Lightfoot blames staffer for controversial attempt to recruit CPS students as campaign volunteers
CHICAGO - The inspector general for Chicago Public Schools on Thursday launched an investigation into Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s attempt to recruit CPS students to volunteer for her reelection campaign in exchange for class credit.
During a Thursday afternoon press conference, Lightfoot said the now-rescinded solicitation was "clearly a mistake," placing blame on the "young staffer" who sent it.
"There was absolutely no nefarious intent on the part of the staff person and there simply was no coercion, I've seen that question bubble up. There was no coercion, no intent to do that by any means by this young woman and no city resources were used," Lightfoot said.
"I'll repeat again, the outreach to the CPS teachers via their emails was a mistake, should not have happened, and is not going to happen again."
Lightfoot says she found out about the email on Wednesday when she received a media inquiry about it.
Earlier this week, Lightfoot’s deputy campaign manager Megan Crane, sent the email to select CPS teachers at their work email addresses that outraged the Chicago Teachers Union and was universally condemned by Lightfoot’s eight challengers.
It asked teachers to "please share this opportunity with your students," including details on volunteer roles and an application form. Volunteers would be expected to work 12 hours per week.
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"Students are eligible to earn class credit through our volunteer program," Crane wrote.
"No prior campaign experience is required, nor is a major or minor in political science. We’re simply looking for enthusiastic, curious and hard-working young people eager to help Mayor Lightfoot win this spring."
The role, called an "externship," was advertised as an opportunity for students to gain experience in campaign politics and "learn the field, finance and communications aspect of a campaign" by doing "voter contact, attending events, and more."
Lightfoot’s campaign initially defended what it called a "common practice" that campaigns at all levels have used "for decades" to give "countless high school and college students the opportunity to learn more about the election process."
After a barrage of criticism from mayoral challengers, the Lightfoot campaign walked back on the offer and vowed to "cease contact" with CPS employees "out of an abundance of caution."
"We emphasized to her and to other people on the campaign, I’m not just some candidate, I’m the mayor," said Lightfoot. "She understands it was a mistake, we put guardrails in place to make sure it doesn’t happen again."
Lightfoot said during Thursday’s news conference that her campaign isn’t having problems recruiting volunteers and added that the staffer in question will not be fired.
"All [Lightfoot campaign] staff have been reminded about the solid wall that must exist between campaign and official activities and that contacts with any city of Chicago or other sister agency employees, including CPS employees, even through publicly available sources, is off limits. Period," Lightfoot’s campaign said.
CPS Inspector General Will Fletcher said he is attempting to determine whether the campaign’s request violated any district policies.
"CPS OIG has opened an investigation into this matter and we are currently gathering information to determine which, if any, policies have been violated," Fletcher said in a statement.
The CPS ethics policy prohibits district employees from forwarding or passing along materials from political campaigns. The policy further prohibits school staffers from using their positions to engage in political activity or doing political work on school time.
Chicago Inspector General Deborah Witzburg was a bit more cautious — even though her mentor and predecessor Joe Ferguson has branded the Lightfoot campaign’s solicitation as "deeply, deeply problematic."
Witzburg said she has "been in touch" with Fletcher and is in the information-gathering stage that may well be a prelude to a full-blown investigation.
"One of the things to be considered here is, if something went wrong, whether that issue was cured by calling it off," Witzburg told the Chicago Sun-Times.
"If there is any appearance that people are using their public position for political advantage, that would be a concern and I don’t know yet whether that has happened here."
The American Civil Liberties Union of Chicago on Thursday branded the solicitation "inappropriately coercive" and a "First Amendment concern" that might have violated federal law.
"Now her campaign employs practices that harken back to the worst days of the Chicago political machine," ACLU Executive Director Colleen K. Connell said in a news release.
Connell added: "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 consequence for lack of participation."
A spokesperson with Chicago Public Schools issued the following statement: "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."
Last August, a similar email was sent by a Lightfoot campaign staff member to employees of the City Colleges of Chicago. A spokesperson with CCC told FOX 32 Chicago that staff notified its ethics department immediately and "purged the emails from CCC accounts."
In light of this week's emails, the spokesperson said, "City colleges is not aware of having received subsequent campaign emails, but is looking into the matter."
Many of Lightfoot's political opponents have said they are "flabbergasted" by the email her campaign sent, some calling it a violation of public trust.
Mayoral challenger Paul Vallas, a former Chicago Public Schools CEO, demanded a joint investigation by Fletcher and Witzburg and has questions he wants answered:
- Whether Lightfoot was "aware that her campaign was pressuring teachers and students to support her campaign using their CPS email addresses."
- If the mayor was not aware, will she take disciplinary action against campaign staffers.
- How did the mayor’s reelection campaign obtain the CPS teacher email list?
- Was there an agreement between the Lightfoot campaign and CPS to offer students class credit and, if so, who at CPS authorized it?
- If there was no agreement, did the Lightfoot campaign "lie to students and teachers by claiming there would be" a chance to earn class credit?
"Chicago voters deserve to know the real facts," Vallas said in a news release.
Retired attorney William Conlon, the Lightfoot appointee now chairing the Chicago Board of Ethics, was troubled enough by the campaign email to put it on the board’s Jan. 23 agenda.
Asked whether he believes the Lightfoot campaign violated the city’s ethics ordinance, Conlon said, "I’m not gonna go there. We’re gonna talk about it on the 23rd and we’ll see what the rest of the board thinks about it."
Ald. Matt Martin (47th), acting chair of the City Council’s Ethics Committee, has already called his own Jan. 23 meeting on other matters. Martin said has "more due diligence" to do before deciding "whether and when it would be appropriate for the committee to look into this issue further."
"With something like a sister agency, that obviously presents real complications in terms of what City Council and the Ethics Committee can do and should do. Same thing would happen with regard to the Park District and CTA," Martin said.
The Ethics Committee chairmanship has been vacant since the resignation last summer of Ald. Michele Smith (43rd).
Martin has a stalled resolution that calls for elevating him to the permanent job. But Lightfoot has argued that the power to appoint committee chairs rests with the mayor.
Downtown Ald. Brendan Reilly (42nd) couldn’t help but harken back to Lightfoot’s 2019 swearing ceremony at Wintrust Arena.
"I remember when a certain mayor stood on a stage at her inauguration, turned around, pointed her finger at the City Council & stated that we are the `problem,’ " Reilly tweeted Thursday.
"If this isn’t a crime, it’s certainly unethical."
The Sun-Times Media Wire contributed to this report.