In her first campaign for mayor, Lori Lightfoot was something of a cipher, someone Chicagoans could project any number of feelings or impressions upon.
She was an experienced lawyer who had undertaken a few public-facing roles. She tapped into popular discontent with the politicians running against her and won in a landslide.
Lightfoot is more animated on the stump talking about neighborhood investments than she is about any other issue, even if, as the Tribune reported, many of the largest initiatives of her signature Invest South/West initiative were planned after she took office.
And it is meaningful and important that Chicago elected a gay Black woman to lead its government after decades of homophobic, racist, and chauvinistic politics. But her tendency to repeatedly say things that simultaneously alienate both sides of an issue, compounded by the often-displayed harshness of her personality, her inexperience managing the staff and bureaucracy that manage the nation’s third-largest city, and the inescapable difficulty in connecting with the public have made her reelection anything but certain.
Despite how removed elected officials are from people’s daily lives, Lightfoot is no longer a cipher. Chicago will soon see if voters give her another term.
The Reader interviewed Lightfoot on Jan. 13, after she hosted an interfaith prayer breakfast honoring Martin Luther King Jr.
Gettinger: You faced an unprecedented confluence of crises in your first term: the pandemic, the George Floyd uprising, a restive City Council, just to name a few. How do you navigate that as a new mayor?
Lightfoot: Very carefully. Look, it has been unprecedented. We’ve had a lot of headwinds, some of which were clearly unexpected and beyond our control, top among them a global pandemic that turned everything that we understood as our role upside-down. There’s no playbook for that.
Luckily, we have a very well-prepared Department of Public Health. Luckily we built a very good, strong team—not just subject matter experts but people who are truly committed to service. And we have grown together. We as a mayor’s office, we as a city government, but we as a city—we’ve been through life together. Every facet of it in these past four years.
My primary focus in the early days of the pandemic was really focused on three big buckets. One was to make sure that our healthcare system didn’t buckle, because at that time we were seeing what was happening in China and other parts of Asia. We were seeing what was happening on the West Coast and starting to see what was happening in New York and the surrounding area.
So I was very concerned that we did not have a health care system that buckled and was not able to manage itself to manage the patients who were in need, because that was one of the dire predictions that was resonating across the media in that early time. So the health care system and making sure that that didn’t happen was very much on my mind. And not surprisingly, another area of focus was health care workers and first responders. Your health care system is going to fail if the workers are not safe and protected. So we did a lot in those early days to make sure that we were shoring up those vital essential workers: first responders, police, fire, EMTs. That was also really important.
And then also in our city, making sure that our most vulnerable residents: our seniors, our homeless, the people who were not connected to health care—those most vulnerable residents were the worry of many of us, me included, and making sure that we were doing everything that we could right away to reach out to them. That’s why we decompressed homeless shelters. That’s why we worked hand in hand with Sheriff Dart to ensure the Cook County Jail didn’t become a leading COVID hotspot.
And then fanning out from there, as we started seeing data from testing rolling in and understanding who was getting sick, who was dying—I’ll never forget for the rest of my life—in early April learning about the fact that Black people in this city were dying at seven times the rate of every other demographic. That was the ultimate call to action.
The election of a Black lesbian was historic, and you were elected with a lot of support from the LGBTQ community. Can you talk about the policies you’ve enacted to make Chicago more welcoming to the LGBTQ community?
Well first of all, I think that it’s important that I lead by example and that I’m unapologetic. You know well that over the arc of our history there have been prominent leaders from our community who never say the words, “I am gay.” That’s not me. And so I think that part of it is really important.
I cannot tell you the number of parents who come to me, usually pulling me aside and whispering in my ear, “My son/my daughter has come out. We admire you.” Because, look, I think a lot of straight parents who didn’t have that vision for their child, didn’t know that that was a possibility. When they learn—even if they’re accepting—they’re worried about: “What kind of life is my child going to have? Are they going to be happy? Are they going to be able to have a family? Will they be accepted? Will they have the kind of life that I envisioned for them?’”
And what I hope is, through me as a role model, that I’m able to show, “Yes, yes yes”—the answer to all those questions. Vanquish those fears, because there is, in this moment in our time, even as we’re in this tough time—and I don’t underestimate that, for our community that is under siege, particularly our trans brothers and sisters—that those parents who are out there and particularly our children see that there are people like me who’ve fought that fight, come out on the other side of it, and are better for it, frankly. And that they can now walk in the path that was blazed for me and that I am hopefully blazing for them.
In your 2018 framework for LGBTQ Chicago, there was a promise or a proposal of shelters for LGBTQ kids in the city. That hasn’t happened. What have you done to address homeless LGBTQ youth?
I think the thing that we have done is make sure that we are supporting those existing places, both with beds but, importantly, programming in places of connection. Because when I was campaigning back in 2018 for example, I went to a shelter up on the north side, just north of Addison on Ashland, and remember thinking, “These folks need help and resources.” And what I heard from the people who ran the shelter and employees is that young people, and particularly young people of color, were coming from all over the city because those resources weren’t there.
Now I’m not going to tell you we’ve done everything yet. We haven’t. But we have made sure that resources are flowing, that supports are there, even though this is a very tough time. I’m very painfully aware that a certain percentage of the people who are living on the street are the people from my community, LGBTQ youth, who left their homes or were thrown out of their home because they sought to live their authentic life. I think there’s still a lot more work that we must do, and I am 100 percent committed to doing it.
Particularly funding—I think of it as earmarks for transgender Chicagoans and that kind of stuff. What is your administration doing to address the high rates of unemployment, off-market employment, homelessness—particularly for trans people in Chicago. What are you guys doing to invest in that community?
First and foremost, we have to start with a values statement. We have to recognize and say, “Our trans brothers and sisters deserve the same access to the benefits of this city as everyone else.” The values statement is critically important, then we have to back it up with real, concrete, tangible actions. Again, making sure that, for example, on my advisory committee, that we have members of the trans community that are front and center.
Who’s on it?
It’s a pretty diverse group, and they’re not shy. But making sure that I’m hearing directly from them about the continuing challenge of their community. I’m, obviously, a lesbian, but I’m not a trans woman or man, and I don’t get to pretend that I have captured and understand fully the unique challenges that they face on a day-to-day basis. Making sure that I am present in those communities and that people see me with my trans brothers and sisters.
And then again, it’s about putting your money where your mouth is, making sure that we are putting money into resources. It’s also about raising the necessity with other institutions within city government who need to be there to support the trans community, notably the police department. We can’t live in a world where trans lives don’t matter. We can’t live in a world where trans women in particular are getting assaulted and murdered and those cases are falling by the wayside.
One of the things I’m proudest of is increasing the number of liaisons from the police department to the LGBTQ+ community and making sure that we are focused on supporting trans lives. We have a member of our community who is a senior leader in the police department in a community policing role. So making sure that our presence is noted, that this is a priority for me, and that we are holding ourselves, each and every department, accountable to be responsive to the needs of that and other vulnerable communities in our city.
Do you think the relationship between you and the Chicago Teachers Union can be repaired?
If I see, and they articulate, a commitment to putting our children first, a commitment to respecting the voices of parents as the first principles, the core principles around which they rally, then absolutely. I think there’s ample opportunity for us to reach common ground because that’s where I’m at. That’s where I’ve always been at. Our kids come first. Creating safe, nurturing environments for them has to be the primary work that we’re about. And we would love the partnership of the CTU, but I think we’re, right now, on different planets.
Another historic first is the fact that civilians will be elected to police district councils. How do you intend to engage with the Community Commission for Public Safety and Accountability and the district councilors to improve public safety, both in terms of crime and police misconduct?
I think that their primary focus should be, as embedded in the ordinance, to help decipher the various levers of accountability and to be a voice for community members who need constitutional policing. An emphasis on “constitutional,” because they need a police department that sees them and respects them. They need a police department that understands the most-important tool that officers have is being a champion of a community. And I think, to me, that’s got to be the primary focus and work of the commission.
And I’ve said it to the interim group of commissioners. I’m going to say it again, over and over again, because I believe that, to me, is their highest calling.
How can the city address homelessness and ensure we’re comprehensively and sustainably getting people the homes they need to survive and thrive?
I think we have laid the groundwork for that in these first four years. Our relentless work on closing the gap in affordable units across our city is critically important, and that goes to address the issue. I think our seven-fold increase in the amount of services that are now available to residents of our city at no cost is a part of it. I think our monumental investments in substance abuse addiction treatments are a big part of it. Because you know as well as I do, people are on the street for a variety of reasons. Some of it’s financial, some of it’s mental health, some of it’s substance abuse, and sometimes it’s all of the above.
So we’ve done, I think, important work and brought the biggest investments in the city’s history, but we know that there’s more work to do, and this is a very complicated problem. We are fortunate that we don’t see the proliferation of homeless people on our streets like we see in other cities across the country, particularly on the West Coast and the Northwest Coast, despite sometimes the hyperbolic language that we hear from some.
But we got a challenge, and I firmly believe, particularly as we sit here in January—it’s not as cold as it usually is this time of year, but none of God’s children should be living on the streets in cold weather, hot weather, or in any weather. It’s not a life that supports them in what I hope are pursuits to live out their best lives and to really be a part of the fabric of our city. It pains me when I go by and see the encampments. It pains me when I see the way in which people are suffering.
But it’s not just about “do I have enough units?” It’s about making sure that we’re forming a relationship with the people, that we have the wraparound services to help them see the virtue in moving through the various stages of housing to get to a place of independent living.
In the next four years, what will you do to improve CTA reliability, frequency, safety, and comfort?
The reason that we’ve made progress and we’ve seen the numbers of violent incidents of crime go down in the last few months of 2022 was a number of things that we put in place. Number one is that we sat and listened to the frontline workers: the bus drivers, the people who work in the rail section of CTA. And they told us what they felt like they needed to feel safe. That’s important. In the dark old days of the summer of 2020 when we heard from Amalgamated Transit Union members: “We don’t feel safe. We don’t want to come to work. We don’t feel like we’re going to be protected.” We have to be constantly listening and engaging with them because the people who are closest to the challenges are closest to the solutions.
The other reason we made progress is because what we heard from those workers, from riders, is we want more police on the CTA. We want uniformed officers to be present. Heard it loud and clear. We’re delivering that.
The CTA also, frankly, has to step up its game, and it has. You can’t just issue rider alerts; you’ve got to go out to communities. You also have to listen. You’ve got to be part of the solution. You’ve got to bring the non-uniformed security personnel. And you’ve got to keep being diligent all the time.
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