As Chicago moves ahead after a tumultuous municipal election season, it now falls on Mayor-elect Lori Lightfoot to prepare for an administration that is responsive to the needs of all the city's residents before she is sworn in next month.
While the position wields enormous political power, it also comes with responsibilities and frustrations that past mayors have failed to solve, among them shattered police-community relations; violence and public-safety concerns; an underfunded and struggling public school system; crumbling infrastructure; and looming, potentially crippling pension responsibilities.
Cathy Cohen, a professor in University of Chicago's department of political science who also founded the Black Youth Project, said she believes that Lightfoot won the election because those who came out to vote for her were "desperate for changeand not just the type of change that comes about for [the novelty of] having a Black lesbian for mayor."
She added, "They want a community reinvested in. They want quality public education. They want a police force that is respectful and responsive to all people in the city. I would remind [Lightfoot] to center those who are most marginal as she evaluates how to try to reshape the city."
Voter turnout on April 2 was low, and the results were enormously lopsided in Lightfoot's favor; the corporate attorney and former federal prosecutor captured three-quarters of all votes cast for mayor, and won in all 50 of the city's wards.
"Even though [opponent Cook County Board President] Toni Preckwinkle may have had an agenda that in all reality was fairly similar to Lori Lightfoot's, I think voters were really looking for symbolic change," Cohen said. "They were looking for someone who at least professed to be outside of the machine. They wanted someone who hadn't had years of dealing with the Daleys. They wanted someone who represented a new possibility for the city of Chicago, and its politics and future."
She further noted, "Even though people think of [the election] as a referendum on Toni Preckwinkle, I think it's more of a referendum on Machine politics in the city. I think some people are excited, but I think at the same time people are holding their breathwill this really be something new? Will this be an opportunity to define the city and center communities on the South and West sides that have long been the sites of disinvestment?"
Former Houston Mayor Annise Parkerthe first openly lesbian mayor of a major metropolitan cityspoke enthusiastically about Lightfoot. Parker now heads up Victory Fund, a national organization that provides financial support and political-strategy training for LGBT candidates across the country; Victory Fund began backing Lightfoot last summer. Parker admitted that Lightfoot nevertheless faces more daunting challenges than she'd ever experienced in her six years as mayor of Houston.
"[Victory Fund] believes her being mayor will have an outsized impact," Parker said. "It did when I was mayor of Houston. But I know that, as much as it might pain me to admit it, Chicago has a much bigger impact on the national political scene than Houston, even though they are cities of comparable size. [Lightfoot] will have a platform, a bully pulpit, to drive conversations and debates."
Brian Johnson, CEO of Equality Illinois noted a number of issues Lightfoot faces.
"The mayor-elect is going to have to wrestle with our structural finances," he noted. "What does I mean to have a police force that is just, and able to keep the city safe? What does it mean to have schools that are equitable and where students, no matter their race, income or class, have the opportunity to reach their full potential in a city with a million fewer residents than we did a few decades ago. These are the big-picture questions that I think Mayor-elect Lightfoot is going to have to grapple with. That's why the mandate that she had, winning all 50 wards, is the best foundation [voters] could have given her."
But Parker added, "It's both a blessing a curse to have such a lopsided vote. A lot of people are going to have expectations for a quick turnaroundthat's just not going to happen in a hurry. She is going to have to manage expectations and really prioritize so that she can deliver some of the promises without people becoming discouraged when it doesn't happen immediately."
Lightfoot will face additional challenges in constructively engaging communities who have been critical of her, especially for her work on the Chicago Police Board and other investigative and adjudicative bodies addressing police violence and corruption. Her public appearances during her campaign were sometimes interrupted by protestors who felt her prosecutions lacked teeth, and that Lightfoot had brusquely dealt with victims and their families.
"[Lightfoot] has to engage them," Cohen said of those critics. "She has at times been disrespectful and demeaning to young activists. She has to recognize that, and I believe and hope that she does. They are a political force in this citythey've introduced to us, for example, a language about abolition in such a way that all candidates had to think about it in discussions about the police. They have been against the cop academy. These are young people who are not just mobilizing; they're setting out policies and a future vision about what the city can be, and how institutions should respond and engage with marginalized communities."
Cohen added, "One of the first things [Lightfoot] has to do is sit down with those groups to take those positions seriously, recognize that they are going to hold her accountable and see that they are major stakeholders in what will hopefully be a reimagining of what Chicago can be in the future."
Johnson said that, even with her many other looming challenges, the LGBT community needs to hold Lightfoot accountable for her promises to the community.
"We should expect her to be as aggressive and courageous on the issues that are as important to us as she would be to the issues facing the city at large," he added. "We should see LGBTQ people in meaningful senior roles in her administration. We should demand that our police force polices us with more respect and equitably, particularly [community members who are] trans women of color. We should expect LGBTQ young people of color should go to school in an accepting and affirming environment, and that they risks that they face for violence and homelessness will go down."