When news broke last month that Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s reelection campaign had solicited help from Chicago Public Schools and City Colleges of Chicago educators to recruit student volunteers, the incumbent candidate apologized, calling the effort a “bad mistake” by one young staffer.
But the campaign had for months been sending CPS and City Colleges staff thousands of other emails unrelated to the student volunteer solicitation — some from multiple campaign staffers. The emails ranged from generic fundraising appeals to invitations to private town halls and requests for help gathering petitions, records newly obtained by WBEZ and the Chicago Sun-Times show.
Four emails were sent to City Colleges of Chicago Chancellor Juan Salgado — who reports to the mayor — at his work email address inviting him to a Lightfoot campaign event.
In all, the mayor’s reelection campaign sent more than 9,900 emails to CPS and City Colleges staff since last April, according to documents obtained through public records requests that reveal the previously unreported breadth of the outreach to government employees. The emails went to at least 64 City Colleges staff members since July. It’s unclear how many individual CPS staff members were emailed, as those details were not provided.
A City Colleges spokesperson said Friday that Salgado “has not attended a political event for any candidate running for office in more than a year.”
It is customary for political campaigns to send out mass email blasts — which are often automated — to long lists of subscribers. But it’s unclear why CPS and City Colleges employees have for months received campaign emails at their work addresses or whether they signed up themselves.
In response to questions, Lightfoot’s campaign did not explain how government email addresses ended up on campaign lists, but issued this written statement:
“As the Mayor has said, it was a mistake to reach out to city employees through their work emails,” the statement read. “While our campaign legal team has asserted these organizing efforts were legal and did not violate any ethics ordinance, we have long since halted any such recruitment efforts.”
The initial email revelation prompted inspectors general for both the city and CPS to open their own investigations into the matter.
The city’s inspector general declined to comment Friday about the status of its investigation. The CPS inspector general also wouldn’t comment Tuesday, citing the ongoing inquiry.
WBEZ and the Sun-Times sent public records requests to City Colleges and CPS Jan. 13, just after WTTW broke the initial story, for logs of all emails sent to them from the Lightfoot campaign since July 1 of last year. On Jan. 27, CPS provided a log of emails, but it did not include recipients’ email addresses or the body of the emails. Four days later, City Colleges provided a log of emails. The news organizations submitted additional requests that week to both organizations for specific emails and an additional log from CPS dating back to April. The emails to Salgado were released late last week by City Colleges.
Three of the emails to Salgado invited him to a ticketed “Women’s Spotlight Luncheon” on Dec. 12 that was sponsored by Lightfoot’s campaign. A fourth email from the campaign to Salgado came after the event, saying amid Lightfoot’s reelection campaign, the luncheon was “critical to getting our message out.”
Ethics experts say because the mayor oversees all city agencies, the mayor’s campaign should ensure political solicitations aren’t sent to employee emails, even unintentionally, and purge any government email addresses from its rolls.
“Quite frankly, the language of the ethics ordinance is pretty straightforward. So if the campaign wants to live up to the demands of the law, that’s what they should be doing,” said Jay Young, executive director of Common Cause Illinois, a non-partisan advocacy group focused on campaign finance and ethics reform. “She’s the mayor and is in a position to be uniquely aware of what the demands of the office require.”
In a January meeting, the Chicago Board of Ethics unanimously referred the campaign’s solicitation of student volunteers via government email addresses to the city and CPS’ inspectors general to investigate.
Candidates should “immediately and thoroughly scrub their email lists and remove any governmental email addresses,” chair William Conlon said at the time, warning that such outreach may be considered coercive.
Lightfoot’s campaign said Tuesday it has been “regularly scrubbing the recipients of fundraising emails since early last year” and that their email list includes hundreds of thousands of contacts. But a spokesperson did not clarify why government employees were still receiving emails after the campaign had apparently scrubbed their lists.
The emails obtained by WBEZ and the Sun-Times also show Lightfoot’s deputy campaign manager had been warned the requests were a potential ethics violation more than four months before a senior CPS official told the campaign to stop in January.
After receiving a request for student volunteers on Aug. 29, a Lane Tech College Prep high school teacher asked the deputy campaign manager, Megan Crane, to remove the teacher’s email address from the campaign’s mailing list.
“This communication violates my company’s policy,” the teacher’s response read in all capital letters. “Your address will be reported as spam and blocked!”
Lightfoot has previously blamed one staffer for the student volunteer solicitation effort that began as classes resumed in August, saying it was a “well-intentioned but bad mistake that shouldn’t have happened.” That staffer has been identified as Crane, whom election records show started getting paid by the campaign Aug. 12.
CPS ethics guidelines stipulate that political campaigns should not solicit volunteers or donations through CPS email, and direct staff to report any emails to the district’s ethics advisor.
The response from the Lane Tech teacher represents at least the second time that month that Lightfoot’s campaign was reminded of the ethics policies. City Colleges previously said it sent a similar warning in August after receiving a solicitation from the campaign — although Lightfoot has since said her campaign had no “written record” of it.
Still, Lightfoot’s reelection campaign continued to ask for student volunteers until the solicitation was made public in January.
The newly obtained records show several CPS employees took Lightfoot’s campaign up on their offer, asking for a flyer and link to share the opportunity with students and more information on volunteer responsibilities.
“This sounds amazing,” one principal wrote back to Crane in August. “All students are required to complete an internship their senior year. I will share with my team and someone will reach out to you.”
Crane wrote to a Walter Payton College Prep teacher who inquired about the volunteer program that students would be asked to commit 10 to 12 hours a week, ideally for a semester. Initially, they would collect petition signatures to help Lightfoot make the ballot and then “pivot to voter persuasion,” Crane wrote, according to the records released by CPS.
Another teacher, from Jones College Prep High School, declined the campaign’s request and made clear why in an email to Crane.
“That’s hilarious. I wouldn’t vote for Lori Lightfoot under any circumstances,” the teacher wrote to Crane. “So my answer is no!”
Those teachers could not be reached for comment.
One person with a CPS email address, which was redacted from the record, was required to sign a three-year “Confidentiality and Non-Disparagement Agreement” to join the team, documents show. CPS said it redacted student emails from the records, but Lightfoot’s campaign did not answer questions about whether the NDA was for a student.
When the volunteer solicitation came to light, Lightfoot’s campaign initially said the outreach was a learning opportunity for students before saying it would cease efforts.
Young, the ethics expert, said the episode should be a wake-up call — not just for political campaigns, but also for CPS and City Colleges. Both need stronger firewalls between government work and politics, and need to remind staff about what constitutes prohibited political activity, Young said.
Sarah Karp is an education reporter at WBEZ. Tessa Weinberg and Mariah Woelfel cover city government and politics for WBEZ. Nader Issa is the education reporter for the Chicago Sun-Times.