CHICAGO — In a city long run on insider deals, nepotism and patronage, an adamant outsider takes charge Monday morning.
Lori Lightfoot will be sworn in as Chicago’s 56th mayor — both the first black woman and first openly gay person to hold the office. But those historic distinctions mean less to many residents than what she has pledged to do. The former federal prosecutor, whose campaign drew little support from the Cook County Democratic Party, won a huge victory seen as a crushing blow to the city’s political establishment.
Lightfoot considers it a mandate, one she takes very seriously.
“We can’t have a legitimate government with people ingratiating themselves at the public’s expense,” she stressed during a break last week at her transition headquarters. “There’s been sniping from some aldermen about our views of how City Council operates. And of course a lot of that has come from people who have a lot to lose. And they are going to lose.”
She plans to start on day one with an executive order to end aldermanic prerogative, a tradition that critics say fostered corruption by giving aldermen total control over zoning, permitting and other matters in their wards. Lightfoot says more reforms will quickly follow: term limits for the mayor and council chairs, a ban on all elected officials holding outside jobs, public broadcasts of all committee hearings, and compliance with Freedom of Information Act requests — a marked reversal from outgoing Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who spent hundreds of thousands of dollars fighting FOIs during his two terms.
Such changes will be pioneering here. According to researchers at the University of Illinois at Chicago, the year-to-year tally of federal convictions of public officials makes Chicago the most corrupt big city in the country. In January, federal prosecutors charged Alderman Edward Burke with attempted extortion. Only this past week, Alderman Joe Moreno was arrested for filing a false police report, insurance fraud and other charges.
For longtime political watchers, Lightfoot’s ascendancy feels similar to the grass-roots rise of Chicago’s first black mayor, populist Harold Washington, who served from 1983 to 1987.
“That somebody not terribly well known was able to win in a landslide on a message of taking on the machine is kind of wonderful to my ears,” said David Orr, a Washington ally who stepped in as temporary mayor after Washington died in office.
Lightfoot tapped into voter resentment over the “two cities” narrative that dogged Emanuel, who was perceived as favoring development along the affluent lakefront and further marginalizing the city’s South and West sides. Emanuel also was bashed for shuttering 50 public schools in those areas and for mishandling the police shooting of black teenager Laquan McDonald — a death that upended his second term.
“Part of [the disillusionment] is about Emanuel,” said Larry Bennett, a political scientist at DePaul University, “but part of it is the deeper sense that Chicago increasingly has become two cities separated by socioeconomics and race, and the broader sense that government has not been attentive to what people want.”
What makes the 56-year-old Lightfoot unusual isn’t just the success of her first-time candidacy. She talks about policies to improve public health and the local economy using the language of social justice. She intends to establish a mayor’s office for equity and social justice; she already has announced the city’s first chief equity officer. “I believe in a righteous, legitimate government,” she says. And she wants to bring resources “to communities that have been left behind. . . . There’s a level of desperation there I want to address.”
Her seven-week transition to power has involved assembling 10 committees representing all aspects of the city and focused on an array of priorities, from education and the environment to art and housing. Jennifer Welch, who is president and chief executive of Planned Parenthood of Illinois, co-chairs the group discussing health and human services. She says the transition’s approach reflects the promises of inclusion and transparency made in the campaign.
“Her team has demonstrated her commitment to having a large number of people at the table for these conversations,” Welch said.
One of the education committee recruits is someone she defeated. Chicago attorney John Kozlar said they struck up a friendly relationship over months of sitting next to one another at public forums and debates. He was pleased, but not surprised, when Lightfoot reached out to him after her April 2 election.
“She is offering an open door to people ignored by past administrations and showing them that their voices matter,” he said. “We haven’t experienced that in Chicago. We usually elect elites who may want to hear your ideas but won’t implement them. That’s why there’s a lot of hope with Lori.”
Yet carrying through on change will require transforming the City Council, a 50-member institution that has largely served as a rubber stamp under Emanuel and his predecessor, Richard M. Daley. Orr expects Lightfoot to face powerful interests that have long benefited from Chicago’s entrenched political machine. “She needs to start building a stronger base to convince people this is the right direction,” he said.
Last week, Lightfoot conducted briefings for aldermen on her proposals to restructure how the Council operates. She has received support from its growing progressive wing, but some Emanuel loyalists are balking, especially over the loss of an alderman’s prerogative power.
“You want to take that ability away from me to help protect my community? I don’t think so,” Alderman Anthony Beale told the Chicago Sun-Times several days ago.
Plenty of other challenges are ahead. A $700 million budget shortfall looms for the coming fiscal year, a hole that Lightfoot said “is far worse than what was revealed by the current administration.” Emanuel’s failure to enact a risk-management system to rein in costs has produced “jaw-dropping” setbacks.
Perhaps the most daunting issues: a police department forced to adopt reforms from a federal consent decree, and the broken trust between the department and communities struggling with street violence. The combination is contributing to an exodus of black residents, with census data showing that the city’s black population fell to 820,000 in 2017 from about 950,000 in 2009.
Lightfoot says she will create an office of public safety to act as a catalyst among multiple agencies, particularly public health, social services and police, and to bridge the gap that has traditionally stood between law enforcement and city hall.
The mayor-elect’s first trip outside Illinois was to Washington in early May. She met separately with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Ivanka Trump, but not with the president, who frequently blasts Chicago. A White House statement said their conversation, touching on economic revitalization, vocational education and crime prevention, was “productive and positive.” Trump tweeted a photo of the two women, which drew scowls back home.
Lightfoot emphasized last week that she and President Trump “are on completely opposite ends of the spectrum” regarding social issues but that she wants her city to have a “good, productive relationship with Washington” to secure federal money for infrastructure and transportation. “Those are some of the things we might be able to collaborate around, but it’s going to be tricky for sure,” she acknowledged.
Beyond policy, Lightfoot embodies a mayor that Chicago has not known in recent years. Whereas Emanuel and Daley ruled inside a hurricane of swagger and high volume, which played well in front of the cameras, Lightfoot’s strength is her calm and inner resolve. Sitting in her transition office overlooking the Chicago River, she appeared unusually at ease for someone days away from becoming chief executive of the nation’s third-largest city.
And unlike Emanuel, whose public appearances tended to be ribbon-cutting ceremonies, Lightfoot wants to be visible. That means doing her own grocery shopping and continuing to catch baseball games or live music with her wife, Amy Eshleman, a former commissioner for the Chicago Public Library who now works as a consultant, and their 11-year-old daughter, Vivian. She understands that a security detail will slow down those outings, but for someone who spent 12 months interacting with regular Chicagoans — coffee talks in church basements long before she was a contender — retreating is not an option.
“I can’t be in a bubble. The life I’ve led up to this point is where I go to the grocery store, I take my kid to school, I walk my dog,” Lightfoot said. “That’s the great thing about living in a city like Chicago. There’s a lot to do.”