CHICAGO — Mayor Lori Lightfoot officially announced her bid for a second term on Tuesday, confirming the worst-kept secret in town.
The first-term Democratic mayor is pinning her 2023 reelection hopes on her record managing the Covid-19 pandemic, pushing a tough-on-crime message in neighborhoods struggling with violence, and embracing a brand of withering honesty she’s wagered Chicagoans respect. She’s also championed a recent $15 minimum wage, created the city’s first civilian-led police oversight panel, and backed affordable housing and guaranteed income projects.
“They say I’m tough. They say I get angry. They say, sometimes, I take things personally. You know what I say? They’re absolutely right,” she says in a video announcing her reelection.
Lightfoot's biggest recent victory is one that eluded her predecessors: a deal to build a casino in Chicago, where a portion of the revenues will go toward paying off police and fire-fighter employee pensions that have vexed previous executives. It’s a move that will cut the chances of her needing to enact deeply unpopular property tax hikes ahead of the 2023 municipal elections.
But after winning a runoff election in 2019 where she swept all 50 of Chicago’s wards as a political outsider and reform candidate, Lightfoot has a real fight on her hands. A city once ruled for decades by Mayor Richard M. Daley is feeling out mayoral turnover. And despite her achievements and aggressive fundraising operation, Lightfoot has many critics across the political spectrum — attracting at least six challengers focused on crime.
“So many residents throughout the city are concerned about safety, and until they feel secure and safe, Mayor Lightfoot’s campaign is at stake,” said Susan Garrett, a former Democratic state senator and now chair of the nonprofit Center for Illinois Politics. “Her heart is in the right place and I think she works hard. It’s a challenge for any mayor in Chicago, but this is where she should be focusing.”
Lightfoot remains the frontrunner in the race given her competitors are lesser-financed and, for the most part, lesser known: state Rep. Kam Buckner, Ald. Raymond Lopez, Ald. Roderick Sawyer, businessman Willie Wilson, former Chicago Public Schools chief Paul Vallas, and LGBTQ media consultant DJ Doran.
Although Chicago Police say violence is on the decline, residents still see it as the No. 1 issue of concern, according to polling by other campaigns. Over Memorial Day weekend alone, more than 50 people were shot, nine fatally. A deadly shooting in the middle of Millennium Park, an area popular with tourists, shook the city. And a third Chicago Police officer was shot this past weekend.
Many of Lightfoot’s opponents launched their campaigns in part by attacking the mayor’s handling of violence. And to her critics more broadly, Lightfoot is a mayor without a plan.
She hired a police chief who has struggled to gain support from his ranks. And after years of getting attention from her predecessor, Rahm Emanuel, Chicago’s downtown business district has felt ignored — a sentiment that boiled over when violence broke out along the Magnificent Mile following George Floyd’s murder in 2020.
Lightfoot has ramped up her criticism of the criminal court system for releasing too many alleged offenders before trial, urging criminal court judges to use more discretion. “We don’t want to turn Cook County jail into a debtor’s prison,” she told reporters this week. “But residents in our community are also entitled to safety from dangerous people.”
One consistent thread for Lightfoot is her focus on stronger ethics rules across city government, including local lawmakers.
She was elected as a reformer after calling out the hypocrisy of letting Democratic Ald. Edward Burke remain a fixture in city government while he is under federal investigation for using his office for personal gain. As mayor, Lightfoot has introduced ethics measures that strengthen the inspector general’s office and tighten the rules for lobbying disclosures in the City Council. She also ushered in heftier fines for ethics violations.
“She’s made more progress on ethics and good government than anyone since Harold Washington,” former City Council member and political consultant Dick Simpson said in an interview, comparing Lightfoot to Chicago’s first Black mayor. Simpson was part of Lightfoot’s inner circle when she first ran for office and he’s supporting her 2023 run, too.
But others say Lightfoot’s record on transparency has fallen short of her campaign promises, pointing to a botched police raid on the home of Anjanette Young, a Black social worker who was made to stand around naked and handcuffed. Although the incident took place before Lightfoot was mayor, her administration wasn’t immediately forthcoming about it when the details became public last year.
Another key campaign promise was to bring transparency to city government by loosening the near-unilateral grip that city council members have on matters within their wards — everything from controlling who gets a business license and the kinds of signs they can put up. Though she has made some progress at ending the culture, the practice still persists.
“Many had hoped she was really going to make these types of reforms a priority. And I don’t know that we’ve seen that,” said Alisa Kaplan, executive director of the nonpartisan Reform for Illinois. “Some of that, I think, is because things look different from a candidate’s position versus an officeholder’s position.”
What really bothers Lightfoot’s critics is the mayor’s bristly demeanor — something they say gets in the way of managing the city — and her critics are likely to hone in on her temperament throughout the mayoral campaign.
In a dispute with attorneys for the Joint Civic Committee of Italian Americans involving a statue of Christopher Columbus, Lightfoot is accused of saying, “My dick is bigger than yours and the Italians, I have the biggest dick in Chicago.”
Lightfoot denies making the comment but that didn’t stop the headlines in part because it didn’t seem out of character for the mayor, which has made the statement hard to shake. Supporters call it a double standard, noting how Lightfoot’s male predecessors — especially Emanuel, whose penchant for profanity is well-known in Washington — were known for having similar choice words in heated moments.
“Lightfoot is vulnerable because of self-inflicted wounds. She wants to rule like Daley and Emanuel, but she was elected based on the promise of something different,” said Delmarie Cobb, a longtime Chicago-based political consultant who has worked on several Democratic campaigns. “What’s most surprising are the incidents that show a lack of finesse and polish.”
But Lightfoot embraces her frankness.
“When we fight for change, confront a global pandemic, work to keep kids in school, take on guns and gangs, systemic inequality and political corruption only to have powerful forces try and stop progress for Chicago — of course I take it personally, for our city,” she said in her Tuesday campaign launch video.
Lightfoot’s allies point to personality traits they like.
“She has determination. She doesn't want to go back to the old way of doing business in this city,” said Ald. Scott Waguespack, who Lightfoot appointed to the City Council’s finance committee. “She's pushed us all to invest in areas of the city neglected for decades. Finances are improving and minority participation in city finances increased significantly for the first time.”
Chicago has a history of having abrasive, aggressive mayors, said Democratic state Rep. Kelly Cassidy, an ally who’s known Lightfoot for 30 years.
“Then comes a Black lesbian and suddenly people are clutching their pearls,” she said. “I want my mayor to throw down for my city.”
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