Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot is nearing the halfway mark of her first term as mayor. A political novice, Lightfoot has had to balance her agenda to change how business is done at City Hall with the crisis management needed during a once in a lifetime pandemic and historic protests about police abuse.
It has not been easy. She’s at times been criticized — by aldermen, the Chicago Teachers Union and police reform advocates — for exhibiting a leadership style that fails to win cooperation. But those who support her say it’s that governing style that drew them to her in the first place.
Earlier this year, the mayor was in the middle of a fierce battle with the CTU over her push to return to in-person learning. She was asked by a reporter to comment on Alderman Gilbert Villegas, who had shepherded Lightfoot’s agenda with the council as her floor leader, but also said her governing style made it “difficult” for people to work with her.
“I am different than — in every single way — than any other mayor that’s ever been here before,” Lightfoot said at the time. “That’s not a surprise. And so people are still almost two years later getting used to that, but I say what I mean and I mean what I say.”
As a candidate Lightfoot wore her outsider status as a badge of pride. But as she approaches the midpoint of her first term, that directness has created some challenges, most notably with the City Council. Like when she described some aldermanic criticism of her administration using federal pandemic dollars for policing as “dumb.”
But Lightfoot did not inherit the rubberstamp council of her predecessors. She doesn’t have the longevity in office that would afford her some influence on which aldermen are seated, as former Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley did. And she’s made it clear that she’s not interested in trading support for her agenda for aldermanic perks, as some criticized former Mayor Rahm Emanuel.
At the same press conference where Lightfoot was asked about her governing style, she explained that people are still not used to the fact that, “I don’t buy votes. I never have; I never will.”
To some, conflict is strength
In just the past year, Lightfoot has faced crisis after crisis. She had to manage the shutting down of the city and schools to stop the flow of the coronavirus. She had to figure out how to ensure safety of residents and businesses in the summer — while protecting protesters’ right of free speech as thousands took to the street after the death of George Floyd. In recent months, she had to find an equitable way of distributing a new COVID-19 vaccine to communities hit hardest by the pandemic.
In each of these, Lightfoot’s efforts were at times both praised and criticized. This was most public, perhaps, in the city’s monthly Council meetings with aldermen, who publicly called out the mayor for what they said were her failures to govern inclusively.
Aldermen complained that Lightfoot left them out of discussions and decision-making necessary to get the city back on track.
But the mayor’s office in a statement said she’s succeeded in her coalition-building, despite the challenges she faced.
“From raising the minimum wage to passing two difficult City budgets to navigating the COVID-19 crisis, Mayor Lightfoot has consistently built the broad coalitions necessary to make progress on her agenda,” the statement read in part.
In fact, some of Lightfoot’s supporters see any ongoing conflict she’s had with the city’s political establishment as a sign of the mayor’s strength.
Mark Rust is Vice Chairman of the Chicago law firm Barnes and Thornburg. He was an early supporter of Lightfoot’s and is still behind her today.
“The thing that excited me most right off the bat was taking the immediate opportunity to remove the aldermanic prerogative,” Rust told WBEZ, referring to aldermen having great sway over what projects are approved or fail in their wards. “It had been the source of a huge amount of our corruption in the city.”
Rust points to the first City Council meeting when Lightfoot verbally shot down veteran Ald. Ed Burke, leader of the 1980s Council wars in which a bloc of council members banded together to challenge Mayor Harold Washington’s agenda. In the middle of the meeting, the ousted Finance Committee chairman raised an arcane issue about City Council rules, but Lightfoot rolled over him, prompting clapping from the gallery.
“Apparently Alderman Ed Burke has forgotten that I am a 30-year trial lawyer,” a triumphant Lightfoot told reporters after that incident.
Her ability to stand up to people in power has also shown itself in her dealings with former President Donald Trump, who repeatedly denigrated Chicago in his presidential term, highlighting the city’s crime problems and criticizing the city’s well-known status as a sanctuary city. Lightfoot repeatedly criticized the president and was steadfast in her support for undocumented immigrants in Chicago.
Criticized for police reform efforts
Wesley Skogan, a professor of political science at Northwestern University, was also an early supporter of Lightfoot after their paths crossed during her role as head of the Police Accountability Task Force. That task force was appointed by Emanuel, after the fatal police shooting of Laquan McDonald.
“She impressed my socks off,” Skogan recalled of Lightfoot then. “She was tough. She was smart. She knew how to run things. She turned a large group of primadonnas and community activists and a very disparate group of talent and pushed it all together and made it work.”
As a candidate for mayor, Lightfoot talked about that work often, highlighting the recommendations she made for police reform, the signature piece being civilian oversight of the Chicago Police Department.
But as mayor, Lightfoot has left some in the police reform movement disappointed.
“She wouldn’t be mayor but for the police accountability issues in Chicago,” said University of Chicago Professor Craig Futterman.
Futterman has made a career documenting how the city disciplines — or fails to discipline — police officers of wrongdoing.
“[This is the] same person who I sat by her side in making a series of recommendations about what needs to be done and the importance of working collaboratively with people who have been most impacted [by police violence],” Futterman said. “Now as mayor … has shown no interest with collaborating with those same group of folks.”
The mayor’s office however says that the path to true police reform isn’t easy.
“Passing meaningful police reform is a tough job, and the mayor will always be hard driving and aggressive when it comes to fighting for the policies our city needs — whether that means taking on the FOP (Fraternal Order of Police) or any other defender of the status quo,” the statement read in part. “She hasn’t shied away from that fight, and she doesn’t intend to start now.”
Support for her housing equality efforts
While the lack of progress on police reform has left some disappointed, Lightfoot has been lauded for her work in housing and development, particularly on the South and West sides.
Kevin Jackson is with the Chicago Rehab Network, which advocates for affordable housing. He gave the example of residents who were worried about gentrification in Woodlawn that could result from the Obama Presidential Center development. He said those concerns largely fell on “deaf ears” when brought to the last administration.
Jackson said Lightfoot has succeeded in looking at housing through the lens of racial equity, “and she has talked about these issues in a way that is much more focused on what needs to be happening in neighborhoods.”
As for Lightfoot’s directness, she’s shown recently — in dust-ups with CTU over school reopening plans and with quips at some city journalists — no desire to change how she governs, saying it works.
Claudia Morell covers City Hall for WBEZ. Follow her @claudiamorell.