Forty years ago, Chicago rejected its first woman mayor for a second term, and voters did the same Tuesday night with Lori Lightfoot — the first Black woman and openly gay mayor of the city.
Lightfoot’s first round knock-out comes four years after she was swept into office as a political outsider and corruption buster, but rejected by critics who said she didn’t do enough to tamp down the city’s crime and let a tough negotiating style get in the way of progress.
Her rocky tenure was marked by a global pandemic, civil unrest, contentious City Council meetings, and a spike in violent crime, but also some major legislative accomplishments.
Surrounded by supporters chanting “We love Lori!” at the Mid-America Carpenters Regional Council’s downtown headquarters, Lightfoot in conceding said Tuesday night that she was proud of her accomplishments.
“You will not be defined by how you fall. You will be defined by how hard you work, and how much you do good for other people,” Lightfoot said.
Lightfoot said she called both former CPS CEO Paul Vallas and Cook County Commissioner Brandon Johnson, who will head to a runoff election in April. The incumbent mayor got just 16.4 percent of the vote, with 91% of precincts reporting.
After months of trying to convince voters that she needed another term to continue the work she started, Lightfoot will leave office with a complex legacy that includes guiding the city through the unprecedented challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic and attempting to push for equity in long-underserved areas of the city.
“One of the most tremendously impactful mayoral terms”
Lightfoot’s legacy includes major policy achievements, some of which the city has been working toward for decades.
Because of Lightfoot, Chicago’s next mayor will oversee a long-promised casino, and the $200 million in annual revenue it’s set to bring in to help calm the city’s growing pension crisis.
Lightfoot also forged a new way to make the decades-in-the-making extension of Chicago’s Red Line train financially viable. She created a new taxing district downtown, which will help bring needed transit access to the city’s far South Side.
“I am deeply humbled to be the mayor who is finally getting this across the finish line,” Lightfoot said in December after the City Council approved the proposal. It was an echo of sentiments she expressed after winning approval for a new city casino, which three Chicago mayors before her attempted but failed to do.
The cornerstone of Lightfoot’s legacy will largely be her signature Invest South/West program, which aims to attract private investment with public dollar incentives in 10 key areas that have been underserved for decades — although the program’s accomplishments weren’t immune from criticism.
And though the pandemic presented unrelenting challenges for Lightfoot, including contributing to an uptick in crime the city hasn’t been able to extinguish, it also brought an influx of federal funding she’s allocated toward progressive causes.
Nearly $2 billion from the feds allowed Lightfoot to increase spending on homelessness and mental health services.
Lightfoot used some of the money to help fund the city’s first co-responder pilot program — which sends mental health professionals out with police, and some on their own, in response to 911 calls where a mental health crisis is taking place.
Rebecca Williams, a veteran progressive political consultant, said those are accomplishments that can’t be ignored.
“[That program] is an incredibly innovative, and critical and meets-the-moment policy that our city’s going to, for the rest of our time, continue to benefit from,” Williams said. “This is hands down going to be one of the most tremendously impactful mayoral terms that I can think of.”
Lightfoot’s legislative success sometimes came at the expense of her relationships on the City Council as she pushed full speed ahead, sometimes as aldermen themselves complained of inadequate time or opportunities for feedback to consider her proposals.
In the days leading up to the historic vote on the Chicago casino, for instance, the City Council endured parliamentary backflips to expedite the approval process, per Lightfoot’s direction.
And in what is now one of Lightfoot’s last City Council meetings she will preside over, aldermen refused to expedite an agreement orchestrated by the mayor that would have paved the way for a 15-year franchise agreement with Commonwealth Edison, calling the process rushed.
To critics, the past four years have seen one failure of Lightfoot’s 2019 campaign promises after another.
One of the first points in her environmental plan as a first-term candidate was to reopen the city’s Department of Environment — but she refused to do so once in office.
Despite campaigning in 2019 on the need for an elected school board, Lightfoot fiercely fought the legislation that eventually created it, and continued even now to say she would fight against it at the state level.
While she campaigned on the need for policing reform, when dealing with the civil unrest brought by the police murder of George Floyd, Lightfoot directed the city to raise its bridges to limit protesters’ movements near the Downtown area — a move activists decried.
Perhaps the most high-profile snafu related to police reform issues was her handling of the Anjanette Young case. Young was the victim of a wrongful police raid where officers forced her to stand naked and handcuffed for minutes while a team of male cops raided her home, only giving her a blanket to cover herself.
When Young wanted video of the incident to go public through the news channel CBS-2, Lightfoot’s law department aggressively fought the release.
“The mayor wasn’t as interested in collaboration”
Lightfoot’s hard-line negotiating skills resulted in some of the most criticism from across the city’s power bases. Despite initially supporting a proposal to increase the city’s one-time real estate transfer tax to fund homeless prevention and housing, Lightfoot fought it, and to some, excluded from the conversation those who could help find a compromise.
“She kind of pushed folks away from the table … and just was like, ‘I’m going my own way with this and I’m drawing a really hard line in the sand about how I’m going to approach this policy,” Williams said.
In her 2019 inaugural address, Lightfoot wasted no time expressing her intentions to make good on one of her campaign-trail promises: to end “shady backroom deals” in City Council.
The crowd erupted in applause, but aldermen sat silent when Lightfoot turned to face them as she declared: “These practices have gone on here for decades. … Stopping it isn’t just in the city’s interest. It’s in the City Council’s own interest.”
Though he didn’t think much of the comment back then, Ald. Matt O’Shea, 19th Ward, said in retrospect, it’s a tone symbolic of Lightfoot’s dealings with the council.
“Looking back, that was the first sign — the first sign that the mayor wasn’t as interested in collaboration as many of us thought,” O’Shea said.
Lightfoot entered City Council, like most mayors, with broad support from the aldermen who she hand-picked to lead the body’s legislative committees.
But many in Chicago’s City Council, including those former committee chair allies, have since abandoned her, saying Lightfoot forged ahead with her own agenda without much input from those who oversee Chicago’s 50 wards.
Outgoing 44th Ward Ald. Tom Tunney and 42nd Ward Ald. Brendan Reilly threw their support behind Paul Vallas, while 3rd Ward Ald. Pat Dowell and a handful of progressive aldermen endorsed Brandon Johnson, who is supported by the Chicago Teachers Union.
Public persona and its challenges
Lightfoot’s public image has also been shaped largely in part by her texts and email exchanges with elected officials revealed by news outlets.
One of the first moments that revealed her internal demeanor with Chicago’s legislative body was when she told the City Council not to come to her “for s***” if they don’t vote in favor of her 2021 budget.
Another moment was tense text exchanges with Gov. JB Pritzker in which Lightfoot criticized a news report that looked at her dealings with Springfield amid negotiations for a casino.
“Gov, this is petty and unnecessary and why we have serious issues with your staff,” Lightfoot texted. “Not smart.”
Pritzker responded, “I woke up and saw your text. Texting probably is not the best way to communicate. You should call me when you can.”
Williams said it was moments like these that revealed, even if Lightfoot had chops to pass significant policy, she struggled to approach difficult scenarios.
“When you’re an elected leader, you wear so many hats — there is the policymaker hat, that is critical. There’s this ‘I am the number one champion of the city of Chicago [hat] … but you’re also a cultural leader,” Williams said. “You’re someone folks can look up to, and your disposition and approach to leadership is critical because we don’t fix the problems in our society simply with changes to public policy, we also have to shift culture about how we treat one another, how we handle conflict and tension.”
Still, for some, the focus on Lightfoot’s personality is overblown.
“The problem has been an image, particularly in the media, reinforced by a number of the aldermen and others that she has a hard time getting along and building a consensus. It’s not entirely accurate,” said former Chicago alderman and political science professor Dick Simpson, who endorsed Lightfoot.
Simpson points to the fact that Lightfoot has been largely successful in pushing through her policy agenda.
Connie Mixon, an Elmhurst University political science professor and director of its urban studies program, said she would have liked to see Lightfoot make a more effective case for the ways the mayor was successful in breaking up a long tradition of machine politics in City Hall.
Mixon, who said the criticisms of Lightfoot’s personality have layers to dissect between gender, race and sexual orientation, said she wonders if the same would be said of Lightfoot’s predecessor Rahm Emanuel.
“Rahm Emanuel was very harsh. He picked his battles with plenty of members of city council and used language at least as tough as Lori Lightfoot,” Mixon said. “But you didn’t hear the complaints that you hear about Lori Lightfoot.”
Mariah Woelfel and Tessa Weinberg cover city government and politics for WBEZ.