Greising: What Lori Lightfoot Could Steal From Harold Washington's Playbook

If she continues leveraging the capacity of civic and business leaders, without abandoning the progressives who helped elect her, she could have the formula for a lasting impact on economic equity in a city that badly needs it.

Former Chicago Mayor Harold Washington (City of Boston Archives via Flickr, CC 2.0)

BGA President David Greising writes a regular column for Crain's Chicago Business.

Lori Lightfoot has at least three key characteristics in common with Harold Washington.

Like Washington, her election marked a breakthrough moment for the city of Chicago. Washington was Chicago's first African American mayor. Lightfoot has her own first: the first openly gay mayor.

Both were elected as reformers. Lightfoot is considered a progressive, and while the term wasn't in common use when Washington was elected in 1983, it certainly fits him, too.

The third shared trait may be the one that matters most. Both were elected to bring equity to the city of Chicago: in particular, less biased policing and a more equitable distribution of jobs, city investment and economic opportunity.

With regard to policing, Lightfoot's experience as head of the Police Board means she is well equipped to fight the racism, recklessness and inadequate training that are at the heart of the Chicago Police Department's troubles.

The vital task of bringing equity to the city's economic welfare is a different matter. For guidance, Lightfoot might take a look at how Chicago's last true reformer, Washington, went about the task.

The parallels between Washington's time and now are clear. His predecessor, Jane Byrne, had invested heavily downtown and at O'Hare International Airport, giving poor neighborhoods short shrift. The city wasn't losing population at nearly the pace it is now, but the number of jobs had declined significantly, with a 27 percent drop in manufacturing jobs in the five years before Washington was elected.

TIFs weren't yet in vogue during Washington's time. But Urban Development Action Grants and Industrial Revenue Bonds were drawing criticism for favoring the wealthy and the politically connected, just as TIFs are critiqued today.

There are lessons in the way Washington handled the problems he faced. "He had an agenda, and it came out of the grassroots campaign that elected him mayor," says Bob Gilroth, an economic development official under Washington who has written academic papers about his administration. "There was a progressive agenda as much as there was a candidate."

Washington famously faced huge political obstacles when he first came into office. A group of white, old-guard aldermen organized an effort to stymie any progress. But despite the backlash, Washington methodically set about transforming the progressive agenda that got him elected into concrete reforms that would change the city.

The plan that came out of that process—Chicago Works Together, introduced early in his term—focused on inclusion, collaborative planning, balanced development, and using the city's hiring and purchasing powers to bring economic benefits and jobs to poor communities.

Washington took a political risk, too, by ultimately setting firm goals for how to measure success. He promised 10,000 new jobs directly created by his programs and 15,000 created indirectly. He committed to skills training for 12,000 residents, 60 percent of city purchasing from local companies and 23 percent of purchasing from women- and minority-owned firms, according to Gilroth's accounting of the Chicago Works Together program.

Washington also persuaded the private sector to get involved. Civic leaders committed to $250 million in purchases from the same categories of firms targeted by the city's purchasing department.

The program was far from perfect, and Washington fairly has been criticized, in retrospect, for executing his plans in an ad hoc fashion—much of it through executive order. This meant some of his reforms easily were rolled back by successors after the mayor died of a heart attack in 1987.

Lightfoot will have advantages over Washington when she takes office this month. With her strong showing at the polls, she'll likely have the upper hand over any opposition. And unlike Washington, who had run against the downtown power clique that set the agenda under Byrne, Lightfoot was favored by the city's business establishment and has continued cementing her connections there since winning the election.

Lightfoot would be politically bold—and also wise—to set concrete goals for economic development during her term, as Washington did. And if she continues leveraging the capacity of civic leaders, without abandoning the progressives who helped elect her, she could have the formula for a lasting impact on economic equity in a city that badly needs it.

More than 35 years have passed since Washington was elected, but some of the lessons of economic planning during his mayoralty could prove timeless.