Mayor Lori Lightfoot on Monday said a much-circulated email in which she berated an aide was “born out of frustration” and she’s now in “a better place” with her team.
In late January, Lightfoot sent her then-scheduler an email complaining that she doesn’t get enough of what she called “office time.” That’s typically a less structured part of the day when the mayor can think, write or make long-term plans.
While it’s common for politicians to give staff members specific direction, it’s the way Lightfoot delivered her feedback that raised eyebrows in government and political circles. Lightfoot repeated several sentences — one 16 times — to highlight her displeasure over her schedule.
“I need office time everyday!” Lightfoot wrote 16 times in a row in the email, which the Tribune obtained via an open records request.
“Not just once a week or some days, everyday!” she wrote, 10 times.
“Breaks or transition times between meetings are not office time,” she wrote, seven times, in an email that cc’d the mayor’s then-chief of staff and a body person, a personal aide who takes care of a politician’s immediate needs, like providing a favorite snack or making sure they know who they’re about to talk with.
“If this doesn’t change immediately, I will just start unilaterally canceling things every day,” she wrote, five times.
“Have I made myself clear, finally?!” she wrote, 13 times.
The note drew criticism from political types who saw it as the mayor bullying a staffer. It also drew comparisons to a chilling scene in the 1980 movie “The Shining,” when Shelley Duvall’s character finds that her mentally deteriorating husband’s character, played by Jack Nicholson, has typed “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy” thousands of times instead of writing his manuscript.
At an unrelated news conference Monday, Lightfoot said her email was written “after a lot of conversation and born of frustration.”
“We got beyond that and solved the challenges that were at the heart of that email which was written five-plus months ago so I think we’re in a better place,” she said.
A Tribune review of Lightfoot’s official calendars shows she sent the “office time” email while she was scheduled to be in an office time period. The mayor also had a two-hour chunk of office time scheduled for later that afternoon.
The scheduler left Lightfoot’s office for another job earlier this year, part of an ongoing exodus of City Hall staffers.
At least a dozen top people have resigned or said they’re on their way out since late last year. City Hall jobs are hard even during normal circumstances, and the pressure intensified in the past year with the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, followed by bouts of civil unrest. Some of the departures are part of the natural rhythm within a mayoral term, which Lightfoot alluded to during a spring news conference.
“This has been a very tough year, I think, on a lot of people,” she said. “We’re coming up to the two-year anniversary, and I think a lot of people are taking stock of where they are.”
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Current and former Lightfoot advisers, however, complain that she doesn’t take advice and can be difficult to approach. Like her predecessor, Rahm Emanuel, Lightfoot is known to be profane and hard-charging with other elected officials, once telling aldermen “don’t come to me for s—” if they voted against her budget.
She can also be tough on her staff. Last May, Lightfoot emailed her chief of staff, her deputy mayor for economic development and scheduler a photo of ripped up documents.
“Here’s my new practice for memos that come at the last minute,” Lightfoot wrote. “As I noted, I want decisions memos no later than 48 hours before the decision is needed and I have directed (staff) to reject all efforts to bring things to me directly that skirt these rules.”
“I have asked nicely, now I am done,” she added.
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