CHICAGO - Mary Richardson-Lowry is the teacher’s daughter who survived the gang-infested public schools of crime-ridden Compton, California to serve as Chicago building commissioner, then School Board President under former Mayor Richard M. Daley.
Now, she is Mayor Brandon Johnson’s choice for one of the most trusted and sensitive positions in city government.
Richardson-Lowry was chosen Thursday to be Johnson’s corporation counsel, the city’s top attorney and head of an in-house Law Department that controls a $32.9 million budget and millions of dollars in outside legal fees.
She is the third Daley alum to join the Johnson administration. The others are Chief of staff Rich Guidice and Chief Operating Officer John Roberson.
The $195,708-a-year job has been vacant since late March, when Corporation Counsel Celia Meza, the first Latina ever to serve as Chicago’s corporation counsel, abruptly resigned in the middle of the transition from one administration to another.
Normally, the corporation counsel sticks around until after the inauguration as a courtesy to the new mayor. Without the wealth of knowledge that can be invaluable to the new administration, Johnson and his team were at a distinct disadvantage.
Now, he will have Richardson-Lowry to advise him on sensitive legal matters and beside him at City Council meetings.
In a press release announcing the appointment, Johnson was quoted as saying he is "grateful for the expertise she brings to this role from her accomplished legal career" and looks forward to working closely with her to "advance our administration’s commitments to ethics, accountability, and transparency, and fostering a city government that efficiently delivers for residents and taxpayers."
Richardson-Lowry was quoted as saying that she is "humbled by the opportunity" to serve as corporation counsel after launching her career as a Law Department attorney.
The new corporation counsel said her goal is to "pursue an ethical, equitable city government that is responsible in its use of taxpayer dollars and transparent to the public."
During Richardson-Lowry’s action-packed tenure as Chicago’s buildings commissioner, chunks of terra cotta have fallen from aging and poorly maintained buildings.
Glass from a cracked window at the CNA Tower fell 29 stories, killing a 38-year-old woman walking hand-in-hand through the Loop with her three-year-old daughter.
A scaffold buffeting around in gale-force winds at the John Hancock Center broke free and plunged to the ground, killing three people in cars below.
Despite all of the building mishaps, Richardson-Lowry was perhaps best known for ushering in an era of "potty-parity" in Chicago.
She got her picture in People magazine after drafting a rewrite to the city’s archaic plumbing code that paved the way for a dramatic increase in women’s washrooms in new or rehabilitated public places.
"We had a code that was draconian. It never addressed the fact that women like to go to public places and there was a need to provide adequate rest rooms, particularly for women who wanted to take their children," Richardson-Lowry, who was replaced by Roberson, said on the day she resigned to return to the practice of law.
In 2010, Daley chose Richardson-Lowry to serve as Chicago Board of Education president. She replaced Michael Scott Sr., the longtime Daley confidante who committed suicide months earlier.
Richardson-Lowry was a good fit, given her story of having survived gang-infested public schools.
"I had to walk through gang territories to get to school. I know what that’s like. … There were challenges in terms of supplies with schools. I know what that’s like. But, I also know what it’s like when people make an investment" in public schools, she said on that day.
"I am a product of public schools. I know that, when people make the investment – when they have the kind of focus that this mayor does – that all things are possible. By all rights, I should not have survived some of my early years, and I did. Someone made an investment in me."
Richardson-Lowry’s selection to run CPS came just hours before a series of public hearings on plans to close or shake up 14 schools.
During her tenure as board president, Chicago Board of Education tackled the worst fiscal crisis since Daley’s 1995 school takeover by granting school officials the power to raise class sizes to up to 35 students for the next two years.
During a dramatic emergency meeting, board members also blocked any chance of a teacher strike over pay by indicating they expected to honor the 4% pay raises promised to teachers and seven other school unions — an increase valued at $135 million.
At the same time, the board agreed to give then-Schools CEO Ron Huberman the authority to take out a line of credit of up to $800 million. The short-term bridge was needed to cover more than $400 million in late state aid payments and pump up a reserve fund that will soon dwindle to the equivalent of one week’s operating costs.
Facing a packed chamber, seven school board members unanimously approved every emergency measure brought before them to help plug an estimated $427 million deficit. Richardson-Lowry called the moment "extraordinary.’’