Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s political team this week asked Chicago Public Schools teachers to help recruit their students for her reelection campaign in exchange for class credit — a practice that the incumbent mayor’s campaign later vowed to stop after her challengers blasted it as crossing ethical boundaries.
An email obtained by the Tribune that was sent to a CPS work account Tuesday included a message titled “Externship Program Opportunity.” It’s unclear how many teachers received the emails, which were first reported by WTTW News. The email asked CPS staff members to “please share this opportunity with your students” and included a link to a Google form to sign up for the 12-hour-a-week program.
“Lightfoot for Chicago is seeking resumes from any volunteer interested in campaign politics and eager to gain experience in the field,” the email read. “The ideal volunteer will be efficient, well organized and enthusiastic about joining a dynamic team. A strong commitment to Democratic ideals is essential. … We’re simply looking for enthusiastic, curious and hard-working young people eager to help Mayor Lightfoot win this spring.”
Lightfoot’s campaign denied wrongdoing and characterized it as a typical learning opportunity offered by campaigns. But the team later released an amended statement saying it would stop contacting teachers.
“Out of an abundance of caution, we will cease contact with CPS employees,” the statement added.
The original statement noted, “Our campaign has been blessed with enthusiastic support from young people across the city. 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,” Lightfoot said. “All of our recruitment was done using publicly available contact information.”
Lightfoot’s team later released another updated statement that added that all campaign staff members “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.”
ᐧMeanwhile, a spokesperson with Chicago Public Schools attempted to distance the district from the controversy.
“As a rule, the District does not coordinate with any political candidates or campaigns,” the spokesperson said, noting that CPS email addresses are public information. “It has not done so to date and will not be doing so.”
Further, CPS has ethics guidelines for employees posted online that state that “a political campaign should not be using the CPS email system to solicit volunteers and donations. Please report the behavior and forward the emails to the Ethics Advisor.”
The program was advertised as a “volunteer” gig and includes eligibility to earn class credit, according to the email. Tasks include the “finance” and “communications aspects” of the campaign as well as voter outreach, attending events and more.
The message immediately drew reproach from Lightfoot’s challengers, who said it was improper. Cook County Commissioner Brandon Johnson, the Chicago Teachers Union’s candidate of choice, described the email as “outrageous, desperate, & downright unethical.”
“Mayor Lightfoot has failed our students — now she’s exploiting young people for political gain,” Johnson tweeted. “Chicago needs a leader who’s focused on fully funding our public schools — not someone blatantly abusing the power of her office.”
Another mayoral candidate, U.S. Rep. Jesús “Chuy” García, similarly condemned the move.
“Looks like desperate times call for desperate measures,” García 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. This is deeply problematic.”
Another challenger, 4th Ward Ald. Sophia King, released a statement that she was “flabbergasted” by the email recruitment attempt.
“This is pay-to-play except with unsuspecting and vulnerable victims. 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,” King said.
The city’s current ethics ordinance stipulates that no “official, employee, or candidate for City office shall intentionally use any City property or resources of the City in connection with any prohibited political activity,” which includes “soliciting votes on behalf of a candidate for elective office,” as well as other campaign activity like distributing materials or otherwise working on a campaign for elective office.
“Just when you think Chicago’s storied history of political patronage and machine corruption is breaking down, Lori Lightfoot proves she’s keeping it alive,” mayoral candidate and state Rep. Kambium “Kam” Buckner said in a statement, which also called for an inspector general investigation and ethics board review. “Instead of recognizing the mistake, her campaign doubled down because Lori Lightfoot is incapable of recognizing right from wrong.”
Another challenger, 6th Ward Ald. Roderick Sawyer, said in a release that Lightfoot wanted “to make public employees and our children her personal campaign resource. This is completely unethical, a hypocritical contradiction to her campaign promises of better government, and a disgraceful exploitation of public school students.”
“I don’t know what kind of lesson Lightfoot believes she is teaching, but the extra credit must be in government corruption,” Sawyer said.
Activist and candidate Ja’Mal Green tweeted: “How about you support teachers instead of expecting them to support you mayor.”
Candidate Paul Vallas called the revelation “deeply troubling” and “completely unethical” and called for a joint investigation by city and CPS inspectors general.
In a statement sent to all CTU members Wednesday, union leadership described the campaign recruitment outreach as “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. 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.”
The union said Johnson, their endorsed candidate, would “at last bring honest, principled governance to the City of Chicago and her people.”
Friction with the CTU has been a defining feature of Lightfoot’s time as mayor, including the 2019 strike that put students out for more than two weeks of classes and bitter standoffs over the reopening of schools after the pandemic’s arrival.
Lightfoot has repeatedly blamed her disputes with the teachers union on electoral politics, noting CTU leaders backed her opponent in the 2019 election and have been recurring critics of her administration. She complained in a national interview that the union wants to “take over running the city government,” for instance, and told an alderman that the union will bad-mouth her “until I beat them again in the next election.”
This latest incident is likely to inflame union leaders, as some members will see it as an untoward attempt to pressure workers into supporting the boss.