Chicago mayor exits proud after getting ‘a lot of s--t done’
Lori Lightfoot lost in the first round of voting. But she told POLITICO she’s glad the tough-on-crime candidate didn’t win either.
CHICAGO — Lori Lightfoot was denied a second term, and — in classic Lori Lightfoot fashion — she insists she has no regrets.
After winning all 50 wards in 2019, the mayor steered Chicago through a pandemic and civil unrest, landed a long-sought casino deal and improved the city’s finances. But she was also an unfiltered Democratic outsider who seemed to make more political enemies than allies. And in a mayor’s race consumed with concerns about violent crime, the person presiding over all of it was always going to struggle in the polls and be dissected for how the party should message on the issue.
Lightfoot, 60, locked horns with members of the police union, the teachers union, the press, the city’s former watchdog, and many, many in the City Council. She can be profane, not unlike the man she succeeded, Rahm Emanuel.
“There’s been this obsession that ‘She’s not nice’ and ‘She rubs people the wrong way.’ Well, we got a lot of shit done,” Lightfoot said during an interview in her office on the 5th Floor of City Hall, describing how her critics have portrayed her. “And I am proud. I’m very proud of it, unapologetically.”
She even played off that tension in a farewell address two days ago, after the interview, taking a swipe at pundits and the news media for “obsessing” about her temperament. Then, she said, the four-letter word she was fond of “was spelled h-o-p-e.”
After she steps down on Monday, leaving electoral politics entirely, her photo will be added to a wall in the lobby of City Hall featuring pictures of her 55 predecessors, where just one woman and two other brown faces are on display. Lightfoot even used her exit to reignite her long-running tension with the media by deciding to sit down with just one print media organization before she leaves office: POLITICO.
It’s one way she broadcasts that she lost reelection but not her right jab. In her mind, disruption was what voters bought when they elected her over longtime Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle, who also chairs the county Democratic Party.
“I came into government with a mandate of 75 percent of votes to break up the status quo and to make sure that I was doing things and putting ordinary residents of our city front and center,” Lightfoot said. “With that mandate, you’re going to disrupt the status quo. You’re going to make some people angry.”
Given how important public safety was in a mayor’s race that attracted nine Democratic candidates this year, Lightfoot said the party needs to figure out how to balance its themes. Progressive Mayor-elect Brandon Johnson won running to Lightfoot’s left and that of other Black mayors, including Eric Adams in New York City, on policing, so she said it’s critical to weave multiple issues together.
“As Democrats, we can’t just talk about police reform or criminal justice reform. What we leave out when we just focus on those two parts of a larger whole, is we leave out the victims and witnesses who have to be at the table,” said Lightfoot, who once served as president of an oversight board of Chicago’s police force before she was elected mayor.
“If we don’t talk about the grandmas, the moms, the kids, the families that are under siege in neighborhoods that are violent here and across the country ... and we don’t advocate for them,” she said, “we are missing out entirely.”
In Lightfoot, Chicago didn’t get inspiring speeches — or any glimpse of the chumminess that can surround a machine politician. But she also lacked key allies in the statehouse to get her legislative agenda passed in Springfield. And until recently, she had an arm’s length relationship with Gov. JB Pritzker.
Lightfoot liked who she liked, and didn’t like who she didn’t like and everyone knew what their position was with the mayor.
So it stood out that despite her toxic relationship with the Chicago Teachers Union, which backed Johnson in the mayor’s race, Lightfoot has already met with the mayor-elect and made it clear that it’s Paul Vallas’ defeat that she is savoring. She said she felt “vindicated” when Vallas, a moderate Democrat who championed a tough-on-crime message throughout the campaign, lost in the runoff.
In addition to celebrating who didn’t win the race, Lightfoot is also buffeted by her own successes.
She can point to economic development on the neglected South and West sides, the expansion of the city’s rail system into the South Side, championing a minimum wage hike and mobilizing $1 billion for affordable housing construction. And the $1.7 billion Bally’s casino deal on the Chicago River was a project that had eluded her predecessors. Lightfoot was also a key figure — alongside Pritzker and other wealthy Illinois Democrats — in steering the 2024 Democratic National Convention to Chicago.
“I don’t spend a lot of time dwelling on regret,” Lightfoot said. “When you are dealing with crisis after crisis — fiscal crises, public health crises, public safety crises — you have to make decisions in the moment and you try to make the best decisions you can.”
At one point during the interview, she did acknowledge that “no one could make perfect decisions under the circumstances in which we operate” and that she tries to learn. But she declined to offer an example of where she might have stumbled.
Her one-term victories, Lightfoot said, should also demonstrate that leaders who rankle unions, their party or the media can still get things done.
Lightfoot said there wasn’t any singular moment when she realized voters weren’t behind her like they were four years ago. But she knows Chicagoans were upset — about something.
“In an environment where people’s lives have been completely upended as a result of Covid and all the other consequences — the economic meltdown, a spike in violence — the biggest challenge for every, every incumbent mayor, me included, was not whose name was on the ballot, but the piercing of what I call the anger bubble,” she said. “People are angry. People are fearful. People are frustrated, and they’re looking for somebody to blame and it’s easy to blame the incumbent mayor.”
A frustration for Lightfoot’s campaign was about timing. Violent crimes, including homicides and robberies, spiked when the pandemic began but had started to come down in 2022 — though not enough to shake the perception that public safety was spiraling out of control.
Lightfoot hopes the view of Chicago’s public safety woes improve, especially as the city prepares for the Democratic convention next year.
Although Lightfoot is done with elected office, she wouldn’t discuss what she’ll do next until after she leaves.
For now, Lightfoot said, “I’m excited about being a full-time mom, full-time spouse and a full-time private citizen.”