As a sign of my commitment to a new Chicago, I went to Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s inauguration at the DePaul basketball arena, thus breaking my old pledge to never, ever set foot in that place.
Technically, it’s the Wintrust Arena. But on Wintrust, I’m a little like Sox fans who refuse to call the stadium where their favorite team plays anything other than Comiskey Park. It’s tradition, baby.
Whatever you call it, nothing symbolizes the let-them-eat-cake excess of Mayor Rahm’s backroom wheeling and dealing quite like this midsize arena at 22nd and Michigan.
Ostensibly built to house the DePaul University basketball teams, it was originally supposed to be partly paid for with $55 million worth of property tax dollars, largely diverted from our dead-broke schools.
That funding was approved in the summer of 2013 on a City Council voice vote, hastily gaveled through by the mayor, as though he wanted to sneak it by the council without public debate.
When activists erupted in protest over spending public dollars on a private university, Rahm substituted hotel/motel tax money for the original property tax dollars. Like he figured we were too stupid to realize that the joint was still being publicly funded.
This maneuver passed for a solution to a public relations problem in the early years of Mayor Rahm’s Chicago. (DePaul also kicked in about $70 million to help pay for the arena.)
Before all was said and done, Rahm spent that $55 million in TIF money, originally intended for the arena, on a project at Navy Pier. How that’s legal, I will never know.
Bottom line—when the b-ball arena finally opened in 2017, I declared I would never, ever go there—you know, like Rahm or DePaul or anyone else for that matter remotely cared.
But, alas, there I was for Monday’s big event, ushered in by Maya Dukmasova, my Reader colleague. Maya said I had to go because . . . it’s history! Plus, I had to write about it.
Man, the things I let those millennials talk me into. Also, I was thinking—you know, I paid for this thing, I might as well check it out.
By chance, the Lightfoot press team put me on press row right next to Greg Hinz, my old poker-playing pal, who’s a political columnist for Crain’s Chicago Business.
Over the years, Greg and I have been on the opposite sides of several TIF debates. Generally speaking, I want the program abolished, while Greg is more of the I-never-met-a-downtown-TIF-deal-that-I-don’t-love persuasion.
True to form, he started right in on me.
“Hey, Ben, how many articles did you write criticizing Rahm for using TIF funds for this?” he asked.
“A lot,” I responded.
“Some irony in you being here for this.”
Well, I’m glad Maya talked me into attending ’cause it was quite a show. All the top dogs were on stage. And it was kind of cool to see Rahm and his predecessor—Mayor Daley—playing second fiddle to Lightfoot, our first Black woman mayor.
And I did get a big kick out of seeing a caption on the overhead scoreboard that read: “Don’t remember of the city of Chicago, Rahm.”
I’m not sure what the scoreboard operator was trying to say with that caption. But if taxpayer dollars had anything to do with constructing that scoreboard, that caption may be the best thing we get from this deal.
I have to admit I shed a tear or two when I watched Mayor Lightfoot’s tearful tribute to her 90-something-year-old mother who was sitting in the front row.
As for the speech, there’s an old saying by Jerome Holtzman—the Hall of Fame baseball writer—that there’s “no cheering in the press box.” As Chicago Magazine‘s Edward McClelland, who was sitting nearby, reminded me during the proceedings.
Sorry, Edward—but I had to cheer when Lightfoot vowed to rebuild our “safety net, starting with repairing our broken mental health safety net.”
In his first budget, Mayor Rahm closed six clinics, insisting we were too broke to afford mental health clinics, even in poor, high-crime neighborhoods where they were very much needed.
But, again, we had enough money to build that DePaul arena. Damn, I’m getting outraged all over again!
The biggest cheer from the crowd came when Lightfoot promised to strip aldermen of dictatorial control over everything that goes on in their wards, while declaring that no “elected official should ever profit from his office.”
That was a direct jab at Alderman Ed Burke and his infamous property tax business.
Lightfoot went on to promise to bring integrity to Chicago government.
“I realize that putting integrity and Chicago government in the same sentence is pretty strange,” she wisecracked. “For years, they said ‘Chicago ain’t ready for reform.’ Well, get ready, reform is here.”
Good line—whoever wrote it.
Lightfoot also got a cheer from the good-government crowd when she promised to “get the fiscal house in order.”
She didn’t specify what she intends to do on that front. But we all know one of her biggest challenges will be to figure out how to pay for her promises of safer neighborhoods, better schools, and affordable housing—not to mention pension obligations, new police and fire contracts, a new teacher contract, etc.
This brings me to my first suggestion of the Mayor Lightfoot era.
As the first act of getting the “fiscal house in order,” Mayor Lightfoot should join the lawsuit filed by the Grassroots Collaborative against the $1.3 billion TIF handout for Lincoln Yards, the upscale development in a north side neighborhood that’s already gentrifying.
How’s that for a new beginning, Chicago? Diverting money from wealthy developers to give to the rest of us, instead of the other way around.
I guess we shall soon see just how much reform Chicago really is ready for.
Best of luck, Mayor Lightfoot. v