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Mayor-elect Lori Lightfoot on carrying weight of history as Chicago’s first black woman mayor

“I definitely think about the history. But I think about it more in terms of the importance for me to be a role model for young girls, but also young boys, about coming from where I come from, a low-income family, where my parents struggled.”

Mayor-elect Lori Lightfoot reflects on the weight of history she will carry into the 5th floor of City Hall on Monday as the city’s first black woman mayor in an interview at her River West headquarters days before her inauguration.
Karen Kring

Mayor-elect Lori Lightfoot enters wearing a light yellow blazer with light blue pinstripes — atop the usual pinstriped executive shirt, yes — but the beige gives her a more relaxed look.

The 56-year-old career litigator, who will be sworn in Monday as the first black woman mayor of the nation’s third-largest city, will now have to ensure it’s a city that works for its 2.7 million residents — a city among the most segregated in the nation, its demographics 32.6 percent white, 29.7 percent Hispanic, 29.3 percent black.

Lightfoot, who follows the late Mayor Harold Washington as the second elected black mayor to helm this city, and the late Mayor Jane Byrne as the second woman, has spent many a night since her April 2nd victory mulling the weight of history she carries with her Monday into the 5th floor of City Hall.

“It is of great significance. I’ve been thinking a lot about Harold Washington, rereading some of his speeches and work,” she said in an exclusive interview days before the inauguration.

“You’ll get this connection. When I was in D.C. the other day, walking through the Capitol and going to meet Speaker Pelosi, I walk through a hallway leading to Statuary Hall and happen to look up at this particular moment, and there’s this incredible painting of Shirley Chisholm. Here I am walking to see the most powerful woman in the country, and I turn and there she is [Chisholm]. I felt like, ‘This is a sign. This is a sign,’” Lightfoot said.

Chisholm was the first black woman elected to Congress, in 1968, serving ‘til ‘83, the year Washington defeated incumbent Byrne and future Mayor Richard M. Daley, with a reform agenda and the help of a diverse, progressive coalition.

Mayor-elect Lori Lightfoot visits the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., earlier this month and sees a portrait of congresswoman Shirley Chisholm, the first black woman elected to Congress. “I felt like, ‘This is a sign. This is a sign,’” Lightfoot said.
Lynn Sweet photo

“I definitely think about the history. But I think about it more in terms of the importance for me to be a role model for young girls, but also young boys, about coming from where I come from, a low-income family where my parents struggled,” Lightfoot said.

“To be in the position that I’m going to be in,” she pauses.

“I’m just so grateful my mother will be here to see it. I’m sure I’m going to be extremely emotional.” Does she think she’ll cry, taking the oath of office? “I’m going to try not to, but I can’t imagine I’m not going to tear up. I mean, there’s a section of my speech where I will be talking about my dad, who’s been gone now for almost nine years, but I feel him with me.”

Her 90-year-old mom, Ann, flew in from their family home in Massillon, Ohio, on Friday, a day before Lightfoot’s pre-inauguration celebration. At that party Saturday night at The Geraghty on the Southwest Side, Lightfoot cut loose, singing to her wife, dancing, having a great time with family, friends, supporters.

That wasn’t the first time folks got to see a different side of the usually stoic former assistant U.S. attorney and equity partner at global law firm Mayer Brown. During the runoff, after former mayoral competitor Willie Wilson endorsed her, he shepherded Lightfoot to weekend “steppers sets,” where many got to see her skill at a dance unique to black culture.

Lightfoot laughed heartily over the surprise and compliments of many who saw her at the sets, saying she doesn’t plan on losing herself in the high-stakes political game she enters.

“I gotta be me,” Lightfoot said.

“I’m going to go to ball games, because that’s what I do. I’m going to go to live music shows, because I love live music,” she said. “We’re going to continue to live a life of richness and fulfillment. I’m not just going to give up my life over the next four years. I don’t think I’ll be a good mayor if I don’t live my authentic life, and that’s got to be involved with having fun with my spouse and my daughter.”

“In this city, where we have so much wealth, if we don’t spread that to black and brown commiunities, we are going to starve the entire city. We’re rotting from the inside out,” Mayor-elect Lori Lightfoot said in an interview days before her May 20 inauguration. “If I don’t change that trajectory, then I think will have failed,” she added.
Karen Kring

As far as her 11-year-old daughter, Vivian, Lightfoot expects to walk the tightrope of any working mother, determined not to drop the parenting ball with her adopted daughter. And yes, she’s aware folks think her daughter looks just like her.

“We worked really hard to make sure we would have the gift of being parents,” she added about she and wife Amy Eshleman. “I’ve wanted to be a parent for a really long time, and I’m going to make sure I’m doing everything I can to be present in her life, to be her mother. I don’t want to be absent from her life.”

With all the issues she’ll confront, violence, economic development and education consistently rise to the top for beleaguered black and brown South and West Side communities. Lightfoot understands she carries the hopes and expectations of communities of color who saw her election as a rare opportunity for inclusion.

“One of the challenges I think we have is people feel like the act of governance is a zero sum game. ‘Whatever I get, you’re not getting.’ Changing that dynamic is going to be critically important for me as a leader, so that people don’t feel they’re pitted against each other. Much of the path we traveled over the last eight years is riddled with those kinds of tensions.”

But how optimistic is she about real change coming, sooner rather than later, to suffering black and brown communities?

“I’m committed to making sure that it does. If I don’t make a change in those neighborhoods and provide people with hope and inspiration and real economic development, and young people a real opportunity to connect up to the legitimate economy in a way that brings back safety and peace to those neighborhoods, then shame on me. I will have failed,” she said.

“We have to bring that back, because our kids — black and brown kids — deserve to have that kind of life. In this city, where we have so much wealth, if we don’t spread that to black and brown communities, we are going to starve the entire city. We’re rotting from the inside out, and losing population, particularly black folks who are poor, who are working class, because they don’t feel like they have a future here,” she said.

“If I don’t change that trajectory, then I think I will have failed. And I don’t like to fail.”