Political Patronage: Chicago Mayor Offers School Credit for Students Who Help Her Campaign

Chicago mayor Lori Lightfoot (D.) meets with students in 2019 / Getty Images
January 12, 2023

Chicago mayor Lori Lightfoot (D.) is encouraging public school teachers to offer credit to students who volunteer for her reelection campaign.

In an email sent to Chicago public school teachers, Lightfoot deputy campaign manager Megan Crane asked teachers to encourage students to volunteer "to help Mayor Lightfoot win this spring," offering "class credit" for those who participate, WTTW News reports.

"We're simply looking for enthusiastic, curious, and hard-working young people eager to help Mayor Lightfoot win this spring," Crane wrote in the email sent to teachers' official work accounts.

The program sparked immediate backlash and could spell trouble for Lightfoot, who in her 2019 bid for mayor promised to fight the "Chicago machine," a patronage system that has dominated city politics for years, with tougher ethics regulations.

"This is unethical and wrong on so many levels," the Chicago Teachers Union said in a statement. The union tweeted that the scheme "feels strangely like it's straight out of the machine politics the current incumbent ran against—yet continues to use herself."

Attorneys for the union believe the email "not only violates the city's government ethics ordinance but also the ethics policy imposed by Lightfoot when she took office in 2019," according to WTTW News.

Political campaigns cannot use the Chicago Public Schools email system to "solicit volunteers and donations," the district's ethics guidelines state.

"As a rule, the district does not coordinate with any political candidates or campaigns. It has not done so to date and will not be doing so," a Chicago Public Schools spokesperson told WTTW News.

In an initial statement to WTTW News, a campaign spokesperson defended the email, saying the program was designed "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" and was "done using publicly available contact information." But after a wave of criticism, Lightfoot's office backtracked with a second statement:

All [Lightfoot for Chicago] 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 [Chicago Public Schools] employees, even through publicly available sources, is off limits. Period.

Lightfoot is one of nine candidates on the Feb. 28 ballot.

"She's exploiting young people for political gain," Brandon Johnson, who is running against Lightfoot, said Wednesday of the mayor's actions.