Lori Lightfoot’s Wild Ride
America’s third largest city just made history. Lori Lightfoot — a black, gay woman — won a resounding victory to become mayor of Chicago. Democratic insider Christine Pelosi tells DIE WELTWOCHE that the political outsider faces a tough uphill battle against entrenched political forces in the most corrupt city in the United States. But as Reverend Jesse Jackson says, “people wanted change.”
“This was a wild, wild ride!” a stunned Lori Lightfoot declared to a local Chicago news station. Last Tuesday, the former federal prosecutor who had never before run for elected office made history to become Chicago’s first black female and first openly gay mayor. In a landslide victory, the diminutive and unassuming 56-year-old obliterated her fellow Democrat, long-time Chicago titan Toni Preckwinkle, earning an astonishing 74% of the vote. In another political first, Lightfoot swept all 50 wards of the sprawling, Great Lakes metropolis, including Preckwinkle’s home turf. Donna Brazile, chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee during the 2016 presidential campaign, tells Die Weltwoche, “She whipped the machine.”
It was a bruising battle that included Preckwinkle’s campaign comparing Lightfoot to a Nazi and implying that the University of Chicago Law School graduate was a pawn of white interests. At a Preckwinkle rally two weeks before Election Day, headliner Democratic Congressman Bobby Rush thundered that, “Everyone who votes for Lori: The blood of the next young black man or black woman who is killed by the police is on your hands!”
The youngest of four children originally hailing from a small Ohio town, Lightfoot confesses that, “Being an elected official and certainly being mayor of the third largest city — up until recently, I would have told you you were crazy.”
Up until recently, many Chicago voters would have agreed. As late as last December, Lightfoot was struggling at only 2% in the polls among a field of 14 candidates. Many political observers were skeptical that midwestern voters, especially black voters, would elect an openly lesbian candidate who was, worse yet, married to woman who is white.
“It was a maturing moment for many people,” Reverend Jesse Jackson tells Die Weltwoche. “Blacks tend to be conservative on the issue of homosexuality.” But, as the civil rights leader and Chicago powerbroker points out, “The fact of the matter is she carried every black ward. There was a breakthrough. Many people matured.”
Christine Pelosi, a Democratic campaign coach and daughter of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, credits key endorsements with selling Lightfoot to black, Christian voters. “You had Willy Wilson who had run before and won every black ward. He is a very self identified Christian.” After placing fourth in the mayoral primary with the highest percentage of black votes, Wilson, a gospel music star, threw his support behind Lightfoot and personally shepherded her to black churches. Pelosi tells Die Weltwoche, “Part of that was his own assessment of her character. Part of it, too, is he saw that Chicago had changed. Could she have run and won five, ten years ago? Probably not.” Wilson told the Chicago Tribune, “This thing is about working with me and should be about economic and social issues. It should not go outside of that.”
The campaign was also, crucially, about reforming Chicago’s infamously corrupt political system.
Since the Tommy gun, bullet riddled days of Al Capone, the Windy City has been notorious for its epic levels of graft, bribery, shakedowns, and payoffs. According to a report released in January from the University of Illinois, Chicago ranks as the most corrupt city in the United States. In 2017, the Northern District of Illinois, which includes Chicago, racked up 25 public corruption convictions. Over the past four decades, 1,731 public officials have been convicted of corruption — outpacing Los Angeles, New York, Miami, and Washington DC.
Joe Ferguson, Chicago’s Inspector General in charge of rooting out political crooks, believes, “There is a perverse sense of civic pride in this terrible reputation we have.” In January, one of Chicago’s biggest players, Ed Burke, was indicted for extortion. The fifty year veteran of the city council faces up to 20 years in prison if convicted.
As a former assistant United States Attorney and a political outsider, Lightfoot was well positioned to capitalize on the Burke scandal. Her toughest primary competitors had deep ties to the disgraced Burke. One candidate had even held her wedding in his home. Lightfoot told voters, “We’re rotting from the inside out... There is a moral imperative to do something about it.”
Olivia Morgan, president of the political consulting firm Stand Up Strategies, explains that, “Lightfoot managed to be the clean slate candidate.” Morgan, who helped organize female voter outreach for Chicago hometown hero, then-Senator Obama in the 2008 presidential race, notes that, “The most telling results were in the primary in February where Bill Daley — son and brother of two of Chicago’s storied mayors — couldn’t make it to the runoff slots.”
Jackson says the calculus was simple: “Lightfoot ran on change. Preckwinkle ran on experience. People wanted change.”
Lightfoot also promised to tackle police corruption. In 2015, Mayor Rahm Emanuel, President Obama’s first chief of staff, appointed the coolly analytical trial lawyer to head up the Chicago Police Board. During her tenure, the board fired 72% of the officers investigated for misconduct. She was then appointed to lead the newly formed Police Accountability Task Force to investigate the police shooting death of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald.
“To be clear, Rahm asked Lori to lead,” Pelosi says. The high profile murder case and subsequent coverup was roiling the city and sinking Emanuel’s tenure. “But then he refused to adopt all of the reforms her task force recommended. So, she filed to run against him.” And in a move that stunned the political world, “Rahm saw the writing on the wall and declined to run for re-election. The lesson: Don’t ask a reformer for advice, then reject the advice!”
Pelosi warns, however, that Lightfoot the Reformer will be inheriting all of the endemic problems — political corruption, council member turf wars, gun violence, income inequality — that bedeviled her predecessor. “All of the people burrowed in — the bureaucrats burrowed in from Daley and Emanuel — they’re there. Changing things is still going to be very difficult.” Nevertheless, the election of a black, openly gay woman to lead America’s third largest city with a population of over 2.7 million is “huge!”
Lightfoot joins seven other black women who are currently serving as mayors in major US cities, including Atlanta, San Francisco, and New Orleans. She also joins a “rainbow wave” of over 150 LGBT victories in the 2018 midterm elections, including the election of Colorado Governor Jared Polis and the re-election of Oregon Governor Kate Brown. In America’s conservative, red state heartland, Kansas, Nebraska, and Indiana are, for the first time, sending LGBT legislators to their state capitals.
Pelosi, who serves as a superdelegate for the DNC, believes Lightfoot’s resounding win demonstrates that, “People are ready for women in power. People are ready for black women in power, lesbians in power.” LPAC, a lesbian political action committee founded by TD Ameritrade heiress Laura Ricketts, a director of the Chicago Cubs Major League Baseball Club, has raised over $4.5 million since its founding in 2012. LPAC’s endorsement of Lightfoot generated campaign donations from all over the country.
For her part, the mayor-elect is philosophical. At a unity event hosted by Jackson and his Rainbow PUSH Coalition the morning after the election, she told the assembled leaders, including her vanquished rival, “Honeymoons come and go, and I want to make sure we’re doing everything we can to really breathe life into the historic nature of this election — with two African American women running. That is a huge change in our city which we cannot underestimate.”
Even President Trump, recognizing the import of her achievement, surprised Lightfoot with a congratulatory phone call from the White House. Trump senior advisor Ivanka Kushner also rang the mayor-elect to offer her support and discuss early childhood programs. The First Daughter’s call came as such a surprise that, as Lightfoot told Chicago NBC News, she wondered if she was “getting catfished.” Identities confirmed, the conversations were “very cordial” and the president conveyed “a genuine interest in trying to be helpful to the city.” Lightfoot also gently noted that Trump “did most of the talking.”
Jackson, who has been at the center of Chicago politics for decades, is confident that Lightfoot has the mettle to challenge the city’s brutal political culture that awaits after her May 20th swearing in. As he tells Die Weltwoche, “She has the toughness of the giants; she has the tenderness of heart to be sensitive of people; and the sensibility to stop the snakes.” In Chicago, “These unions and corporate giants will run over you. There is no doubt they will not run over Lori, and that’s a good thing.”