Lori Lightfoot, Chicago’s New Mayor, Promises Change, Confronts ‘Massive’ Challenges

No black woman or openly gay individual has led a city as large as Chicago. She will have to confront chronic budget shortfalls, population loss and a high murder rate.
by | April 2, 2019 AT 9:30 PM
Lori Lightfoot has not previously held elected office, but she has been active in Chicago legal and government circles for years. (AP/Teresa Crawford)

By winning election as Chicago's new mayor on Tuesday, Lori Lightfoot has made history. No black woman has led an American city as large as Chicago.

“The prospect of having an African American female in the third-largest city is pretty much of a big, big deal,” says Karen Freeman-Wilson, a black woman who is mayor of nearby Gary, Ind.

Lightfoot’s opponent in the runoff was Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle, guaranteeing that a black woman would be elected to succeed Rahm Emanuel, who opted not to seek a third term.

With the election of Kate Gallego in Phoenix last month, two of the nation’s five largest cities will now have woman mayors. “There are very few women in the top 100 cities, let alone the top 10,” says Andrea Benjamin, an expert on urban politics at the University of Missouri.

Lightfoot also will be the first openly gay individual to lead a city as large as Chicago. “I’ve teased her about the fact that I’ll be giving her the crown,” says former Houston Mayor Annise Parker, who had previously held that distinction. Parker now heads the Victory Fund, which supports LGBT candidates. “I’m excited about it. Records are made to be broken.”

Demographic breakthroughs aside, Lightfoot campaigned on the theme of bringing change to Chicago’s city hall. In the first round of voting in February, Lightfoot and Preckwinkle both finished ahead of William Daley, the race's top fundraiser, whose brother and father had each served more than 20 years as Chicago mayor.

When she entered the race, Lightfoot was a relatively unknown underdog, but she won a sweeping victory. She took 74 percent of the vote on Tuesday, carrying all 50 of the city's wards. Although turnout was a record-low 32 percent, Lightfoot claimed a "mandate for change" in her victory speech.

She takes office at a time when city politics is operating under a series of dark clouds. On March 21, Alderman Willie Cochran pleaded guilty to wire fraud, bringing to 30 the total number of Chicago aldermen convicted of corruption since 1972.

In January, Ed Burke, a longtime power broker on the board of aldermen, was charged in an extortion case. Another alderman, Danny Solis, is known to have worn a wire for two years as part of a federal investigation.

“All of them reinforced the theme of corruption and the need for change,” says Dick Simpson, a former alderman who teaches at the University of Illinois at Chicago. “It was a campaign about change over the status quo.”

Lightfoot has been active in Chicago legal and government circles for years, but has never before held elective office. She was able to position herself not only as a political outsider, but as someone who prosecuted an alderman as an assistant U.S. attorney.

“For the first time since 1983, when Harold Washington was elected mayor, a kind of remarkable outside figure has landed in the mayor’s office on the fifth floor of city hall," says Larry Bennett, a retired political scientist at DePaul University, referring to Chicago’s first African American mayor.

Preckwinkle, by contrast, has been running for office in Chicago for three decades and currently serves as the Cook County Democratic Party chair. Although never tainted by wrongdoing herself, she found herself having to answer questions about Burke hosting a fundraiser for her last year at his home and the county having hired his son for a job.

Preckwinkle had to fight hard against the old Chicago Democratic machine to win a seat on the board of aldermen back in the 1990s, but she came to be seen as part of the establishment at a moment of change.

“Preckwinkle is by no means a product of the quote, Chicago machine, unquote, but she’s gotten herself perceived that way, and that’s hurt her,” Bennett says.

 

The Mayor’s Personal Story

Lightfoot’s parents were Southerners who moved north to Ohio. Her father, who had worked as a sharecropper in Arkansas, fell ill and was in a coma when Lightfoot was born. Her mother was a housekeeper who won election to the local school board. “Lori Lightfoot is able to tell this wonderful personal story,” Bennett says. “She’s a woman from a hardscrabble family in Massillon, Ohio.”

Lightfoot attended law school at the University of Chicago. She worked for the megafirm Mayer Brown but also served as a federal prosecutor and held city posts in the procurement and emergency management departments. Mayor Emanuel appointed her as president of the Chicago police board, as well as head of a task force that examined police practices following the murder of a black teenager named Laquan McDonald by a police officer.

Lightfoot’s lack of elective experience was a subject of criticism for Preckwinkle and other rivals, who said that being mayor was not an entry-level job. That complaint didn’t seem to resonate with voters ready for fresh leadership.

In the end, Lightfoot was endorsed by nearly all of the dozen mayoral candidates who were outpaced in the runoff. None supported Preckwinkle, although she did win some endorsements from unions and local black leaders.

 

Identity, Not Issues

Despite the negative and sometimes personal campaign between Lightfoot and Preckwinkle, there wasn’t a lot of difference between them on issues such as affordable housing, police reform or spreading Chicago’s wealth out from the lakefront to more distressed neighborhoods.

Someone distributed homophobic fliers late in the campaign, though Preckwinkle’s camp denied any knowledge.

“The identity politics matter,” says Benjamin, the University of Missouri political scientist, who followed the election in Chicago closely. “In terms of issues, it was hard to distinguish them in some ways, which opens it up for these identity politics to come into play.”

Neither candidate had much of substance to say about what’s likely to be the biggest challenge facing the new mayor, namely Chicago’s ongoing budget problems. The city’s budget shortfall is expected to be $252 million, and it is on the hook for $276 million in payments next year for its chronically underfunded pensions.

Lightfoot chose not to get too specific during the campaign about the package of spending cuts and revenue increases the new mayor will likely have to present in her first budget. “It’s going to be painful, whatever combination is used to deal with the financial issue,” says Simpson, the University of Illinois at Chicago political scientist.

 

Chicago’s Crisis of Civic Confidence

Later this month, the board of alderman will get to work, choosing its new committee chairs. An unusually large slate of progressive newcomers was elected to the board this year, although they won’t make up a majority.

The board as a whole, however, is not expected to practice the same brand of old guard resistance to the new mayor that Harold Washington faced, a racially-polarized battle of wills that became known as the “council wars.”

“I don’t think Lightfoot is going to face any kind of opposition like Washington faced, an organized opposition that says we don’t like you and we don’t like your agenda,” says Bennett, the DePaul political scientist.

Lightfoot faces the difficult task of translating her promises of change into a governing agenda. The city faces not only structural deficit problems, but a crisis of civic confidence. Emanuel was accused of constructing a tale of two cities, with the Loop and the lakefront enjoying record investment even as neighborhoods in the city’s southern and western edges suffered school closings and high murder rates.

Lightfoot will have to square her desire to curb abuses by the police with the real need for protection in a city that saw more murders last year than New York and Los Angeles combined, although the numbers of killings and violent crime both came down. Lightfoot said during the campaign that her plan to help ex-offenders reintegrate into society had been informed by her own family’s experience, since her older brother spent much of his life in prison.

Despite its many areas of success, Chicago is the only large city in the country that’s losing population. Knitting together its disparate communities and achieving a greater sense of equity among them, while trying to stop the fiscal bleeding at city hall, will keep Lightfoot busy for the next four years, at least.

“Just like the Harold Washington election was major in Chicago’s history, I think this will be a major watershed,” Simpson says. “Not just because she’s the first black woman gay mayor of Chicago, but the issues we’re confronting and the changes that will be made will be very massive.”