Obstacles are nothing new to Lori Lightfoot.
For years, Lightfoot has sat in front of police reformers, police abolitionists, and families impacted by police shootings during her tenure as Chicago Police Board President. The families of Rekia Boyd, Quintonio Legrier, and Ronald Johnson passionately demanded justice for their loved ones to Lightfoot and her colleagues, yet their calls have remained unanswered.
In an era where Black Lives Matter protests are common and extrajudicial killings of Black people are hypervisible, Lightfoot aims to build positive inroads in Chicago’s Black communities while campaigning against the man who appointed her to head his taskforce on accountability. Lightfoot has a tall task–defeating a two-time Barack Obama endorsed incumbent and gaining the trust of the people who called on her for justice and accountability.
But again, obstacles are nothing new to Lori Lightfoot.
“I hope people look at my background and will recognize that when I talk about families that are struggling, I’m talking from the basis of personal experience,” says Lightfoot. “I’m the fourth of four kids. I’ve been in Chicago for almost 32 years, but I grew up in Ohio during the 60s and 70s in a small steel-town that was very segregated.”
That town is Massillon, Ohio. Massillon is a blue-collar town 50 miles south of Cleveland with a population of about 33,000. Lightfoot’s success is as rare as a mayor winning an election after setting the record for most closed public schools during their tenure in United States history. Not only is her hometown “overwhelmingly White,” but the most notable people are sports figures. Think the traditional Midwestern football towns that revolve around hard labor and Friday night lights (Lightfoot even played quarterback for her intramural league at the University of Chicago Law School). Like many Black Chicago families, Lightfoot comes from a home rooted in hard work but burdened by race.
“My mother was a housekeeper and she worked a midnight-shift at the mental institution…and then later at the nursing home. She would be classified as a low-wage worker,” recounts Lightfoot. “My father, who lost his hearing through illness, worked really hard to be the man of the house and provide for his family. Given the limitations of race, education, and ability, it was very hard for him. My dad had a full-time job but was often compelled to work two or three jobs.”
Lightfoot inherited this determination to succeed. Her resume boasts the following: a BA in Political Science from the University of Michigan, a J.D. from the University of Chicago Law School, worked for Mayer Brown International LLP (a global law firm founded in Chicago and the 15th largest law firm in the United States) and made partner, Assistant U.S. Attorney in the Criminal Division of the U.S. Attorney’s Office, Northern District of Illinois, outside counsel for Bank of America, Chicago Police Board President, and her most recent position as chair of The Task Force on Police Accountability.
Lightfoot is a candidate with a wealth of experience in policing and criminal law. However, the issues impacting Chicago’s Black communities are varied and copious. One pressing concern is Chicago’s inability to protect its Black populations from the rapid displacement occurring this decade.
“It’s really an issue that animates people all over the city, particularly low to middle-income neighborhoods that are on the rise,” says Lightfoot. “I think we have to get serious about providing sufficient affordable housing units in neighborhoods, instead of relegating them to areas that are inconvenient and less desirable across the city.”
Lightfoot acknowledges that she may not be the most informed on a host of issues outside of her expertise. A mayor needs advisors. Lightfoot looks to bring those who have been studying issues like gentrification, economic development, and housing in conversation with her administration if elected.
“We have to really look long and hard about how we can be engaged with the community on the front-end and to talk about these issues,” she said. “There are a lot of people in Chicago who are subject matter experts. We need to bring those people to the table, those who represent folks who are most affected by policies, and have a smart way in which we address these issues and not ignore them.”
In Chicago, low voter turnout usually means a victory for the incumbent. Such was the case with the last mayoral election–that ended in a runoff– when approximately only 33 percent of Chicago voters made a trip to the ballot box. Challengers to Rahm Emanuel will also be fighting against voter apathy, especially in Black and Brown communities, who felt the worst of politicians’ bad political choices. The distrust between Black citizens and politicians exists. However, Lightfoot believes this relationship can be repaired.
“We’ve seen for many years, at the national level and locally, people feeling completely disaffected from all institutions of government,” she says. “They feel like the government isn’t relevant to them. They feel it constantly takes, and in some instances, actually causes them harm. I think it’s critically important that we have to rebuild that basic relationship between citizens, elected officials, and institutions of government. It is critical to the survival of our democracy. It’s a very a big issue. We have to completely abandon this ‘us vs. them’ mentality; it’s an awful way of governance and it distances people from institutions of government in our democracy. It makes people feel like elected officials are solely politicians looking out for their own self-interests, without any regard for what is in the best interest of their own constituents.”
But is Black Chicago ready for Lori Lightfoot?
If anything, Black Chicagoans should research her record, be cognizant of the families who gave their testimonies to Lightfoot at police board hearings, weigh her rhetoric and talking points against other candidates, and also question our own biases and attitudes about identity.
It’s no secret, that if elected, Lori Lightfoot will be the first lesbian mayor, the first Black woman mayor, the first interracially wedded mayor, and the first Ohio-born mayor. Of course, these things matter when considering that Chicago’s mayors mostly have had a very routine and traditional image–heteronormative nuclear family, White, and male (with the exception of Harold Washington and Jane Byrne). Lori Lightfoot speaks progressive politics and her identity will probably be considered by voters—although not much talk around it has been mentioned. Nevertheless, Lightfoot looks poised to handle what looks to be a grueling race for the top seat in Chicago.
After all, obstacles are nothing new to Lori Lightfoot.