Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s reelection campaign has promised to stop contacting Chicago Public Schools teachers after it faced backlash for soliciting volunteer work from their students in exchange for class credit, a move a former city inspector general called “deeply, deeply problematic.”
The race for City Hall is shifting into high gear with seven weeks left until Election Day, and Lightfoot is looking for all the help she can get.
An email from deputy campaign manager Megan Crane to select CPS teachers at their work email addresses this week asked educators to “please share this opportunity with your students,” including details on volunteer roles and an application form. Volunteers would be expected to work 12 hours per week.
“Students are eligible to earn class credit through our volunteer program,” Crane wrote.
“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 role, called an “externship,” was advertised as an opportunity for students to gain experience in campaign politics and “learn the field, finance and communications aspect of a campaign.”
“Volunteer tasks include voter contact, attending events, and more. We are very flexible with student schedules,” the email said.
Lightfoot has had a contentious relationship with CPS teachers since her first year in office. Many educators likely balked at the request to tell their students about a Lightfoot campaign opportunity after three consecutive years of labor battles with the mayor.
Other critics jumped at the campaign strategy.
Former City Inspector General Joe Ferguson wrote in a tweet that the solicitation was “deeply, deeply problematic.”
Chicago Teachers Union leaders called the move a “shake down” of its members for student campaign support.
“This is the same Mayor who promised to clean up corruption and make good ethics an anchor in her administration,” CTU officials said.
“This is exploitative and wrong on so many levels — and one more reason Lori Lightfoot does not deserve a second term as mayor.”
CTU organizer and Cook County Commissioner Brandon Johnson, opposing Lightfoot in the February mayoral election, called the recruitment “outrageous, desperate and downright unethical,” accusing the mayor of “abusing the power of [her] office.”
“Mayor Lightfoot has already failed our students — now she’s exploiting young people for political gain,” his campaign said.
Mayoral challenger Paul Vallas, who served as Chicago Public Schools CEO under former Mayor Richard M. Daley, branded the Lightfoot campaign’s request for volunteers “terrible” and “totally unethical.”
“When I ran the Chicago Public Schools, we encouraged students to register to vote and to register their parents to vote. But we never asked them to endorse candidates to engage in campaigning. That would have been totally inappropriate,” Vallas told the Chicago Sun-Times.
“She’s basically sending letters out asking teachers to ask students to support her election. I just think it’s the wrong thing to do. It just is.”
Lightfoot’s campaign initially defended the practice, saying in a statement that the volunteer work was about providing “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.”
Later Wednesday evening, the campaign reversed course, saying, “Out of an abundance of caution, we will cease contact with CPS employees.” And yet another update went further: “All [Lightfoot 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.”
CPS employees’ email addresses are public information. District spokeswoman Mary Fergus said, “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.”
Other mayoral hopefuls also took turns condemning Lightfoot.
“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,” Kam Buckner’s campaign said, calling the episode a “heavy-handed misuse and abuse of power.”
Challenger Ald. Roderick Sawyer (6th) said Lightfoot had “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.”
U.S. Rep. Jesús “Chuy” García said Lightfoot “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.”
And Ald. Sophia King (4th) said, “There is no lens that makes this ethical.”
“As a teacher, I’d give her an F,” King said.