During a March mayoral debate hosted by the Tribune Editorial Board, Lori Lightfoot made an unusually bold prediction for a Chicago politician on the stump. She said the law enforcement hammer would come down — soon and hard — on allegedly corrupt members of the City Council.
Because Lightfoot is a former federal prosecutor in Chicago, her assurance, while unspecific, carried a jolt of authority: “There is no doubt in my mind that in the coming days, and weeks at the most, we’re going to see a series of indictments from my former colleagues at the U.S. attorney’s office,” Lightfoot posited. “And it is going to center around this issue of aldermanic prerogative.”
Lightfoot takes office May 20. How intriguing and useful it could be for Chicago to have a mayor who was once part of the mechanism that investigates public corruption now leading a city that’s infamous for it. Operation Silver Shovel, Operation Greylord, Operation Haunted Hall — these federal investigations of recent decades led to charges against local aldermen, judges and others for abusing the public trust.
What Lightfoot was suggesting — and wouldn’t surprise us — is that another federal code name is about to be unveiled. Presumably this one would describe the investigation that implicates Ald. Ed Burke, who’s been accused of attempting to shake down executives of a company that owns a South Side Burger King. Also involved is Ald. Danny Solis, who wore a fed wire, and solicited Viagra pills and illicit massage parlor visits from someone who sought a city ordinance exemption, according to a federal affidavit.
Hmm, fast food and prostitution. Operation Primal Cravings, anyone?
A touch of ‘The Untouchables’?
As mayor, Lightfoot will come into office with the experience and credibility to take on a fight no previous Chicago chief executive has successfully concluded: cleaning up a corruption-prone City Hall. She’s the ex-fed nobody sent, and she’s indebted only to voters.
We have no idea how much Lightfoot can accomplish. But she’s already shown she’s willing to speak like the skilled prosecutor she was as well as the triumphant politician she now is. Will she bring a touch of “The Untouchables” to her tenure as mayor? Yes, but not exactly, because being the leader of a city isn’t a law enforcement job.
More important, Lightfoot’s strength is that she entered the mayor’s race as a reformer and outsider. Her campaign caught fire after news of the Burke investigation broke, and she won on Tuesday with 74 percent of the vote. That’s a mandate to tell City Council members, in a collegial way, that there’s a new sheriff in town, and she still thinks like a fed.
The mayor-elect’s policy chops should bolster her reform agenda. She was president of the Police Board and chairman of the Police Accountability Task Force, which got the ball rolling on the overhaul of the Chicago Police Department’s training and supervision practices. She’s also a former law partner at Mayer Brown. Lightfoot’s campaign platform addresses public suspicions of insider corruption by calling for a two-term limit on mayors and a ban on outside employment that conflicts with city business for elected and appointed officials and city workers.
Kissing the alderman’s ring
Lightfoot has other ideas to clean up city government, but her position that’s gotten the most attention — because it takes a swipe at the culture of Chicago politics — is her critique of what’s known as aldermanic prerogative or privilege. This tradition, woven into Chicago’s neighborhood-centric identity, gives aldermen outsize sway within their wards over zoning and regulatory approvals.
Lightfoot has said she wants to curb aldermanic prerogative because any situation that requires business people to “kiss the ring” of an alderman invites corruption. More than that, she noted, “If you look at the number of aldermen who have been prosecuted and found liable of federal crimes over the years … the common thread among all of them is doing something in the exercise of aldermanic prerogative or privilege.”
That isn’t just a tough-talking former prosecutor talking. That’s the next mayor of Chicago. She has an opportunity to lead this city toward more lawful, more trustworthy, governance.