Lightfoot says campaign emails to CPS teachers seeking student volunteers "clearly a mistake"
CHICAGO (CBS) -- Mayor Lori Lightfoot on Thursday acknowledged it "was clearly a mistake" for her campaign to email Chicago Public School teachers, asking them to encourage their students to volunteer for her campaign in exchange for class credit, but said "there was absolutely no nefarious intent."
The mayor's first public comments on the scandal came amid multiple ethics probes into the emails.
Lightfoot said she was not aware of the effort to email CPS teachers to recruit student volunteers until Wednesday, when WTTW first reported on the emails.
"As soon as I learned about the outreach to the CPS teachers, we put a stop to it. The bottom line here is it was clearly a mistake, and we've made sure that we emphasize that, not only to the staffer involved, but everybody on our campaign, to ensure this kind of conduct doesn't happen again," Lightfoot said at a press conference Thursday afternoon.
The mayor stressed that there no conversations between the campaign and her government office or anyone at CPS to coordinate the recruitment effort.
City Colleges of Chicago officials confirmed some of its staff received a similar email from the Lightfoot campaign in August seeking student volunteers.
"In accordance with City Colleges' Ethics policy, City Colleges does not coordinate with political campaigns. After receiving a campaign email in August seeking student volunteers, City Colleges staff notified its Ethics Department. Following the Department's guidance, City Colleges notified the campaign of CCC's ethics policy and purged the emails from CCC accounts. City Colleges is not aware of having received subsequent campaign emails, but is looking into the matter," spokesperson Katheryn Hayes said in an email.
The mayor said she was aware that her campaign also reached out to City Colleges staff, and other universities, in addition to CPS, but could not provide any specifics on those recruitment efforts.
Lightfoot said the young staffer responsible for the controversial recruitment effort is "mortified" at the uproar that it has caused. The mayor said, as she understands it, the staffer got the CPS teachers' email addresses through a simple Google search.
"She now recognizes that the CPS outreach, even though through publicly available sources, was not the right thing to do," Lightfoot said. "We emphasized to her, and to other people in the campaign, I'm not just some candidate, I'm the mayor, and responsible for the schools, and this is the kind of outreach that never should have happened, whether through publicly available sources or not."
The mayor said there was no coercion by her staff, and no city resources used as part of the recruitment effort.
"There was absolutely no nefarious intent," she said.
Lighfoot also said she apologized to CPS Chief Executive Officer Pedro Martinez and Chicago Board of Education President Miguel Del Valle for the distraction it has caused.
Chicago Public Schools Inspector General Will Fletcher is opening an investigation into the matter, the Chicago Board of Ethics plans to discuss the case at its next meeting on Jan. 23, and Chicago Inspector General Deborah Witzburg's office said it is "gathering information" and working with the CPS IG.
"CPS OIG has opened an investigation into this matter and we are currently gathering information to determine which, if any, policies have been violated," Fletcher's office said in a statement.
"They have every right to look into it, and if there is a need for us to respond, we'll cooperate fully," Lightfoot said.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois suggested the Lightfoot campaigns emails might have been a violation of federal law.
"The Lightfoot campaign's email to Chicago Public School teachers urging them to offer extra credit to students as an incentive to volunteer on the Mayor's re-election campaign is inappropriately coercive and raises First Amendment concerns," ACLU of Illinois executive director Colleen Connell said in a statement. "The Supreme Court has made clear that government officials cannot use their office or power to coerce participation or to punish for lack of participation in political campaigns. Federal courts affirmed that principle in an ACLU of Illinois case (O'Hare Truck Service, Incorporated v. City of Northlake)."
Lightfoot's campaign had backtracked on the effort Wednesday night, after coming under fire for the email, saying they would remind all campaign staff that they shouldn't be contacting any city or CPS employees "is off limits."
As CBS 2's Jermont Terry reported Wednesday night, critics were calling the emails "deeply problematic."
There are eight weeks to go until Chicago voters head to the polls to decide who lead the city for the next four years, ethical questions are surrounding the email.
The emails came from Megan Crane, who identifies herself online as a deputy campaign manager for Mayor Lightfoot:
"My name is Megan Crane, and I work on Mayor Lightfoot's re-election campaign. As the race heats up, we're looking to enrich our office through what we call our externship program. Could you please share this opportunity with your students? I've included more information below:
"Lightfoot for Chicago is seeking resumes from any volunteer interested in campaign politics and eager to gain experience in the field. The ideal volunteer will be efficient, well organized and enthusiastic about joining a dynamic team. A strong commitment to Democratic ideals is essential. Folks can apply through this form.
"Externs are expected to devote 12hrs/wk to the campaign. Students are eligible to earn class credit through our volunteer program.
"Volunteers will join an experienced team of staff and consultants, providing a unique opportunity to learn the field, finance, and communications aspects of a campaign. Volunteer tasks include voter contact, attending events, and more. We are very flexible with student schedules.
"No prior campaign experience is required, nor is a major or minor in political science. We're simply looking for enthusiastic, curious and hard-working young people eager to help Mayor Lightfoot win this spring."
The emails then invite recipients to call or email with questions.
Thursday afternoon, the mayor said her staff has been reminded that there must be "an impenetrable wall – not just a line, but a wall – between anything that happens on the political side, and anything that happens on the official side, the government side, and that that wall can never be breached."
Lightfoot said she has always held herself to a high ethical standard, has campaigned on that standard, and expects her campaign staff to abide by the same high standards.
Despite such a high-profile mistake, Lightfoot said the staffer responsible would not be fired, saying that it would instead serve as an "important teachable moment" for her staff.
"The easy political thing to do would be to just do that, right? Fire her, throw her body to the hungry hordes. But I don't think that's the right thing to do in this instance," she said. "This, to me, is a mistake. She gets it 100%, but it's an opportunity for all of us to learn."
CBS 2's Tara Molina asked the mayor point blank if she was apologizing for the issue.
Molina: "Are you apologizing for this?"
Lightfoot: "are you apologizing for this?" "I think I have apologized. I apologized to Pedro Martinez. I apologized to President Del Valle. This was a mistake. It should not have happened. Period."
Molina: "You personally are apologizing for this?"
Lightfoot: "I just verbalized to you that it was a mistake. It should not happen."
Lightfoot shrugged off any suggestion that the recruitment effort is a sign her campaign is having trouble bringing in volunteers.
"We're not having a hard time recruiting volunteers at all," she said.
The mayor also denied that the incident is a sign she has failed to live up to her 2019 campaign promises to root out corruption.
"No, not at all," she said. "We've challenged the status quo at every level of government. We've broken up the status quo, whether it comes to aldermanic prerogative, whether it comes to putting the interests of individuals ahead of what's in the best interests of our city. We're taking on those fights. We've never shied away from them, and nothing that's happened in the last 24 hours that's been revealed has changed that one bit."
The Chicago Teachers Union on Wednesday slammed the Lightfoot campaign for the emails to teachers.
"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," the union said in a statement.
The union's full statement can be found here.
A quick search of CPS' ethical rulebook reveals, "A political campaign should not be using the CPS email system to solicit volunteers and donations."
The request was not for donations, but the mayor's campaign clearly wanted students to hit the streets.
"I think it says that somebody on the campaign did something that was ethically clumsy, I would say," said Anthony Laden, director of the Center for Ethics and Education at the University of Illinois at Chicago.
Yet the Lightfoot campaign said in its own statement on Wednesday night before she addressed the issue in person:
"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. 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."
Lightfoot said recruiting students for a campaign is standard practice – and North Central College professor Stephen Caliendo said that is true.
"It's a good opportunity for students – high school students and college students – to have a chance to participate in democracy that way," Caliendo said. "But you can't use public government email addresses to do it."
Laden said the campaign walked a thin ethical line.
"The CPS teachers' emails is not publicly available," Laden said, "and there's a big difference between several thousand emails individual emails that you could track down if you wanted, and having a list where you press a button and it gets sent to everybody."
Connell with the ACLU said: "There's a really clear line here that office holders cannot use the power of their office to coerce public employees to participate in the re-election campaign of that officeholder. That line may very well have been crossed."
Connell also raised the issue that a request by the Mayor's campaign directed at CPS teachers might not seem like a choice.
"Because the Mayor has the ultimate authority over the Chicago schools, teachers may feel coercion in this ask from the Mayor's campaign or fear negative consequences for lack of participation," she said.
"It is striking that Mayor Lightfoot presented herself four years ago as a candidate who would eschew the old corrupt patronage ways of Chicago politics. Now her campaign employs practices that harken back to the worst days of the Chicago political machine," she added. "To be clear, this is now Mayor Lightfoot's responsibility. It cannot be swept away by statements from subordinates in her campaign. The Mayor should personally and publicly renounce this infraction in strong, explicit language, making clear that no one in Chicago should feel compelled to participate in her re-election campaign. That is what is necessary in this moment."
Caliendo said regardless of the potential level of ethical breach, the optics are not good for the Lightfoot campaign.
"Whether it's legal or not, it's a bad look," he said, "and for a campaign that was already starting to struggle, or at least the perception of struggling, this certainly didn't help."
Before Mayor Lightfoot did speak, Connell advised that the mayor should say: "I've directed my campaign to withdraw that email. We have no intent to reward or punish any public school teacher who either refuses to or does recruit."
We should note we do not know how many teachers were on the list. We also do should point out that the Chicago Teachers Union is not backing Mayor Lightfoot in her bid for reelection.
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