Before the Polls:
Meet Chicago mayoral candidate Lori Lightfoot

By Tiffany Walden

Lori Lightfoot

UPDATE: Chicago mayoral candidate Lori Lightfoot will face off against Toni Preckwinkle in a runoff on April 2. Either will become the first Black woman to be mayor of Chicago. If Lightfoot wins, she’ll also be the first LGBTQ mayor of Chicago.
This story was originally published as part of our Black mayoral candidate series, Before the Polls. Click here to read about the other Black mayoral candidates.

Lori Lightfoot wants Black Chicagoans to know one thing: she’s no stranger to the struggle. Sitting inside her loft-style campaign office in the West Loop, she describes a childhood with her low-income family living paycheck-to-paycheck in a small Ohio steel town. She shares that her brother spent most of his life incarcerated, with the last 17 of those years spent in a federal prison.

For those reasons, she empathizes with Black children growing up in poverty in Chicago. She understands how incarceration destroys the families of those sitting behind bars. Although she’s worked as a federal prosecutor and Chicago Police Board president in the past, Lightfoot hasn’t forgotten who she is. That’s why she’s in the race to be Chicago’s next mayor.

“I knew that people who look like me, grown up in families like mine, were being left behind and I just couldn’t stand by silently given how fortunate I’ve been in my life,” Lightfoot says when asked what makes her different than the typical law-and-order candidate. “Frankly, they’re too many Black folks of means, going back generations, who will not stand up. I don’t understand that.”

The thing is, though, it’s hard to unsee Lightfoot as the police. On this sunny February day, she touts knowing how to fight crime without destroying communities. This is the work she did as the appointed leader of Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s Police Accountability Task Force in 2015 and as Police Board president from 2015 to 2018, where she called out police misconduct and fired officers.

Earlier in her career, however, Lightfoot once sided with high-ranking officers in one case where her investigators recommended firing an officer for lying about a fatal shooting they determined was unjustified. Lightfoot said the shooting was justified.

Despite her distant past, it’s Lightfoot’s work in terminating officers in 72 percent of bad cop cases as Police Board president, and highlighting the “code of silence” in CPD after Laquan McDonald’s murder, that earned her the Chicago Sun-Times endorsement.

“For me, the choice was clear,” Lightfoot says. “Stand up. Be an advocate. Do what you can to make the situation better.”

The TRiiBE sat down with Lightfoot on Feb. 13 to chat about her background, political stances, and mayoral campaign. Read our conversation below.

(The interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.)

The TRiiBE: Tell me a little about you. Where’d you grow up? How did your upbringing play a role in your decision to go into politics?

Lori Lightfoot: I have lived in Chicago for a little more than 32 years. I was fortunate enough to get a full scholarship to attend the University of Chicago Law School, which is what brought me here. But I grew up in a small town in Ohio. It’s called Massillon. It was a small, fairly segregated steel town when I grew up there. It’s about 60 miles southeast of Cleveland. I went to public schools there. When I graduated, I went to the University of Michigan in the honors program. [I] graduated from there, and worked for a couple of years in Washington, D.C., right before I came to Chicago. With the exception of one year away for a clerkship, I’ve been here ever since.

What made you want to get into politics?

Lightfoot: I got involved in this race because growing up in a working class family, we really struggled. Both of my parents were born in the segregated South in the 1920s. My father was also a deaf man. He got very ill early on in my parent’s marriage. As a result of a long illness, he lost his hearing. We lived paycheck to paycheck. Despite that, I’ve been very fortunate in my life. When I was working on police accountability in 2015 and 2016, [that] was at a time when the violence in the city was really spiking, and we were reaching historic numbers that we hadn’t seen frankly since the height of the crack epidemic back in the mid 1990s. So I started really investigating what’s going on. Why are we in this particular moment? What I learned [is] we have areas in the city where 25 percent unemployment is routine, where 40 percent of African-American children are growing up in poverty. That also was right at the time that we had this horrible budgeting impasse in Springfield that did a lot of catastrophic damage here in the city. So that’s what really kind of set me on a path of thinking about having a different kind of leader and vision for Chicago.

At what point did you decide to throw your hat in the ring for mayor? Why?

Lightfoot: I got into this race in May of 2018. That was months before Rahm announced that he wasn’t running for re-election. That’s very important to me. I didn’t wait until after Goliath was slayed. I take, frankly, a lot of credit in forcing him out of the race. I was in, going head to head with him. Frankly, I think that if we’d gotten into a runoff, I’d have beat him badly.

Everyone is vying for the Black vote. Black people in Chicago really trusted Rahm Emanuel. He got into office twice. But we suffered a lot under his leadership. We’ve lost schools [and see] all the police brutality that’s going on. Our population, especially in Austin, has declined tremendously. What is your plan to retain and rebuild Black Chicago?

Lightfoot: I think that the first thing that we have to do is we have to get a handle on the violence. When I hear from people all over the city that they feel like they’re under house arrest, and there’s only narrow windows of time during the daylight hours that they feel safe enough going out, that’s a terrible tragedy. When you think about how many young kids are growing up with fear as their norm, and how that literally affects their brain development, and also just their outlook [on safety], that’s a huge problem. So businesses aren’t going to invest in neighborhoods where they don’t feel like their employees are going to be safe.

Given the grim statistics that we know in way too many Black and Brown neighborhoods, we have to have what I would call a Marshal Plan to really uplift the quality of life in neighborhoods. That begins with obviously tackling the violence. We’ve gotta create real opportunities for small businesses in neighborhoods. Small businesses hire more people than these large companies. They have more stake in the neighborhood because a lot of times those entrepreneurs live in the neighborhood or are from the neighborhood. They hire from the neighborhood. Their mere presence creates a stabilizing force in and of itself. So we’ve gotta do everything we can to lower access to capital [to] make sure that they have access to city contracts. And I’d like to see us put incubators in every neighborhood so that we can generate that kind of peer-to-peer and mentoring support that is really critical to this success of budding entrepreneurs. Aside from those things, we have to rebuild our social infrastructure. That means we gotta get people access to good, quality and affordable medical care. We have to provide for mental health and trauma services. We can do a lot of that through community schools, which I favor, but we also have to partner up with the existing network to make sure that people are being served in their neighborhood and [that] you don’t have to travel from Roseland to Uptown to get basic mental health services.

We watched Rahm Emanuel shut down all of these schools over the last few years. Most of them were in the Black neighborhoods. In your opinion, what do these closures say to Black youth?

Lightfoot: That you don’t matter. [That] you’re not worth investing in. [That] we don’t need to sit down and have a respectful conversation with parents and teachers and other stakeholders. There are a lot of things under his administration that have done great harm.

What is your plan to remedy CPS?

Lightfoot: One of the things that I’ve said is, frankly, [CPS Chief Education Officer] Janice Jackson needs to go on an apology tour. She needs to go into those neighborhoods and help start the process and dialogue of righting that wrong. [With] the National Teachers Academy, how do you close a high-performing, level one plus by your own designation, of mostly Black kids from low-income neighborhoods, that are doing so well? Those kids, those teachers, the administrators and the parents did everything we asked of them, and then we’re going to pull the rug out from under them. That’s why I think that it’s critically important that you’ve gotta heal that rift.

Chicago has become more and more expensive to live in over the last few years. We’ve seen Black residents and business owners starved out of the city. Why is it that Black neighborhoods never see quality grocery stores, or businesses outside of churches, liquor stores and funeral homes, until white folks start to move in?

Lightfoot: Because the mayor hasn’t made it a priority. That will change with me. Jackson Park Highlands is mostly upper middle-class Black folks, and even there they don’t have the amenities that a lot of neighborhoods have on the North Side. They gotta travel great distances to get to a grocery store, to get to medical care [or] to get to a movie theater. The basic things that people on the North Side take for granted just don’t exist in neighborhood after neighborhood on the South Side. You’ve got to have a mayor who cares, who understands that this is mission critical to the health and well-being of the city. It’s not enough to invest in the downtown area. That strategy has not worked. It’s left way too many people behind.

How will you improve our neighborhoods without pushing people out?

Lightfoot: I put together a comprehensive housing plan. Having talked to countless numbers of community-based development organizations, the one universal thing that they say is the city is an impediment. There are road blocks. [There is] way too much red tape. I learned this in law school. When you want to negotiate with somebody, you gotta think about how do we get to yes. The housing department and the building department and zoning and planning are rolled up into the levers of government that have a say over whether a housing development goes forward or it doesn’t. They have to have the mentality [that] we’re here to help. We’ve gotta be much more responsive and, frankly, much more user-friendly to those organizations.

For money that’s being used to support private development, the developers have to build more units on site and there’s gotta be a commitment to a number of family-sized units. We’re seeing studios, one bedrooms [and] two bedrooms, but families need three- and four-bedroom units. So that’s critically important. We also need to make sure that we keep families and individuals in the city so that we don’t become a market like San Francisco or Seattle. We gotta make sure that we fix the broken and corrupt property-tax system.

Why is that important? Because when commercial properties are undervalued, that assessment has to be made up somewhere, and right now it’s being made up on lower-priced houses, which means lower-income and middle-income families. Those residential property owners are bearing the brunt of this corrupt system. We gotta right-size that by making sure the commercial developers [and] high-end residential properties pay their fair share. If we do that, we are not going to see increases in rent, which are absolutely a function of this corrupt system.

When you talk about crime, [Gov. J.B.] Pritzker is getting ready to legalize weed. For Chicago, and as mayor, what will that mean for Black folks who have been imprisoned for marijuana charges?

Lightfoot: I think we have to think more expansively about what this could be. We’ve gotta learn the lessons of states like Colorado, where frankly, the legalized pot market, I think, is thriving. We have to learn the lessons of Oregon, where it completely collapsed. And now California has come online. [It’s] probably a little too early for us to know about there, but we need to learn the best practices so we don’t repeat mistakes. We have to look at making sure that communities of color that have been ravaged by the war on drugs actually get a share of that money. We need to build wealth within the Black and Brown community through making sure that the vendors who are going to be selling legalized marijuana come from our communities. We’ve got a regulatory framework example for that. Now people don’t remember it because it hasn’t been enforced, but back in the day when casinos were first authorized in the state, there was a requirement that Black and Brown communities become part of those owners so that they can share in the wealth. We’ve gotta use that model, make sure that it has real viability and there’s a compliance to it. The other thing that we’ve gotta do is we’ve gotta make sure that those monies are being used to address addiction issues as well. Look. Anybody who has been arrested for possession of quantities of marijuana, those cases should be dismissed the minute that that’s legalized. Anybody who’s got a criminal record for mere possession of marijuana, those records should be expunged. I’ll be lobbying and pushing for that because I think that’s going to be critically important to really add a layer of justice and particularly economic justice to our communities.

What does it look like for Black people to get into the industry as vendors and entrepreneurs. I’ve heard that it’s so expensive to even apply for a marijuana license.

Lightfoot: That’s why we have to structure it in such a way that initial startup costs are not a barrier to entry. We can’t have everybody be an entrepreneur, but there are plenty of Black folks who have the ability to have access to capital to start up these kinds of ventures. So it doesn’t take a lot of creativity for us to be able to create a pipeline for that to happen.

So this past summer, Ald. Willie Cochran referred to the Black Caucus as gangsters. So what does that statement say about how our Black aldermen operate, and how will City Hall culture change under your leadership?

Lightfoot: I thought that was an incredibly foolish statement followed on by comments from [Ald.] Carrie Austin who said something similar in that same conversation. I’m going to choose my words carefully here. There’s a lot of need in our community. And many of these wards have been represented by Black folks for decades. I think the question that people have to ask themselves is, is my life and the quality of my community’s life any better as a result of these folks being in charge? And I think in most instances, the answer’s gonna be an unequivocal no. People get access to power. They shouldn’t just be happy. They should be representing their communities. They shouldn’t just be worried about their own incumbency. They should pushing hard every single day to fight the power [and] to make sure that [they] bring resources back to this community.

A lot of it has to do with their relationship with the mayor, voting with the mayor or fearing that if they vote against the mayor, their communities won’t be served. So how can we create a relationship between the mayor and city council and communities where the community benefits in the end?

Lightfoot: [The] city council has to have effective oversight. Nobody benefits, except a mayor, if they are [a] rubber stamp. How many of our people have rubber-stamped everything that Rahm has done? I don’t want that. I want there to be vigorous debate. I want aldermen to be bringing their own policy ideas to the table.

If you are elected mayor, what will happen with the cop academy? Do you support it?

Lightfoot: Stop [it] in its tracks. I’ve been very vocal for a very long time. I think the project is ill-conceived. I think that the way you get to the best results on every policy issue is you engage the stakeholders on the front end in an honest conversation about what the opportunities and challenges are. Through a process of dialogue and respective partnership, you get to an end product. I know from my own experience, particularly in the policing space. If people feel like they’ve been heard, they’re going to respect the end product. The biggest problem that I have with the cop academy is that Rahm didn’t talk to anybody. He’s gotta put this edifice to policing on the West Side in one of the poorest neighborhoods in the city. He’s hasn’t engaged the community. It’s not enough to talk to the alderman. How do you use that investment to spur other economic development?

Don’t get me wrong. With the new consent decree, one of the core components of it, which I support, is training. The current academy is absolutely obsolete. There’s no question about it. If we want better results on the street, we’ve gotta have better training. Better training means that we have really simulated circumstances that officers are going to find on the street so that we can test whether or not they’re fit to be able to do the job. You can’t do that in a facility that’s antiquated. You can’t do that with a paper test. You’ve gotta put them in the real action scenarios, which is best in class training. That’s not possible at the existing academy. But I don’t believe in doing anything on any policy where you do not start with respectful engagement with the people whose lives are going to be most affected.

Do you have ideas for what you would do instead of a cop academy in West Garfield Park?

Lightfoot: You look at that community. It’s one of the poorest in the city. They need jobs. They need other kinds of business activity. They need good, quality neighborhood schools that community kids can walk to safely. There needs to be a huge infusion of social resources that deal with trauma, mental health, access to good [and] quality health care.

Do you support the leadership of Police Supt. Eddie Johnson?

Lightfoot: As you might imagine, as a former president of the Chicago Police Board, I have a lot of contact with Eddie and had a very good working relationship with him. I know he has worked tirelessly to try to rebuild relationships, particularly [in] Black and Brown communities. I know that he’s given his personal cell phone number to people who are in the activist community so that there’s an ongoing dialogue directly with him.

Here’s what I think about this. I think it’s easy to kind of pander to the crowd. There’s been some candidates in this race who have said, ‘absolutely, off with his head.’ But here’s what I know that the police department has to do before a new mayor takes office. Assuming there’s a runoff, and I think there will be, the new mayor is not going to take office until May. What has to happen between now and May? Number one: the police department still has to be focused on keeping people safe. Number two: the consent decree needs to be implemented. We can’t afford to wait and lose anymore time in implementing the structural changes that have to come in a police department. Number three: the police department usually starts plans for the summer to tamp down violence. They usually start that planning in March. So [if] we make Johnson a lame duck now, what do you think that does to all those important things that have to get done right now? I think the better play is when you take office, you sit down and you have a serious conversation with him about what expectations are to have better accountability, and make sure that there’s a real viable plan to be proactive about tamping down the violence that’s spreading in way too many neighborhoods. And then when the summer’s over, you evaluate whether or not he’s the right leader for the job. And the last thing I’ll say is this. I conducted a search for a superintendent. The reality is on any given day, there may be 10 people in the country that actually have the experience and the bandwidth to do this job the right way. What I heard a lot [of] when we were trying to encourage people nationally to apply for the job is look at what Rahm did. Even the people who didn’t like [former Supt. Garry McCarthy], and frankly there were many who didn’t, thought the way in which the firing of McCarthy was handled made it really an unattractive job for them. Plus we were at the start of the Department of Justice investigation at that point. So again people who are saying get rid of Eddie, they don’t have any experience in local policing.

Lightfoot’s assistant: So we do have to head out pretty shortly here.
For the Black youth who may look at you as the police, what is the difference between you and the typical law-and-order candidate?

Lightfoot: I think it’s important for your readers to know this. I have a brother who spent most of his life incarcerated. I know what incarceration means for families. I know how it destroys them [and] how it challenges not only the individual who’s directly affected, but by everyone in their orbit. So I bring a sensibility to these questions that is born of my experience. I haven’t just forgotten who I am. I knew that people who look like me, grown up in families like mine, were being left behind and I just couldn’t stand by silently given how fortunate I’ve been in my life. Frankly, they’re too many black folks of means, going back generations, who will not stand up. I don’t understand that. They’re going to have to wrestle with their own conscious. But for me, the choice was clear. Stand up. Be an advocate. Do what you can to make the situation better.

What was Rahm Emanuel’s biggest mistake in office and what would you have done differently?

Lightfoot: I may give you two. Rahm came into office not knowing anything about local policing. In the last seven years since he took his oath of office, we’ve had 23,000 people in this city shot. It’s a shocking and appalling number. It’s larger than the population of the town that I grew up in. What that has meant is we had a mayor who learned about policing on the job. I don’t think we can make that mistake twice. The other thing I’ll say is this. He has practiced a form of trickle-down economics in our city with disastrous consequences. I think he’s been completely and utterly indifferent to the cries and needs of Black and Brown communities for real support [and] real economic development. He’s either been completely AWOL or he has done things that have actively harmed our community, and that’s a consequence that we are going to be paying for for a very long time.

What would you have done differently?

Lightfoot: I know a lot about local policing. I know a lot about the need for police reform and accountability. If you look at the task force report of the task force that I led, a lot of the ideas that I would bring to the job are manifest in the findings and recommendations in that report. Because I used to be a federal prosecutor, I know what it takes to fight crime and I know how to do it in a way that [doesn’t] destroy communities and tramples on people’s civil rights.

Lightfoot on supporting small businesses

As mayor, Lori will lower the barriers to accessing capital so that entrepreneurs with solid business plans have opportunities to thrive, support entrepreneurs by creating business incubators on South and West sides, and make sure women-owned and minority-owned businesses are well-represented in City contracting.

Lightfoot on legalizing cannabis

As mayor, Lori will support legalization and taxation of cannabis, learn from the best practices of states that have legalized cannabis to make sure it is safe and well-regulated, make sure that people of color can get licenses to sell cannabis and open up dispensaries in their communities, and put safeguards in place to keep cannabis away from children.

Lightfoot on cleaning up city goverment

As mayor, Lori will implement mayoral term limits, stop elected officials from profiting from their government positions, and strengthen oversight of the workers’ compensation program and hold budget town halls.