The TRiiBE sat down with the 2023 Black mayoral candidates to learn more about their political views. Read their Q&A profiles here. Visit The TRiiBE Election Center to learn more about the Chicago municipal election taking place on Feb. 28.

The 2019 version of Lori Lightfoot made a lot of promises on the campaign trail. She told The TRiiBE she would stop the cop academy in its tracks, adding that her biggest problem with it was that then-mayor Rahm Emanuel didn’t engage with the surrounding community about it. She invoked the spirit of Harold Washington at her inauguration, promising “safe streets and strong schools for every child regardless of neighborhood or ZIP code.” She’d convinced many voters that she was the progressive mayor Chicago needed after eight years of Emanuel.

Black and brown organizers warned us, though. 

Soon after her inauguration, Mayor Lori Lightfoot quickly changed her tune. In July 2019, she announced that the $95 million price tag for the unpopular new cop academy would increase to an unspecified number. A supporter of an elected school board on the campaign trail, she opposed the plan, which Governor Pritzker signed over her objections in 2021.

From the start, Lightfoot has fought with the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) over everything from their contract to COVID-19 safety measures. Five months after she took office, the union went on strike for two weeks to demand better pay and more nurses and librarians. Senators Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) and Bernie Sanders (I-VT) joined the teachers, who won many of their demands. The mayor has had an icy relationship with the union since.

In 2020, she stood in a West Garfield Park neighborhood and threatened to “treat you like a criminal” for gathering during the pandemic. That same year she shut down the CTA, raised bridges to seal off the Loop and publicly fought with State’s Attorney Kim Foxx for not charging more people during the Black Summer uprisings

“In an emergency, I did what was necessary to make sure we kept Chicagoans safe,” Lightfoot told The TRiiBE. “I make no apologies for those. That absolutely was necessary and to save lives.”

On Jan. 12, Lightfoot invited The TRiiBE to CS Insurance Strategies in the Loop for our Black mayoral candidate series. The night before, news broke about her campaign soliciting volunteers through CPS emails. We met with Lightfoot about an hour before her 3:00 p.m. press conference; initially, we were scheduled to meet with Lightfoot on Jan. 4 but she rescheduled due to Vice President Kamala Harris’s trip to Chicago.

During our interview, Lightfoot emphasized investing in street outreach for violence reduction, promoted Invest South/West and doubled down on her Crisis Assistance Response and Engagement (CARE) pilot program, an alternative to Treatment Not Trauma that sends a mental health counselor along with a police officer out to 9-1-1 mental health calls. An expansion of the CARE pilot program doesn’t include an officer; only a Chicago Fire Department community paramedic and a Chicago Department of Public Health mental health clinician.

When it comes to policing, she said people in neighborhoods plagued by violence don’t want to defund CPD. Instead, she said, they want more police. She added that the city has to make sure that the officers are well trained and respect constitutional policing practices. 

“Look, I press you to find a more progressive mayor than I’ve been,” Lightfoot said.

Read our full interview with Lightfoot below, as part of our 2023 Before the Polls mayoral candidate interview series.

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

Quick jump

1 CPS Emails

The TRiiBE: I know you have a hard stop time and a lot of things to do today. I would be remiss if I didn't ask about the situation that's going on with CPS emails right now. I know you have a press conference happening at three o'clock today. But if you can answer our questions…

Mayor Lori Lightfoot: Sure. Let me just lay it out for you. Late yesterday afternoon, I learned that in an effort to recruit young people to campaign which we've been — there's a lot of enthusiasm and support among young people across the city — a campaign staffer accessed  publicly available email addresses for CPS teachers, sent them in essence, posting about the internship opportunities and asked them to forward it on to any students who might be interested. Obviously, that was a mistake. We have from day one erected not just a line, but a wall between the campaign, political side, any official side. This young woman understands the magnitude of the issue that’s now been created. I think she's horribly mortified that it happened. I explained to her personally, why this could not happen, what the implications were. I think she gets it. We have reiterated our ethics standards, and why that wall is important to the entire staff, again today, to her yesterday, obviously, but again to the entire staff today. And as I said, it was a mistake, it shouldn't have happened, and I'm confident it won't happen again.

The first time I learned about it was yesterday [Eds note: January 11, when WTTW broke the story]. I’m not just a candidate. I'm the mayor. And I'm not in the weeds at that level. Obviously I know that there's an effort to generate volunteers. But do I know about the specifics? Micromanaging? No, absolutely not.

If another mayoral candidate reached out to CPS teachers, for campaign volunteers in this way, how would you respond to such action?

I’d have the same reaction. But it's different for me, I'm the mayor, right? The school system reports up to me. I can't really account for what other candidates may do. I'm the mayor. And the line has to be very, very clear, rigidly enforced and executed with fidelity. As I said, it was a mistake that shouldn't have happened. We're owning it. And we're gonna move on from here and do everything we can to build in not only the talking but the safeguards to make sure something like this doesn't happen again.

2 Safety & Policing

In your safety plan, the first thing you list is that your administration has increased funding for community approaches to violence reduction by 1,400 percent, with a focus on high-risk violent individuals and supporting victims of violence. How much funding exactly has gone towards those community approaches? And what organizations or people are receiving this funding?

I can’t tell you the specific organizations because that’s not something that, I wish, were RFPs. A lot of this is federal money. But here’s what I can tell you. Number one, we know that what’s important is to use every tool in our toolkit to make communities safe. Obviously, law enforcement plays a role, and making sure they’re engaged in constitutional policing. But we got to go after other people who are trafficking in illegal guns, because that’s the biggest driver of our violence. And when we see people that are involved in the illegal gun trade, we got to hold those people accountable. Because every illegal gun in our city has the potential to destroy lots and lots of lives forever, right? So that is a big, huge focus, working with our federal partners, making sure that we’re being proactive in those investigations to hold violent, dangerous people accountable.

But we also know that we can't just arrest our way out of the problem. We got to invest our way out of the problem. And what that means is we've got to look at using soft power tools. So we've made pretty historic investments in street outreach. And there's a number of street outreach organizations across the city that we fund. We've increased that funding from when I started office to, like–it was about $1 million or $2 million a year that the city was funding. We're now I think, and we’ll get you precise numbers, but I think it's about $58 million on an annualized basis.

It’s a combination of some ARPA dollars, it’s some money from cannabis that we get, and we’ve floated several bonds to pay for some of the investments that we’ve made. We’ve also supported community organizations.

We're trying to rebuild and reinvigorate the block club structure. We focus investments on vacant lots, because that's another big driver, mental health. Sometimes people don't think about that as a violence reduction tool. I believe that it is. And as of the end of last year, we now have free, culturally relevant mental health services. In every single one of our 77 neighborhoods, that's a seven fold increase. We went from where I started, where the city was servicing about 2,500 residents a year. We ended last year servicing about 60,000 residents a year.And importantly, for the very first time, we're servicing children and adolescents. Our strategy is culturally specific, culturally competent, specific resources at the community level, because also what we heard, you know, there's still a lot of conversation around reopen the clinic.

What we heard from practitioners, clinician, social workers, but also importantly, what we heard from patients, is they don’t want to get their care in an institutionalized setting, and they don’t want to have to travel great distances. Going from 2,500 a year to 60,000; that’s a big leap forward. And as I said, for the first time, providing services for free, regardless of insurance, regardless of ability to pay, regardless of citizenship status in all of our 77 neighborhoods. That’s a big deal.

Chicago has more cops per capita than New York and LA, but Chicago's per capita murder rate is higher than both New York and LA. Is there any evidence that supports that increasing the police budget, which you have done in your term, and increasing the police presence effectively prevents and reduces crime?

Well, I think you lose me when you try to do an apples to apples comparison between us and New York and LA. And let me tell you why. New York's circumstances are very, very different than ours are.And a big part of it is we have a lot more entrenched generational poverty than New York does.And that right away, I think, takes us into a different space, because a root cause of a lot of the issues related to violence are generational patterns. I think that’s just a fact, the data is very clear on that.

What I know about LA, which is probably a closer comparative to Chicago, is they have been at police reform and accountability and building trusted relationships with the community, probably 10 years ahead of us, because they wanted to have a consent decree way earlier than we did.And that's made, I think, a considerable difference. And frankly, what people in neighborhoods that have been historically plagued by violence, they don't want to cut back, there's no appetite for defunding. They tell us all the time, we want more police.

Now, it’s not just about throwing bodies at the problem. We’ve got to make sure that they’re well trained, that they understand and respect the constitutional policing practices, that they understand and respect of the community, but also layering on the other soft power tools that we’re using, from street outreach to the Community Safety Coordination Center and working directly with communities to ask them what do they feel like they need, and then using our whole government approach to really move the needle in areas that have historically been crime plagued. So there’s not a simple solution to the challenges of violence. If there was a simple solution, we would have implemented it a long time ago. But what we know from the data-based, data-driven strategies that we’ve seen across other cities, but also here, is a multi-tiered strategy is what’s helped us make pretty remarkable progress in year over year from ‘21 to ‘22–

Would you say the universal income program has made an impact in that way?

Anything that we're doing. It's too soon for us to be able to say that yet, because the first checks went out the door in June, July of last year, but anything that we're doing to take concrete positive strides to hit that poverty is an important thing. No question. That's why Invest South/West is important.That's why we put another $300 million already into the Chicago Recovery Plan grants. All those things where we're building healthy, vibrant neighborhoods, we're stabilizing them or bringing affordable housing, we're bringing in jobs, economic development. We're in the hope business. We're about creating hope and opportunity.

I asked all the other candidates this about the SAFE-T Act. I know you've been in opposition at times with Cook County State's Attorney Kim Foxx about crime in Chicago and who's to blame for crime in Chicago. Do you support the SAFE-T Act? Especially as we talked about arrests not being the only solution to the crime problem in Chicago.

Kim Foxx and I have viewed this issue from different lenses. My biggest issue, though, is not with the state's attorney. My biggest issue is the courts that let too many violent, dangerous people back out on the street.When you are a victim of crime, and you must have the courage to identify the person that has caused you harm, and then that person is right back on the street 24 or 48 hours after they've been arrested, that tells you you're not being seen by the criminal justice system here in Cook County.That's their responsibility. So I think it frankly undermines and delegitimizes that important part of the public safety ecosystem. People have to have confidence that when they’re harmed, there are consequences, or they’re harmed and somebody is seeing them and feeling their pain, and doing something about it, doesn't undermine the constitutional protection for criminal defendants. They're entitled to a presumption of innocence. They’re entitled to their day in court. But so too, are the victims of crime entitled to those pretrial decisions, pretrial detention decisions, also factoring in danger to the community.

And that’s the thing that I know now has been fixed in the SAFE-T Act. There’s other things about it that I think are important. Nobody thinks that Cook County Jail or any county jail should be a debtors’ prison, and for too long for poor people getting locked up because they couldn’t pay the cash bail. But I’m concerned, given the track record of the pretrial detention judges in Cook County, what their interpretation of the contours of the SAFE-T Act are going to be. And I’m glad that the legislature in the veto session corrected and put back into the Act community safety as a factor that judges must consider [when setting bail]. Now it was in there before and unfortunately, too many judges weren’t considering it. So we’ve got to be fierce vocal advocates that community safety must be at the table when they’re making pretrial detention decisions.

3 Mental Health

People are asking for you to reopen the mental health clinics, which is something that you campaigned on in 2019. What do you think about Treatment Not Trauma? Is it something that you support? Were there some things in it that you didn’t support?

I won’t say that I’m totally conversant in every aspect of that ordinance. But I think for the most part, we’re doing what the objective is, which is providing alternative ways for us to respond to people that are in mental health crisis, or people that are suffering from substance abuse, addiction issues.

We set up a pilot program, now two years in, that it is. One part of it is a CIT, crisis intervention trained-police officer, accompanies the clinician. The clinician takes a lead on calls that come in through 9-1-1.

The other pilot is no CIT officer, and no officer of any kind, but really focused on substance abuse and addiction issues.
We’re still, I think, gathering a lot of useful learning from that. It took us some time, as you might imagine, to set up the protocols for the 9-1-1 call takers, because look. Let's face it, people that are in mental health crisis, there's still a big stigma behind that. And even if the person themselves is calling, or if a family member is calling, they're reluctant to provide all the information that's necessary. So we had to make sure that we set up the right protocols and the right training for the call taker to be able to tease out the information that then could help educate the dispatcher of what resources should be dispatched to respond to this call. So that took some time. But I've met on a frequent basis. I get an update from our team. I've met directly with the people that are part of the CARE pilot programs. They’re phenomenal people. I think they're super committed to their work. We're learning a lot from them and their experiences. Our goal is to try to scale this up into other areas of our city later this year.

An argument that people may have is that with the program, a police officer does go out to mental health calls crises with health care workers.

In one of the pilots, right. But here's the thing you need to know: What we heard resoundingly from the social workers and the clinicians, is they do not want to go out by themselves to those calls.Because, look. The truth is, you can get a lot of information from the 9-1-1 call. But the reality is, you really don't know what the circumstances are until you get there. You see the person, understand the circumstances, we try to get information about the history. A lot of that detail that's critical to figure out what is the right intervention response, you do not know until you get there. And there are concerns, and I get it, on behalf of clinicians and social workers, “hey, well, I don't want to go out there by myself, I don't know what I'm getting into.” And if the person is violent, or it's a dangerous set of circumstances, they feel comfortable having that police backup. Again, they take the lead, and we've got EMTs that go out. But we've got to follow the lead and the people who are actually doing the work.

It's one thing to stand on the sidelines and dictate, “well, we think this, this and this.” We're following the data, and we're following what the experts are telling us are the circumstances on the ground that will maximize the successful intervention based upon the information they're receiving.

Lori Lightfoot // Photo by Alexander Gouletas for The TRiIBE

4 Youth & Education

Chicago Public Schools is no longer the nation's third largest district. After 11 consecutive years of declining enrollment, CPS now sits fourth behind Miami-Dade county…

Now keep in mind,Miami-Dade is a whole county of almost 30 communities.But yes.

Union leaders, activists and parents are urging Chicago public schools to rethink this school-based funding model that they say ultimately results in a declining enrollment and the closing of more schools. Do you support getting rid of the school-based funding model? And if so, what should be the new model? How will it improve conditions?

So I think you rolled a lot of things together and said, “this is contributing to declining enrollment.” And I can't necessarily agree with that. Look, there's a lot of things I think that impacted the loss of Black population in the city. And that's fundamentally really what we're talking about, because Latino population is growing, Asians are the fastest growing demographic in our city, and the white population is pretty stable. So really, what we're talking about in terms of CPS is the Black population. 

Look, there's a lot of things that contributed to that. Closing almost 50 schools contributed to that. Loss of jobs and opportunity on the Southwest Side, tearing down public housing without an immediate replacement of those housing units have contributed to that. So there's a bunch of different factors that have led to the reduction in population across the Black diaspora in Chicago. And it's not all just CPS related. CPS is impacted by it quite dramatically, but there’s whole lot of other factors beyond CPS’ control, I think that have led to the decline of population.

Would you say that the school based funding model plays a role to some degree?

I think there were some fair criticisms of the school-based models. What the new CPS CEO [Pedro Martinez] and his leadership team have done, is said, “look, for every school, we have to have a floor of resources that are there.” We have to make sure there are arts, there are sciences, there are math, so that it's not catches catch can, if you will, depending on what school you go to. There's a floor. We just started making those kinds of mandatory investments last school year. It's still an ongoing series of investments. But I think that's where you start to get to the heart of the problem. 

But also, frankly, we have to go back to Springfield and be honest and say there's not enough resources here for CPS. People think they solved the school funding problem roughly 10 years ago. Yeah, it stabilizes the district. It definitely provides more resources, but it's not enough. And we're not getting our fair share from Springfield, and we've got to continue to advocate, to fight that fight because that's absolutely true. But we also have to have honest conversations about what is the quality of education that we're getting in some of these buildings, where there's so few students? Are we being fair to them? Is there another way that we can do that? 

And again, by no means am I suggesting we're gonna do massive closures, but I think we have to have an honest conversation with the students, parents, the faculty and other community stakeholders about what is the way that we revitalize and make these schools and local community schools vibrant again. How do we do that? Because I'm a big proponent of neighborhood schools and strengthening those neighborhood schools. But we got to do that in partnership with the local communities. And not a surprise to you, there's a lot of skepticism and weariness, when you even start to say, ‘let's have that conversation,’ because people jump and think, ‘Oh, here they come again. They're gonna try to close our school.’ No, but we need to have an honest conversation about what a vibrant, safe nurturing environment means on a neighborhood by neighborhood basis.

Part of the elected school board bill includes a moratorium on school closures and that will lift in 2025. If you're elected, should parents and school communities be concerned about more closures in 2025?

I think the current leadership team at CPS has started a necessary conversation with parents, students, LSCs, building staff in those communities, about how do we make sure that every CPS student gets a high quality education. There's not a one-size-fits-all solution. And those conversations have to happen. Period.

And how are you involved in those conversations? I think there's a lot of concern, especially after a lot of people witnessed the money going towards a new school being built on the South Side instead of seeing that money go into some of the existing schools.

It's not an either/or. We have invested literally hundreds of millions of dollars, both in programming and the infrastructure of budgets.So I would press you to identify a place where we have given short shrift to a school that needed it. What I've seen over the arc of my tenure is a recommitment to making those vital investments from a programmatic side, from a infrastructure side to make sure that buildings themselves are up to where we want the kind of places that we want kids to be able to live and learn in. So it's not an either/or.

And as the CEO and his leadership team have been talking about, we have been making investments based upon what the data tells us with our parents, our LSCs and our teachers tell us, and just because there was an investment made in one place, doesn’t mean that we’re not making investments in other places, and we are. And you don’t have to take my word for it. You’re gonna see it. It’s happening right now.

So there’s a lot of concern, as I said, that, “oh, if we’re going to the South Loop, then that means nothing’s going to happen.” That’s absolutely not true. And by the way, most of the kids that are going to that South Loop high school are kids of color. They’re Black kids. They’re brown kids. They’re Asian kids.

5 Housing & Community

And then I’ll bring it to the Invest South/West Initiative. Historically, we’ve watched big developments displace and erase black communities in Chicago. And right now in Austin, for example, your Invest South/West plan is renovating the former Laramie Bank, turning it into a mixed use building with adjacent land that will also be redeveloped into a mixed income multistory rental building. 


How would you implement that project in Austin, for example, while also ensuring that the new developments won't advance gentrification and push Black residents out? That's something that we're seeing already happen in an area of that Obama library. People are worried about it happening in Cabrini Green, which is already being called the “near North Side” now. So people in Austin are just worried that new development means, at some point, we’ll be priced out.

I will say a couple things to that. Every single one of our vertical construction projects that’s a part of Invest South/West has gone through a very rigorous community engagement process, where the community has identified what they wanted to see, the locations and the contours of what that development should look like. So the community is very much front and center at the table from the very beginning of any of the vertical construction in Invest South/West. I think fundamentally, that's a big part of what you do.

You mentioned the concerns about gentrification and displacement in light of the Obama Center on the South Side. We've been very engaged in Woodlawn and South Shore from the very beginning of my administration. When the very first public meetings that I had, after being sworn in as mayor, was about the Obama Center, down in the South Shore Country Club with a group of probably 30 to 40 stakeholders who had been at it for a time and were concerned about the very issue that you raised, which is gentrification, and displacement.So we put some controls in place to make sure that long-term homeowners could stay in their home, that rents would still be affordable down in that area. We work with a lot of stakeholders in Woodlawn, in South Shore; we work with the local level elected officials. So I think we have a model that we are now transporting to other parts of the city. And the West Side clearly is one of them. Now, the West Side started to see housing prices rise, frankly, before I took office, but Invest South/West is about frankly, bringing more affordable units to the West Side that currently do not exist.

6 Accountability

In 2019 you campaigned as a progressive candidate. During the COVID-19 pandemic, you stood in Garfield Park and had the press conference where you said we “will shut you down, we will cite you, and if have to, we will arrest you.” During the 2020 uprisings, you raised the bridges and voiced opposition to Defund CPD. Those things are perceived as being the furthest away from being progressive. 


If you’re reelected, how can Black Chicagoans hold you accountable for the policies you promised them this time around?

They hold me accountable every single day. When you're the mayor, you're on the frontlines, and Chicagoans aren’t shy about expressing their opinions. And they're certainly not shy about expressing complaints. 

Look, I press you to find a more progressive mayor than I’ve been. Yeah, in an emergency I did what was necessary to make sure that we kept Chicagoans safe. And let's go back to the summer of 2022. When I watched on camera, massive crowds that came downtown that were lighting buildings on fire, that were overturning vehicles. There was a CTA bus that a crowd tried to flip with people in it. Ambulances, police cars, it was mayhem. And yeah, we did what was necessary at the behest of residents, businesses, to keep our community safe. I make no apologies for those. That absolutely was necessary and to save lives. Absolutely. 

We had too many instances during COVID where people were ignoring the public health advice. What we knew in those early days was not much about COVID, but we knew two things: that it spread like wildfire, and that it was potentially deadly. And who died? Who was most negatively impacted by COVID? Black Chicago. 

So if you look at those nuggets that you pulled out, but you juxtapose them against a whole record — historic investments in affordable housing, never been done before in our city; historic investments in mental health, never been done before in our city; historic investments in homelessness, never been done in our city. Restitching the social safety net in a way that we have, being smart and using our dollars to make sure that we're making lasting impacts not just for a minute, but for a lifetime. You're not going to find anybody who's been more progressive than I am. People can talk a good game, but I've delivered and I will continue to deliver over and over again.


is the editor-in-chief of The TRiiBE.