Logan Square resident Lori Lightfoot has entered a crowded field in the race to be mayor of Chicago. While some would be daunted by the prospect of taking on incumbent Rahm Emanuel, Lightfoot has taken on the mayor in the past and beaten the odds her whole career.
Lightfoot on Public Schools
Lightfoot was raised in a working-class black family in Ohio. Her father often took on multiple jobs to support the family and her mother also worked outside the home. She attended public school and credits a quality public education for her success later in life.
“I know from my own experience that when you’ve got a good quality neighborhood school where kids can safely walk to the school with people that live on their block, they form lifelong relationships and families form lifelong relationships that support each other that become a network, a social network that they can rely upon,” Lightfoot said.
Lightfoot had hoped to provide her daughter with a community schooling experience but instead found a broken system.
“My wife and I always thought that [our daughter] would be in public schools because we’re both public school kids,” she said. “But when we went to get her enrolled in pre-school, there was no opportunity because the slots were full, and the waiting list was interminably long.”
Lightfoot is committed to building the quality of neighborhood schools instead of shifting investment to charter and selective enrollment alternatives. Her platform includes an elected school board and more opportunities for teachers, parents and other stakeholders to give input on what goes on in the school system.
“If you look at the way in which the 50 public schools were closed, the way in which the Englewood high schools conversation went and the closing of those schools or the [closing of] the National Teachers Academy—in each of those instances, parents, teachers and stakeholders were not valued or respected,” Lightfoot said. “They were not invited into the discussion.”
Bringing people into the discussion is a focus of Lightfoot not just in her rhetoric, but in her action. During her time as Chair of the Police Accountability Task Force, Lightfoot made a point to provide a platform for people who felt ignored in the policing debate.
“We engaged people from all over the city,” she said. “We had to do the hard work of digging down deep, looking at national best practices, inviting people into the discussion even when they were yelling and screaming at us.”
The task force did not pull any punches and went so far as to call for the superintendent of police to publicly acknowledge the department’s “history of racial disparity and discrimination.” Incoming police superintendent Eddie Johnson did just that, but the task force’s other suggestions such as increased oversight and improved training practices have not been acted on. Lightfoot said her administration would make those changes some of its first priorities.
This break with the current administration has rubbed some at City Hall the wrong way. Alderman Nick Sposato called Lightfoot’s decision to challenge the mayor who appointed her, the “ultimate act of betrayal.” Lightfoot said in an emailed statement that she feels no need to remain loyal to Rahm Emanuel since he has “consistently rebuffed my efforts and similar efforts by others to build a more inclusive government.”
The willingness Lightfoot has to go against her own higher-ups should not have come as a surprise to Mayor Emanuel. During her stint as the president of student government at the University of Chicago Law School, Lightfoot took on the administration in support of a fellow black female student. The student had interviewed with multinational law firm Baker McKenzie and faced questions and comments that made her deeply uncomfortable.
“She tells this idiot that she interviews with that she likes to golf, and he’s shocked,” Lightfoot said. “He says, ‘Well, I guess there aren’t many black people who golf because there aren’t that many golf courses in the ghetto,’ and it went downhill from there.”
With full knowledge of their status as a major donor to the school, Lightfoot used her position to bar Baker McKenzie from interviewing with U Chicago students.
Lightfoot’s lived experience as an African-American, a woman and a member of the LGBTQ community have given her a perspective she applies to all the work she does.
“My sense of justice and my sense of equity and inclusion is very well developed and I’m not going to stand on the sidelines when bad things happen,” she said. “I’m the kind of person that jumps into the fray and tries to lead.”
The G Word
The third priority of the Lightfoot campaign is combatting the housing injustice she has seen throughout the near northwest side. She has lived in Logan Square for almost 14 years and in Bucktown and Wicker Park for “another six or seven.” In that time she has seen the area transform in positive and negative ways as new businesses, families and individuals move in. Gentrification has been hitting Logan Square hard recently, noticeable by the many apartment complexes going up and opening their leasing doors.
“I think we have a lot of great things that are happening in our area,” Lightfoot said. “But, we gotta make sure we are managing that growth and that gentrification in a way that doesn’t force out longtime residents.”
She said she would consider supporting efforts to lift the ban on rent control, but her focus would be creating more affordable housing options all over the city.
“Depending on who you talk to, we’re 150 or 300 thousand affordable housing units down,” Lightfoot said. “So, the rent control issue has to be part of a larger conversation about creating affordable housing opportunities so that people can stay in their neighborhoods and have access to jobs and transportation and good decent schools.”
For Lightfoot, the issues facing Chicago aren’t disparate but deeply interconnected. Her plans for affordable housing and education reform go hand in hand with her vision of increased safety for communities, particularly on the South and West Sides of Chicago.
“If our kids, from their youngest age, grow up in an environment where everything around them says danger and the anxiety of adults around them reinforces that, we are going to have kids who have a very skewed sense of themselves and the world around them,” Lightfoot said. “If people don’t feel safe, little else matters.”
So, Who is Lori Lightfoot?
The competition for the “progressive” vote is heating up. Rival candidate Troy LaRaviere has attempted to position himself as the “Bernie Sanders” candidate and called Lightfoot’s commitment to those ideas into question. Amara Enyia and Ja’Mal Green have also positioned their campaigns considerably left of center. As a former federal prosecutor and city employee, Lightfoot has been working within the system for decades and with that comes institutional knowledge but also a paper trail. She hopes her experience and her idealist vision prove to be a winning combination.
Lightfoot first moved to Chicago in the summer of 1986 during the height of Harold Washington’s re-election campaign. She had heard about the dirty politics and racism of the council wars and the Bernard Epton campaign with its slogan. “Epton for mayor… Before it’s too late.”
“What I saw was this incredible vitality and spirit in the city that frankly I don’t know that we’ve really seen since,” Lightfoot said. “People were proud and excited to vote for a different kind of future.”
She chose to come to Chicago—and after seeing both its darkness and its light—she decided to stay.
“I decided to get into this race because I love the city and I want to make sure the opportunities and the greatness of this city are available to everyone, not dictated by who you are, your ethnicity, your race, who you love, the God you worship or your zip code,” Lightfoot said. “I want to make sure our neighborhoods are valued and prioritized, not just the downtown area.”
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