Mayor Lori Lightfoot apologized Thursday for emails her campaign sent to Chicago Public Schools teachers and City Colleges staff to try to recruit volunteers, saying it was a “mistake.”
Lightfoot said her campaign staff did not work with Chicago Public Schools to get the emails of teachers, who received emails asking them to share a form that encouraged students to volunteer in exchange for class credit.
“There was zero, zero coercion, coordination or anything else between the campaign and Chicago Public Schools,” she said at a press conference Thursday afternoon. “Zero. I want that to be abundantly clear.”
The email came to light Wednesday after it was first reported by WTTW and kicked off a storm of criticism.
The city and school district inspector generals said they are gathering information to see if any policies were violated. The ACLU of Illinois said the offer of “extra credit as an incentive to volunteer” is “inappropriately coercive and raises First Amendment concerns.”
While Lightfoot called the email a mistake and said she was apologizing, putting all the blame on one young staffer. Lightfoot said she only learned the staffer reached out to CPS teachers and City Colleges staff on work emails Wednesday afternoon.
But City Colleges released a statement Thursday saying they notified Lightfoot’s campaign about the emails in August, when staffers received the volunteer email, after being advised to do so by their Ethics Department.
“Following the Department’s guidance, City Colleges notified the campaign of CCC’s ethics policy and purged the emails from CCC’s accounts,” the statement reads. The statement went on to say they were not aware of more campaign emails but are looking into the matter.
Lighfoot said the staff member, charged with recruiting young volunteers, Googled teacher email addresses and proceeded to reach out to them, first in August and then again earlier this week.
The mayor could not explain why the staffer would promise class credit. “I can’t answer that specific question,” she said, noting some colleges do give class credit for volunteering on political campaigns.
The form shared with schools, however, clearly stated the campaign believed class credit could be obtained for volunteering.
“Volunteers are expected to devote 12hrs/wk to the campaign. Students are eligible to earn class credit through our volunteer program,” the form, which was posted on a North Side high school newsletter, reads.
Lightfoot said the staffer was enthusiastic and well-intentioned and is now mortified by the outcry.
“It was a mistake, she understands it was a mistake,” Lightfoot said.
Lightfoot said that while a supervisor was aware of the staffer’s efforts to reach young volunteers, she doesn’t believe the campaign was aware of how the staffer would specifically go about those efforts.
Rather than firing the staffer, Lightfoot said it will be a teaching moment for her campaign to ensure it won’t happen again
In addition to emails to CPS teachers, Lightfoot said recruitment emails were also sent to City Colleges and “other colleges and universities across the city.”
She did not have specifics on the scope of the recruitment emails sent by the campaign.
On Thursday, the offices for CPS and Chicago’s inspector generals said they are in contact and gathering information to investigate the matter.
Chicago Board of Ethics Executive Director Steve Berlin said the issue will also be on the agenda of its next board meeting on Jan. 23.
Lightfoot said her campaign will cooperate with any investigations, and said she holds herself to the same high ethical standard that she ran on four years ago.
However, she pushed back on a question about whether the emails show her campaign is desperate for volunteers.
“We are not having a hard time at all,” she said. “There is a lot of interest and enthusiasm.”
The announcement of ethics probes came after several of Lightfoot’s mayoral opponents and aldermen called for investigations into possible violations.
Cook County Commissioner Brandon Johnson, a former CPS teacher who is backed by the Chicago Teachers Union, called the outreach “outrageous, desperate and downright unethical.”
ACLU of Illinois Executive Director Colleen Connell earlier Thursday warned the tactic could be perceived as political coercion, regardless of whether Lightfoot’s campaign obtained the email addresses through public means or not.
“A government official cannot use the power of their office to coerce people, including public employees, to do or say things in support of their campaign,” Connell said.
WBEZ’s Tessa Weinberg covers city government and politics and Sarah Karp covers education.