CHICAGO — Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot is taking a page out of her political predecessors’ playbook in plastering her name and likeness in high profile places.
When you drive up to Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport you can’t miss a giant electronic billboard spanning the stretch of the roadway that features Lightfoot’s image gazing down at travelers with a message that reads: “Welcome to O’Hare.” You’ll also find retractable banners with her face inside the terminals at both of Chicago’s airports. And while you’re there, don’t forget to pick-up a free copy of the full color glossy “Air Chicago” magazine which features a cover story saluting the mayor on what the magazine characterizes as her many accomplishments.
Lightfoot not the first
Unofficial naming rights is a time honored tradition in Chicago and countless cities across the country.
Rod Blagojevich smacked his name in big, bold high profile lettering across every toll plaza in Illinois (at a cost of $15,000 a pop) when he was governor. Mayor Richard M. Daley’s name was stenciled on everything from road signs to buildings housing obscure city agencies. And now Lightfoot is continuing the tradition of quite literally being the face of Chicago.
“Elected officials use their names and pictures all over the country to boost their name recognition and project a positive image of themselves,” government watchdog Alisa Kaplan of the group Reform for Illinois said.
Kaplan doesn’t necessarily view the free advertising as a bad thing because it may engage people with their government. However, she notes that especially at election time the signage can be wielded as a signal of strength.
“There’s no doubt that officials’ ability to use their platform this way is one of the many huge advantages of incumbency,” she said.
The “Air Chicago” magazine is actually a requirement of the city’s airport advertising and marketing contract with Clear Channel. The contract, signed under former Mayor Rahm Emanuel and extended by Lightfoot, calls for production of a free periodical that touts Chicago and its air travel network.
The magazine’s publisher did not respond to a WGN News request for comment about who has editorial control over the content.
Is it ethical?
Chicago’s ethics laws prohibit any city employee from “intentionally using any City property or resources… in connection with prohibited political activity.”
Defining what’s prohibited is not always crystal clear. The Chicago Board of Ethics looks at whether a politician uses words like “re-elect” or “your mayor/alderperson” in signage and mailings as well as whether it’s specifically targeted at a specific portion of the electorate, according to Chicago Board of Ethics director Steve Berlin. He said the board also considers whether the material was generated within 60 days of an election.
Lightfoot’s office defends the mayoral messaging. “The advertisement and signage found at our airports not only welcome visitors but remind them that the Mayor is a steward of Chicago and she embodies its values and diversity,” a spokesperson for the mayor said in response to a WGN inquiry.
The Chicago Way
Former Mayor Richard M. Daley’s record-setting 22-year run at City Hall led to his moniker making its way to every corner of Chicago. In fact, it was so prevalent that his successor Emanuel made a point of claiming he would make no effort to scrub signage of the Daley name.
“I actually did send a message out: I don’t want time wasted changing a bunch of signs and wasting taxpayers’ dollars,” Emanuel said shortly after taking office in 2011.