After a brutal year in which Mayor Lori Lightfoot has seemed to stumble from crisis to crisis, an open debate has begun in Chicago’s business community about whether to stick by the city’s embattled chief executive as her presumed re-election bid nears—or instead seek someone new.
With the election to be held two years from this month, active efforts to field a business-friendly Lightfoot challenger so far are limited, and mostly concentrated in the real-estate development and restaurant industries.
“It’s in the initial phase,” says one source familiar with what’s occurring. “They’re starting to make it clear that, if someone is interested in running, there’s probably support for them.”
In the meantime, there’s little doubt people in a broad range of industries are unhappy.
“Confidence in (Lightfoot’s) ability to get things done has gone down in the past year . . . significantly,” says one top business leader who, like most others interviewed, declined to be named for fear of hurting his working relationship with the mayor. “It just doesn’t seem like anything is working.”
“There is increased grumbling,” said another. “There is increased wondering about who (else) will run.”
Lightfoot political and governmental aides are pushing back hard on that narrative.
Among those I heard from—unprompted—was Mellody Hobson, co-CEO of Ariel Investments and vice-chair of World Business Chicago, the city’s corporate recruitment arm.
“The people I talk to say they know how hard (Lightfoot’s) job is now, and they understand her decision-making. They feel like they’re being heard,” Hobson said in a phone call. But even Hobson added, “That doesn’t mean they agree with every decision she’s made.”
The formal response from Lightfoot’s political office: "As she manages and leads our city through of a series of unprecedented crises, the mayor remains focused on the job to which she was elected. Politics will come later.”
The crises indeed have been plentiful, from the COVID-19 pandemic—clearly not Lightfoot’s fault—and its social and economic fallout to a continuing spike in high-profile murder and carjacking cases, the plundering of North Michigan Avenue, a looming Chicago teachers strike, city fiscal woes, and continued discord with aldermen, with Lightfoot’s City Council floor leader, Ald. Gil Villegas, 36th, recently leaving that post.
Even people in the corporate community who are backing Lightfoot want to see change.
“I’ve told my folks, don’t give up on Lori, ’cause you don’t know what you’re going to get,” said one, fearing a sharp move to the political left. But Lightfoot needs to widen her staff, boost her fund-raising—the mayor’s two campaign committees pulled in less than $1 million last year—and above all “work to find a common ground” with others, that source says. “She seems to want to fight all of the time.”
The names of several potential contenders have surfaced, including businessman and former Rahm Emanuel associate Michael Sacks, county Commissioner Bridget Gainer, and Alds. Villegas and Brian Hopkins, 2nd. All tell me they’re not running. For instance, Sacks, who has a large interest in the Chicago Sun-Times, said in a statement, “I am only interested in helping the mayor in this challenging period and recently supported her financially. I am unaware of any group or groups or meetings to discuss anything of the sort. It’s complete nonsense.”
But despite that and similar denials, insiders with firsthand knowledge tell me some business figures have begun to meet and reach out to others.
“I’ve been surprised about the level of interest in the development and restaurant community,” said one person who has been contacted. Restaurateurs are upset about relatively tight reopening rules in the city and the slow return of big trade shows. Some developers say that despite good intentions, permitting and decision-making is going slower than under Emanuel.
Those business people “don’t have a candidate,” said one elected official who turned down a request to run. “They’re looking.”
Hard data on how vulnerable Lightfoot might be in a February 2023 election is hard to come by.
I’m told Lightfoot’s own polling shows her with a clearly positive job-approval rating, though one that has slipped some recently. Another survey taken late last fall for another campaign found her approval/disapproval rating about even, in the low 40s. But except for the Chicago Teachers Union, her position with organized labor remains fairly good, union insiders tell me.