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The Outsider

Lori Lightfoot’s historic victory changed the way politics is played in Chicago. Now what kind of mayor will she make?

Photo: (top) Thomas Chadwick; Grooming: J St. Jaimes/Distinct Artists; Styling: Rachel Yacapraro/Distinct Artists

Lori Lightfoot first set eyes on the city she now governs when she was an 18-year-old freshman at the University of Michigan. It was St. Patrick’s Day 1981. A dorm mate from Chicago was bragging about how the city dyed its river green. Bullshit, thought Lightfoot, a no-nonsense type even as a teenager. But when another classmate from her dorm offered to drive — a guy nicknamed Adam Ant for his resemblance to the new wave singer — she agreed to join the road trip.

A small-town girl from Massillon, Ohio, a steel-making town of 30,000, Lightfoot had never seen a city bigger than Cleveland, which had exactly two tall buildings. As the car approached the Skyway, Lightfoot remembers, she felt outraged at having to pay a toll. What kind of city charges admission? But then, as the car crested the peak of the elevated highway, Lightfoot saw the Chicago skyline, dozens of aspiring towers clustered at the edge of the glittering lake.

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“You look out into this thing, it’s like something from a movie into the future, looking at this megalopolis,” she recalls. “It was kind of mind-blowing. Then we drove along the lake, which was also magnificent. I’d just never experienced anything like this. My friend’s parents lived on the North Side. I think her mother made us a little dinner, and we were out on the street, which was pretty amazing.” The dorm mates spent the night at the Sheridan Chase, a rundown motel in Rogers Park. The next day, Lightfoot watched the parade, verified that the river was, in fact, green, then drove back to Ann Arbor.

When she next returned to Chicago, five years later, it was to interview at the University of Chicago Law School. This time, Lightfoot was thinking of Chicago as a place to settle down and make a career. She wanted to live in a big city, but one that wasn’t too far away from her aging parents. For a young, ambitious, family-oriented Midwesterner, nowhere else but Chicago made sense.

Thirty-three years later, after Lightfoot won the April 2 runoff election, the headlines declared that Chicago was about to get its first black female mayor — and its first mayor who’s openly gay. But none of those identities may tell us as much about how she plans to run the city as this fact: Lightfoot is the first elected Chicago mayor in over a century who was neither born nor raised here. The Chicago Way, which holds that politics is based on family, friendships, and favors, was not part of her upbringing, and indeed she was elected mayor because she promised to root out the vestiges of the entrenched Chicago machine.

With 11-year-old daughter Vivian and wife Amy Eshleman after the landslide victory on April 2
With 11-year-old daughter Vivian and wife Amy Eshleman after the landslide victory on April 2. A year earlier, nine of 10 Chicagoans had probably never heard of Lightfoot. Photo: Kamil Krzaczynski/AFP/Getty Images

That may be a task best suited to an outsider. As Chicago has evolved from the provincial industrial city in which the machine took shape into a cosmopolitan cultural capital, transplants such as Lightfoot and some of her fellow Big Ten graduates have attained more and more influence over the city’s culture. They have long dominated its artistic scene, and they’re well represented in the professions, but they have rarely achieved power at City Hall, which has mostly remained in the hands of long-standing local dynasties. (Lightfoot’s runoff opponent, Cook County Board president Toni Preckwinkle, is also a transplant, from Minnesota, but she not only made her peace with the machine, she became its titular head, as chair of the Cook County Democratic Party.)

Lightfoot, 56, appeared on the political scene at a moment when outsiders were winning elections at all levels. Our president and our governor likewise have never held an elected public office before. Lightfoot also won because she was lucky enough to run at a time when the entire city decided it had had enough of the Chicago Way, and against an opponent who had come to embody it. She was carried into City Hall on this double wave of disdain for the political establishment, so it’s fair to ask whether she was elected more because of who she isn’t — a traditional politician — than who she is. And unlike Donald Trump and J.B. Pritzker, Lightfoot is neither a celebrity nor a member of an aristocratic family, but rather an obscure bureaucrat whose most significant achievement was leading the Chicago Police Board, which decides disciplinary cases involving officers. So it’s also fair to ask: Who is she?

 

Lori Lightfoot arrived in Hyde Park in the fall of 1986, almost exactly a year after Barack Obama. (The two were born precisely a year apart, he on August 4, 1961, she on the same date in 1962.) Harold Washington was mayor. Obama, who was already interested in politics, had been inspired by Washington to move to Chicago. Lightfoot found the Washington years “an amazing time to be here, because I had never seen anything like the energy and enthusiasm around his election.” But the succession battle after his 1987 death engendered a deep cynicism in her. “My sense when I came to this city was that politics was this dirty business that people tolerated but nobody of goodwill or intellect got involved with because it was just this shady, nasty thing.”

The week after Washington died, Lightfoot attended a rally at UIC Pavilion. She remembers then alderman Luis Gutiérrez declaring “No deals, no deals, no deals” over the mayor’s successor. “It turns out, most of those people had already cut their deals before they even stepped up onstage,” she says.

Lightfoot and Obama never met in Hyde Park. (She first encountered the future president at a house party in Evanston not long before his failed primary challenge to U.S. representative Bobby Rush in 2000.) Their lives in Chicago would follow very different paths, but they shared the ability to transcend racial categories — Obama because he was raised in the white world, Lightfoot because she chose to live in it. Obama remained in Hyde Park, where he became a member of the city’s black elite and took a job at a small civil rights law firm. Lightfoot, after graduating from law school and clerking for a year, went to work for the powerhouse firm Mayer Brown — a job that paid well and would allow her to support her parents. She also moved to the North Side, first to Lake View, which was too much of a party neighborhood for her, then to Bucktown, and finally to Logan Square, where she lives today with her wife, Amy Eshleman, and their 11-year-old daughter, Vivian.

In 1996, after a few years at Mayer Brown, Lightfoot decided to join the office of the U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Illinois. Traditionally the chief scourge of hinky Chicago politicians, the office has convicted the governors Otto Kerner, George Ryan, and Rod Blagojevich, as well as a school of smaller fish, from aldermen to legislators. At the time, the U.S. attorney was in the midst of prosecuting officials targeted by Operation Silver Shovel, an FBI sting in which a mole named John Christopher bribed aldermen to, among other things, allow illegal dumping of crushed rock. Because of the office’s importance as a check on local corruption, senators and presidents liked to see it run by lawyers who were not raised in the Chicago Way. Lightfoot’s first boss, Jim Burns, was from downstate McLeansboro. Her last, Patrick Fitzgerald, was from New York City.

“When you hire in that office, one of the things you’re looking for are people who can try a jury case,” says Burns, who interviewed Lightfoot for the job. “She obviously had the skills to develop that. She had [something in] her personality that I felt would not let her be easily intimidated. Is ‘spunk’ the right word?”

“I wanted to do more investigative work, and I wanted more trial opportunities,” Lightfoot says of her decision to take the job. She didn’t see a lot of women of color in the office, so she felt she had something to contribute. Eventually, Lightfoot was assigned to prosecute 15th Ward alderman Virgil Jones, accused of taking bribes from Christopher, some of the money handed to him in a rolled-up newspaper under a diner table. A jury took just two hours to convict Jones of extortion. He was sentenced to 41 months in federal prison.

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For Lightfoot, Operation Silver Shovel offered an inside look at Chicago’s corrupt political culture. “I was amazed at how cheaply these aldermen sold their jobs and put themselves at risk,” she says. “My recollection was that in our case, the bribe was about $4,000 [$7,000, in fact], which seemed like a pittance, and showed kind of a petty transactional nature, and the crassness of graft in the city.”

In the estimation of Burns, having a former federal prosecutor in the mayor’s office may be the best way to stop corruption at its source: City Hall. “It is not fair to expect the U.S. attorney’s office to clean up corruption in Chicago and the state of Illinois,” he says. “Until you change the culture, it’s going to keep coming. I don’t have any doubt that Lori’s commitment is there. She grew up in that office.”

Lightfoot got another taste of the Chicago Way when she worked in the Department of Procurement Services under Mayor Richard M. Daley in 2005. The department was stacked with patronage hires and once drew up specifications for garbage carts that could be satisfied by only one politically connected vendor. “As a result of that experience,” she says, “I know every trick in the book, in terms of schemes and fraud.”

 

In the eyes of the city’s activist left, the constituency that most vigorously opposed Lightfoot’s candidacy, her career — from the U.S. attorney’s office to the Police Board to earning $1 million a year as partner at Mayer Brown (where she resumed working in 2005 and remained until her run for mayor) — has made her an object of suspicion. The website Stop Lightfoot called her “a law-and-order candidate trying to run as a progressive.”

Visiting a polling place in Woodlawn on Election Day, Lightfoot was confronted by South Side community organizer Alex Goldenberg, who demanded to know why she had canceled an appearance at an affordable housing forum. “I would have been a lot happier if you guys had treated us a little better,” 5-foot-1 Lightfoot retorted, staring up at the 6-footer, striking the pose that makes her look, to borrow the words of poet Stephen Vincent Benét, “as slightly made and as hard to break as a rapier-blade.” “We were trying to work with you, as I’ve said in virtually every forum that we have been in, and there have been quite a few questions about affordable housing. We will continue to push forward to do what is necessary. We are the only campaign that has come out with an affordable housing plan.”

In general, Goldenberg says now, the organizing community favored Preckwinkle, whom it saw as more progressive and more responsive to the needs of working people. “There are definitely concerns about [Lightfoot’s] financial backers being the same persons who backed Rahm Emanuel and his agenda,” he adds. “The police support for her is a concern for those who want police reform, and her not being for rent control is a concern.”

Lightfoot’s landslide victory, Goldenberg believes, was based mostly on slogans, emotion, and Preckwinkle’s weaknesses as a candidate — her machine ties, her soda tax. “They had such a great feeling behind them, such a catchy message,” he says. “Everywhere I went, people said, ‘I’m turning on the light.’ There’s nothing behind it. People didn’t vote for her because of her policies.”

Lightfoot with Eshleman at the 2018 Pride Parade
Lightfoot with Eshleman at the 2018 Pride Parade Photo: Brian Cassella/Chicago Tribune

Although during the campaign Lightfoot promised to invest in the low-income neighborhoods she accused Emanuel of neglecting, her progressivism is rooted more in issues of social justice than in economic justice. Despite the fact that Lightfoot has seldom made her sexual orientation a part of her political identity, her election as mayor rests heavily on a string of LGBTQ political successes that date back to the 1980s. Chicago’s LGBTQ community has always been extremely active in politics — both as a matter of survival, during the AIDS crisis, and as a matter of civil rights, especially during the struggle for equal marriage. When Lightfoot was considering a run for mayor, some of the first allies she sought out were members of that community, including Kelly Cassidy, a state representative from Rogers Park, and Michael Bauer, a longtime activist who would serve as her campaign and finance chairman.

“The activism around HIV/AIDS was life or death,” says Cassidy, who got to know Lightfoot when both served on the board of the ACLU of Illinois. “Ultimately, some people made the decision that representation matters. We can only count on our allies for so much. Is that from the high-stakes nature of what we went through? Yes.”

The local LGBTQ community has grown to include aldermen (Tom Tunney, James Cappleman, Carlos Ramirez-Rosa, Maria Hadden), legislators (Larry McKeon, Greg Harris, Cassidy), and a Cook County Board member (Kevin Morrison). Those politicians represent constituencies with significant gay populations. A mayor, though, would indicate citywide acceptance, and so many LGBTQ organizations became invested in Lightfoot’s campaign, forming its most passionate base of support.

Bauer has known Lightfoot socially for a decade and a half, sharing lunches thick with conversations about political issues. But even he was stunned when she told him, in early 2018, that she planned to challenge Emanuel for mayor. “When we started talking last year, she was talking about education and gun violence and saying, ‘Someone’s got to tackle these problems. No one is.’ Lori is not afraid of a challenge. She felt that Rahm Emanuel wasn’t doing the job. She felt that he was a mayor for downtown only.”

Bauer agreed to serve as campaign chairman on one condition: He wanted to sit down with Lightfoot’s wife to warn her about the “ugly, homophobic attacks” he feared Lightfoot would have to endure. “I wanted Amy to be prepared,” Bauer says. “But Amy’s tough. So I accepted the position.”

Lightfoot credits the LGBTQ candidates who came before her not just with her victory but with her ability to run. “Even five years ago, running as an out lesbian in an interracial couple, married, with a kid, may not have been possible. It was just being able to run as an out person without worrying about being attacked, discounted, attacked politically, discounted politically, or physically threatened. There are some national things, certainly, that folded into that, but it would not have been possible without all of that work that was done before and all of those sacrifices.”

 

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The aspect of her identity Lightfoot most purposefully declined to emphasize is her race. This represents another contrast with Obama, who was not raised in an African American household but self-consciously sought to make himself part of the black community through his work, his choice of where to live, and the constituencies he represented politically. Lightfoot was raised in an African American household but has not made her life in Chicago’s Black Metropolis. She also understood that in a diverse city, almost equally divided among whites, blacks, and Latinos, running an ethnically based campaign would not generate enough votes to get her into the runoff.

And yet, for more than a century, Chicago politics has been based on ethnic alliances. That’s how the experienced politicians were conducting their campaigns. Gery Chico and Susana Mendoza were going for the Latino vote. Willie Wilson was going for the black vote. Bill Daley was going for the white vote. But Lightfoot was not an experienced politician. And her life experiences had not prepared her to be the standard-bearer for her race — or sexual orientation, for that matter.

“It’s not who I am,” Lightfoot says. “I live in a world in which I have a very, very diverse group of friends. That’s the life that I have led, since I’ve been here in the city. It’s who we are as a couple and as a family. To make blatant racial appeals or just blatant appeals only targeted to the LGBTQ+ community, I didn’t think that that was a winning formula, and it’s also inconsistent with who I am.”

Lightfoot addressing protesters
Lightfoot addressing organizers protesting the death of a woman in police custody in 2004, during her tenure as head of the CPD’s internal oversight office. Photo: Chris Walker/Chicago Tribune

One thing Lightfoot does have in common with Obama: Both were accused by Bobby Rush of not standing up for the black community. During a Preckwinkle campaign rally, the congressman accused Lightfoot of protecting dirty cops when she was head of the Police Board. “If any young black male or female is killed by a police officer under a Lightfoot administration, then the blood would be on those voters’ hands who elected her,” Rush said.

“The undercurrent was, I wasn’t black enough, I’m not one of them,” Lightfoot says. “ ‘She’s not one of us’ — that was clearly a subtext, and barely a subtext, of a lot of the attacks. It’s like, ‘Hey, did you notice that she’s a lesbian, and she has a white wife, and she lives on the North Side?’ ”

Not fitting into a racial category is something Lightfoot has dealt with most of her life. After law school, she clerked for a Michigan Supreme Court justice in Detroit. When she called around looking for a place to live in the city, landlords heard her voice on the phone and thought she was white. Lightfoot paraphrases a typical landlord spiel: “ ‘Well, you know, the neighborhood has changed, and I would just worry about a young white woman like yourself living in those neighborhoods.’ I’d say, ‘I think I’m OK.’ ”

So it was that the candidate with the most “other” identities — black, female, lesbian — was the least dependent on identity politics. Instead, Lightfoot ran an ideological campaign, shrewdly focused on neighborhoods full of transplants who shared her disdain for traditional Chicago politics. The first current or former elected official to endorse Lightfoot was Dick Simpson, a ’60s idealist from Texas who served two terms as 44th Ward alderman from 1971 to 1979, when Mayor Richard J. Daley often dismissed his reform proposals by telling him, “Kid, you haven’t got the votes.” Now a political science professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago, Simpson coauthored the book Corrupt Illinois, which tries to explain why our politics is crookeder than the Wabash River. To quote the title of another book on Illinois politics, James Merriner’s Grafters and Goo Goos, Simpson is a goo goo, an advocate of good government reform. In Lightfoot, Simpson saw a kindred spirit, and he collaborated with her on an ethics plan that called for a two-term limit for mayors and a ban on outside employment for elected officials.

Simpson is also what’s been called a lakefront liberal — a white, professional, socially tolerant voter living between the North Branch of the river and the lake, quite often from another part of the Midwest, judging by the number of Big Ten bars in that part of town. Lightfoot saw those progressive voters as her base and spent significant time campaigning at street fairs and knocking on doors in those neighborhoods.

“It’s a lot of people who didn’t grow up in the Chicago Way, but it’s also a lot of people who grew up in the Chicago Way and found it offensive,” says Bauer, who recalls his father receiving a less than amicable visit from his local committeeman after renting a storefront to the Independent Precinct Organization. “That’s the Chicago I grew up in. Lori didn’t grow up with that, thinking you couldn’t fight the system.”

 
Lightfoot campaigning in Austin
Lightfoot campaigning in Austin in March Photo: Alyssa Schukar

To most of the local political world, Lightfoot was just some nobody nobody sent. It’s safe to say that when she entered the race, in May 2018, nine out of 10 Chicagoans didn’t know her name or her face. Bauer tried to correct that by printing up campaign buttons featuring both. Lightfoot wore one for a day, then decided it came across as egotistical.

In the run-up to the election, her skeleton staff occupied a campaign office at a coworking space in the West Loop. There were no endorsements from elected officials, and there wasn’t much money. Between her entering the race and Emanuel’s September announcement that he would not seek a third term, she raised less than a million dollars, because, in her estimation at least, big donors were afraid to cross the mayor. And then fundraising became even harder, because Preckwinkle and Daley jumped into the race, hoovering up all the money from unions and businesses.

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It is the supreme irony of Lightfoot’s mayoralty that the quintessential outsider to Chicago politics owes her election in no small part to its quintessential insider: 14th Ward alderman Edward Burke, the City Council’s longest-serving member, long the chairman of its most powerful committee, the master of leveraging public office for private profit, and a politician who has himself grasped for the mayoralty. In November, you might recall, the FBI raided Burke’s office on the suspicion that he’d tried to solicit favors from a Burger King owner who wanted a building permit. In January, the U.S. attorney’s office filed corruption charges. Around that time, Lightfoot was polling at 3 percent, far behind Preckwinkle and Daley, but the scandal was right in her wheelhouse, especially because she was arguing that the practice of aldermanic prerogative, which gives aldermen absolute power over zoning and permits in their wards, is at the root of City Hall corruption, all the way back to her prosecution of Virgil Jones.

Lightfoot promised to sign an executive order eliminating aldermanic prerogative on the day she’s sworn in. It is a difficult promise to keep. First of all, the practice is not formally enshrined in the city code. It’s an unspoken deal among the aldermen: You don’t vote against my projects, I won’t vote against yours. Second, its role as a source of aldermanic power makes it an important catalyst for campaign contributions. Trying to get rid of it may provoke a battle with a City Council eager to expand its authority at the expense of an inexperienced mayor. Aldermanic prerogative “manifests itself in different ways,” Lightfoot says. “I think the most problematic is having a veto right over development in the ward. That, in some ways, is an easier thing to get rid of, because that power is an extension of executive power. It depends on the complicity of executive power, which I am going to withdraw.”

The fact that Burke was the very embodiment of aldermanic prerogative was hardly lost on Lightfoot when the FBI came calling at City Hall last fall. “The whole circus surrounding Ed Burke, I knew immediately from my days as a federal prosecutor, was very, very serious,” Lightfoot says. “You don’t come with that kind of firepower that close to an election unless you’ve got the goods. You look for those things to help catch lightning in a bottle in the course of a campaign. We very quickly realized, This is a thing. This is a lane we can continue to run in. We had been talking about good government issues forever, for months, and we knew that if we were smart, we could have a moment. We had no idea how big or how long that moment would be, but we knew that this was a moment that we had to really take advantage of.”

Four of the biggest names in the race — Daley, Preckwinkle, Mendoza, and Chico — had personal, political, or financial ties to Burke. So Lightfoot released a TV ad with mug shots of what she dubbed the Burke Four; in it she declared, “Candidates try distancing themselves from Ed Burke. The truth is, they’re all tied to the same broken Chicago machine — except me.”

Two and a half weeks before the February 26 election, Lightfoot was endorsed by the Sun-Times. The nod gave her some mainstream cred just a day after Fox 32 had declined to invite her to the “grown-up table” debate, and it helped her momentum. The final weekend before the election, a poll came out showing Lightfoot, Daley, and Preckwinkle in a dead heat, all tied at 14 percent.

 
Lightfoot in 1980, during her senior year in high school in Massillon, Ohio, when she was class president; with fellow members of the school’s Culture Committee
From left: Lightfoot in 1980, during her senior year in high school in Massillon, Ohio, when she was class president; with fellow members of the school’s Culture Committee Photo: E. Jason Wambsgans/Chicago Tribune

The story goes that Chicago elections were originally scheduled for February so the weather would discourage antimachine challengers, whose volunteers didn’t have the motivation of hanging on to their patronage jobs. Whether or not that’s true, the weather didn’t discourage Lightfoot’s ground team. The Saturday before the election was cold and rainy, but Lightfoot addressed a packed room at the Andersonville restaurant Vincent, where canvassers could choose from two stacks of literature, one with white beams emanating from Lightfoot’s logo, the other with rainbow-colored beams. On Sunday, the winds blew 50 miles an hour. Lightfoot appeared at Cards Against Humanity near Bucktown alongside a trio of good government politicians who’d endorsed her: 32nd Ward alderman Scott Waguespack, former Cook County clerk David Orr, and U.S. representative Robin Kelly. Still not quite the star of her own campaign, Lightfoot stood at the side of the stage while the three better-known officials promised she would clean up Chicago politics. Then she delivered a speech of her own, in which she vowed to be “unbossed and unbought” — paraphrasing Shirley Chisholm, the first black woman to run for president.

The vibe Lightfoot sensed at the events that weekend, despite the bad weather, was “a telltale sign,” she says, that she just might pull this off. “That Saturday, we had a standing-room-only crowd. We bought a bunch of rain ponchos, and people were just like, ‘I’m in it. I’m in. Let’s go.’ Then, the next day, it was unbelievably frigid temperatures, but people were out there. They were running out of literature. A bunch of people said, ‘I already voted.’ When you see that kind of feeling of a surge, and we had been seeing that probably two weeks before the election, we thought, Yeah, something could happen. Something might happen.”

Something did happen. Lightfoot finished first, with 17.5 percent of the vote, sweeping the lakefront wards her campaign had targeted and knocking Bill Daley, a candidate whose surname is synonymous with Chicago politics, out of the two-person runoff. As Preckwinkle’s head-to-head opponent in what was suddenly a historic election to become the city’s first black woman mayor, Lightfoot was now a celebrity. She began traveling the city in a black Yukon XL, accompanied by an earpiece-wearing bodyguard who blocked reporters and well-wishers from her path. She was followed everywhere by a New York Times photographer.

In her public appearances, Lightfoot often displays a 10-watt smile and a manner as serious as a Spanish inquisitor’s. In her first televised debate against Preckwinkle, nine days after the first-round election, Lightfoot even lost her temper, accusing her opponent of telling “lie after lie.” It’s not easy to make Toni Preckwinkle look like the life of the party, but that night, Lightfoot did.

The irony is that Lightfoot’s friends say she regularly amuses them with a dry wit. Before the runoff, she attended a breakfast for members of the business community who, it’s not a stretch to assume, were essentially trying to decide which progressive woman of color frightened them less. Lightfoot leaned over to Bauer and said, “Look at this, Mike. I have all these new friends.” Her campaign chairman doubled over laughing.

Reporters have generally pointed out Lightfoot’s lack of personal style, invoking the fondness for sober pantsuits she shares with Preckwinkle. And yet, on the campaign trail, she often displayed a quirky, Annie Hall fashion sense. Shaking hands at the Jefferson Park Transit Center, she wore wingtips with tartan accents, baggy jeans rolled at the cuff, a blue pinstriped shirt, and a gray checked double-breasted blazer. Then there are her trademark fedoras, which she buys at Optimo or Goorin Bros., and of which she owns “more than I can count.” With her short stature, stylish hats, and intense, wide-set eyes, Lightfoot is going to be a cartoonist’s dream.

Lightfoot on the basketball court as a junior
Lightfoot on the basketball court as a junior Photo: E. Jason Wambsgans/Chicago Tribune

The campaign moment that crystallized why Lightfoot wound up winning, and what Chicagoans hope to gain from her tenure as mayor, took place at St. Richard Parish church and school in Archer Heights the day of the runoff. As Lightfoot’s staff awaited her arrival, they noticed that the sawhorse behind which they had set up her microphone was stenciled with the name of the local alderman: Edward M. Burke. They replaced it with a blank sawhorse, removing Burke’s name from the photo op. Lightfoot arrived in the SUV, having just finished a game of basketball with her staff at the Midtown Athletic Club. (She played hoops in high school, though softball was her abiding passion.) She was immediately recognized by a group of schoolchildren, who called out, “Hi, Lori Lightfoot!”

“Hello, kids!” Lightfoot responded. “Come on over. Don’t be shy.”

The children gathered around the candidate. Not much taller than her new friends, she told them, “Make sure when you go home, tell your parents to vote.”

Then two campaign volunteers appeared with a bag of tamales. They offered their boss one, but Lightfoot had already eaten, so she said no.

Armando Romero, the guy holding the tamales, said he had joined Team Lightfoot because “a lot of the people just really want to see a change. Chicago’s one of the most corrupt cities. She’s running an independent campaign. We need someone who doesn’t have ties. People don’t want the same old, same old.”

Eventually, Lightfoot approached a gaggle of TV cameras. “This has been the most wondrous journey of my life,” she said. “Nothing can prepare you for this incredible outpouring of hope. To be the vessel for that is humbling.”

That day, 74 percent of Chicago voters poured their hopes into that vessel without knowing much about what it contained, only that it was new and relatively unblemished. In that, too, Lightfoot resembles Obama, who defeated more experienced politicians with the slogans “Hope” and “Change.” In her acceptance speech in the ballroom of the downtown Hilton that night, Lightfoot promised to “break this city’s endless cycle of corruption and never allow politicians to profit from elected positions” and to “put an end to this gun violence once and for all.” Her election, she said, symbolized “a city reborn: a city where it doesn’t matter what color you are, where it surely doesn’t matter how tall you are, where it doesn’t matter who you love.”

At that moment, a city governed so long by insiders — the Daleys, Rahm Emanuel — craved an outsider. And no one on the ballot was less a creature of the city, and its politics, than Lori Lightfoot. “At the time when the corruption in Chicago became so overtly offensive, she was the one person from outside the system,” says Bauer. “She was the right person at the right time with the right message.”

At the end of the movie The Candidate, after Robert Redford’s young, idealistic Bill McKay has just won a Senate spot, his father cackles, “Son, you’re a politician.” Lightfoot is a politician now. She is adamant that the office will not fundamentally reshape her: “I am who I am,” she says, “and I am not going to change.” But now when she walks down the street, cabbies honk and pedestrians call her name. A police car sits in front of her house. She and her wife are having discussions about what role Amy will play in public life, and how they can protect their daughter’s safety and privacy.

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Lightfoot has already been accused of compromising her ideals — and she’s already gotten defensive about it. After she went back on her insistence that a vote on tax increment financing districts for Lincoln Yards and the 78 be delayed until the new council is seated, the Sun-Times called it “Lightfoot’s first flip-flop.” “These were projects that were well down the pike,” she responds. “As the nonmayor, I tried to influence the project as much as I could. It’s a big victory for women- and minority-owned businesses. We were able to get $80 million more in contracts.”

The quotas she imposed for women- and minority-owned businesses have historically been hard to enforce, though, giving rise to the observation that Lightfoot may have been more concerned with optics than impact. Invoking a famous saying from Theodore Roosevelt, Lightfoot counters that “it is not the critic who counts” but the man who is actually in the arena. It’s a quote politicians — and a certain athlete named LeBron — love to direct at the know-it-alls of the press.

Lightfoot was elected mayor because she wasn’t a Chicago politician, but the moment she won, she became one. Reform candidates are nothing new in Chicago. A reform mayor would be all but unprecedented. Obviously, we’re ready for one. Now we’ll find out if Lightfoot is ready for the job.

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