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Lightfoot opens up about family as she celebrates first anniversary in office

In an emotional interview on “The Axe Files” podcast, the mayor discussed her daughter’s reaction to her dancing video, her hard-working father and the “ebbs-and-flows” of her relationship with her ex-offender brother.

Joined by her wife, Amy Eshleman, and daughter Vivian, Lori Lightfoot was sworn in as mayor of Chicago at Wintrust Arena on May 20, 2019.
Joined by her wife, Amy Eshleman, and daughter Vivian, Lori Lightfoot was sworn in as mayor of Chicago at Wintrust Arena on May 20, 2019.
Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s decision to showcase her dance moves in a TikTok video announcing Chicago’s virtual citywide high school graduation ceremony was all the rage on social media.

But it didn’t go over too well in her own household.

During a taping of the CNN podcast, “The Axe Files,” the mayor told host David Axelrod her 12-year-old daughter Vivian didn’t like the video one bit.

“She’s obsessed with TikTok. And she’s been trying to get [wife] Amy and I to do TikTok with her. And I’m like, `No. I’m not doing that,’” the mayor said.

“When I came home that night and said, `By the way, I just did my first TikTok, of course her reaction was, `I can’t believe you did it with someone else and you didn’t do it with me.’ Such is the life of a 12-year-old.”

Lightfoot also talked about how her daughter has adjusted to life during the stay-at-home shutdown that has closed schools, replaced it with remote learning and placed her career as a student-athlete on hold.

She starts her day with a Zoom conference call from her teacher and ends it with a virtual “board game night” with her friends.

“But it’s hard. This would be a time when she’d be out running track. She’s an athletic kid. She missed a lot of her basketball season because of a broken leg, so was very looking forward to track. And then, COVID hit,” the mayor said.

The conversation turned to Lightfoot’s childhood in Massillon, Ohio, where her parents settled after fleeing the Jim Crow South. Her father was the son of an Arkansas sharecropper.

When Axelrod asked the mayor about her dad, there was a prolonged silence. Lightfoot choked back tears as she talked about her father’s struggles after being stricken with meningitis.

“My dad’s been gone for 10 years and I miss him every day. I have a picture of the two of us beside my bed that I look at at night and I look at it in the morning,” Lightfoot said.

Elijah Lightfoot had a “very hard life” and, in some ways, “never recovered from having grown up in the South,” the mayor said.

“Not really having an opportunity to live out his life’s ambitions. Getting sick so early on in his early 20’s. Losing his hearing. Being a black man with a high school education and with a profound disability just really shaped and confined his world,” she said.

“I spent a lot of time with my mother as a kid because my dad was working two or three jobs every day. He worked a full-time job. He’d come home and eat. Then, he’d go do work at night. And then on weekends, he was a barber. He cut peoples’ hair and he shined shoes. Sundays were really the only day where I got to see my dad.”

Lightfoot said her father was a “different person than my mom and, in some ways, different than me. … I’m much more like her.”

But he had a “great sense of humor,” loved life and was a good and decent human being whose life-long struggles fueled her own drive to succeed.

“I think a lot about him every day. I see my father in the faces of men of color who are working their tails off to have some dignity,” the mayor said, pausing to gather herself again.

“To see my father worrying every single day about basics — utilities, his car payments, rent and then, when we were fortunate enough to move into a house and have a mortgage — I never wanted to struggle in the way that he did. … I wanted to have some economic freedom — so that I could help them, which I’ve done, but also to be able to help myself and have some freedom.”

The emotional, family-themed interview continued when Lightfoot was asked about her older brother, who spent much of his adult life in prison after robbing a bank in Nebraska and shooting a security guard.

“For some people — and my brother was definitely one of them — the street life is almost like a narcotic. … It is incredibly alluring,” she said.

Asked whether she’s still in touch with her brother, the mayor said, “Kind of.” Their relationship “ebbs-and-flows,” she said.

“He was here for the inauguration. [But] our contacts sort of slowly diminished over time. He struggles with addiction still. He’s now 60-something years old. He’s got some physical challenges. Not having any skill that’s transferable,” the mayor said.

“He’d love to be wearing a suit every day and being in an office. But that’s just not realistic for him. You’ve been a guy of the streets for most of your life. So that hustle is still very alluring to him.”