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ELECTIONS 2019 Lori Lightfoot on her runoff campaign
by Matt Simonette

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Attorney Lori Lightfoot, who is openly lesbian, finished ahead of multiple contenders vying for the Chicago's mayor's post on Feb. 26.

Since then, Lightfoot has been been locked in fierce opposition with Cook County Board President Toni Precckwinkle, who finished second that night, in the runoff election to determine who ultimately occupies the fifth-floor office of City Hall. Shortly after a Feb. 24 rally in Uptown, Lightfoot discussed the election and some of the accusations that have been leveled against her.

Windy City Times: What has been the biggest difference between running this campaign in the runoff and running it in the general election?

Lori Lightfoot: I think everything in the campaign has been raised to a different level. I think people in the city are really paying attention in a way that they didn't before Feb. 26.

So, certainly the crowds are larger and the enthusiasm is larger. I think the difference is this: People want a change, but they were skeptical about whether it was possible. The [Chicago] Machine is built to last—it's had a tremendous grip on literally everything how we move through the world [in Chicago] in government and business, and even little things at the neighborhood level are very much controlled by the Machine. People were tired of it and they wanted change, and they didn't necessarily think that it was possible. The fact that I won, as an anti-Machine candidate, and the way in which I won—better-funded and with better name recognition—really has ignited this incredible energy, and I'm hearing it from everyone, from the elite business community to the more grassroots [coalitions] and everyone in between.

WCT: We're speaking of change in the larger sense, pushback against the Machine. What are one or two specific types of change your supporters are indicating they want to see?

LL: They want a government when they can actually believe in their leaders, and where there is integrity and transparency. Aldermanic prerogative is a huge, huge issue, and a big line of demarcation between me and President Preckwinkle. I want to drive a stake through it, because I think it inhibits a way to get things done in a way that's not corruptive or corrosive. She supports it, and wants to maintain that system. Those are the kinds of issues that are resonating with people.

Also, making sure that our government runs more efficiently and that we are more respectful of people's tax dollars [are both important]. People feel like they are nickel-and-dimed. I can't tell you how many people come up to me and say, "You're not going to raise that soda tax, right?" Literally, every day that happens. But it's more profound than that. People feel like they are willing to pay their fair share, but they want to feel like the government is actually working for them and not against them. I think that's another theme resonating out there.

WCT: If you had one question for President Preckwinkle—and assurances she'd answer with 100 percent honesty—what would it be?

LL: Why'd you get in bed with Ed Burke?

WCT: What would be the first item on your agenda once set out to do the mayor's work?

LL: The biggest issue that we have to tackle is the violence in our city. It's the framing issue for everything else. We're not going to really uplift the quality of life in neighborhoods if the violence continues to rage. We can't bring business to neighborhoods that are desperate for investment if it's raging. It's going to be hard to rebuild neighborhood schools because people are emptying out because of the violence. The violence is the galvanizing force that we have to wrestle with in order to open up possibilities for everything else that people have to accomplish in neighborhoods.

WCT: How would you characterize your work in police reform, especially on two fronts: Your success at holding CPD accountable for infractions, and your engagement with families impacted by those infractions? It has been the source of considerable pushback for you, and the reason for protests at your events.

LL: The proof is in the pudding—when I took over responsibility for the Chicago Police Board, the Board held officers accountable 35 percent of the time. Over the arc of my tenure, we turned that around completely. By the time I left, that percentage was 73 percent of the time. It would have been higher, but a lot of officers quit instead of coming before the Police Board.

So I know there's a lot of noise around it—local policing and the way in which the police officers have treated community members is a way of a lot of anger, frustration and emotion. I get that. But it's important for us to keep focus on the path ahead if we're going to keep driving for change. I don't think there's been anyone in the city, particularly within the last three years, who's worked harder on police reform and accountability than I have.

It's not easy work. You fight in the midst of a lot of skepticism and anger, but I have been very diligent and steadfast that [CPD] has been respectful and engaged with the community. I want to gat to a place where—down to the beat officers—they understand that respectful and constitutional engagement with the community is their most powerful tool. We're not there yet. If I'm elected mayor, we're going to absolutely forge ahead, way beyond what's required in the Consent Decree, because we're going to have to build a city in which police are not feared or loathed, but are imbued with legitimacy. That would benefit the police.

I think about these issues when I think about young kids when I think about communities growing up with fear as their constant companion. For them, we must get this right—move beyond the rhetoric and make real, meaningful progress—and I know how to do that.

WCT: How would you characterize your work in corporate litigation, and answer critics who say it was in the service of union-busting or otherwise anti-worker interests?

LL: I'm not going to play into that. There are plenty of people who look like ke who have done great work in the corporate world. The truth is, Toni Preckwinkle called me up and solicited me for a donation, which I gave. She took $19,000 from my colleagues at Mayer Brown. She's taken money from Sidley [Austin], Jones Day and other law firms that do similar kinds of work. That's the ultimate red herring and hypocrisy, particularly when you see that she's solicited and received thousands of dollars from the same corporate lawyer that she's now trying to vilify.

I'm not going to buy into that; I'm proud of the things that I've accomplished in my life because my parents sacrificed every single day through their blood, sweat and tears to give me hope and opportunity. I'm not going to shy away from that. To try to vilify someone like me, who is a Black success story, is preposterous. We've got to move way beyond that.

If you look at the work that I've done, and the way I've used my firm's resources to help those in need through my pro bono hours, I've spent, when I was a senior equity partner, over 3,000 hours on pro bono work. … I spent 3,000 hours over the course of 13 years helping people in need, so that's my record.

WCT: How do you answer President Preckwinkle's criticism of your accepting $40,000 in so-called "dark money" from Change Chicago?

LL: She's taken money from 501( c )( 4 )s. That is totally legal. There's nothing "dark" about it. What is dark is taking $116,000 from Ed Burke and not giving it back when you've lied and said you would—that's dark.

WCT: What should Chicago expect of a mayor who's part of the LGBT community, should you win? Does that bring with it any special insight, or expectations?

LL: A mayor who understands that equity and inclusion have to be cornerstones. I want to make our city safe and welcoming for everyone and who you love, the God you worship, the color of your skin cannot control your destiny. We have to be a city that is welcoming and building bridges of hope and opportunity in every community, including the LGBTQ-plus community.

WCT: What have you learned about both the city as a whole, and the city's LGBT community, as you've run the campaign over the last 10 months?

LL: That the city is great, diverse, wonderful and challenging, and I am very blessed to have been on this journey.

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