CHICAGO (Reuters) - Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot made strategic errors in the first major fight of her tenure, an 11-day teachers’ strike, but may have learned lessons that will prove useful as she confronts immense city budget challenges, political observers said.
Lightfoot, 57, was elected in convincing fashion to become Chicago’s first black woman mayor in April, when she vaulted to victory on promises to dismantle the city’s corrupt political machine and reform the city’s school district.
Her first misstep was offering the Chicago Teachers Union a 16% raise before talks even began - a maneuver intended to avoid the strike that caused 300,0000 students to miss class for more than two weeks but instead emboldened union leadership to push for more spending in other areas, according to fellow officeholders, political analysts and Chicago’s media.
“The perception was that they were going to take the 16% and run. But for CTU, it wasn’t all about the money,” said Alderman Anthony Beale, who supported Lightfoot in her campaign for mayor, but has since clashed with the former federal prosecutor regarding committee leadership.
Lightfoot failed to muster enough supporters who could have helped get her message out to the public during the bruising political battle with the teachers union, said Dennis Culloton, a political and media strategist in Chicago.
“At times, the mayor may have been outflanked by the teachers’ union’s very effective political organizing,” he said.
Having strong supporters will be vital for Lightfoot as she focuses in on negotiations with Chicago’s police and firefighter unions to replace collective bargaining agreements that expired in 2016 and 2017, Culloton said.
In opinion pieces published on Friday, both local newspapers, the Chicago Tribune and the Chicago Sun-Times, were critical of how Lightfoot handled the negotiations with teachers, especially by offering a 16% raise up front.
Beale agreed in a phone interview, saying the strategy lost Lightfoot critical leverage and that she will need to sharpen her negotiation tactics for future labor battles.
Lightfoot would not answer reporters’ questions about the strike’s outcome on Thursday.
“I refuse to even talk about this in terms of winning or losing,” said Lightfoot, who is in her first elected office. “Nobody wins in a circumstance like this.”
Lightfoot’s office did not respond when asked for comment on Friday.
The new mayor did win on some points: she secured a five-year contract, rather than the three years the union sought, and held off some of the union’s bigger-picture demands for affordable housing and reforming the criminal juvenile justice system.
“She can also look back on this and say that it was good to appear calm and to stay levelheaded,” said Culloton, the consultant.
That approach, he said, will serve Lightfoot well as she deals with Chicago’s fiscal woes that include an $838 million deficit in the city’s upcoming budget.
Reporting by Brendan O'Brien and Karen Pierog in Chicago; Editing by Scott Malone and Matthew Lewis