Two months after celebrating her midterm anniversary by doing interviews only with reporters of color, Mayor Lori Lightfoot said seeking a second term was “not a gimme.”
She talked then about the “toxicity of the debate,” the “physical and emotional tolls” of being mayor of Chicago and about what a “tough time” it was to be chief executive of any major city.
More recently, though, Lightfoot has signaled her intention to run again, with back-to-back fundraising trips to Washington and California and frenzied local appeals to small donors.
Still, you can’t blame her for thinking twice after the tumultuous year she and Chicago endured in 2021.
Nearly two years into the pandemic, coronavirus cases are surging yet again, forcing Lightfoot to impose another round of mitigations and threaten even tighter business restrictions.
Murders, shootings, carjackings and retail thefts that threaten to undermine Chicago’s economic future continue to rise, sending the city past the 800-homicide benchmark the mayor tried desperately to avoid.
The fatal shooting of 13-year-old Adam Toledo by a Chicago police officer in a Little Village alley after a foot chase shined an unflattering spotlight on what were supposed to be Lightfoot’s greatest strengths but turned out to be her greatest shortcomings: police reform and public safety.
Over Lightfoot’s strenuous objections, the Illinois General Assembly approved a 21-member elected school board championed by the Chicago Teachers Union and further weakened the mayor’s hand on Chicago Public Schools by giving expanded bargaining rights to a teachers union that has fought the mayor tooth-and-nail and will almost certainly field a candidate against her in 2023.
The Bears signed an agreement to purchase the 326-acre site of the now-shuttered Arlington International Racecourse for $197.2 million, leaving Lightfoot almost resigned to moving on at Soldier Field without the team.
Adding to the mayor’s headaches were a tidal wave of Chicago Police Department retirements, and a firefighters pension bill that, Lightfoot claims, will saddle beleaguered Chicago taxpayers with $850 million in potential costs by 2055, setting the stage for a parade of future property tax increases.
Lightfoot was painfully slow to react to the burgeoning lifeguard scandal at the Chicago Park District that finally culminated in the resignations of Superintendent Mike Kelly and Board President Avis LaVelle.
Homegrown Chicago Public Schools CEO Janice Jackson left what was once her dream job after tiring of the bitter battles with the Chicago Teachers Union and City Hall.
The revolving door among Lightfoot’s department heads and agency chiefs was on an almost continuous spin cycle, fueling questions about the mayor’s abrasive personality and her propensity to micromanage.
Those claims were further fueled by her own snide and sometimes cantankerous emails and text messages and by the shots that Corporation Counsel Mark Flessner and newly departed Inspector General Joe Ferguson took at her after leaving City Hall.
Lightfoot even had a bizarre, finger-pointing confrontation with Ald. Jeanette Taylor (20th) on the City Council floor after Taylor joined in delaying a confirmation vote on the mayor’s corporation counsel to protest the city’s treatment of social worker Anjanette Young.
The mayor tried to make it right as the year drew to a close by signing off on a $2.9 million settlement to compensate Young for the botched police raid that forced Young to stand naked and humiliated before a dozen male officers in February 2019 (they had the wrong address).
But the political fallout from Lightfoot’s changing story about what she knew and when she knew it about the raid is likely to continue.
Lightfoot faced more political backlash after the August traffic stop in West Englewood that left CPD Officer Ella French dead and her partner fighting for his life after being shot by one of the men in the stopped car.
The mayor was told repeatedly that the wounded officer’s father, a retired CPD officer himself, didn’t want her on the floor of the University of Chicago Medical Center, where his son was being treated in the intensive care unit. Lightfoot ignored his wishes and got a tongue-lashing from the father.
Shortly after, Lightfoot walked out into the hallway and suffered another indignity. Officers gathered for French and her wounded partner turned their backs on the mayor as she approached.
Carlos Yanez Sr., the wounded officer’s father, subsequently accused Lightfoot of laying the groundwork for the tragedy with a string of reforms and policy changes that tied the hands of CPD officers.
Yanez Sr. took particular aim at the foot pursuit policy Lightfoot ordered CPD Supt. David Brown to implement after the police shooting of Adam Toledo.
“When they show up, the bad guys are ready for them. They know they can’t draw their weapons. They know they can’t be chased. You can’t put hands on them without getting sued. Everybody’s got a camera and they’re always challenging them, provoking them. It’s a no-win situation for them,” he said.
“She’s tied the hands of the police. She wants ’em to police with one hand behind their back, and you can’t fight evil crime, brute force, with one hand tied behind their backs.”
Even with all of those challenges, Lori Lightfoot has had more than her share of successes in 2021.
The mayor’s $16.7 billion budget sailed through the City Council, thanks to an avalanche of federal stimulus funds that paved the way for an unprecedented 30% increase in city spending.
What Lightfoot has called a “once in a lifetime opportunity to transform” Chicago allowed Lightfoot to play Santa Claus — even after using two-thirds of federal relief money to replace revenues lost to the pandemic in 2020 and 2021.
Las Vegas gaming heavyweights took a pass, but five development teams still placed their bets on a Chicago casino, promising tens of millions of dollars desperately needed to shore up nearly bankrupt police and fire pension funds.
An eight-year contract that gave rank-and-file Chicago Police officers a 20% pay raise, more than half of it retroactive, finally resolved the longest-running labor dispute in the city’s history.
Lightfoot scored key legislative wins on affordable housing, sports betting, her sweeping pandemic relief package and by finally delivering the civilian police oversight and stronger Welcoming City Ordinance that she promised during her campaign.
She celebrated the two-year anniversary of Invest South/West, her signature plan to rebuild long-neglected neighborhood retail strips in 10 community areas and, in turn, build generational wealth in communities of color.
The latest step in that effort was choosing development teams prepared to invest $126 million in three more commercial corridors, two in Humboldt Park and one in South Shore.
That brought the total investment from Invest South/West to $1.4 billion in investments. That includes public works by various agencies and $575 million in corporate and philanthropic pledges.
Lightfoot pushed through a Northwest Side zoning change that struck a blow to both segregation in Chicago and aldermanic prerogative over zoning, long used to perpetuate segregation.
She forged compromises to rename Lake Shore Drive, impose a midnight curfew on citywide liquor sales and shave up to two months off the 150-day wait for business permits, signs and awnings by ending the long-standing practice of requiring a separate ordinance for each public way permit.
She won a sometimes ugly standoff with police unions over her mandate that city employees report their vaccination status and get fully vaccinated by year’s end.
And her political nemesis, Fraternal Order of Police President John Catanzara, resigned from the department to avoid being fired by the Police Board. He then declared his intention to launch a mayoral campaign against Lightfoot — a contest the mayor relishes.
All in all, 2021 has been a year of highs and lows for Lori Lightfoot.
She found a new, yet homegrown schools CEO — albeit not an educator — in Pedro Martinez, a choice that appeased a Latino Caucus that had been complaining about a shortage of Hispanics in leadership positions.
She finally managed to deliver on a few more of her progressive campaign promises.
But she also burnished her unflattering reputation as a thin-skinned finger-pointer — more inclined to play the blame game than to be the even-keeled, collaborative leader Chicago needs to solve its most intransigent problems.
As the year drew to a close, Lightfoot tried to convince Chicago residents, visitors and business leaders that she was laser-focused on the one issue that poses the greatest threat to her re-election prospects: Chicago’s unrelenting “pandemic” of violent crime.
Although she claimed to have been “aggressively executing on a comprehensive plan,” Lightfoot acknowledged Chicago will “end the year far short of the expectation that we all had when the year began.”
“That is a great disappointment to me personally, the superintendent and all involved. No excuses. We must do better,” she said.
“We have taken stock, analyzed the data and will be making the necessary changes going into the new year. ... None of us will rest until we bring peace to our city.”
If, when and how Lightfoot delivers on that promise will go a long way toward determining whether Chicago’s first African American woman mayor — and the first to be openly gay — is a one-termer or a transformative political leader with staying power.