIzOyJ— RNC Research (@RNCResearch) January 15, 2023
In her response to host Jonathan Capehart, the mayor tried to frame the "mistake" as a matter of enthusiasm. "In our zeal to make sure that young people had an opportunity to participate – and they're flocking to our campaign – one of our staffers reached out through publicly available information to CPS teachers and our city colleges, and that was just simply a mistake." She emphasized it was a "mistake" while attempting to make clear "the wall between the campaign and the official side has to be impenetrable, and it will be."
Lightfoot and her campaign may have found themselves in quite a difficult spot. WTTW appears to have been covering the outreach from the campaign since the beginning. An unclear amount of emails were sent out by Megan Crane, Lightfoot's deputy campaign manager, according to a January 11 report from Heather Cherone:
It was unclear how many Chicago teachers received the email from Megan Crane, whose LinkedIn page identifies her as the deputy campaign manager for Lightfoot. The message was sent to teachers’ official work email accounts, which end in cps.edu.
The email says participants in the “externship program” would be expected to contribute 12 hours per week to the Lightfoot campaign and students could earn “class credit.”
“We’re simply looking for enthusiastic, curious and hard-working young people eager to help Mayor Lightfoot win this spring,” according to an email obtained by WTTW News.
A spokesperson for the Lightfoot campaign told WTTW News in an inital statement that the effort was designed “to provide young people with the opportunity to engage with our campaign, learn more about the importance of civic engagement and participate in the most American of processes” and “done using publicly available contact information.”
The report details that the Lightfoot campaign issued not one or two but three statements addressing the contact made after WTTW published details about the emails. The statements indicate they are ceasing contact with CPS.
Complicating the matter is not only concerns about retaliation and conflicts of interest but also with other candidates who have entered the 2023 Chicago mayoral race:
As mayor of Chicago, Lightfoot appoints not only the superintendent of the Chicago Public Schools but also the members of the Chicago Board of Education. Chicago’s ethics ordinance prohibits the use of public resources, including email accounts, for non-official purposes.
A Chicago Public Schools spokesperson told WTTW News that “as a rule, the district does not coordinate with any political candidates or campaigns. It has not done so to date and will not be doing so.”
Chicago Teachers Union President Stacy Davis Gates told WTTW News the campaign’s action was “unethical” and that she was concerned teachers who decline to volunteer for the mayor’s campaign, or encourage their students to do so, could face retaliation.
Davis Gates said it was unclear how many teachers received the email, which attorneys for the union believe not only violates the city’s government ethics ordinance but also the ethics policy imposed by Lightfoot when she took office in 2019.
The teachers’ union has endorsed Cook County Commissioner Brandon Johnson in the race for mayor. Johnson is a paid staff member of the union.
All employees of the city and its sister agencies are prohibited from engaging in work on behalf of political campaigns while being paid with taxpayer funds. Encouraging their students to volunteer for a particular campaign could violate those rules, and could result in the employees’ discipline.
More damning revelations against the mayor came to light on January 12, as her campaign reportedly reached out to city colleges, asking teachers to give their students credit for helping Lightfoot win reelection.
The move, described as "unethical" by Chicago Teachers Union President Stacy Davis Gates, was blamed on a "young staffer" who made a "mistake" that was "well-intentioned." There also appears to have been miscommunication with Lightfoot's staff, as another report from Cherone mentioned the mayor as saying that no one else in campaign leadership knew about it until the reports caused quite a stir.
"It never should have happened," Lightfoot said. "It is not going to happen again."
In addition to looking to pass the blame and the apparent miscommunication and disarray, Cherone reported that the campaign initially tried to defend the move. A spokesperson initially told WTTW that the outreach was "to provide young people with the opportunity to engage with our campaign, learn more about the importance of civic engagement and participate in the most American of processes." Such a statement is not too different from the mayor's own response mentioned above while speaking to Capehart.
Not only is there outrage from opponents, but also the ACLU of Illinois. Included in another report for WTTW by Cherone on January 12 is a statement from Colleen K. Connell, the chapter's executive director. Connell said that the email "is inappropriately coercive and raises First Amendment concerns. The Supreme Court has made clear that government officials cannot use their office or power to coerce participation or to punish for lack of participation in political campaigns."
The chapter is thus concerned that the emails violated federal law.
"Because the mayor has the ultimate authority over the Chicago schools, teachers may feel coercion in this ask from the mayor's campaign or fear negative consequences for lack of participation," Connell is quoted as saying.
As a result of the email outreach, the Chicago Board of Ethics, the city's inspector general, and the CPS inspector general have gotten involved.
CPS Inspector General Will Fletcher, a Lightfoot appointee, announced his office "has opened an investigation into this matter and we are currently gathering information to determine which, if any, policies have been violated." That her campaign is under investigation was mentioned toward the end of the segment with "The Sunday Show."
The Chicago Board of Ethics will also discuss the matter at its next meeting on January 23, according to Executive Director Steve Berlin.
Nine candidates, including Lightfoot, have declared their intention to run for mayor. The race will be held on February 28.