‘You brought chaos’: Mayor Lightfoot defends record against challengers ‘Chuy’ García and Brandon Johnson

Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot launched a blistering series of attacks on two of her top challengers Monday, accusing Cook County Commissioner Brandon Johnson and his allies in the teachers union of bringing “chaos” to Chicago schools during her first term and re-upping assertions that U.S. Rep. Jesús “Chuy” García is a false reformer whose ties to indicted former House Speaker Michael Madigan undermine his claims he’ll be an independent mayor.

The challengers responded by ripping the mayor for letting crime in Chicago run rampant, breaking key campaign promises and being a belligerent and ineffective leader of the nation’s third-largest city.

The rousing debate, which took place over 90 minutes at the Tribune’s Editorial Board, occurred nearly five weeks from the Feb. 28 election. Lightfoot is trying to secure a second term in office while facing eight challengers following a turbulent first term that saw her have to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic, sometimes violent protests, spikes in crime and, as she put it, an “economic meltdown.” The other candidates in the field met last week with the board, which is separate from the newsroom.

García, making his second bid for the city’s highest office, downplayed his relationship with Madigan days after the Tribune reported García is an unidentified member of Congress referenced in federal court filings detailing an alleged scheme by Madigan to appoint one of García’s political associates to a lucrative position on Commonwealth Edison’s board of directors. García is not accused of wrongdoing and denied playing any role in the push by Madigan to appoint Juan Ochoa to the utility’s board.

In response to a question about his ties to the former speaker, García invoked the earliest days of his political career in the 1980s, working with the city’s first Black mayor, Harold Washington, against a coalition of mostly white City Council members who opposed him and allied with the historic Chicago machine.

“Let me remind you and everyone in the room that there isn’t another elected official in office today who’s been fighting the machine as long as I have,” García said. He added that anyone with pending legislation in Springfield over the past few decades had to work with the former speaker, who famously held tight control over the Statehouse.

“Just because you swim with sharks, if you listen to the people that sent you somewhere, you don’t become one,” García said. “And that’s been my mantra.”

That answer did not satisfy Lightfoot, who quipped, “Clearly what (García) decided after losing in 2015 is, ‘If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.’ And he’s made deal after deal after deal.”

Lightfoot also clashed sharply with Johnson, a longtime leader with the Chicago Teachers Union, over education. She blamed the influential union for drops in Chicago Public Schools student enrollment, which she said have been exacerbated by several work stoppages during her time in office. She said she’s “talked to a lot of parents” who cite uncertainty caused by union actions as the reason they left the district for the suburbs or private schools. “That hurts CPS.”

Johnson responded later by noting the mayor broke a 2019 campaign promise for an elected school board governing CPS after she opposed the prevailing bill in Springfield in 2021, saying it was unwieldy. Lightfoot campaigned in support of an elected school board but quietly abandoned the promise when she took office.

“The fact of the matter is that we brought democracy to the city of Chicago,” Johnson said.

Lightfoot scoffed and retorted, “You brought chaos.”

For his part, García argued that Chicago — and its public school enrollment — has been shrinking due to crime fears and vowing to get Springfield to double CPS’ funding if elected.

“You need someone who has those relationships, who understands how those relationships function, that can deliver for Chicago,” García said. “That’s why I continue to insist I am the most qualified person to lead the city in this time.”

Lightfoot also went on the offensive after Johnson and García criticized her approach to leading the Police Department during a time of heightened crime as well as under the existence of a consent decree. She promised full compliance with the consent decree in the next four years and said Johnson “has no idea about what’s going on” there. She called García “the OG” supporter of defunding the police and said it’s something she “will never” do.

García said he has a list of congressional bills he voted on that increased law enforcement funding.

Lightfoot brought a printout of Johnson quotes speaking in favor of reallocating spending on law enforcement to argue that he is a “defunder.”

During his first term as Cook County commissioner, Johnson was lead sponsor of a symbolic resolution that called for divesting funds from policing and jails in the wake of George Floyd’s murder by Minneapolis police. But the sheriff’s budget only saw a modest and temporary cut amid a steep budget shortfall that saw shrinkages across county offices.

Lightfoot also made a small cut to the Police Department’s budget in 2020 that led some critics to accuse her of defunding.

In response to the “defund” criticism, Johnson noted that the city spends far more on policing than education and that approach isn’t working.

“We spend more on jails and incarceration than we do on educating young people,” Johnson said.

Johnson also went after García, describing him as an absentee politician who did not speak out on various issues in Latino neighborhoods, such as General Iron’s attempted move to the Southeast Side or the Hilco explosion in Little Village.

“He’s referring to her,” García said, nodding to Lightfoot, as Johnson repeated that Chicagoans “didn’t hear his voice” on those issues.

“Her has a name,” Lightfoot shot back.

The session kicked off with Lightfoot making no apologies when asked about criticism from her challengers that she was too antagonistic.

“Look, I’m tough. There’s no if ands or buts about it,” Lightfoot said. “And I think the people of the city voted for me to be the mayor, different than any other mayor that’s ever sat in the fifth floor, because of that toughness, but also because of the integrity that I bring to the job because of my focus on breaking up the status quo.”

Lightfoot also tried to tamp down insinuations that she can’t get along with others by saying she could not have closed major budget deficits during the pandemic without working relationships in City Council and beyond.

The mayor later said she could “write a Ph.D. thesis on crisis management” and “collaboration” after the storm of nationwide crises that colored her first term. But she wouldn’t promise a brand-new Lightfoot leading City Hall should she win reelection.

“I’m 60 years old,” Lightfoot said. “I’m not going to change my personality entirely at this age.”