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The Progressive Black Lesbian Who Could Be Chicago's Mayor

Lori Lightfoot

Chicago has been called the city that works – but most cities work for the residents with a measure of affluence. Now, as Chicago prepares to elect a new mayor, a black lesbian candidate is confident she can make the city work better for everyone.

“Chicago is an incredibly great city, but it was clear to me that greatness wasn’t being spread to all our neighborhoods,” says Lori Lightfoot, a lawyer and longtime community activist, of her decision to enter the mayoral race.

Lightfoot, the first out LGBTQ candidate to run for Chicago mayor, is one of 14 candidates for the office on the ballot in next Tuesday’s municipal election. There is no incumbent in the race, as Mayor Rahm Emanuel announced last fall that he would not seek a third term. If no candidate wins a majority of the vote – and it’s pretty much assured that no one will – the top two vote recipients will go into a runoff election April 2. Chicago is heavily Democratic, but municipal races are officially nonpartisan.

If Lightfoot wins, Chicago, the nation's third-largest city, will be the biggest ever to have a mayor from the LGBTQ community, Houston, the fourth-largest, had a lesbian mayor, Annise Parker.

Lightfoot grew up in a working-class family in northern Ohio, got her undergraduate degree at the University of Michigan, then worked as a legislative aide to two members of Congress – first Republican Ralph Regula, from her home district in Ohio, then Democrat Barbara Mikulski of Maryland. She moved to Chicago in 1986, having won a scholarship to attend law school at the University of Chicago, from which she graduated in 1989. Law school was also when she came out to her family, to unqualified acceptance.

Since then she’s stayed in the Windy City, with the exception of a year spent clerking at the Michigan Supreme Court, and built an increasingly high profile. She has worked as a federal prosecutor and as an attorney with the law firm of Mayer Brown, and she’s served on the boards of numerous organizations, such as NARAL Illinois and the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois. She has held several positions in city government, including chief of staff and general counsel of the Chicago Office of Emergency Management and Communications. In 2015, Emanuel appointed her as president of the Chicago Police Board and then chair of the Police Accountability Task Force.

Her work on those police oversight bodies came after the long-delayed release of a video of the 2014 shooting death of black teenager Laquan McDonald at the hands of white policeman Jason Van Dyke. This led to the firing of police superintendent Garry McCarthy and a second-degree murder conviction for Van Dyke, who fired 16 shots at McDonald. The task force released a “scathing” report on police misconduct, and the U.S. Department of Justice released an equally critical one, leading to court-overseen reform of the Chicago Police Department, the Chicago Sun-Times noted in its editorial endorsing Lightfoot for mayor.

Police reform will continue to be one of Lightfoot’s priorities as mayor, she says, with efforts to reduce misconduct and expand civilian oversight. Another key issue is addressing the city’s high rate of violence, which chiefly affects poor neighborhoods and is often caused by unlicensed firearms that come in from other cities and states (last week's mass shooting happened in Aurora, a suburb to the west of Chicago).

“We have to have a much more proactive strategy to keep guns off the streets,” she says. For her, this includes stricter gun laws, cooperation with state and federal officials, and treating gun violence as a public health crisis.

Other priorities include investing in neighborhood schools, encouraging economic development around the city, expanding affordable housing, and protecting LGBTQ Chicagoans, particularly those who face the biggest challenges, like transgender people, communities of color, and young people, who often experience homelessness.

Emanuel, a former congressman and chief of staff to President Barack Obama, has been criticized by progressives over a variety of matters, including the closing of many public schools and the delay in releasing the video of McDonald’s shooting. Lightfoot, who announced her mayoral candidacy before Emanuel made it known he would not run again, declines to state a laundry list of differences with Emanuel, mayor since 2011, or his predecessor, Richard M. Daley. But she does say, “The economic development strategy of the past 10 years has focused almost exclusively on the downtown area to the detriment of the neighborhoods.”

She pledges to change that. Chicago does have a vibrant downtown, with impressive office towers and world-class museums, shopping, and entertainment, drawing a tourist trade that’s the envy of many cities. But the city government must strengthen neighborhoods along with the central business district, she says: “You can do both, and you must do both.”

As the mayor’s race comes down to the wire, it’s anyone’s guess who’ll finish in the top two next week. A recent poll by Telemundo and Chicago NBC affiliate WMAQ found Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle in the lead with 14 percent, followed by Bill Daley, the brother and son of mayors (Richard M. Daley and the late Richard J. Daley) and a veteran of the Obama and Clinton administrations, with 13 percent. Illinois Comptroller Susana Mendoza was third with 12 percent, and Lightfoot fourth with 10 percent. The poll has a margin of error of plus or minus four percentage points, meaning Lightfoot could be in contention for the top spot. The largest portion of respondents – 19 percent – were undecided.

Lightfoot, who is married to educational consultant Amy Eshelman, with whom she has a 10-year-old daughter, reports that her race, gender, and sexual orientation have been nonissues in the mayoral contest – notable in a city where the first black mayor, Harold Washington, encountered strong resistance from many conservative whites. Also, Chicago has had only one woman mayor, Jane Byrne.

“I hope my presence in this race serves as an important reminder of the progress we’ve made in equality and inclusion,” Lightfoot says.  

In addition to the endorsement by the Sun-Times, one of the city’s two daily papers, Lightfoot has the backing of the LGBTQ Victory Fund; Equality Illinois, the statewide LGBTQ rights group; LPAC, which works to elect LGBTQ women and allies; and Region 67 of the Illinois Education Association, representing teachers at several Chicago-area colleges.

The Sun-Times endorsement has been a boost, says Lightfoot, who’s optimistic going into next week. “We’re all within striking distance of each other,” she says of the leading candidates. But she fully expects the race will go to the runoff. “Guaranteed,” she says.

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