365 days of Lightfoot
Mayor Lori Lightfoot has been in office for one year. Here's what the business community has to say about her performance.
Lori Lightfoot took office a year ago with promises to tackle Chicago's wobbly finances plus decades of inequality, crime and corruption as a political outsider beholden to no one.
Now, the city is in a fight for survival—its budget problems and inequality exacerbated by the impact of COVID-19, and thousands of workers and a business community are left shaken.
At her inaugural address on May 20, 2019, Lightfoot told the crowd at Wintrust Arena that strong, growing and new businesses would mean stability for the city's finances and jobs for its residents, but that smaller businesses on the South and West sides needed as much attention as the big players downtown. "Our neighborhoods have been neglected for too long. They cannot be anymore."
In a livestreamed address to the Economic Club of Chicago almost a year later, Lightfoot painted the COVID-19 crisis as an opportunity to double down on those goals.
"Our people are sick and dying. Unemployment's skyrocketed. And many of our small businesses are on the brink of mass closure. But as hard as things have been—and will continue to be—this crisis also gives us an opportunity to remake our city for decades to come," she said.
Howard Tullman, general managing partner of Chicago High Tech Investment Partners and of G2T3V, says it's a risk to focus on neighborhood development. "I don't think right now that strategy is worth anything, because millions of small businesses will not come back from this virus. Putting your eggs in that basket is really frightening. People with giant war chests are the people she needs to be talking to," he says, including those at the helm of megaprojects like the 78, Lincoln Yards and Farpoint's redevelopment of the old Michael Reese site.
How Lightfoot responds to COVID-19 will likely prove to be the mayor's defining moment, and there's bound to be disagreements with a business community itching to get restaurants, bars, travel, conventions, sports and megaprojects running at full speed while balancing protection of workers and the public.
But so far, business leaders including Sam Toia, president of the Illinois Restaurant Association, largely give the mayor passing grades for her first year in office—complimenting her straight talk, quick mind and collaborative qualities—and agree neighborhood business survival is key to recovery.
Who does Lightfoot lean on when she thinks of the business community? Perhaps more than anyone, Deputy Mayor for Economic Development Samir Mayekar. (Lightfoot was not available for an interview before press time.)
While former Mayor Rahm Emanuel's deputies were familiar C-suite faces and go-to sounding boards for Chicago's biggest companies, the role for Mayekar, a 36-year-old tech entrepreneur who did a stint in the Obama administration, is as much about social justice and equity as economic development.
Mayekar says Lightfoot's administration has broadened Chicago's traditional definition of the business community beyond corporate CEOs "to make sure we're dealing in the neighborhoods as well, re-engaging communities that might not have felt engaged previously."
The roughly 100 members of her COVID-19 Recovery Task Force illustrate those priorities. While Chicago's hotel, retail and restaurant trade groups are included, as are Uptake's Brad Keywell, Frontera's Rick Bayless and P33's Brad Henderson, so are smaller chambers of commerce from Englewood, Little Village and Austin.
Administration officials also say Lightfoot leans on UL's Jenny Scanlon (the new head of the Commercial Club of Chicago), Ariel Investments' Mellody Hobson (Lightfoot's vice chair at World Business Chicago), Toia and Chicago Federation of Labor President Bob Reiter. She's also turned to Ulta CEO Mary Dillon and BMO Harris' David Casper for insight.
While Lightfoot came from the world of Big Law, she did not have the same personal ties to Chicago's business community as her predecessors.
Casper says that's a strength. "She comes in fresh, she doesn't have baggage, and she can deal with issues she didn't create."
From left: Samir Mayekar, Andrea Zopp and Howard Tullman
BMO is participating in her Invest South/West initiative, a shuffling of spending priorities and Emanuel-era programs to build infrastructure and finance economic development outside downtown.
The mayor benefits from the Emanuel era in other ways—including administration officials she's kept in place at Business Affairs, Buildings and Aviation. Andrea Zopp, another holdover as president of WBC, and Hobson made rotating CEO breakfasts and dinners a regular part of Lightfoot's schedule to introduce her to the broader business community.
Hobson says she's left their encounters impressed and says other business leaders from WBC have, too.
Amid the COVID crisis, intimate meals have transformed into sometimes-massive weekend Zoom conference calls. Those lengthy, no-BS conversations, Hobson says, involve zero mayoral pandering. "She has a real clear sense of self, what she believes and what she's trying to get done, and she holds to that. But she also is open to a conversation, and that's a unique skill set, especially in times with people that don't agree with you."
"When she first came in, one of the concerns I heard from the business community is, 'She won't listen. She won't hear us,' " Zopp says. But she argues Lightfoot demonstrated right away that she was willing to balance business demands with organized labor and a younger, more progressive City Council.
One of Lightfoot's first acts was taking up an issue that had stalled under Emanuel—the Fair Workweek ordinance. It mandated employers give workers two weeks' notice of expected schedules. Lightfoot took an unusual step—stopping by a committee hearing—to signal the ordinance was a personal priority.
The debate was an exercise in balance, Zopp argues. Everyone was brought to the table. Labor made concessions over employee caps. Safety-net hospitals got a six-month break. Smaller restaurants were almost uniformly excluded, and businesses won some language about how employee hours could be offered.
"The ordinance was one where you know it's the right one: You make compromises, nobody's exactly happy, but that's the way it should work," Zopp says.
While the sit-down around Fair Workweek was encouraging, there's "lots of room for improvement on where she started," says Tanya Triche Dawood, vice president and general counsel of the Illinois Retail Merchants Association. "Employers, I hope, will matter more in her administration."
With so much uncertainty heading into the summer, some business groups have bristled that the city didn't grant a full six-month reprieve from Fair Workweek requirements set to take effect on July 1. The City Council is expected to vote shortly on a tweak that would bar workers from suing over violations of the ordinance until 2021, but some are wary that built-in exceptions for businesses during pandemics might not fall in their favor. They also hoped for a break from a July hike in the minimum wage.
Mayekar says the administration has supported workers and businesses during the COVID crisis, including tax deferrals, regulatory breaks and the launch of small-business relief loans and grants. The city has given out $5,000 loans to nearly 1,000 microbusinesses. But its $100 million small-business resiliency fund has approved only 316 loans totaling nearly $12 million, with an additional 268 loans in the final stages of underwriting.
As for Lightfoot's engagement of the tech community pre-virus, Tullman says, "I don't think she has extended herself to any material extent to support the business or the technology community in the way that Rahm did."
Chicagoland Chamber of Commerce CEO Jack Lavin agrees with Tullman that the mayor should turn her attention toward big projects, including the One Central development on the city's Near South Side. He's glad communication lines are open and says Lightfoot is more of a collaborator than Emanuel but says it's a constant battle to counter the City Council's progressive flank—a growing concern as the city approaches budget season.
While the mayor has said she wants to focus on "stimulus" and has described raising property taxes as a "last, last resort," the city has not yet released estimates of COVID's impact on revenue.
Triche Dawood is nervous. "We all know there's going to be a significant hit to the budget. The question always is, in every budget, 'Who's going to pay for it?' Our concern as employers is that we are going to bear the brunt," she says. "We need to be very careful . . . because these are the folks that you want to get the economy going again, right?"