Our offices at the Chicago Sun-Times are in a trendy neighborhood called the West Loop. Nobody calls it the West Side anymore.
Because the West Loop is about fancy bars and construction cranes. And the West Side is about empty storefronts and kids who can’t walk safely to bad schools.
We can walk from one world to the other in minutes. As we head down Madison, from east to west, our city falls apart, the people with money and hope giving way to the people with neither.
We are so very tired of this. We are embarrassed. We are so fed up with living in a city that is among the greatest in the world in some neighborhoods but among the worst in the world in others.
This is what this year’s city elections are all about. We see a turning point. We sense that a palpable wave of moral disgust has presented Chicago with a rare opportunity to elect a mayor who will confront our city’s most intractable problems in ways that, finally, pull every Chicagoan along.
For us, that person is Lori Lightfoot.
More than any of the other 13 mayoral candidates, she has the vision, values, qualifications and policies to be an effective leader for the whole city, from the hedge fund managers to the fast food workers. She is calm, focused, principled and independent.
Lightfoot, 56, has never before held elected office, but she has been a powerfully influential public servant. She has been an outspoken critic of bad moves by City Hall, calling out her own bosses. She has also — and this is not widely understood — been a force for honesty and integrity behind the scenes.
Consider the record.
As a student at the University of Chicago Law School, which she attended on full scholarship, Lightfoot received complaints that a recruiter for a major law firm, Baker & McKenzie — a major donor to the school — had made racist and misogynist comments. She led a successful fight to have the firm’s recruiters banned from campus.
As a lawyer at the firm of Mayer Brown, Lightfoot worked on two lawsuits that alleged the congressional map in Illinois was unfair to Republicans — which it was.
As a federal prosecutor, Lightfoot helped convict a former Chicago alderman of taking bribes.
As the deputy chief in City Hall’s procurement department, where big contracts are reviewed, Lightfoot and her boss, Mary Dempsey, made waves by taking on politically powerful targets, such as a big builder in town and a major fundraiser for their boss, then-Mayor Richard M. Daley. The mayor was put out by Dempsey and Lightfoot’s reform zeal. He thought they went too far.
While Lightfoot headed the Chicago Police Board, which was notorious for going easy on bad cops, the board terminated the employment of officers in 72 percent of the cases it heard.
And then, on Oct. 20, 2014, there was a murder. And Lightfoot’s service to our city went into overdrive.
A police officer unloaded 16 bullets into a teenager, Laquan McDonald, and a community was outraged. Mayor Rahm Emanuel was excoriated for not releasing a damning video of the shooting for 13 months.
Emanuel, doing damage control, appointed Lightfoot to head a task force to look into the practices of the police, and the task force came back with a report that was scathing. It called distrust of the police “justified” and said the police union contract turned a “code of silence into official policy.”
Lightfoot, quietly but insistently, had assumed a leading role in turning our town upside down. For the better.
The report by Lightfoot’s task force led to an equally scathing assessment of CPD by the U.S. Justice Department. The federal report, in turn, led Emanuel — after much private and public prodding from Lightfoot and others — to accept a court-monitored overhaul of the police department.
If crisis creates opportunity, then Chicago has become a fertile ground for reform by the next mayor.
The federal consent decree presents an unprecedented opportunity to reform the police department, which only will make it a more effective crime-fighting force.
The crisis of the city’s finances, including some $42 billion in unfunded pension liabilities, presents an opportunity for the next mayor to go bold with new solutions, including — finally — backing a progressive state income tax.
And the crisis of political corruption could shame the next mayor and City Council — finally — into making basic structural changes, such as limiting the power of aldermen over zoning changes and expanding independent oversight over the Council.
Consider, if you will, the other leading candidates for mayor. Which of them once worked for a transparently compromised public official such as Ald. Ed Burke or Illinois House Speaker Mike Madigan? Which of them accepted campaign money from folks like that?
Which of them owe their start in politics to a Burke or a Madigan? Which of them have cut quiet political deals over the decades with the likes of Ed and Mike?
And then there is Lightfoot, who is completely untouched by any of that.
She is beholden to pretty much nobody — except you.
She’s mostly right on the issues, to our thinking, and she’s entirely right in her priorities. Neighborhoods matter as much as downtown. Working folks matter as much as the rich. Civil liberties matter as much as good police work. And good cops, it should go without saying, are to be cherished.
We endorse Lightfoot because this election is bigger than any disagreement about taxes or charter schools or express trains to O’Hare.
This election is about who we are, and who we want to be. Are we one Chicago or not?
Every poll shows this race is up for grabs, with about a quarter of the voters still undecided. A preponderance of those undecided voters, some expert observers say, are younger and lean progressive.
These people share Lightfoot’s values. She indeed could win this thing, coming in first or second and moving on to the run-off on April 2.
Someday, we want to walk down Madison — from east to west — and see thriving storefronts, safe streets and schools teeming with promise, all along the way.
For us, Lightfoot is the candidate who can best get us there.
Vote for a new Chicago Way on Feb. 26.
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