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Women at the helm: Unique opportunity to ‘right the ship’

They’ve already shattered the glass ceiling.  Now it’s time to throw open the doors.

“I’ve spent my whole professional life being a pioneer in way too many rooms,” Mayor-elect Lori Lightfoot told the Chicago Sun-Times. “It’s gotten better over time, but there’s still too many doors that are closed to women, closed to people of color.

“I intend to open up those kinds of opportunities.”

Lightfoot, of course, marches into history as the first African American woman to serve as Chicago’s mayor, as well as the city’s first openly LGBT mayor.

And together with City Clerk Anna Valencia and Treasurer-elect Melissa Conyears-Ervin, it is the first time that all three top executive offices in Chicago will be held by women, specifically women of color.

So the Sun-Times asked them, as well as other experts, what it means, now that the old-boys club itself is history.

Will women of color at the helm reshape Chicago politics? Will they pursue new policy positions? Will they set the tone for a change in “politics as usual” and the future of the city’s political landscape?

“That’s what I’m hoping,” Valencia said. “That having three women at the top, that our way and our approach might be different — and maybe different is good.”

For Lightfoot, that tonal shift will primarily focus on policies that will bring the City Council more in line with what the city’s residents need and want. That’ll mean doing away with aldermanic prerogative — the unwritten rule that gives aldermen tight control over zoning and permits within their wards — a feat that likely won’t be easy.

Mayor-Elect Lori Lightfoot stands on the field before throwing out the first pitch for the White Sox home opener against the Mariners at Guaranteed Rate Field on Friday, April 5, 2019. | Victor Hilitski/For the Sun-Times

“I intend to do everything I can to live up to the things that we talked about over the course of the campaign, which is to not allow the stranglehold of the machine to deny people access to basic city services, not allow the stranglehold of the machine to continue to allow elected officials to monetize their positions,” Lightfoot said. “And not allow the stranglehold of the machine to hold us back from reaching the God-given promise that all of us have innately by helping create real opportunity in every neighborhood so that our people can thrive.”

She also plans to review how all the city’s departments work to make sure that redundancies are eliminated. Unfortunately for Valencia and Conyears-Ervin, Lightfoot includes the offices of clerk and treasurer in that.  She has argued that the mayor’s office is already handling or could handle functions of the two other citywide elected offices.

But Conyears-Ervin and Valencia don’t seem worried. Valencia brushed aside Lightfoot’s talk of merging the offices as no more than a “campaign talking point.”

And Conyears-Ervin said “by combining the offices or moving them into the Mayor’s office, you allow the fox to guard the hen house and as City Treasurer, I want to increase transparency and openness in the office, not diminish it.”

Transparency and inclusion are themes all three are stressing.

City Treasurer-elect Melissa Conyears-Ervin, left, Mayor-elect Lori Lightfoot, center, and City Clerk Anna M. Valencia. Sun-Times File Photos by Rich Hein, Ashlee Rezin and Rich Hein

City Treasurer-elect Melissa Conyears-Ervin, left, Mayor-elect Lori Lightfoot, center, and City Clerk Anna M. Valencia. Sun-Times File Photos by Rich Hein, Ashlee Rezin and Rich Hein

For Lightfoot, opening the doors also means focusing on her team, which she said is “absolutely going to represent the diversity of this great city.

“We are very focused on making sure … that we are creating opportunities for diverse young people to get a seat at tables that they wouldn’t ordinarily have a seat at. I think that’s reflected in our transition committees — we’re matching up people who are notable with people who are laudable and unsung and everything else in between.”

Valencia, who was appointed to her post in 2017 and won a full term in the February election, has made it a priority to hire women and prioritize the voices of women and girls. The Chicago Status of Women and Girls Working Group gathered more than 120 women and girls from across the city. They announced a set of 20 recommendations in March to make the city “a safer and more equitable place, and the best city in the world for women and girls.”

She said her first few years in office were about listening to what the community needs were and incorporating them into policy, such as the City Key program, a city-issued identification card. She also launched a group to review the city’s fine and fee practices after a ProPublica and WBEZ investigation into the punitive nature behind fines for city stickers.

City Clerk Anna Valencia during a press conference after a Chicago City Council meeting in 2016. File Photo.| Santiago Covarrubias/Sun-Times

City Clerk Anna Valencia during a press conference after a Chicago City Council meeting in 2016. File Photo.| Santiago Covarrubias/Sun-Times

Valencia also set about addressing workplace diversity in her two years in office. Her senior leadership team includes seven women, and 70 percent of the office’s mid-level managers are black women. She sees hiring and promoting women as a responsibility for her and for the mayor and treasurer “because we’ve gotten to the top and need to spread that love around.”

She believes she, Lightfoot and Conyears-Ervin now have the unique opportunity to “right the ship” in terms of addressing the city’s problems.

“I think that the answers [to the city’s problems] are out there, but what it’s going to take is all of us, you know, the mayor-elect, the treasurer-elect and myself, aldermen, legislators … all of us have to come together and say ‘who’s doing what’ in a coordinated collaborative vision for the city,” Valencia said.

As for eliminating her own office, Valencia isn’t buying it.

“The City Clerk’s Office brings in over $130 million in revenue for the City annually. The Clerk’s office is essential to bridging the gap between our government and our community,” Valencia said. “Most importantly it serves as the independent arm overseeing City Council’s legislative process — ensuring transparency — as well as the payroll and HR for all City Aldermen and their staff. I look forward to collaborating with Mayor-Elect Lightfoot.”

The elections of Lightfoot, Conyears-Ervin and Valencia are part of a larger trend of women being elected to higher offices.

Beyond the three city leaders, five of the county’s eight elected positions are filled by women — with Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle and State’s Attorney Kim Foxx in the two top positions.

Lori Lightfoot, Jesse Jackson, Toni Preckwinkle

Mayor-elect Lori Lightfoot (left) shakes hands with former mayoral candidate Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle. They were joined onstage by Rev. Jesse Jackson for a press conference at Rainbow PUSH the day after Lightfoot beat Preckwinkle in the mayoral election. | Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

And, on a national scale, there are 47 women of color in Congress and 14 serving as state executives — including Illinois Lt. Gov. Juliana Stratton — 456 serving as state legislators and 11 women of color — including Lightfoot when she is sworn in May 20 — leading cities around the country, according to figures from Rutgers’ Center for American Women and Politics.

Twyla Blackmond Larnell, an assistant professor at Loyola University Chicago’s political science department, said with the growth of the left, women officials could have an easier time getting support from voters to push their progressive policy agendas.

“Traditionally, research has shown women mayors or Congressional members don’t have that different a policy agenda than their male counterparts,” Larnell said, adding that many see women’s policy agendas geared toward “nurturing,” like education, healthcare and women’s rights among other things.

“[Politics] used to be seen as a men’s game — women used to have to support those policies that may speak more to men, white men, so it was harder to push forward a gender-based agenda, but women are making up a larger proportion of government in general, which could mean more power in numbers to get their policies passed or to at least get them talked about.”

For Treasurer-elect Melissa Conyears-Ervin, her victory in an April runoff, and the company she’s joining, is still setting in. Born in Englewood and raised by a single mother on the city’s West Side, the new treasurer sees her position as a platform to advocate for families and small businesses and transform the politics in the city.

“We have to show Chicagoans that it’s not big ‘I’s and little ‘you’s — we’re all in this together, and there’s something about women and, you know, the passion that we have and the work ethic that we have,” Conyears-Ervin said.

Candidate for City Treasurer Melissa Conyears-Ervin at Manny's Deli on Election Day. File Photo. | James Foster/For the Sun-Times

Candidate for City Treasurer Melissa Conyears-Ervin at Manny’s Deli on Election Day. File Photo. | James Foster/For the Sun-Times

The trio, and the city, face a multitude of challenges, namely the pension gap and a potentially violent summer ahead. Kitty Kurth, a veteran political consultant, said that a change in leadership could help bring new ideas to address the problems.

“The big fiscal problems of the city aren’t going to disappear because of new leadership,” Kurth said. “That said, new leadership will be able to look at our old problems in new ways and might be able to bring people to the table. They might be able to talk about things or get people to look at things in a different way.”

Conyears-Ervin has already talked about convening CEOs of the financial community to talk about investing in communities on the South and West Sides, as well as the Loop and other areas of the city. And Lightfoot has already talked about the need for collaboration with stakeholders in the city.

But the pressure on the new mayor, to keep her campaign promises and not be “somebody who just panders to the crowd,” has kept her mindful of the need to work with others and to include Chicagoans who’ve felt left out in administrations prior to her own.

Mayor-elect Lori Lightfoot answers questions from the media as members of the public take photos with their cellphones in the rotunda at the Illinois State Capitol. (Justin L. Fowler/The State Journal-Register via AP)

Mayor-elect Lori Lightfoot answers questions from the media as members of the public take photos with their cellphones in the rotunda at the Illinois State Capitol. (Justin L. Fowler/The State Journal-Register via AP)

“The one word I remind myself of every day is Icarus,” Lightfoot said, a reference to the Greek myth about a boy who ignores his father’s warning not to fly too close to the sun and whose waxen wings melt, plummeting him into the sea below.

“We need to soar, but I personally don’t need to fly so close to the sun that I come crashing down to the earth. It’s a heady experience — there’s lots of generosity and enthusiasm, but I’m about the work … what that means to me is identifying challenges, working in collaboration with really smart abled people who know about them or whose lives are going to be affected by it and then coming up with concrete solutions to move forward.”

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