New Mayor Lori Lightfoot Vows Death to ‘Kissing-the-Ring’ Chicago Rules

CHICAGO — With the members of the City Council, former Mayor Richard M. Daley and Mayor Rahm Emanuel looking on, Lori Lightfoot was sworn in as Chicago’s 56th mayor on Monday, lauding the city’s resilience and diversity while also vowing to kill old-style Chicago politics.

“For years, they said ‘Chicago ain’t ready for reform,’” said Ms. Lightfoot, 56, a former federal prosecutor, addressing the crowd of thousands who had gathered in an arena on a blustery May day. “Well, get ready, because reform is here.”

Ms. Lightfoot’s inauguration made history. She is the city’s first openly gay mayor. When she won all of Chicago’s 50 wards in April, the city became the largest ever to elect an African-American woman as its mayor.

One of her first orders of business, Ms. Lightfoot said, would be ending an unwritten rule that gives aldermen unfettered zoning and permitting power in their own wards.

“These practices have gone on here for decades. This practice breeds corruption. Stopping it isn’t just in the city’s interest. It’s in the City Council’s own interest,” she said, squaring her shoulders and turning to face the council members directly, as the audience leapt to its feet, clapping and shouting.

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Aldermen listened to Ms. Lightfoot during her inauguration. CreditAlyssa Schukar for The New York Times

[Read a parting interview with Mr. Emanuel, the outgoing mayor.]

Ms. Lightfoot was sworn in alongside her wife, Amy Eshleman, and their daughter, Vivian. In her speech, she promised to take on the city’s most pressing problems: gun violence, a lack of good public schools in many parts of the city and a staggering pension shortfall. There were prayers by a rabbi, an imam, a pastor and a priest. Lines from a beloved poem by Gwendolyn Brooks were read aloud. Kilt-wearing police officers marched happily through the crowd, blasting bagpipes.

As Chicagoans who watched the inauguration began to file out of the arena, they said they were thrilled by her promise to curtail the power of City Council members. “They do have too much power,” said Shatina Taylor, 41. “And they abuse it.” (She added that her sister, Jeanette B. Taylor, had just been sworn in as Chicago’s 20th ward alderman.)

[Read more about Lori Lightfoot’s history-making election.]

Advocates of the practice of granting aldermen extra power when it comes to their ward — known here as aldermanic privilege — see it as a legitimate way for residents to have a real say in what happens in their own neighborhood on big things and little ones: a block party, a drive-through proposal, a new building.

Detractors consider it a blatant, bizarre and laughable invitation for classic Chicago-style corruption, and point to the latest investigation into the city’s longest-serving alderman as a case in point. Alderman Ed Burke, who attended the inauguration, is accused of threatening to slow approval of remodeling plans for a Burger King restaurant in his ward unless it hired his law firm for tax work; he has denied wrongdoing and was re-elected to a 13th term several weeks after he was charged.

Later on Monday, Ms. Lightfoot signed her first executive order, which directed city departments to stop honoring the practice in many cases. She said City Council members would continue to have input, but not a veto.

At least some aldermen were supportive.

“While aldermanic input is critical in representing the interests of communities, we are working to prevent politics from influencing departmental decisions,” Alderman Michele Smith said in a statement.

[Read more about the challenges ahead for Ms. Lightfoot.]

David Greising, president of the Better Government Association, a nonprofit watchdog group based in Chicago, said Ms. Lightfoot’s order was a first step in curbing “a kissing-the-ring system that is not good for democracy” and “has created a system of endemic corruption.”

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Ann Lightfoot, Ms. Lightfoot’s mother, at the inauguration ceremony in Chicago on Monday.CreditAlyssa Schukar for The New York Times

But he noted that aldermen would retain some of their authority over zoning, and suggested that it may be difficult to get support for her executive order from the very people who stand to lose power.

“There’s a lot of pushback,” Mr. Greising said. “Aldermen value this power and recognize that if they give it up, it diminishes their ability to have control over what happens in their wards.”

Some have less hardened views on the practice. Asked whether it was a problem or a good thing, Willie Wilson, a Chicago businessman who ran for mayor this year, said he saw it as “a little bit of both.” Mr. Wilson said there were advantages in having aldermen get a louder say to deal with neighborhood-level issues, but also the possibility the authority could be corrupted.

Uncertain was how Chicago politicians might go forward without the city’s longstanding way of doing business.

“What’s going to replace that? How’s she going to administer that in City Hall? Who’s going to be answering for that?” asked Mr. Wilson, who endorsed Ms. Lightfoot in the runoff.

Don Rose, a political consultant who has advised Ms. Lightfoot, said he viewed it as Ms. Lightfoot fulfilling a campaign promise. The details of how to go about it were a little murkier, he acknowledged.

“In some ways, we’re all dealing with intangibles here — people would find it very odd that she’s making an executive order about something that’s an unwritten rule,” he said. “It’s uniquely Chicago.”

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