The election of Mayor Lori Lightfoot to key city posts during her first two years in office failed to keep pace with the growing number of Latino Chicago residents, according to an analysis by WTTW News.
Lightfoot, the first black woman and gay woman to serve as Chicago mayor, has repeatedly referred to Justice and Inclusion as the twin “North Stars” of her government, declaring racism a public health crisis earlier this year and vowing to dismantle the systems, races create and perpetuate inequalities.
But Latino Chicagoans advocates told WTTW News that Lightfoot’s appointments to direct city departments and serve on city decision-making boards do not reflect that commitment – and their communities are struggling to be heard during the worst of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
“I believe the mayor is committed to justice,” said Sylvia Puente, executive director of the Latino Policy Forum, a Chicago advocacy group. “But these good intentions cannot be translated into action.”
According to analysis by WTTW News, Lightfoot’s appointments also failed to keep pace with the growth of Asians in Chicago.
Of the 90 appointments that Lightfoot sent to the Chicago City Council for confirmation, WTTW News analysis found that 60% were the selected appointments. Lightfoot is the second woman to serve as mayor of Chicago.
According to the 2020 U.S. Census, Chicago’s residents are 31.4% White, 29.9% Latinos, 28.7% Black, and 6.9% Asian.
But roughly 37% of Lightfoot’s appointments between May 2019 and July 2021 were white. Another 29% were black, 25% Latinos, and 5.5% Asian, according to WTTW News analysis.
This analysis does not include appointments that Lightfoot places on a large number of advisory boards to make recommendations to their administration that require approval by the city council. However, these bodies and commissions have no decision-making power and have a largely ceremonial function.
Cesar Rodriguez, the mayor’s press secretary, said in a statement that Lightfoot “is proud to have built a diverse and equal leadership team.”
“The mayor has worked to overcome the decades of nepotism and influence that have dictated who sits at the tables that run our city – and there is more to be done,” said Rodriguez. “In addition to being able to appoint boards and commissions before the council, the mayor also sees her office, advisory boards and committees as critical avenues for raising various voices and as a pipeline for building stronger citizen networks that create transformative leadership. ”
The city’s roughly 31,000 employees are also less heterogeneous than the city’s total population, according to data from the city’s Justice and Racial Justice Bureau, founded by Lightfoot in 2019. That workforce consists of 43.6% whites, 29% blacks, 22.9% Latinos, and 3.2% Asians, according to city data.
Chicago’s black population declined by about 10% between 2010 and 2020.
WTTW News’ analysis does not include department heads appointed by former Mayor Rahm Emanuel and held in those positions by Lightfoot. These include CFO Jennie Huang Bennett, an Asian American, and former Commissioner for Business and Consumer Affairs Rosa Escareño.
Escareño, the city’s most prominent Latina city official, resigned at the end of July after 30 years with the city. She helped Lightfoot guide the city through the first 18 months of the COVID-19 pandemic and worked closely with companies forced to close their doors and cut capacity to stop the virus from spreading.
Lightfoot has not yet named a replacement for Escareño.
The city council in June confirmed Lightfoot’s appointment of Celia Meza, the city’s first female Latina corporate attorney. She replaced Mark Flessner, a white man, after Lightfoot fired him after a botched police raid.
Along with Huang Bennett, the city’s top three tax officials are Asian American women in the administration of Lightfoot.
The analysis did not include Lightfoot’s decision to hire Jose Torres, a Latino, to lead the Chicago Public Schools on an interim basis following the departure of Janice Jackson, a black woman.
This appointment did not need to be confirmed by the city council. All of the members of the appointed board of directors that oversee Chicago public schools are colored individuals who did not require approval from the city council.
In addition, the City Colleges of Chicago are headed by Juan Salgado, a Latino, and the Public Building Commission by Carina Sanchez, a Latina. Both were appointed by Emanuel.
Lightfoot has four deputy mayors, including Manuel Perez, who oversees interstate affairs and is Latino, and Samir Mayekar, who is in charge of economic development and is Asian-American. These positions do not require confirmation by the city council.
Ald. Gilbert Villegas (36th district), chairman of the city council’s Latino Caucus, said he was particularly concerned that only two of Chicago’s departments are headed by Latinos. The commissioners have extensive powers to hire city workers and manage city resources.
“All this diversity and equality talk isn’t working for my community,” Villegas said. “We’re not sitting at the table”
Villegas said he routinely urged the mayor to appoint more key Latino leaders in the city while serving as chairman of Lightfoot’s city council and before stepping down from that position in February.
“There is a real lack of relationships in the Latino community,” said Villegas.
Latino politicians in Chicago have been preparing to ensure that Latinos in Chicago – whose share of Chicago’s population rose 5% from 2010 to 2020 – have the political power that reflects their status as the city’s largest racial group, Villegas said .
“We need our fair share of representation,” said Villegas.
The Illinois Latino Agenda 2.0, coordinated by the Latino Policy Forum, stands with the Lightfoot administration on the need for more Latino executives in town hall, said Puente.
The coalition of nonprofit and advocacy groups wants Lightfoot to commit to interviewing at least one Latino candidate for every senior position, Puente said.
“Government should reflect the people it serves,” said Puente, adding that otherwise prejudice – unconsciously and consciously – can flow into decisions and divert resources from where they are most needed.
This is exactly what happened at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, when testing was more accessible in white, affluent neighborhoods and the pace of vaccination in white neighborhoods far exceeded the supply of life-saving syringes in black and Latin American communities, called puente.
“Chicago is one of the most segregated cities in the country,” said Puente. “Too often, resource allocations follow these patterns.”
Puente said it was “incredibly frustrating” to talk about the lack of representation of Latinos in the Chicago government in 2021 while assessing the effects of systemic racism sparked by the police murder of George Floyd.
Grace Pai, the executive director of the Chicago chapter of Asian Americans Advancing Justice, said the agency “usually goes a long way” in ensuring that Chicagoans who have difficulty accessing city services due to language barriers or other issues could have.
But that won’t ensure officials take action that will benefit Asian Chicagoans, Pai said.
“Representation alone will not solve this problem,” said Pai.
Former Ald. Ameya Pawar (47th Ward) – the first and so far only Asian-American member of the Chicago city council – said he saw the 31% increase in the Asian-American community in Chicago as an “opportunity” to create a true coalition between Asians and blacks and Latino Chicagoans.
“It’s not an either or,” said Pawar. “We shouldn’t argue about junk.”
Note: This story was originally published August 20, 2021. It has been updated to include our conversation “Chicago Tonight: Latino Voices”.
Contact Heather Cherone: @HeatherCherone | (773) 569-1863 | [email protected]