Lori Lightfoot rides desire for change to historic victory

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Lori Lightfoot celebrates at her election night rally at the Hilton Chicago after defeating Toni Preckwinkle in the Chicago mayoral election, Tuesday, April 2, 2019. | Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

There’s no stopping the march of history.

But the force of it always seems to catch us off guard.

A year ago, few of us thought Lori Lightfoot, an accomplished lawyer but political novice, could even compete with Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle, a super-seasoned politician.

But Tuesday’s historic election, made Lightfoot not only the first black woman to go to City Hall, but the first openly gay person to have that honor.

Chicago is now the largest city to elect an African American woman mayor.

Maybe it was all the tears black mothers shed on the streets of Chicago after a son or a daughter was killed.

Maybe it was their anguished cries against the brutality of a male-dominated Chicago Police Department that opened the door for this political revolt.

Or maybe it was just as civil rights leader Fannie Lou Hamer so famously said about Mississippi politics: Chicagoans were just “sick and tired of being sick and tired.”

Lightfoot, 56, defied her humble roots to rise to the top of one of the city’s most prestigious law firms and also served as a federal prosecutor.

She joins an elite club of seven other African American female mayors currently leading a major American city.

Those cities are Charlotte, Atlanta, Washington, D.C., San Francisco, Baton Rouge, New Orleans and Baltimore.

Lightfoot ran on a platform of spreading the city’s economic wealth beyond the city’s downtown neighborhoods, and tackling issues surrounding crime and policing.

Her biggest challenge will be delivering the change that her supporters are looking for.

Viola “Vi” Alexander Lyles, the mayor of Charlotte, had this advice for Lightfoot: “If you made a campaign pledge … make sure that you follow through on it. But do it in a way that involves both data analytics and citizen engagement because that is the foundation of working collaboratively — using good data with good people and giving them choices of what the results might be.”

Lightfoot was appointed to the Chicago Police Board and co-chaired the mayoral police reform task force, and could have stumbled over any one of those landmines during her campaign.

But Lightfoot was able to balance police accountability with community concerns.

For instance, Lightfoot sided with fierce critics of the $95 million new police-training academy even though the task force concluded such a facility was needed.

“The allocation of any funds for a police academy … is viewed by many as further affirmation that needs of the people will never be prioritized over those of the police,” Lightfoot told the City Club of Chicago last year.

At that point, Lightfoot was a long, long shot.

And quiet as kept, just about every black person I talked to about the mayoral race expressed serious doubts that a “short black woman with a white wife” stood a chance of winning over the majority of voters in Chicago.

She proved the doubters wrong.

Obviously, it’s not the first time a march toward history has upset the status quo.

It felt like the earth shifted when Harold Washington rode a wave of activism into office in 1983, amid tears of joy in black neighborhoods and racial fears elsewhere.

Miraculously, we were spared such racial ugliness in this election, though Lightfoot’s sexual orientation was the target of homophobic flyers distributed outside of black churches on the South Side.

Her role as president of the Chicago Police Board opened her up to criticism from anti-police activists. But those complaints were muted by her role as co-chair of the mayor’s police reform task force.

Lightfoot’s stinging rebuke of the Chicago Police Department’s policies in the wake of the Laquan McDonald shooting mirrored the concerns expressed by communities of color.

Chicago was ready for change, and Lightfoot was the face of that change.

Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms had these words of encouragement for our mayor-elect:

“If I had any advice for the mayor-elect, it would be to stay true to herself. There is absolutely no way of knowing what life will throw at you or what crisis may manifest. But the people of Chicago elected her because they believed in her, they believed in her vision,” Bottoms said in an email.

“The mayor-elect must define her truth north, surround herself with objective voices and stay the course to deliver for the people she has been entrusted to serve.”

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