Lori Lightfoot Sworn In As Chicago’s First Black Woman Mayor, Signs Executive Order

Lori Lightfoot
Lori Lightfoot (right) stands with her wife, Amy Eshleman, Monday at Wintrust Arena. Lightfoot was sworn in as the city's first black woman mayor. Manuel Martinez / WBEZ
Lori Lightfoot
Lori Lightfoot (right) stands with her wife, Amy Eshleman, Monday at Wintrust Arena. Lightfoot was sworn in as the city's first black woman mayor. Manuel Martinez / WBEZ

Lori Lightfoot Sworn In As Chicago’s First Black Woman Mayor, Signs Executive Order

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Updated at 2:38 p.m.

Lori Lightfoot officially became Chicago’s first black woman mayor Monday, and immediately laid out a four-point plan for safety, education, stability and integrity during her 40-minute inauguration speech.

Shortly after her inauguration ceremony, Lightfoot wasted no timing signing an executive order aimed at curtailing the Chicago custom of “aldermanic prerogative” — an unwritten rule that has long granted members of the City Council extraordinary control over what happens in their wards.

Lightfoot, who also noted she’s the first openly gay person to be elected mayor of Chicago, was sworn in with all 50 aldermen, City Clerk Anna Valencia and City Treasurer Melissa Conyears-Ervin at the 10,000-seat Wintrust Arena.

“I’m looking ahead to a city of safe streets and strong schools for every child regardless of neighborhood or zip code,” Lightfoot said in her inauguration speech. “A city where people want to grow old and not flee. A city of sanctuary against fear where no one must hide in the shadows. A city that is affordable for families and seniors, and where every job pays a living wage. A city of fairness and hope and prosperity for the many, not just for the few, a city that holds equity and inclusion as our guiding principles.”

She thanked her 90-year-old mother, Ann Lightfoot, who traveled from Massillon, Ohio, to sit in the front row for the speech.

Lightfoot Inauguration
Lightfoot thanked her mother, Ann Lightfoot (in pink), as she addressed the crowd at Wintrust Arena. Manuel Martinez / WBEZ

Lightfoot then promised “to build this great city, and leave it better, stronger, fairer, and more prosperous than we found it.”

The new mayor promised to tackle violence and education, but cautioned that the city’s problems “will not be solved overnight.”

To combat gun violence, Lightfoot announced the Mayor’s Office of Public Safety, which will be lead by a Deputy Mayor. The office will be tasked with developing and implementing an interdepartmental anti-violence strategy.

“People cannot, and should not, live in neighborhoods that resemble war zones … Let’s unite in our response to the biggest challenge we face: the epidemic of gun violence that devastates families, shatters communities, buries dreams, and holds children hostage to fear in their own homes,” Lightfoot said. “It inflicts lifelong trauma that spreads through our communities.”

Lightfoot also vowed to improve the city’s public education system to “create a citywide workforce as a pipeline of jobs.”

“As a city, we make promises to our children … we promise them an education — a safe, relevant, and challenging education that prepares them for meaningful work, civic engagement and lifelong learning.”

Lightfoot Inauguration
In her inauguration speech, Lightfoot laid out a four-point plan for safety, education, stability and integrity. Manuel Martinez / WBEZ

But Lightfoot will face challenges. Among the many demands of the Chicago Teachers Union is hefty 5% raises for staff, as well as more counselors and nurses. Though negotiations are moving along, the CTU is taking the necessary legal steps to strike in September if they don’t have a contract by then. Lightfoot has said she wants to avoid a strike, but has not said how she will find money to meet these demands.

In her speech, Lightfoot acknowledged the city’s financial hole by saying “some hard choices will have to be made,” but didn’t give details on her plan.

“Our challenges are great, there’s not mistaking that,” Lightfoot said. “But if we follow these four stars — safety, schooling, stability and integrity — we can once again become a city that families want to move to, not run away from.”

A campaign to end Chicago-style politics

Lightfoot’s inauguration caps a stunning political rise. The former federal prosecutor and corporate lawyer had never held elected office. Yet, she launched her mayoral bid last May, months before Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s bombshell announcement that he would not seek a third term.

That prompted a crush of politicians to jump into the race, but Lightfoot rose to the top of a field of 14 candidates in late February’s general election. After a short and bruising campaign against Democratic Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle, Lightfoot went on to win a landslide victory in the April 2 runoff.

Ultimately, Lightfoot won in all 50 wards and garnered 74% of the vote — a margin not seen in Chicago since the reign of Mayor Richard M. Daley in 2003.

On the campaign trail, Lightfoot promised to put an end to Chicago’s political machine “once and for all” and shine a bright light on corruption in City Hall. It’s a message that resonated with voters, particularly as a burgeoning corruption scandal involving some of the city’s longest-serving aldermen hit the headlines at the height of the mayor’s race.

Veteran Ald. Ed Burke, 14th Ward, was charged in January with attempted extortion for allegedly trying to shake down owners of a fast food franchise to win business for his private law firm. Burke has said he didn’t do anything wrong.

But legal documents also revealed that Burke allegedly urged the restaurateurs to give campaign money to Preckwinkle. That revelation — and other Preckwinkle-Burke connections — and Preckwinkle’s post as the Cook County Democratic Party Chair left an opening for Lightfoot to paint her as the consummate City Hall insider at a time when voters were hungry for reform.

In her inauguration speech, Lightfoot joked that “putting Chicago government and integrity in the same sentence is, well, a little strange.”

Lightfoot Inauguration
Lightfoot supporters crowded into Wintrust Arena Monday morning to watch the historic inauguration ceremony. Manuel Martinez / WBEZ

On her first day as mayor, Lightfoot acted on her campaign promises to clean up City Hall by signing an executive order to curb aldermanic prerogative.

The political custom gives aldermen de facto veto power over zoning changes and development, which critics like Lightfoot argue breeds corruption. It has also meant that Chicagoans have had to get approval from their aldermen in order to get even mundane city services, such as driveway or street sign permits.

“The abuse of aldermanic prerogative has created unnecessary and, in some instances, illegal hurdles to accessing basic City services,” the order reads.

Lightfoot’s action does not touch aldermen’s significant power over zoning. But it does direct that city departments must no longer allow an alderman’s word alone to push or delay city services, such as permitting, unless city law says otherwise. It also requires that every time an aldermen tries to influence a departmentmental decision, that “must be memorialized in writing.”

Critics have long said that unilateral power leads to corruption, but many aldermen were not on board with Lightfoot’s proposed changes.

Financial and violence problems loom large

Lightfoot, 56, not only must learn now to navigate a new political landscape at City Hall, but she’ll also immediately have to deal with the city’s serious financial problems and the onset of summer gun violence.

Lightfoot told reporters Friday that the 2020 budget gap she’ll have to close is worse than the $700 million deficit proclaimed by Emanuel’s administration, though she wouldn’t say how much worse.

The new mayor will also have to work with the City Council quickly to find money for a spike in state-mandated payments to Chicago’s beleaguered pension funds. City Hall’s ante into its pension funds jumps by $121 million next year, and the city will have to come up with about $1 billion more by 2023 in order to keep up with those ever-rising obligations.

Lightfoot Inauguration
Lightfoot shared the stage with all 50 aldermen, City Clerk Anna Valencia and City Treasurer Melissa Conyears-Ervin, who were also sworn in Monday. Manuel Martinez / WBEZ

To pay for pensions, aldermen went along with a series of unpopular tax hikes under Emanuel, and it’s not clear whether they’ll be willing to do so again for Lightfoot.

The new mayor will also immediately face high levels of violence and crime with the coming of warm weather. While she’s still rolling out her top cabinet picks, Lightfoot has made it clear that she will not decide whether to replace Chicago Police Superintendent Eddie Johnson until after the summer, in order to provide stability during the traditionally violent season.

Lightfoot, the former head of the Chicago Police Board, will also have to manage the ongoing task of reforming the Chicago Police Department. That process, launched after the Laquan McDonald shooting scandal, has been fraught with tension between City Hall and the Chicago police union.

Shakeups at City Hall

She’s also had only a small window of time — about six weeks — to staff a new leadership team for City Hall.

Several of her top staff picks signal her priorities — reducing segregation, building up neighborhoods, tackling police reform — and some department heads will be kept on from Emanuel’s administration.

One of Lightfoot’s first tests in the City Council will come later this month, when aldermen are set to vote on which from their ranks will get to lead the chamber’s influential committees. Committee picks are traditionally put forth by the mayor.

And Lightfoot is already shaking things up. She wants to name progressive Ald. Scott Waguespack, 32nd Ward, to head up the powerful Finance Committee. That post was held by Burke until he was charged by the feds.

Ald. Pat Dowell, 3rd Ward, would replace the influential Ald. Carrie Austin, 34th Ward, as Budget Committee chair. Austin backed Preckwinkle in the mayor’s race.

Among other changes, 36th Ward Ald. Gilbert Villegas will serve as Lightfoot’s floor leader, the first Latino ever to hold that unofficial post. The job, which involves whipping votes and advancing a mayor’s agenda in the City Council, was performed by Ald. Pat O’Connor during Emanuel’s time in office. But O’Connor, 40th Ward, was defeated in the anti-incumbent wave that swept Lightfoot into office in April.