CHICAGO — Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s campaign emailed an unknown number of Chicago Public Schools teachers to try to recruit student volunteers for her reelection campaign.
In a Thursday news conference, Lightfoot stated she was unaware of the effort until a media inquiry about it was made on Wednesday. She said reaching out to CPS teachers was wrong specifically because she holds the office of mayor, and the campaign staff member now understands why the effort was incorrect.
Watch her entire press conference in this video.
The email was sent Tuesday morning from Megan Crane, Lightfoot’s deputy campaign manager. The news of the email was first reported by WTTW News.
“As the race heats up, we’re looking to enrich our office through what we call our externship program,” Crane wrote.
Crane asked for the teachers to share the message with their students.
“Lightfoot for Chicago is seeking resumes from any volunteer interested in campaign politics and eager to gain experience in the field,” Crane wrote. “The ideal volunteer will be efficient, well organized and enthusiastic about joining a dynamic team.”
Crane also said a “strong commitment to Democratic ideals is essential.”
Students are able to earn class credit through the volunteer program, Crane said in the email.
Volunteers would be expected to devote about 12 hours per week and tasked with voter contact, attending events and more, Crane said in the email.
During Thursday’s press conference, Lightfoot said similar emails went out to other academic institutions in August.
“This was a mistake and shouldn’t have happened, period,” Lightfoot said. “It was a particular staffer who made a mistake, who used publicly available emails that she found via Google searches, and she understands why that was problematic and that the mistake was made and it’s not going to happen again.”
Lightfoot said she doesn’t plan to fire the staffer who sent the emails, but plans to use this incident as a teachable moment.
On Thursday, Chicago Public Schools inspector general Will Fletcher told WGN News that he has “opened an investigation into this matter and we are currently gathering information to determine which, if any, policies have been violated.”
In a statement Wednesday evening, Lightfoot’s campaign defended the move but also said it is reminding staff about the “solid wall” between the campaign and official activities, and contacts with city employees is “off limits.”
“Our campaign has been blessed with enthusiastic support from young people across the city,” a statement from Lightfoot’s campaign read. “From the very start, we’ve been intentional in our efforts to provide young people with the opportunity to engage with our campaign, learn more about the importance of civic engagement, and participate in the most American of processes. This is a common practice that has been utilized in city, state, and federal level campaigns for decades, and has given countless high school and college students the opportunity to learn more about the election process. All of our recruitment was done using publicly available contact information. All LFC campaign staff have been reminded about the solid wall that must exist between campaign and official activities and that contacts with any city of Chicago, or other sister agency employees, including CPS employees, even through publicly available sources is off limits. Period.”
The Chicago Board of Ethics said it’s aware of the email and expects to discuss it at its next meeting. According to the board’s website, the next meeting is on Jan. 23.
Union, politicians react
In a letter to its members and posted online, Chicago Teachers Union leadership called the email “unethical and wrong.”
“This is unethical and wrong on so many levels — not least of which is our concern that CTU members who decline to volunteer for the mayor’s campaign or encourage their students to do so could face retaliation,” union leaders wrote. “This is the same Mayor who promised to clean up corruption and make good ethics an anchor in her administration. This latest scheme shows she’s a rank hypocrite on ethics issues — including her attempt to use our schools and students as her campaign tools.”
In a tweet, Rep. Chuy Garcia, who is also running for mayor, called the email “deeply problematic.”
“Looks like desperate times call for desperate measures,” Garcia tweeted. “The Mayor should be more concerned about fully funding Chicago Public Schools than using them as a recruiting pipeline of free labor for her re-election campaign.”
Mayoral candidate Paul Vallas called the news “deeply troubling.”
“It is completely unethical to pressure teachers and students to get involved in political campaigns,” Vallas tweeted. “We shouldn’t be surprised.” Vallas went on to call for a joint investigation by the city and CPS inspectors general.
Later in the evening, he released a longer statement.
“This is deeply troubling news out of the Lightfoot Campaign,” Vallas said in the new statement. “The manipulation of teachers and children is unspeakable. Mayor Lightfoot should be ashamed of herself for allowing her campaign to violate her own ethics policy by contacting city government employees on their official email accounts for political purposes. Accountability demands an independent inquiry in the form of a joint City and CPS Inspector General investigation. Chicago residents deserve answers.”
Mayoral candidate Kam Buckner called the emails a “heavy-handed misuse and abuse of power” and said it’s a reminder Lightfoot “has no respect for the law.”
“Her arrogance and incompetence are inexcusable and Chicago needs to be rescued from four years of broken promises about ‘bringing in the light,'” Buckner said in a statement. “The City’s Inspector General as well as the Chicago Board of Elections should immediately investigate whether the Mayor’s lack of integrity also breaks the law.”
Current 6th Ward Alderman and mayoral candidate Roderick Sawyer said the email is “completely unethical, a hypocritical contradiction to her campaign promises of better government, and a disgraceful exploitation of public school students.”
“Mayor Lightfoot has failed our schools and our teachers at every turn in the last four years, and now wants to make public employees and our children her personal campaign resource,” Sawyer wrote. “I don’t know what kind of lesson Lightfoot believes she is teaching, but the extra credit must be in government corruption.”
Cook County Commissioner and mayoral candidate Brandon Johnson said the email is “outrageous, desperate and downright unethical.”
“Mayor Lightfoot has already failed our students — now she’s exploiting young people for political gain,” Johnson said in a statement. “Chicago needs a leader who is focused on fully funding our public schools — not someone blatantly abusing the power of their office.”
Mayoral candidate Sophia King said she is “flabbergasted.”
“This is pay-to-play except with unsuspecting and vulnerable victims,” King wrote in a statement. “There is no lens that makes this ethical. As a teacher, I’d give her an F. Actually she’d be expelled. This is the lack of transparency I want to change for Chicago. And our collaborative approach to building better government is gaining traction.”